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October 31, 2014

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Q+A: After 30 years on the road, Jeff Dunham is ready for a run at Planet Hollywood

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Caesars Entertainment

Jeff Dunham.

Jeff Dunham

Jeff Dunham

Achmed the Dead Terrorist frightened Malaysian censors so much that they banned ventriloquist Jeff Dunham from using the puppet on a stick when he was there a few months ago.

Fret not. The skeletal doll will be front and center saying the things nobody would dare say out loud when Jeff for the first time in his life takes on an open-ended Las Vegas residency this November.

It marks a major cutback to more than three decades of the grind of one-night and weekend gigs around the world with his trunk full of oddball character sidekicks on a stick.

Jeff, 52, will move into the 1,400-seat Planet Hollywood theater starting Nov. 28 that has recently hosted Meat Loaf in “Rocktellz & Cocktails” and was where Holly Madison shot to Strip fame with “Peepshow.”

Tickets for his shows through next May go on sale today. Joining Jeff onstage: Walter the Grumpy Retiree, Achmed the Dead Terrorist, redneck Bubba J, the manic purple creature Peanut, the spicy pepper from south of the border Jose Jalapeno and Peanut’s own ventriloquist dummy Little Jeff, a mini-version of the ringmaster himself.

In addition to selling more than 7 million DVDs, Jeff’s YouTube videos have been viewed more than 500 million times. The introduction of Achmed in “Spark of Insanity” is one of the 10 most watched YouTube videos of all time.

Before his weekend appearance at Caesars Palace where he announced the new Planet Hollywood deal of six shows a week for three weeks every month, I talked with him in his dressing room at the Colosseum.

Do you remember who was the first puppet on a stick?

Jalapeno on a stick. In all honesty, it’s kind of a lengthy story. Back in the early 1980s when David Letterman had Larry Bud Melman on with a comedy bit where he had toast on a stick, I was in Waco, Texas, going to college working in a radio station, and I was doing a radio campaign for a pizza company. I had all these talking ingredients in the radio commercials, and one of them was Jalapeno, Jose Jalapeno.

I decided to make a puppet, so I painted the puppet and put him on top of the paintbrush, then on the window to dry. A goofy DJ comes down and says, “Oh, look, a jalapeno on a stick,” and I went that’s exactly right, and that’s where it came from. I’ll admit that I kind of lifted it, but it was my idea improvised from something that stuck in my mind.

Did the pizza campaign come off? Was it a success?

I guess so. That pizza restaurant is still there. Papa Rolo’s Pizza in Waco, Texas.

Don’t take this the wrong way, but why has ventriloquism always been thought of as the poor stepchild of entertainment?

It goes back to vaudeville days when headliners would be onstage, the curtain would close, they’d shove the ventriloquist out there to just entertain while real acts were setting up behind. We were on the low part of the totem pole back then. I fought that stigma for a long time. Growing up in Texas, moving to L.A. in ’88 and trying to get onstage at the Improv on Melrose, those were some difficult years.

Other comedians look down on you because you have a prop. I think maybe one reason why ventriloquists are looked down on is because it’s very difficult to be funny. I think what happens is that people get a dummy, they learn the technique of ventriloquism, they memorize the script, they think they’re in show business. The trouble is you have to learn to entertain and be funny, and that’s more than half the problem. I view it as standup comedy, and I just happen to be using a dummy as the vehicle for the comedy.

I think there’s a lot of, unfortunately, unfunny ventriloquists out there, so they’ve got a bad rap. It came after Edgar Bergen because everybody had a little cheeky boy dummy like Charlie McCarthy, and everybody decided to become a ventriloquist because Bergen had popularized it. He brought it back from the doldrums of vaudeville. He made it a legitimate form of entertainment, but then everyone became a ventriloquist, and it kind of went downhill again.

But there’s such a skill to it when done really well.

There’s a skill to it, but anybody can learn to do it. It’s like learning to play a musical instrument. Anybody can learn the mechanics of it, but the entertainment value is what’s important. Can you grab that audience, entertain them and make them laugh?

But the ability to throw a voice and to make the dummy become human is an art.

The technique of ventriloquism is one thing — talking without moving your lips and throwing the voice — but then you talk about the puppetry where you bring that character to life. Now you’re talking about you having to act for yourself, having to make the dummy act, you have to react, so you’re acting onstage.

You have to make that audience truly believe there’s more than one person onstage, and that’s part of the art form. You’ve heard of the 10,000 hours; I think that’s where those years and years and hours and hours onstage come in. When people see Walter and me together onstage, my goal is to make them walk away thinking, “Boy those guys were funny. Not, gee, isn’t he a good ventriloquist?”

So this new residency validates the 10,000 hours you’ve put in grinding it out on the road?

