The calendar says another Christmas has come and gone, but it’s been Christmas every day since 1970 for Jeff Dunham.
That’s when he received a Mortimer Snerd dummy, setting him on a career that has taken him around the world with his puppet posse, winning him accolades as a ventriloquist, comedian, actor, philanthropist and best-selling author.
Mortimer and other childhood and college mementos went into storage in 1988, when Dunham moved from Texas to Los Angeles. But in November, Dunham found the beloved puppet buried in a storage box, whisked him home to California and put him in the front room, with a Santa hat on his head.
“It’s his first Christmas under a tree since 1970. It’s kinda sweet,” Dunham, now 55, said by phone from home in mid-December, before bringing his 60-city Passively Aggressive Tour to the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday night (1/10).
While in hindsight, he said the dummy was his best Santa present, his most memorable gift actually came a couple of years earlier, when he received a stuffed Winnie the Pooh. He passed down the beloved bear to one of his daughters when she was little, and now his 2-year-old twin sons have it in their room.
He’s a frequent flier to the Corridor these days, since one of his daughters attends Cornell College in Mount Vernon. He loves walking around uptown, and is planning on bringing the twins there in February to experience their first snow.
But back to Mortimer, the ventriloquist dummy based on Edgar Bergen’s famous sidekick.
Dunham, then 8, spotted the puppet in a Dallas toy store.
“It was probably early December,” he said. “I was wandering through the toy store with my mom, and she was trying to get ideas for me. I spotted that little guy on the shelf, picked it up and showed it to her. She said, ‘Oh, isn’t that cute,’ and then somehow, miraculously, under the Christmas tree, there it was.”
It came with a how-to album, but Dunham also checked out a ventriloquism book from the Dallas Public Library — and never returned it. He still has it, but made good on the swipe.
When he returned to his hometown to do a show at the American Airlines Arena, he invited a library representative onto the stage.
“We calculated what I would owe in overdue fees, and it came to, like, 7,000 bucks. I rounded it up to 10 grand, so I gave the library 10,000 bucks for that library book.”
His fascination with ventriloquism sprang from being an only child.
“I don’t think the word ‘cool’ was in my vocabulary in the third grade. I didn’t have any brothers and sisters, so I didn’t know what was hip, what was supposed to be hip, and what wasn’t,” he said. “All I knew is, that little dummy would be able to talk if I worked at it hard enough.
“I was no good at sports, I was not one of the outstanding kids, I wasn’t popular. But then I got this little dummy, and now I finally had something that was unique and different, and I knew I could be outstanding, because nobody else was doing it.
“I got the right encouragement from friends and family and teachers, and kept doing shows, getting accolades. Then I started getting paid for it, so there was every reason to keep doing it and no reason to not,” he said, “even throughout my high school years.
“I think it was because the material — what I chose to joke about — made it cool, this seemingly uncool, very odd thing for a kid to be doing. I think the fact that I was making fun of the principal and the lunch ladies and the school food and everything you’re not supposed to make jokes about, I was able to do in front of everybody and get laughs for it. And it was all good-natured fun. I think that kept me from getting beat up on the playground on a regular basis.”
He’s still making fun of taboo topics, luring audiences around the world with the antics of grumpy Walter, energetic Peanut, redneck Bubba J, Jose Jalapeno on a Stick and Achmed the Dead Terrorist. They get away with their sometimes cringe-worthy banter for a couple of factors, he said.
“Number one, we all know this is a joke. It’s a little dummy saying these things. It’s also the same thought processes a person goes through when they hear the little kids on ‘South Park’ saying what they say. It’s animation, we know it’s not real. There’s an innocence and sort of a license to get away with things that the average human — a standup comic or whatever — could never get away with. ...
“I have no agenda. I’m not trying to preach about anything or instill my beliefs and push people around that way. In fact, I can’t stand that people use their celebrity to do that.”
"I know that people are paying money to come and laugh, and that’s what I’m trying to let them do. I also believe that if you’re trying to offend a tiny bit of the audience, maybe the 3- or 4- or 5 percent, whatever you’re offending them with is what the other 95 percent are laughing the hardest at,” he said. “As a comic, you just know how to push that line, and you learn how far you can push it before you’ve gone way too far. It’s very difficult these days to know what that line is, and it’s very easy to step over it and say one or two things that are not OK, and you can damage or end your career very quickly.”
His humor also knows no geographical boundaries. “With YouTube, the world has become a very small place,” he said.
His foreign fans speak English, too, and “get” his jokes — or they wouldn’t be buying a ticket.
“The audiences I have are filtered,” he said. “In Paris, I was really amazed. I actually asked the audience, ‘I want to know how many of you ‘think’ in English versus thinking in French.’ Astonishingly, it was split down the middle, and the material worked great. They loved it. I was very impressed. Paris would have been one of the last places that I thought the comedy would have gone over. It was great.”
Abu Dhabi audiences loved the show, too, he said. Achmed the Dead Terrorist is most popular in the Middle East.
“That’s who they’re there for,” he said. “In fact, what made that trip so amazing is that I get to see the world through rose-colored glasses. I maybe get a sanitized version of the world because people are there for comedy, and there’s not much anger. ...
“There I was in the middle of Abu Dhabi, doing a show for mainly Muslims. Two nights later, I’m in the middle of Tel Aviv, Israel, doing the exact same show for 4,000 Jewish people, and both audiences loved the show exactly the same. I didn’t change a word of it.”
WHAT: Jeff Dunham: Passively Aggressive
WHERE: U.S. Cellular Center, 370 First Ave. NE, Cedar Rapids
WHEN: 7 p.m. Wednesday (1/10)
TICKETS: $50.50 or $62.50 for 3-D collector ticket; U.S. Cellular Center Box Office, 1-(800) 745-3000 or Uscellularcenter.com/event/jeff-dunham-passively-aggressive/
ARTIST’S WEBSITE: Jeffdunham.com