National Press Club

Ventriloquist Dunham, "Little People in Boxes" Trade Barbs

October 15, 2009 | By Lorna Aldrich |

How does a stand-up comedian react to having his act viewed 90 million times on YouTube in the past two years? Ventriloquist Jeff Dunham, appearing at the Club with his “little people in boxes” Oct. 12, said he was surprised by three things: developing an international following, performing in arenas when his previous highest aspiration had been to play theaters and finding that “I have three daughters, and I’m actually cool.”

He expressed amazement that people in Helsinki could shout lines from his DVDs.

Before the 2007 YouTube clip, Dunham said, he had been “top of the game at the comedy clubs but stuck under some kind of ice. I couldn’t break through.”

But “you never know how long your 15 minutes of fame are going to last,” he said. Club President Donna Leinwand responded: “At the Press Club, you get an hour.”

Dunham started a dialogue with one of his “little people,” Walter, the grumpy retiree. After Dunham said, “I’m not used to the word 'speech',” Walter took over and grumbled that Dunham’s career seemed to have peaked.

“Are you getting paid for this gig?” Walter demanded. “We’ve been on Comedy Central and now we’re on C-SPAN. With 100,000 porn sites, do you think anybody’s watching this? Next we’ll be opening in a waffle house in Potomac.”

Achmed, the dead terrorist and star of the YouTube clip, came out of his little box next.

Asked about his opinion of President Obama, Walter recalled the O’Hares and other O’names from Ireland and said he was impressed by a black Irishman. Most of Achmed’s commentary was decidedly off-color.

Lastly, Dunham lifted the beer-swilling Bubba J out of his box for a brief appearance and a few more off-color quips.

On Oct. 22, Dunham and his “people” will debut their own TV show. Dunham described the format: On TV, the characters will explore the real world. Walter and Jeff will have a full session with a real psychiatrist over their conflict. Achmed, Dunham said, will have a real funeral in a real funeral home. To tape that episode, Dunham said, Achmed was put in the top of a casket which was opened, and Dunham was in the closed bottom to work Achmed and throw his voice to the wooden character.

“I have to tell you; caskets are not comfortable,” Dunham said.

Dunham revealed the inspiration for each of the characters: Walter was created in the 1980s using a mirror, clay and a sculpting knife. So Walter, Dunham said, looks as Dunham will when he ages.

Achmed was created after 9/11 and was originally a dead Osama – made from a Halloween skeleton decoration. Dunham made him more generic and tested his appeal in New York in 2002, thinking, he said, that if Achmed was acceptable to New Yorkers who had experienced the tragedy, he would be acceptable elsewhere.

Bubba J bears some resemblance to Mortimer Snerd, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s character, and, Dunham said, is a tribute to Edgar Bergen. Dunham said his first ventriloquist’s dummy was a toy Mortimer Snerd.