[ Wikimedia / CC BY-SA 3.0 ]
|Born||April 18, 1962 (age 56)|
|Profession||Actor, Screenwriter, Film Producer, Ventriloquist, Comedian|
|Parents||Howard Dunham, Joyce Dunham|
Jeff Dunham (born April 18, 1962) is an American ventriloquistand stand-up comedian who has also appeared on numerous television shows, including Late Show with David Letterman, Comedy Central Presents, The Tonight Show and Sonny With a Chance. He has five specials that run on Comedy Central: Jeff Dunham: Arguing with Myself, Jeff Dunham: Spark of Insanity, Jeff Dunham's Very Special Christmas Special, Jeff Dunham: Controlled Chaos and Jeff Dunham: Minding the Monsters. Dunham also starred in The Jeff Dunham Show, a series on the network in 2009. His style has been described as "a dressed-down, more digestible version of Don Rickles with multiple personality disorder". Describing his characters, Time observes, "All of them are politically incorrect, gratuitously insulting and ill tempered." Dunham has been credited with reviving ventriloquism, and doing more to promote the art form than anyone since Edgar Bergen.
Dunham has been called "America's favorite comedian" by Slate.com, and according to the concert industry publication Pollstar, he is the top-grossing standup act in North America, and is among the most successful acts in Europe as well. As of November 2009, he has sold over four million DVDs, an additional $7 million in merchandise sales, and received more than 350 million hits on YouTube as of October 2009 (his introduction of Achmed the Dead Terrorist in Spark of Insanity was ranked as the ninth most watched YouTube video at the time). A Very Special Christmas Special was the most-watched telecast in Comedy Central history, with its DVD going quadruple platinum (selling over 400,000) in its first two weeks. Forbes.com ranked Dunham as the third highest-paid comedian in the United States behind Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock, and reported that he was one of the highest-earning comics from June 2008 to June 2009, earning approximately $30 million during that period. Dunham also does occasional acting roles.
Dunham was born in Dallas, Texas on April 18, 1962. When he was three months old he was adopted by real estate appraiser Howard Dunham, and his homemaker wife Joyce, who raised him in a devoutly Presbyterian household in an affluent Dallas neighborhood as an only child. He began ventriloquism in 1970 at age eight, when his parents gave him a Mortimer Snerd dummy for Christmas, and an accompanying how-to album. The next day he checked out a how-to book on ventriloquism from the library, and explained in 2011 that he still had it, remarking that he was "a thief in the third grade". By the fourth grade, Dunham decided he not only wanted to be a professional ventriloquist, but the best one ever. Dunham began practicing for hours in front of a mirror, studying the routines of Edgar Bergen, and the how-to record Jimmy Nelson's Instant Ventriloquism, finding ventriloquism to be a learned skill, similar to juggling, that anyone with a normal speaking voice can acquire. Dunham explains that as an only child, he enjoyed being alone, likening his solitude to a "warm blanket" with which he could explore his own thoughts and ideas, which prepared him for the solitude of living alone when he later moved to Los Angeles as a struggling comedian.
When Dunham was in the sixth grade, he began attending the Vent Haven ConVENTion in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, an annual international meeting of ventriloquists that includes competitions, where he met Jimmy Nelson in person. Dunham has missed only one ConVENTion since then, in 1977. The organizers of the ConVENTion eventually declared Dunham a "retired champion", ineligible from entering any more competitions, as other attendees were too intimidated to compete against him. The Vent Haven Museum devotes a section to Dunham, alongside Señor Wences and his idol, Edgar Bergen.
Dunham began performing for audiences as a teenager, in various venues such as school, church, and during his job at Six Flags. By his middle school years, he began to perform for banquets attended by local celebrities such as Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, having developed his style of lampooning those he performed for, using the puppets to say things too risque for him to say without them. Dunham's television debut came in 1976 when the still prepubescent performer caught the attention of Dallas reporters like Bill O'Reilly, who interviewed Dunham for a local news story. Dunham later did commercials for Datsun dealerships in Dallas and Tyler while in high school. While emceeing a high school talent show, he dealt with a heckler, and won over the rest of the audience. During this period he became so associated with his craft that he and one of his dummies "cowrote" a column in the school paper, and he would pose with his dummies for yearbooks as an inexpensive way to acquire professional photos of his act for promotional purposes. He was voted Most Likely to Succeed, and in 1980, after he graduated from high school, Dunham gave himself a career goal of obtaining, within ten years, an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, which was seen as the "holy grail" for comedians.