I think so. We’ve been traveling around the country for three decades now and recently in the last 10 years have been doing worldwide tours. We just got back from one. We did five continents, 12 countries, 19 cities; we’re turning that into the next Comedy Central special and documentary. I was doing shows in Israel, Dubai, in a Muslim country with Achmed the Dead Terrorist, and they loved it! Two nights later, I’m in Israel doing the exact same show, and they loved Achmed every bit as much.

It was mind-blowing to me. We were in Iceland, South Africa, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, all those places. We averaged 5,000 people per show, and that’s what’s going to be fun about Las Vegas. Instead of me going to all these people, because it’s such a mecca for all sorts of people I think now all of those people are going to come to my show. Hopefully.

Click to enlarge photo

Jeff Dunham.

Click to enlarge photo

Jeff Dunham.

Where is Achmed not popular?

OK, this is the weird part. In Malaysia. We did the show in Abu Dhabi, and they had no problem with it. They loved it I walked out onstage, and I didn’t know what to expect. I thought it was going to be ex-patriots, maybe soldiers. No, it was all the locals. I walked out onstage, and in the front row were all these guys in their fully white Muslim outfits. The women three rows back were all dressed in black, in burkas, and they’re there busting a gut laughing. They had no problem with it.

Now we go to Malaysia, which also is a Muslim country, but the ministry of arts and culture banned Achmed. They said he could not come onstage. I couldn’t even say the name Achmed. I couldn’t say virgin or reference anything or anybody’s religion. I thought what am I going to do? I knew the majority of that audience was there because they’d seen Achmed on YouTube, and that’s why they’re there.

Literally a day before the show, I came up with a solution. Who knew that Achmed had a brother who’s French? So we had a seamstress make a French beret and put a mustache on him and gave him a French accent, and it was Jacques the Dead French Terrorist. His name was Jacques Merde (Jack S*it the Terrorist).

Did they get it?

They loved it! I could not believe it. I had to explain to them, because Achmed always finishes the show, so I did the entire show up until Achmed. Then I said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I know you’re expecting the last guy in the show,” and they all applauded. Then I said, however, your ministry of blah, blah, blah, and they started booing. I was onstage wondering am I going to get hauled off? Am I going to get caned?

Because I was pushing that edge just a little too much, but I said the ministry of so and so would not allow him to be here this evening. More boos came, and I said hold on. I’m smarter than I look, and then I told them who knew that the guy had a brother and his name is Jacques, and they all started applauding and realized what was going to happen. It was great. It was one of the highlights of the entire tour. It’s going to be on the DVD.

Is Jack S*it now a regular member of your cast?

You know, Robin, that’s a really good question. It went over so well. I walked off stage, and there were eight of us there, our camera crew and management, and we were all thinking well this guy has to be on the show now. I can do a dueling thing: Achmed and his brother Jacques. Why not?!

With the current war situation in Iraq and Iran now out of control, does Achmed take on new tones in the collapse?

It’s always a touchy subject. I came up with that character a year after 9/11.Everybody was still looking for Osama Bin Laden; there’s nothing funny about 9/11. Never will be, even 100 years later. Even Titanic jokes are still kind of hmmm. There’s nothing funny about that, but at that time a year later, Jay Leno and David Letterman were making jokes about Osama Bin Laden. Where is this guy? So I thought I know where he is, he’s dead, but he’s not dead; he’s in the suitcase living with my guys.

So I made the dead Osama. I used him for about two years, but then eventually thought we’re going to catch Osama or he’s going to die. So I changed him and instead of offending one guy, I decided to offend an entire group of dangerous people. So I came up with Achmed the Dead Terrorist. The fact that people do die every single day is nothing to laugh about, but my whole point with Achmed is that I think we all like to whistle in the dark when it comes to our fears.

Terrorism is something obviously to be scared of, and fortunately on our soil we haven’t had a whole lot, so that’s what he is. He’s a goofy, stupid terrorist. … One of those guys doesn’t have his heart in it, that’s Achmed. He doesn’t really want to do it, he doesn’t want to hurt anybody, he’s supposed to be a terrorist, but he’s not good at it, and he’s an idiot. I do say every single show that he’s not Muslim because I’m not trying to … Achmed is kind of east of here, we don’t know where he’s from.

Why do you think he became so popular?

Because somebody was crazy enough to do that humor, to get onstage with that guy. Because of what I do and who they are and the fact that they’re not real; it’s kind of like “South Park.” They can get away with what they get away with because it’s animated. I think that I can do this with Achmed because he’s not real. We all know it’s a joke.

Jeff Dunham and Diane at Rao's

Jeff Dunham and Diane at Rao's in Caesars Palace. Launch slideshow »

Jeff Dunham @The Colosseum

Jeff Dunham performs at The Colosseum in Caesars Palace on Dec. 11, 2009. Launch slideshow »

It could have backfired badly.

