It is pretty jarring to turn away from Boris Johnson’s press conference describing how many families will lose loved ones before their time to the global coronavirus pandemic to make a pre-arranged call to American comedian Jeff Dunham heading to Yorkshire for a show that you both know is likely to be postponed for the foreseeable future.
Speaking to me over the phone from the States last Thursday ahead of a show at Leeds First Direct Arena that was due to take place in May but has since been rearranged for September, Dunham – holder of the world record for selling the most tickets (an incredible 1.9 million) for a stand-up tour – says he as struggling as much as everyone else to get his head around the new reality.
“It is a little bit crazy right now. You guys are a little bit ahead of us but they are starting to shut everything down over here. It is really nuts.”
The 57-year-old is an unlikely comedy superstar – not just because of his background but also the nature of his act. Born in Texas and raised in a devoutly Presbyterian household, Dunham started ventriloquism at the age of eight and his talent was such that his television debut happened at 14.
Now after decades of touring and a cast of characters including irascible retiree Walter, beer-drinking redneck Bubba J and the skeletal Achmed the Dead Terrorist with a formula in which he plays the straight-man to the zany comments of his puppet creations, Dunham has won massive popular acclaim, particularly in Middle America.
But he has often struggled to win over the comedy establishment or the critics, with his jokes being labelled as “ranging from goofy to racist and homophobic”.
Dunham insists such a label is unfair but admits there have been jokes in years gone by that he would not use today.
“I honestly think that criticism is people who have seen things that were written before and they are just writing articles on top of articles. Their research is only on the internet.
“I think, have you actually come to my show? If there is a homophobic joke in my show, I’m going to be surprised. If you are a good comic you are telling jokes that your audience like and I don’t have a bunch of racist guys in white hoods in my audience.
“I’m honestly confused when I see ‘racist and homophobic’ and I really think it is people to reacting to maybe a few jokes I said in the past.
“If there was stuff that I did it was probably jokes or bits I would not do today because the world has changed. We all change, we all morph, we all I think try and become better people and as you get older, you get wiser.
“I think my act has changed, there were things back then that I wouldn’t do today but I honestly think those comments are coming from a handful of jokes I might have said 25 years ago. That is not the way it is today.”
But Dunham admits to mis-steps in the past, including the controversial character of Sweet Daddy Dee, a black puppet who calls himself a “pimp”, which he says stands for “Player In the Management Profession”.
“I created him very deliberately to try and make fun of racism. I wanted this black guy to be making fun of me, this stupid white guy. I actually sat down with a couple of black comedians and said, ‘OK look, I know you guys make fun of us – give me some jokes or some attitude that a black person would have when making fun of a white person’.”
But he says he soon realised the character was not working as he was struggling to write sketches for it. “What was interesting was with all of my characters there is a little bit of me in all the successful ones. Even in Achmed, I don’t want to kill anybody but I can understand being angry. But I’m not an African-American, I’m not a black person, I try to understand but I can’t. I’m not part of that culture. I came up with a routine with people helping me and I gave up after that because it wasn’t fun for me as I didn’t know what to say.
“For every character I have had that have succeeded there are two or three that have failed miserably. There is a trunk of puppets I have that I call, ‘what the hell was I thinking?’”
But Dunham does not shy away from being labelled politically incorrect.
“I don’t mind pushing the boundaries and making a few people angry. I have always said – and this used to be an OK thing to say but I saw somebody quote me and say how horrible I was – if a comedian is offending a small percentage of the audience he is probably right on that line of where he should be.
“Because whatever those people are offended at is what everybody else is laughing the hardest at. People love it because it is refreshing and there are some guys that go way further than I do.”
While ventriloquism is viewed by some as an old-fashioned artform, one striking thing about Dunham’s career is how he has adapted to the modern era to survive.
After getting audience members to fill out question cards for his characters with their addresses on to build a mailing list in the earlier stage of his career, he was one of the first comedians to start a YouTube channel in 2006 which saw him reach a massive new global audience as his routines clocked up hundreds of millions of views.
“It is amazing when you say showbusiness how many people in the industry don’t understand the business part of it. You want to make sure that audience wants to come back to see you again.
“The word always has to be out there to let people know you are coming. I was just fascinated when the internet came along and YouTube came along of these amazing new tools that we had at our fingertips. It is also interesting if you think you have a big audience - even 18,000 people in an audience - that is a fraction of who you are entertaining when you can get on YouTube. Those were just obvious tools to me.
“Before the internet, postcards were a big deal in the comedy clubs. I started gathering mail addresses early on because I did ‘Dear Walter’ cards where they would write questions for Walter and hand them in and I would answer a handful of the questions. I would ask for their addresses if they wanted to be part of the fanclub. I was pretty much the first comedian in the US to do that.
“It also became a point of the contract because comedy clubs would start taking those cards when I was on stage and copying them and stealing the addresses.
“We were like, no, you don’t get to do that, this is people stealing crops out of my field.
“When the email thing started we started getting tens of thousands of email addresses and it became not very effective to send out the postcards. So that came along and that begat people following online and then the YouTube thing. It has been an amazing journey of embracing the technology and the business side of showbusiness.
“I’m really not sure how many guys were utilising YouTube at the time I started. My second comedy special [filmed in 2007] involved Achmed the Dead Terrorist and it was just perfect timing. It wasn’t just youth, it was middle-aged people, it was the military who were starting to use it.
“When I started seeing some of our clips getting tens of thousands and then millions of views that is when I realised this had to be something we embraced and could take advantage of. I had a really good team of people who worked very hard on that to make that happen.”
