Dunham gets an 'A' in ventriloquism

October 07, 1994|By Lisa Wiseman | Lisa Wiseman,Contributing Writer

It all started with a Mortimer Snerd puppet.

When Jeff Dunham was 7 years old, he decided he wanted to be a ventriloquist. So he checked out a book on ventriloquism and sat in front of the mirror day after day with Mortimer, a Christmas gift, trying to make sure his lips didn't move.

His first performance was a book report in third grade. Mortimer did all the talking. Jeff got an A.

That was 25 years ago. Now, 32-year-old Mr. Dunham is a professional ventriloquist and comedian. You can see him on TV, and find him in comedy clubs and theaters 250 days a year. On Sunday and Monday he'll be performing at Slapstix in the Brokerage.

Mr. Dunham recalled how that third-grade gig launched his career. "After that first book report, I never turned back. I knew then what I wanted to do for the rest of my life . . . I was a shy little kid, and having a puppet around gave me a chance to say things that I never could before."

That's the truth. Mr. Dunham may be the only comedian in history to insult Johnny Carson on television and be invited back on the show. Johnny liked Mr. Dunham's performance and asked him to come back, to which Mr. Dunham replied: "It will be a cold day in . . . before I come back on this show."

Actually, Walter said that. Walter is one of Mr. Dunham's puppets, and he always seems to be in a bad mood. Then there's Peanut -- a pot-bellied, purple and tan creature with a tuft of green hair, an outie bellybutton, big lips and one shoe. Peanut says he's a Woozle. Mr. Dunham calls him a "Muppet on heroin."

"Peanut came into development in college," Mr. Dunham said in a telephone call from his office in Los Angeles. "I was trying to come up with some character that wasn't just some cheeky boy sitting on the knee telling woodpecker jokes."

Perhaps that's why one of Mr. Dunham's most popular characters is Jose Jalapeno On a Stick. That's what he is. A jalapeno -- on a stick. Dunham can't explain his popularity: "Here's this vegetable on a piece of wood that people really respond to . . . How many people can really identify with a jalapeno?"

Apparently more people than could identify with Tony the Talking Meatball. "I figured, 'A talking jalapeno, why not a talking meatball?' " Mr. Dunham said. "Tony sat on a plate of spaghetti. He had only one good joke. I'd ask him, 'Tony, can you speak Italian?' And Tony would answer, 'No I can't. I don't have any hands.' "

Tony now resides in Mr. Dunham's attic.

But the rest of the gang -- Walter, Peanut and Jose -- keep working. Throughout the conversation, Mr. Dunham occasionally talked about the puppets as if they were real people, noting their importance in the routine.

"I find it the ultimate compliment when people leave my show and say that they saw a bunch of funny guys," he said, "instead of just one guy standing on the stage."

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