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January 17, 2019

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Comedy Ventriloquism:

Q+A: Jeff Dunham brings ‘Not Playing With a Full Deck’ to Planet Hollywood

2010 American Country Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena

Tom Donoghue/Picture Group

Jeff Dunham at the inaugural American Country Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on Dec. 6, 2010.

Jeff Dunham

Jeff Dunham

Click to enlarge photo

Jeff Dunham and Peanut.

Comedy ventriloquist Jeff Dunham is the first to admit that what he does for a living is not normal — and that explains why his new residency show at Planet Hollywood is titled “Not Playing With a Full Deck.”

“I tip between nuts and not nuts,” he laughed. He’s temporarily ending 28 years of touring the world to call Las Vegas home starting tonight through May 31 for now, but the run is open-ended.

Also moving here: Achmed the Dead Terrorist, spicy Jose Jalapeno, Walter the Grumpy Retiree and his manic purple creature Peanut, who is coming with his own dummy Little Jeff, a mini-version of the non-moving mouth man.

Jeff’s most recent Comedy Central special “All Over the Map” premiered Nov. 16 with highlights of his recent five-continent tour. Jeff, who I interviewed this year when he announced his Strip residency, has amassed amazing statistics with his crazy cast of characters:

The Guinness Book of World Records named him record-holder for Most Tickets Sold for a Standup Comedy Tour. His “Spark of Insanity Tour” sold nearly 2 million tickets and played 386 global venues.

He’s sold more than 4 million DVDs, and his YouTube video from October 2009 with Achmed the Terrorist has more than 350 million views. Achmed is the skeletal doll who says things nobody would dare say out loud.

I first talked with Jeff in June when he announced the residency. Since then, he’s completed his global touring commitments of one-night and weekend gigs and developed a new show for the 1,400-seat Planet Hollywood theater formerly home to “Peepshow.”

Ahead of his move here for tonight’s opening, I talked with Jeff again:

How far along are you in preparation of the Las Vegas show? What’s it going to look, sound and be like?

My goal in any show is to make people laugh. That’s the No. 1 thing. Everything else pales in comparison to that. So the expectation when you have a Las Vegas show is for it to look like a Las Vegas show, have production value, it’s gotta look like a Las Vegas show. But if you’re expecting dancing girls or things flying around and glitz and glamour, that’s not it.

This is me doing what I hopefully do best. And in an environment that I’ve been very much looking forward to because it’s going to be, I guess, my theater, and I’ve never had that before. It’s an honor and a privilege and people are paying good money, so my goal is to make them hurt from laughing too much.

Is that an added responsibility to an entertainer to have his own theater?

That is a really interesting question. Maybe it’s just a quirk that happens or something you earn when you work at it long enough and hard enough. You put in 10,000 hours, and I guess enough people know who you are and whoever owns the place thinks that you can sell tickets. I think it’s more of a crowning achievement than anything else.

You know as well as I do that Las Vegas is changing a lot or it has changed where there used to be the big-production shows. Now they’re bringing in the big names. So 1,400 seats, it’s not the biggest place, and it’s certainly not a small place, but it certainly is being where it is, in Planet Hollywood, on the Strip, across from Bellagio, I don’t know how you get any better than that.

And just upstairs from Britney Spears.

Yes. I haven’t met Britney. I’m looking forward to it. I’ve always been a fan. The horrible press she gets, sometimes you feel sorry for people in those spotlights because you know, God forbid, every one of us has our skeletons yanked out of the closet and shoved into the world. I think we’d all have a handful of things to be embarrassed about. I’m looking forward to meeting her. I can’t wait to see her show.

What’s Walter going to say about Britney being next door? What’s Achmed going to say about her being just downstairs?

That's what I love about coming there and being there for a while because it’s like when you go home, your accent will become much more prominent. Well, it’s the same thing when I’m doing a show. If I’m in a place long enough, it slowly starts to get the flavor of where I am. So if you come this weekend, that’s not the show you’re going to see two months from now.