Fellow comedian Bill Engvall once said that the Achmed character was a “genius marketing move” on the part of Dunham as having a character with ‘terrorist’ in the title will appear high in Google search rankings.
But Dunham says there was no such calculation and the character was instead an evolution of a ‘Dead Osama’ puppet he had created a year after 9/11.
“There was nothing funny about 9/11 and there never will be. But I looked to our late night comedians Jay Leno and David Letterman at the time and they were joking about Osama bin Laden and where was he? I remember thinking I know where he is, he’s half-dead and he’s hiding out in my suitcase with the other characters.
“When I came up with that idea I thought this is going to be a little dicey. I thought I’m going to imagine there are relatives of victims who died in 9/11 in the audience and asked myself ‘what are they ready to listen to, how could I make them laugh, what are they ok with’?
“I thought I’m not going to try this out somewhere safe on the West Coast or Hawaii or Alaska where it is so far removed it is not as stinging. I’m going to make sure this is right so the first show I did with the Dead Osama was six miles from Ground Zero in New York at a small comedy club and it could not have gone over better that night. They were ready to laugh and there was this bumbling idiot terrorist and it just went from there. I ended up using it for two to three years after that.
“I ended up getting letters from people in the military or relatives of people who had been killed thanking me for bringing laughter back into their lives and helping them move on. That meant so much to me.
“Could I come out with that guy today? I don’t think so. But the reason I still have a licence for him today is I don’t make fun of religion, I say he is not Muslim, I make sure he is making fun of me. It is this bumbling stupid terrorist that has fallen in love with the trappings of the free world. He loves cars, he loves restaurants, he loves everything what happened.”
He says after dropping the Osama character after a couple of years, he decided to bring it back for a televised special but in a more generalised form.
“I like my specials to be evergreen, so I thought if we find out Osama bin Laden is dead it wouldn’t make any sense. So I just changed him to a general character, we don’t know where he is from, we don’t know what accent that is. Was it dancing around a little bit? A little bit but I’m making fun of an idiot terrorist.”
Clips of Achmed went viral and attracted hundreds of millions of views on their own, taking Dunham’s already-successful career to another level.
His act has also managed to have its finger on the pulse of a large part of American culture.
Almost a decade before Donald Trump started decrying the use of Happy Holidays as a seasonal greeting, his character Walter was winning wild applause for saying, “Screw you, it’s Merry Christmas” when Dunham wished him a Happy Holidays on stage.
Dunham insists his humour is aimed at everyone.
“I tend to think my audience has a good sense of humour. I don’t care who is in that crowd and what religion you are and what beliefs you have. I try to explain at the shows that there are people from every side of the aisle here politically and I’m going to make fun of a little bit of both sides.
“We are here to laugh and that’s what you pay for. I make fun of myself more than anybody in the show.
“I tend to believe most people can take a joke. Maybe I’ve been looking at the world through rose-tinted glasses but it seems to have been working for the last few years.”
But he says that Trump’s victory in 2016 came as no surprise to him.
“I kept telling my friends and associates I think Trump is going to win because every show I would do I would ask the audience when it came down to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump I would say who are you going to vote for? I would say, ‘There is nobody judging anybody, I’m just very curious’. I realise my audience may be skewed a bit towards the Right for whatever reason but I would ask every single audience and I don’t care what part of the United States I was in, it was always 80/20 in favour of Donald.”
Dunham says he believes Trump is on course to triumph again later this year against whoever wins the Democratic nomination from Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders.
“From where I’m standing it seems like Trump is going to win again. I think the Democrats have painted themselves into a corner with their candidates - everything they have complained about is what they have ended up with, two old white men.
“I don’t think anybody comes to my show thinking politics. But if I didn’t talk about it a little bit, it would be a glaring hole in the centre of the show, this is what is happening in the world. If you leave it out of your show you are like an ostrich sticking your head in the ground.
“People are there for escapism and to have fun. It is only a certain percentage of minutes in the show where I talk about.”
The success of his act, which plays to huge arenas in the States and around the world and sees Dunham and his puppets constantly interact, also demands considerable personal discipline where he is silent all day before a gig to protect his voice.
“When I started and heard about artists who did that I thought how awful but it is a practicality. If I’m doing five shows in a row and I’m on a tour bus, I will do my show, walk off stage, say good night to everybody and then I don’t exit that bus or talk to anyone until 20 hours later. Because that helps heal the voice otherwise I couldn’t do it. It would be like the quarterback having a game every single day.”
So what still drives Dunham to perform live given his millions of ticket sales and now a series of Netflix specials?
“The practicality of touring is alimony,” laughs Dunham, who divorced first wife Paige Brown in 2008 and remarried Audrey Murdick in 2012.
“People say, ‘do you still love doing your shows?’ and I say ‘No, I love doing half of my shows’.
“This virus thing going on right now – if I don’t get on stage and perform for a month you are going to find me in a corner wrapped up in the foetal position. I have never gone more than three weeks without performing.
“I have heard Jay Leno say when asked if he is going to take a vacation - a vacation from what? I walk on stage, I talk for an hour, people laugh uproariously, I walk off stage, they hand me a big cheque and then I get on the plane. What part of that do I need a vacation from?
“I wish the virus for all the appropriate reasons would go away but for a very personal reason I wish it would go away because I look forward to coming over there again and having fun with everybody.”
Jeff Dunham is scheduled to play Leeds First Direct Arena on Sunday September 27. Visit www.jeffdunham.com/tours.