No one would have thought it possible that conversing with dummies would land a man on Forbes 100 Most Powerful Celebrities and the Guinness Book of World Records, as well as earn him his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but Jeff Dunham accomplished all that and more, with what he called his ‘suitcase posse’, as he brought to life characters that millions found highly entertaining. He was dubbed “America’s Favorite Comedian” as he resurrected the art of stand-up ventriloquism by giving it an edgier, more modern take.
- 1 Get to know Jeff Durham
- 2 Meet his dummies
- 3 Jeff on his chosen career
- 4 His rise to fame
- 5 His car collection
- 6 Personal life
- 7 How rich is Jeff Dunham?
Get to know Jeff Durham
Three months after Jeffrey Douglas Durham was born in April 1962, he was adopted by Howard Dunham, sole proprietor of Dallas’ oldest real estate appraisal firm, and Joyce Dunham, a homemaker. As an only child, he still had fond memories of his childhood, raised in a Presbyterian household in an upper-middle-class Dallas neighborhood.
Jeff admitted to not being a cool kid, but he didn’t think of himself as weird either. He did well in school and even had perfect attendance from first grade through sixth. While he had a few friends in their neighborhood, he mostly rode his bike everywhere, and went off on all sorts of adventures on his own.
Received a ventriloquist dummy as a Christmas gift
His mother took him to a Toy Fair before Christmas in 1970, to sound him out on what he wanted. He was eight at that time and excitedly pointed out one toy after another, thinking he would take one home that day. Naturally, he would have to wait until Christmas morning before he got his present, which it turned out was a dummy named Mortimer Snerd, a mass-produced puppet originally created by well-known ventriloquist Edgar Bergen. Jeff had previously watched performances by ventriloquists on television, but had never seen a dummy in ‘real’ life until that fateful day in the store, and showed it to his mom.
He and his mother went back to the Toy Fair, where the latter bought him a record album called Instant Ventriloquism by Jimmy Nelson. His father took him to the Dallas Public Library’s bookmobile, so they could borrow books on ventriloquism – he confessed to still having the book, “Fun with Ventriloquism by Alexander Van Rensselaer” in his possession. Fast forward to 2009, Jeff gave a representative from the Dallas Public Library a $10,000 cheque for an ‘overdue fine,’ and had the audience laughing when he brought out that particular book on stage, still haven’t returned it.
Why did he get into ventriloquism?
Not many people would choose ventriloquism, a performance act in which a person would create the illusion that his or her voice came from somewhere else usually a dummy, as a hobby or a way to make a living because it was thought of as strange. This wasn’t really surprising, considering that back in the day, it was considered a religious practice used to foretell the future or speak to the dead. Its entertainment value was explored in the 18th century, and went from there. However, with the dummies being featured in psychological thrillers and horror films, it gave creepy vibes to some.
So, what made Jeff Dunham go into ventriloquism? There wasn’t really anything he was particularly good at or interested in when he was young. He couldn’t exactly pinpoint why he found the ventriloquist dummy appealing, but its uniqueness and the idea of making it talk fascinated him. It had become a way for him to get out of his shell; he was never popular and just sort of blended into the background. He said, ‘If I developed this skill of ventriloquism, I could make people laugh; I could finally stand out.’ and he certainly did.
TOday is now #Twosday, 02/22/22 at 2:22, so TO celebrate, here's a clip from my TOO fun special “Unhinged In Hollywood” where there are TWO of me on stage TO see!… Well, sort of. Here, I try TO explain TO the audience how my TWIN Little JD ventriloquist dummy works, and he “expresses” his own opinions on the TWO of us. TO be or not TO be?… TOO much? Check it out!
Posted by Jeff Dunham on Tuesday, February 22, 2022
His first performance
Jeff made his debut as a ventriloquist in his third-grade class at the Northwood Hills Elementary School. It was for an oral book report on the Grimm Brothers’ “Hansel and Gretel.” With Mortimer Snerd on his knee and him pulling the string on its neck, he gave a two-minute presentation. Perhaps encouraged by the warm reception, he gave an unscripted routine for 10 minutes in which he made fun of his teacher and classmates. Everyone liked it.
His teacher, Miss Bentley, gave him an A+, and Jeff believed it was not because he delivered a good report, but because of what he accomplished – ‘The shy, almost pudgy, fairly unremarkable kid with freckles and braces had found something that he might be good at.’