It’s one of those things where you get the feel of the place, the smell of the place, you look around a bit, you’ve lived the life. We’re gonna drive back and forth rather than flying so we can experience what most people are experiencing and go to as many shows as we can and eat at as many places as we can. Then I’ll be able to soak in everything that’s Las Vegas and be able to joke about what it is that everybody sees every day.

So will it turn into a giant production show? Of course not, but certainly it’s going to have that Las Vegas flavor. I told you last time about the character I have on the back burner. That has definitely moved forward a little bit, and I look forward to introducing him sometime in the not-too-distant future.

Does he have a name yet?

Yeah, but I can’t tell you because that gives it away. And again, for every character that I have that has succeeded, there are two or three miserable failures. I’m not saying this will work, but I’m going to give him a good shot.

Has he been welcomed into the family by Walter yet?

No, he has not yet. When I talked to you last, I think he was still an idea in my head and a sketch on a piece of paper. At that time, it was in my head, and then I had an artist sketch him and made a few corrections. I build all of the characters, and this one is just a little different from all the others. I used to just sculpt them out of clay, out of my own head. Now I’ve gone one step farther. I would sculpt them out of clay, scan them with a 3D scanner and then print the shell of the head with a 3D printer.

Now one step farther, I hired the artist and then he sketches the caricature. I then give it to a 3D modeling artist who takes that 2D sketch and turns it into a 3D model that you can actually print, then I go print that head that he’s created. So now what I have is a perfect caricature that I’ve been honing with the artist. Then I have to install all of the mechanics and do all of that.

Right now I have the shell of the character and the head, and he’s ready to have all the movements put in and all that. It’s long and involved, but that is the creative process, and I love that part of it. There are not that many ventriloquists out there who build their own characters. I love that because they are uniquely mine.

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 »

You are ahead of the technological curve, right? With 3D printing?

I think so. I’m guilty of being fascinated by gadgets and toys and technology, but any penny that I spend, I try to make it be a part of what I do for a living. Because then you are forwarding. You are forwarding that art, forwarding that career ahead.

What’s been the reaction to the world-tour concerts that you edited into the Comedy Central special?

I was a little bit worried about it because it is not my typical special. It doesn’t have a beginning, a middle and an end. There’s no arc to it. Well, not a typical comedy show arc. Every country that we went to, of the 12 countries that we went to, I had 20 minutes, sometimes 35 minutes, of new material for that country only. Every joke that you hear in that special is being told for the very first time.

How can I practice jokes for Ireland in Dubai? That wouldn’t make any sense. And then I had to make sure that the material worked for that country, but at the same time the American audience or the Ukrainian audience would still get it. So that was a big chore, but the reaction to it has been … again, I was worried about it, I question it, I have self doubt — is this really good? Am I too close to this? I don’t know. Is it funny?

And the reaction has been amazingly positive. People are taking away from it that no one has heard these jokes before — ever! People are delighted with all the brand new material. When you see a bunch of Muslims stand up at the end of my show and a good percentage of them are dressed in Muslim clothing and the women are all in black with only their eyes showing, I had to ask, “How did this happen?”

The reason I did the tour is because I could and wanted to put it on my dance card. How many comedians in the history of the planet could go to every corner of the globe? Obviously it’s because of the technology, the media we have now with Facebook and YouTube, and it’s just an amazing time to be here and to be doing what I am doing. I don’t take it for granted at all.

Why do you find yourself taking on that almost impossible task? Is it part of the pain of comedy?

We always track the sales of the DVDs, and we track the YouTube hits. We looked at statistics and then talked to other promoters from other countries. We’re scratching our heads. At first it was the European thing. Six of the 12 countries we went to, English was not the native tongue. And obviously anybody who’s going to spend $50 or $60 in tickets, they know what they’re coming to. They know that I speak English.

But the one that really blew me away was Paris, France. How in the hell did I do a show for 4,500 people in Paris, France, and be so accepted? It was one of the better shows on the tour a year and a half ago. That was unbelievable to me. They said the last American comedian who was there onstage was in the 1970s, and it was Jerry Lewis — and he’s an honorary Frenchman.

