Jeff Dunham: the world is way better than we are led to believe – The Mercury News

Jeff Dunham: the world is way better than we are led to believe – The Mercury News

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Comedian and ventriloquist Jeff Dunham took an odd route to become one of the biggest names in comedy.
He was raised in a religious, conservative family outside Dallas, Texas, discovered a love for ventriloquism before he was a teenager and eventually plied that talent to help make a name for himself in Hollywood — with the help of some witty and occasionally politically incorrect friends named Peanut, Walter, José Jalapeño and Bubba J.
Along with being credited with reviving the art of ventriloquism, Dunham has been dubbed “America’s favorite comedian” by Slate, and was ranked by Forbes as the third highest-paid comedian in the United States, behind Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock. He’s been a staple on late-night TV talk-shows and garnered record-breaking viewership with his standup specials on NBC, Netflix and Comedy Central.
Now, Dunham is back on the road with his band of puppets in a new tour titled Jeff Dunham: Seriously? Bay Area fans can see him perform live at the Paramount Theater in Oakland on Sept. 18, but unlike some of his abrasive puppet characters, Dunham was nice enough to take some time to talk with us about his new show and other matters.
Q: You have several different puppet personalities you work with, do you have favorites or any you’re particularly fond of?
A: Three of the characters I use go way back to when I was in college, Peanut, Walter the Curmudgeon, and Jose Jalapeno. Those are the ones that put me on the map, but I usually favor characters based on where in the world I am and what the audience is responding to the most. The Johnny Carson audience used to love Walter, but lately Peanut has been killing it in the live show. It’s a lot like picking your favorite child, though, you really shouldn’t. Each one of them has held their place in my 15 minutes of fame, and without any one of them I probably wouldn’t have gotten as far as I have.
Q: You’ve toured the world at several points in your career, would you say that people’s tastes in comedy vary greatly region to region, or have you found comedy to be more of a great equalizer?
A: I’ve had a unique experience because when I’ve toured the world, I’ve been able to see it through rose-colored glasses, because people are coming to a comedy show and most of them want to laugh and have a good time. However, I think rose glasses aside, the world is a much better place than we’re led to believe. I think that most people around the world are good, and I think we all want the same things, and it’s just the politics that get in the way. The universal themes of kids, boyfriend and girlfriends, having to go to work, wacky family members, those are things that every race, every demographic deals with, and I think if you’re joking about that stuff, you’re talking to the entire planet.
Q: You started receiving criticism regarding the insensitivity of your puppet characters over a decade ago, have you found it increasingly difficult to write material, or have you felt more pressure to censor your act as society and the media have moved towards a more tolerance-centered approach to comedy?
A: That is a big thing right now. Every word spoken on stage is now through a different filter, and the brain has to run through that filter right before it comes out of your mouth. Is it OK to say, or could it be taken out of context and you’re gonna be done? I used to say that stand up comedy was the last true form of free speech, but that’s been getting stomped on for the last few years, and it’s not as much fun anymore. Now, there’s definitely lines you shouldn’t cross and things you should never say, but there are also a few political buttons and subjects where I think we don’t need to be taking ourselves so seriously.
We need to be able to laugh at ourselves, and at each other, just a little bit. Personally, I’ve found that if I’m offending just 3 percent of the audience, then I’m right where I’m supposed to be, because whatever it is that I’ve said that’s causing that 3 percent to get up and leave, that’s what everybody else is laughing the hardest at.
Q: You make a lot of social media content and videos, do you find that easier or more difficult in comparison to live performing?
A: Personally, I find live entertaining to be a lot easier than planning and scripting things out for social media, because it’s what I’ve done my whole life. It’s also just more satisfying, because when I get in front of an audience, I can just have fun in the moment. There’s a lot of energy going on, and you get that initial reaction and gratification of an audience laughing. The main reason I do the social media stuff is just to keep the fans entertained, and to keep the name and face out there, because people forget. It’s not as fun, but I do it.
Q: You’ve also been in several film and TV productions, what were those experiences like? Did you also find there to be a big difference performing in production as opposed to live?
A: It’s a whole different set of muscles, but I always enjoyed a bit of a challenge. Those TV and film experiences would upset my stomach, and I would be a little nervous, because I haven’t spent the majority of my career doing those things, but the more you do the better you get at it, and it’s always good to push yourself.  Would it have been easier to stay home and not do any of that stuff? Sure, but those challenges in life are what make it fun when you succeed.
Q: What’s been the proudest moment of your career, or any moment where you felt like you knew you finally made it?
A: Oh boy, there’s been a handful of those. Early in my career, when I graduated from high school, I gave myself a 10-year goal to get on the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. I ended up getting that first appearance within one month of my 10-year reunion, so that was pretty great. The second one was getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Having moved here back in 1988, that wasn’t even something that could’ve been a goal. I mean, that’s ridiculous, so for that to have happened, that was amazing. Also, to have been on an episode of “Scooby-Doo” as myself, and see myself animated, I just couldn’t believe it. That was another really big moment.
Q: As one of the biggest names in ventriloquism, what would you say to those that claim it’s a dying dying art form?
A: I think for any popular art form, there’s always going to be a number of people saying this is dying, this is going away, until you go and see someone who’s good at it. If somebody is bad at comedy, you’re going to know it, because they’re not going to be funny. If somebody is bad at ventriloquism, you’ll know it, because their lips move. It’s an act that can be done easily and poorly, and can easily be done poorly, but if you’re making people laugh, it doesn’t matter. If you’re a great ventriloquist but you’re not funny, you’re gonna last about two minutes on stage. Ventriloquism is an old art form, but it’s not a dying one, because people are always going to be funny, and people are always going to want to laugh.
When: 3 p.m. Sept. 18
Where: Paramount Theatre, 2025 Broadway, Oakland.
Tickets: $53.50 (subject to change); paramountoakland.org
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