That year Dunham began attending Baylor University, hoping to graduate with a degree in communications, while performing around campus. He would also fly around the country on weekends, doing up to 100 private shows a year, entertaining corporate customers such as General Electric, whose CEO, Jack Welch, he mocked during his routine. By his junior year in college (1983–1984), Dunham was making $70,000 a year, and as word spread of his act, he landed featured spots opening for Bob Hope and George Burns, though he still perceived his act as raw, as he did not have any knowledge of standup comedy beyond his Bill Cosby albums. He caught a break in 1985 when he was asked to join the Broadway show Sugar Babies with Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller, replacing the outgoing variety act. For the naive and devoutly-raised Dunham, Broadway was a new world filled with beautiful showgirls and crusty stagehands, and his first taste of entertainment industry egos came when Rooney called Dunham into his dressing room, and told him he was there for one reason alone: so that Rooney could change his costumes. Dunham also performed at theWestbury Music Fair on Long Island. These early experiences, in which he used characters like José Jalapeño on a Stick, taught him the value of modifying his act regionally, as the jalapeño jokes that worked well in Texas were not as well received by audiences in Long Island.
After graduating from Baylor University in 1986, he continued honing his act in comedy clubs in the Southwest with new characters such as Peanut and Jose Jalapeño, but struggled against the perception he relates from fellow comedians that he was not a true a comedian because he relied on props. His experience at Catch a Rising Star in New York City served as a bitter confirmation of where ventriloquists stood in the comedic food chain, as the emcee at that club gave Dunham little respect. According to Dunham, after he arrived at the club in the evening and informed the emcee that he was a ventriloquist, the emcee reacted with derision, telling Dunham that he would be given a late time slot, and after that time slot came and passed, kept postponing Dunham's stage time until Dunham left the club. By the end of 1988, Dunham felt his career went as far as it could go in Texas, and he moved to Los Angeles, California, never having, as he has commented, "a real job", much to the concern of his parents, who assumed he would relegate his act to local venues such as church groups. When he first arrived in Los Angeles, the comedy in his act bombed. Dunham attributes to his underdeveloped comedy, explaining that while the characters' personalities were developed at that point, his jokes were not. In addition to this, the comedy world was not welcoming to ventriloquists, and his manager, Judi Brown-Marmel, did not use the word "ventriloquist" when finding bookings for him, choosing to present him as a comedy duo. After Dunham became friends with Mike Lacey, the owner of The Comedy & Magic Club in Hermosa Beach, Lacey gave Dunham a steady slot at the club, where Dunham sharpened his act by observing the techniques of comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, and taking the advice of colleague Bill Engvall, moving away from his G-Rated material toward edgier, more adult themes.
At the end of 1988, Dunham was told by James McCawley, a talent booker for The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, that Dunham would be given a spot on the coveted program. Though the 26-year-old Dunham was elated that his 10-year goal was arriving two years early, McCawley later cancelled Dunham's appearance after attending, with Roseanne Barr, a public performance of Dunham's the day before Dunham's scheduled Tonight Show taping. McCawley informed Dunham on the day of the scheduled taping that he had been wrong in his initial assessment of Dunham, whom he now said was not ready for The Tonight Show. His dreams dashed, the humiliated Dunham continued to tighten his act in Los Angeles clubs, performing same six-minute segment with Peanut a total of nine times for McCawley over the next few months. Finally at the Ice-House in Pasadena in April 1990, after Dunham did the same segment, McCawley informed Dunham that he would finally get his Tonight Show appearance. Dunham and Peanut appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson on April 6, 1990, alongside guests Bob Hope and B.B. King. Following his bit, he was invited to sit on Johnny Carson’s couch, a mark of approval on Carson's show. Upon sitting down next to Carson's desk, Dunham pulled out Walter, who told Carson sidekick Ed McMahon, "Stop sending me all your damn mail." At the time, Dunham saw his Tonight Show appearance as his big break, but was frustrated at his parents' initial disapproval over Walter's use of the words "hell" and "damn", and he would toil in obscurity for another twelve years, continuing his stand up at venues such as The Improv chain, and appearing in small roles on TV. One of these was such as a 1996 episode of Ellen, in which he appeared with Walter. Dunham also appeared with Walter in a TV commercial for Hertz. Dunham would appear on The Tonight Show a total of four times, as well as similar TV venues such as Hot Country Nights, appearing in one segment on that show with singer Reba McEntire. This exposure helped make Dunham a large theater headliner, a rare accomplishment for a ventriloquist, but by the mid-1990s, his television appearances had dwindled, and with them, so did his stage audiences.
Dunham met his first wife, Paige Brown, at the Comedy Corner in West Palm Beach, Florida. They began dating in December 1992. In May 1994, Dunham married Brown and adopted her one and a half year-old daughter, Bree. Their daughters Ashlyn and Kenna were born in 1995 and 1997, respectively. Dunham's time away while performing proved a strain on the marriage, and in November 2008 he filed for divorce. By mid-2009, Dunham was in a relationship with fellow Texan Audrey Murdick, a certified nutritionist, personal trainer and competition bodybuilder, and on December 25, 2011 they became engaged. On October 13, 2012, they married.
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