Meet his dummies
Jeff said that performing with a dummy allowed him to say things that he would never say and get away with it, at least most of the time. When he was creating his characters or materials, he didn’t set out to upset or offend anyone. He said that he drew a line for himself that he wouldn’t cross. For the most part, he just acted goofy, but still tried to inject edgier topics. When he had his characters say something they shouldn’t, he acted shocked, disappointed, or offended, and then protested what had been said.
Members of his ‘suitcase posse’ that helped him succeed included Peanut, the naughty but lovable purple-skinned sidekick of Jeff; José Jalapeño on a Stick with a Spanish accent; and Bubba J, a redneck who loved NASCAR and beer. They never failed to make the crowd laugh, and it was said that these were the most famous:
Achmed, the dead terrorist
The big-headed, boggle-eyed skeleton was a failed suicide bomber, as he had premature detonation. It was introduced in 2007 in the “Spark of Insanity” special. His most popular catchphrase was, ‘Silence! I Keel You!’ While Achmed became the most popular character that Jeff created, it was also the most controversial. Not many, particularly those from the Islamic world, appreciated the humor in an ‘Arab corpse joking about suicide bombs.’ In countries such as Malaysia and South Africa, where Achmed was banned, Jeff rebranded the character and named him ‘Jacques Merde, the Dead French Terrorist’ when he had shows there.
Here’s an interesting trivia about Achmed: Jeff traveled via a private jet for a show in Medford, Oregon, but the pilot had to abort the landing due to heavy fog. They landed instead in Klamath Falls, Oregon, but as the tower was closed and no one was manning the radio, the pilot parked the jet at one corner of the airport to wait for the fog to clear. As the pilots were shutting down the engines, four military Humvees surrounded the plane and they heard a voice from a loudspeaker announcing, ‘All occupants of the aircraft: You must exit the aircraft immediately with your hands in the air…’ About 25 US Marines had their M4 rifles pointed at them as they went down the steps. Jeff shouted, ‘Do you guys know Achmed, the Terrorist?’ One Marine replied that they watched him on TV, and Jeff said, ‘You guys!..It’s me!’ That cleared up any misunderstanding, and they all shook hands.
He’s a grumpy old man wearing a frown, and had his arms crossed in disgust or discontent. Jeff named him after a friend’s father, whom he described as ‘a cantankerous old fart,’ and another welder who lived near his apartment complex. The character was actually inspired by the American actress Bette Davis. Apparently, Bette was interviewed by Johnny Carson on his show, and Jeff found her refreshing as she didn’t care if what she said was outlandish or politically incorrect. Walter was a Vietnam war veteran and a retired welder, who loved his wife but was pissed off at her too. He was a big hit when Jeff introduced him to the crowd.
Jeff on his chosen career
Although he graduated in 1986 with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Baylor University, there was no doubt in his mind about what he wanted to do with his life. He didn’t have a back-up plan as he never thought that he would fail in his career as a comedian and a ventriloquist. His parents had been quite supportive since the start, and Jeff could only recall one incident in which they expressed a little uncertainty about his chosen profession. It was during one of his visits from college, and his father mentioned how their friends’ children were going to be a lawyer or a neurophysicist, and he would say, ‘Well, Jeff is still doing his puppet show.’ He never knew if his dad was trying to make a point, or just making a joke at that time.
His rise to fame
He was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” in high school, and while he lived up to the hype, it took him a while to establish himself in his field. The goal he set for himself when he was still an aspiring comedian was to make a guest appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” and he achieved that in 1990. His fan base continued to grow over the years.
Earning a solo spot in the American stand-up comedy series called “Comedy Central Presents” in 2003 was a big deal. The ratings during its premiere and repeats were quite high, and it translated to more ticket sales and more shows. The network wasn’t too keen on having a ventriloquist on their programming, however, so it was only in April 2006 that they finally agreed to air the one-hour special entitled “Arguing with Myself.” The response went way beyond expectation, which surprised not just the network but also Jeff’s team, as it had around 1.7 million viewers. It was Comedy Central’s second-highest-rated show that weekend. The DVD sales of that special were astounding, as they hit platinum within three months of its release and then before long reached 250,000 units, and continued to grow.
The airing of the second special, “Spark of Insanity,” garnered 3.8 million viewers, which proved that his success with the first one wasn’t a fluke. Jeff went on the “Spark of Insanity” tour from 2007 to 2010 across the US, Canada, Australia and the UK. He made it to the Guinness Book of World Records in 2014 for the most tickets sold for a stand-up comedy tour with over 1.9 million sold. He continued to release TV specials, some of which he wrote and became the executive producer, and went on tours across the globe except during the pandemic.
