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When Jeff Dunham was little, he didn’t have any imaginary friends. He had real ones. Real puppet ones. Having received a dummy to practise his ventriloquism when he was just a tween, Dunham began taking his dummy to Picture Day every year.
They surely made for some side-eye-worthy visuals, but at least the man who topped Forbes’s list of top-earning comedians in the US twice in a row can explain those. He said he did this in order to get the most professional-looking photos for his ventriloquism portfolio.
Where words fail him is when he looks at a picture of himself and his dummy standing in front of a car with a gigantic stuffed elephant in the driver’s seat. Hmm, okay.
After the announcement of an South African tour between June 5 and 16, I got a chance to speak to the man who has cashed in on talking to himself.
First up on the list of priorities: that dodgy picture with the stuffed animal.
“I absolutely don’t remember why I have a picture that looks that way,” he tells me on the phone from the US. “I wasn’t drunk or any-thing, I remember that. I have no explanation, except maybe it was my mother who took the picture. My mother, to this day, in her mid-eighties, takes pictures of any and everything.”
Family is important to this Comedy Central-affiliated comedian who – the last time he was in Mzansi – had just gone through a divorce.
In his fourth live DVD, Controlled Chaos, one of Dunham’s dummies, an irritable old man named Walter, takes great pleasure in trying to live vicariously through a man who managed to escape the chokehold of a wedding band.
But, I ask Dunham, won’t Walter be disappointed to find that Dunham is getting hitched yet again in the near future?
“Was there ever a death penalty in South Africa?” he asks, but doesn’t wait for an answer.
“Did you ever have the electric chair? Well, that’s basically Walter’s answer. He goes: ‘You got engaged and you’re going to get married again. Look, when you get a call from the governor to get a reprieve, you don’t turn around and strap yourself back into the chair.’”
Some of the characters, including Walter, will be dressed up for Halloween to tape a special show when Dunham performs in SA.
The characters include Peanut, a purple woozle; Bubba J, a stere-otypical beer-guzzling white man from the South; and Achmed the Dead Terrorist, whose signature saying, “Silence! I keeel you” became a world-famous phrase.
But with all his immensely popular characters – including Debbie, who appeared as Dunham’s character’s “wife” in Dinner For Shmucks, starring Steve Carrel – Dunham hasn’t presented a black one as a permanent cast member in his shows.
“I had Sweet Daddy D,” he laughs heartily. “He’s a black character. Maybe I should bring him back to South Africa.”
For now, though, when Dunham doesn’t have his hand up a dummy, he’s got his other hand full with all his characters. Especially with Achmed the Dead Terrorist – who makes fun of Osama bin Laden in Dunham’s shows – does it some-times feel like Dunham created a monster?
“Yeah, I created a monster with no skin,” he says.
“I think he’s like a lot of guys. We think we’re tough. We think we can beat up the bad guy when he comes.
“Achmed is the same way.
“It’s just that he was trained to be a terrorist, he came to the Western world and fell in love with cars, rock ’n’ roll, movies, television and all the trappings of the Western world.
“The appeal of him is he actually has a heart.”
For comedians like Dave Chappelle, their characters haven’t overshadowed who they are.
For Dunham things are a little different. “My fame is a good fame,” he says.
“The dummies are more famous than me, so I can usually walk around places and not get mobbed. It’s not like you go somewhere and everyone knows who you are.
“I have to pull out a dummy before anyone recognises me – which is a good thing. It’s a working relationship. I don’t want to kill off anybody.”
* Catch the Jeff Dunham: Live in SA Tour at GrandWest Grand Arena in Cape Town on June 5 and 6, the Durban ICC on June 7, Sun City Superbowl on June 9 and Carnival City in Brakpan on June 14 and 15. Tickets priced between R250 and R500. Shows start 8pm. Book at Computicket.