Jeffrey William Robinson “Jeff” Dunham (born April 18, 1962) is an American ventriloquist and 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 four specials that run on Comedy Central: Jeff Dunham: Arguing with Myself, Jeff Dunham: Spark of Insanity, Jeff Dunham’s Very Special Christmas Special, and Jeff Dunham: Controled Chaos. 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 was born in Dallas, Texas in 1962, and raised in an affluent neighborhood as an only child, adopted by a real estate appraiser and a homemaker. He began ventriloquism at age eight, when his parents gave him a Mortimer Snerd dummy for Christmas, and an accompanying how-to record album. The next day he checked out a how-to book on ventriloquism from the library. 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.
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 made his debut on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1990. At the end of his act, he was invited to sit on Johnny Carson’s couch, considered a mark of approval. At the time, Dunham saw this as his big break, though 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.
On July 18, 2003, Dunham appeared on Comedy Central Presents, his first solo appearance on Comedy Central. During his half hour piece, he showcased José Jalapeño on a Stick, Walter, an early version of Melvin the Superhero Guy and Peanut, whom Dunham had begun to merchandise into a line of dolls.
In addition to building the dummies he uses in his act, Dunham also restores antique ones as a hobby, such as The Umpire, a 6-foot-tall (1.8 m) mechanized dummy built in 1941 to work the plate at a girl’s softball game, but which went unused and packed away for 50 years, before Dunham acquired it in early 2008.
Dunham, who says he has loved helicopters since childhood, is fond of building and flying his own kit helicopters from Rotorway helicopter kits, as depicted in his appearance on the CMT television magazine Fast Living.