Jeff has also been a voice actor in various TV and movie projects, including “30 Rock,” “The Nut Job” and its sequel, and “Smurfs: The Lost Village.” His autobiography, “All By My Selves: Walter, Peanut, Achmed and Me,” published in 2010 became a New York Times Best Seller, and in 2017, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce honored him with a Star for the Live Performance category at 6201 Hollywood Boulevard – Jeff was accompanied by Walter as he accepted the star.
Since he joined YouTube in December 2006, he’s gained over four million subscribers, and his videos have garnered more than a billion views. His stand-up specials, “Jeff Dunham: Relative Disaster” (2017) and “Jeff Dunham: Beside Himself” (2019) were released on Netflix Originals, and both met with success.
His car collection
Jeff’s car collection is the envy of many car enthusiasts, not just because of the size but also the range. He had the usual classic cars, but there were exotic ones as well. Some of the cars that became much talked about by fans included the Ferret Scout, a British armored fighting vehicle he reportedly purchased for a zombie apocalypse, and the 1970 Plymouth Superbird, a highly modified version of the Roadrunner having the graphic image and distinctive horn sound of the Looney Tunes character named Road Runner. He also had a Hummer with DuPont Chrome Illusion paint, which enabled it to change colors depending on the light. In 2011, he bought The 1966 Batmobile, the movie prop or stand-in car used in the filming of the Warner Bros “Batman Returns” (1992) starring Michael Keaton. They retained its look, but re-engineered it and put a Corvette engine in it so it was drivable.
Jeff’s expensive hobby
His fascination for rotorcraft began at age four, when his parents took him to a State Fair, and thought it was the coolest thing when they rode a little Bell helicopter. In 1980, he saw a radio-controlled helicopter, and was enthralled upon seeing the four-foot-long machine lifting off and hovered five feet above the ground. He headed straight to a hobby store, and spent $1,000 on a kit, and everything else he would need to build and fly one. After a few months, he had a $2,000-worth chopper hovering an inch off the pavement. By 1986, he was building a life-size two-seat helicopter from a kit he bought from the money he saved from his acts. He did it at a friend’s barn, as he kept it secret from his parents. People from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) inspected his work, and he took pilot training lessons. Soon, he was flying his homebuilt helicopter all over Texas. When he was still a student pilot and had only logged 40 hours in the air, he crashed it in a cornfield, and rolled at 20 miles an hour until it stopped with the chopper lying on its side. Fortunately, he only suffered a slight bump on the head.
His first marriage fell apart after 14 years. Try as they might to work things out for the sake of the kids (Bree, Ashlyn and Kenna), it still ended with him moving out of the house and filing for separation in 2008. His parents had stayed together for over 60 years, and he never imagined anything different for himself. Jeff shared that almost from the start, they had problems that were never addressed, and disagreements that were never resolved.
He had moved on and soon met Audrey Murdick, a personal trainer and certified nutritionist, and found it refreshing that she’d never heard of him. While his parents liked her when he introduced her to them, it took a while for his kids to accept her. Jeff was 50 when he married 32-year-old Audrey in 2012, and their twin boys, Jack Steven and James Jeffrey were born in 2015.
Very #ThankfulFor my beautiful wife Audrey, & amazing kids Kenna, Ashlyn, Bree, Jack & James! Every day is an adventure filled with loads of love & laughs! I'm the luckiest guy ever. I’m also crazily thankful for all my awesome fans! What are YOU thankful for this holiday season? pic.twitter.com/6GdCC20F9k
— Jeff Dunham (@jeffdunham) December 18, 2018
How rich is Jeff Dunham?
Jeff had come a long way from being an opening act to a headliner, and from filling small clubs that seated 500 people to arenas with 16,000 people per show. He realized early on that ‘You can amaze an audience once or twice, but you can make them laugh for a lifetime.’ This had become his mantra, as he said that he was a stand-up comic who just happened to use ventriloquism as a tool for comedy.
He topped Forbes’ list of highest-earning comedians in 2010 from merchandise profits and DVD sales, and his name would appear on that list again and again after that. By 2018, he was at No.9 at $16.5 million, with a gross income of close to $350,000 per show that year.
As of March 2023, his net worth according to authoritative sources was estimated at $140 million, and he reportedly makes $15 million a year. Jeff would like to think that even with all his success, his core values remained the same. As a way to give back, he’s been putting aside a dollar from every ticket sold in theater and arena dates for charity, since 2009.