Oh sure it could have, but again a year after 9/11, I thought that I’m not going to do this the chicken way out. I’m not going to go out to Alaska and try this. If I’m going to do this, I’m going to write jokes as if there were members of the audience who had relatives who were killed in 9/11. What would they be ready to laugh at a year later?

The first show that I did was at Bananas Comedy Club in New York about 6 miles from Ground Zero. It was almost exactly a year later, and it could not have gone better. … It’s all in the material and how you present it.

We started talking about being the poor stepchild of show business. Has that stigma gone away?

No. I hear the word ventriloquist and I think, “Oh boy, I don’t want to see this.” The person has to be funny, has to be good. It’s like standup comics. How many standup comics are out there who are really good, and you’ll sit through an hour and a half?

I think ventriloquists are the same way. I think the stigma is there, I think there are a handful of guys out there who are doing a great job and giving it a good name. There’s always going to be good and bad in any profession.

Las Vegas has never really taken to it, has it?

I guess not. I don’t know what big headliners have been here. Do you know where Edgar Bergen played his last show? Right here at Caesars Palace. His final night when he was announcing his retirement, he said, “Every vaudeville act has a proper opening and a proper closing. It’s now time for me to pack my friends and say goodbye,” and he died in his sleep that night right here.

Why do you think it hasn’t been as popular in Las Vegas?

There’s never been somebody big enough to qualify. If you think about it, who in the history of American show business would have qualified? After Edgar Bergen, then who? There’s plenty of guys who would have done great, great shows, but as big headliner names, I don’t know.

The art of what you do under the branding of standup comedy or ventriloquist is really skewering. You are skewering the perceptions that people have of certain characters.

Well thank you! I think that’s where the 15 minutes of fame has been extended because it’s more than … I would rather see a juggler who is horrible but incredibly funny and entertaining than one guy who could juggle seven things at one time. You can be amazing for a few minutes; you can be entertaining and funny for a few hours.

I think that’s the difference with me. I’m a pretty good ventriloquist, but it’s the entertainment value and the laughs that keep people sitting there and wanting more. When I was doing “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson,” I would build 5- to 6-minute bits that when you’re on the show, you can do the math and put a stopwatch to this.

If he was getting a laugh every 10 to 12 seconds, he was killing it. The guys who spent 15 or 20 seconds setting up the joke died because the audience started getting nervous. My act was built on a laugh every 6 to 10 seconds.

And is it in a sense the puppet saying things that you could never get away with yourself?

It’s how people think but don’t say. Norman Lear wasn’t Archie Bunker. He created that character and wrote lines that Archie Bunker would say. I created these characters, and I write lines that I think they would say. I don’t believe them, I’m not a dead terrorist, I’m not saying things.

I write lines that I think they would say and are funny. I’m not trying to teach anybody anything, I’m not trying to say anything, I have no political motive whatsoever. My motive is just the big laugh.

As you get ready for this long residency in November, you’ve got no idea how long it’s going to last? You’re going to run it for as long as you’re happy doing it?

To be honest, I don’t know. My goal is to get off the road, get off those big markets because we’ve done them so many times for so long. We want to sit down in one place and entertain and get people to come to the show. If we love it and have fun, then who knows.

So you may change the structure of the show because it’s going to become a residency?

Oh, sure. You try as an entertainer to morph to whatever situation and what audience you’re in front of; a good comedian does that, you’re playing to that crowd. So is this going to be like the show that I did recently in San Diego at the fair? No.

It’s going to be an international audience. I don’t think I’ve ever really, except for when I played Las Vegas, had international audiences. There’s no place like Las Vegas, so the show will be different.

Will you cut down on your amount of travel?

Oh, sure! We’re here! My wife Audrey and I will get a house here, too. It’s going to be great to take a break, yet still work. I’ve never been in one place for more than a week at a time in the 30 years of comedy clubs. Nobody in this business has toured like I have.

It’s a pretty remarkable career, isn’t it, to last as a ventriloquist with puppets on a stick for three decades?

Yeah, and I don’t take it for granted for one minute. I know that the 15 minutes can end any second and the audience can get fickle or move on, so I treat it like a business. I know you have to give the customer what they want and what they paid for and a little bit of what they didn’t expect, and that’s a good formula. Every career has an ebb and flow, and you just have to be a smart businessman and stay on top of what you think your audience is going to enjoy.

Will new characters be coming when you open at Planet Hollywood in November?

Yeah. The fact that we’re across the hall from Britney Spears, there’s something there. It’s gonna be a guy who’s out of work and is probably taking a job that maybe he shouldn’t have, so ... we’ll see.

Jeff Dunham’s “Not Playing With a Full Deck” premieres at Planet Hollywood on Nov. 28. His next Comedy Central special is set for September.

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Vegas DeLuxe on Twitter at Twitter.com/vegasdeluxe.

Follow Sun A&E Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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