Did they love Achmed?

Oh, that’s the crazy part, Robin. Yes, they did. I’m in the middle of Abu Dhabi, and I’m terrified thinking how are we going to do the show because we have to delay it for bomb-sniffing dogs. That’ll send a chill up and down your spine. My wife and I left our house in L.A., and we honestly said to each other, “This might be the last time we darken this doorway and not come back.”

The unknown is terrifying. So I’m in the middle of Abu Dhabi, we do two shows there. Both of them are in excess of 5,000 people and they knew every character, and when I pulled out Achmed, it was like a homecoming, like, “He’s back!” And I’m like, “OK, not really, but whatever you say.”

All of his relatives were waiting for him.

That’s exactly right! That’s what they felt. They were like, “Hey! He’s one of us!” But then two days later, I’m in the middle of Tel Aviv, Israel, doing the exact same show for 5,000 Jewish people. And that’s how crazy it was. It made me step back, and I really believe that most of us on this planet are good people and we all have the same concerns. Most of us. It’s family, it’s friends, a roof over our heads, it’s food on the table for ourselves and our kids.

That’s what we’re concerned with. And because we have the same concerns, we can joke about the same things. And laugh about the same things. And that’s what my show is. You know obviously with the people in front of us, it was a sanitized version of the show in every country, but I truly believe that most of the people on this planet are good.

There’s just a handful of idiots who get the front page and cause all the others trouble. I’m not any kind of saint trying to bring people together, but it sure did feel good to be in front of those people. A Christian raised in Texas in front of a bunch of Muslims and then two nights later in front of Jews. How does that happen?

All popped in there together with a dead terrorist!

(Laughing) that’s right! Stuffed in there with the cohesive of it all — a dead terrorist! That was the glue that held this all together.

Are you somewhat amazed at how Achmed has been taken to? And why?

I thought he would be a hit here in the U.S. when I took that step. One of the L.A. comedy club owners, though, claimed that he got complaints from the first couple of Achmed shows. He came to me before the third show and said, “You’ve gotta stop using Achmed. He’s just not a good idea.”

But I’d been going around the country, and people have been loving the character. The military loves him, the average Joe American loves this guy, and I’m not making fun or saying anything specific about anybody except the idiots trying to blow people up. That’s the only people I’m making fun of, and they deserve to be made fun of.

Is Achmed alive and well for Las Vegas?

Oh, yeah, absolutely. And I’m very proud of the opening video that we created for the show in Las Vegas. We did a spoof on “24” because people are always accusing me of looking like Keifer Sutherland. So I play agent Jack Durham, and we’ve done a spoof on Jack Bauer on “24.”

We shot a lot of stuff at Planet Hollywood and on the Strip. It’s the opening video, and I’m very proud of it. It’s Achmed supposedly trying to blow up Las Vegas. It’s silly, it’s goofy and it’s short, but I think it’s amusing.

Don’t let him give anybody any ideas. You are now just a few days away from the opening.

That does not make me feel good, Robin. We still have to move. My wife and I moved from our house in Encino (Calif.) and moving to a house in Calabasas a month ago, three weeks ago, and now we’re also kinda having to move stuff to Las Vegas. Nothing is packed yet, so thanks for that, Robin. There’s no stress!”

* * *

It’s been a remarkable journey for the 52-year-old who was raised in a devoutly Presbyterian household in Dallas. Jeff was only 8 when he was given a Mortimer Snerd dummy for Christmas in 1970, plus a how-to instruction manual.

Jeff practiced for hours in front of a mirror and from those humble beginnings and schlepping his trunk of characters around the world for nearly 30 years can call Las Vegas and the Strip home.

When Time Magazine described them as “all politically incorrect, gratuitously insulting and ill-tempered,” Achmed responded, “I kill you. Silence!”

That’s something you certainly won’t hear on the Planet Hollywood mezzanine as of tonight. It will simply be howls and gales of rollicking laughter.

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.

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