Jeff Dunham: Current political climate 'really difficult' for comedians

Ben Hooper
Ventriloquist and comedian Jeff Dunham said it's a difficult time for stand-ups, when something that seems like an innocent statement made on stage can later turn into a major controversy. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
Ventriloquist and comedian Jeff Dunham said it's a difficult time for stand-ups, when something that seems like an "innocent statement" made on stage can later turn into a major controversy. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo

Sept. 23 (UPI) -- Puppet-toting comedian Jeff Dunham is back with a new special on Netflix and a new character that allows the ventriloquist to delve into some dangerous waters for a stand-up: politics.

Dunham, 57, whose second Netflix special, Beside Himself, hits the streaming service Tuesday, is known for his unique blend of stand-up comedy and ventriloquism, using a rotating cast of colorful puppets to tell jokes and poke fun at the hot-button topics of the day.


Dunham told UPI in a recent interview that making jokes about current events has become a "tough row to hoe" for comedians.

"With the political climate, it's really difficult for comedians now to talk about what's current without causing all kinds of problems," Dunham said. "You can't open your mouth without getting yourself into some sort of trouble by saying what seems in the moment to be an innocent statement."

Dunham tries to strike a delicate balance in mocking the issues of the day with the newest dummy in his menagerie: Larry, the personal adviser to President Donald Trump.

"He's very conflicted ... trying to figure out how much do you help? How much do you push back? What's right? What's wrong? It's a very confusing time for everyone right now," he said.


One of Dunham's oldest puppets, Jose the Jalapeno -- a talking jalapeno who speaks with a Mexican accent -- also makes a return in Beside Himself, after a long absence, to address immigration-related issues.

"I think I treat Jose very respectfully and we talk about those matters, as well," Dunham said.

The comedian said he was inspired by some of his own comedy heroes, such as former Tonight Show hosts Johnny Carson and Jay Leno, in attempting to craft jokes that mock both sides of the political spectrum without alienating anyone in the audience.

"I truly believe that most people in this country are somewhere in the middle, a very small percentage is way far left and a very small percentage is way far right. ... I tend to think that there's a lovely big chunk of America that's just sensible thinking and it's all somewhere in the middle. And that's who I play to."

Dunham said he's not trying to lecture the audience or change anyone's mind on issues. He simply wants to make people laugh.

"I'm not trying to pick fights or teach anybody anything. It's supposed to be just fun," he said. "You don't have to be a Rhodes scholar to understand my show."


Avoiding offense ... mostly

The performer, who took up ventriloquism at a young age, said nearly 40 years of performing for audiences has given him a sense of what subjects can be mined for humor and what subjects should be avoided.

"I never make fun of anybody's religion, because that's so personal," he said.

Dunham acknowledged some controversy has surrounded one of his most popular puppets, a turban-wearing skeleton named Achmed the Dead Terrorist, who some have criticized as insensitive to Islam.

"When it comes to Achmed, people go, 'Oh, you're making fun of Muslims,'" Dunham said. "I actually addressed that the very first time he was on stage. Achmed didn't know what religion he was, and didn't know exactly where he was born, so we just try and scoot past that issue."

Achmed first entered Dunham's act as Dead Osama, a parody of Osama bin Laden that made its debut at a New York comedy club just one year after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"Eventually, I turned him into Achmed. I did it because I wanted it to be evergreen because I knew we'd eventually catch Osama bin Laden," Dunham said.

He said that when it comes to offending an audience, "it's the comedian's job to find that line and then figure how how far you want to step over it."


"I've always believed that if there's 2 or 3 or 4 percent of the audience who think things are going too far, that's probably about the right place, because [with] the other 96 percent of the audience, that's what they're laughing the hardest at," he said.

Dunham also cited abortion and child abuse as subjects he wouldn't consider for comedy, but he said most topics are in play if he can find an angle he thinks will work for an audience.

"If it deserves being made fun of and you're not gonna offend 60 percent of the population, OK. But, again, I say that knowing that it's a much more difficult thing to do that now than it was even five years ago, or 30 years ago," he said.

"I grew up doing shows for very general audiences and doing those kind of shows, I think you get a sense for what makes the average person laugh. And now I say that! Is that offensive, to say 'the average person?' It probably is, I just realized that," Dunham laughed.

'What the hell was I thinking?'

The stand-up comedian conceded that not all of his ideas have worked out, and many characters that seemed like brilliant ideas at the time have ended up in a trunk he's labeled, "What the hell was I thinking?"


"My favorite example of a complete failure was after Jose," Dunham said. "I thought, 'Well, this is working -- talking food. Alright, that would be great. So if I have Jose the Jalapeno, why not Tony the Talking Meatball?'"

Tony, a meatball on a plate of spaghetti, debuted in the early 1980s, and soon after made his final appearance on stage.

"I thought this was going to be genius, and of course it wasn't. There was only one joke that worked, and that was: I say, 'Do you speak Italian?' and he goes, 'No.' 'Well, why not?' and he goes, 'I don't have-a no hands!' That was the only joke that worked. So he's on the top of my pile of 'What the hell was I thinking?'"

Dunham said he'll decide to retire long-running characters when audiences stop laughing at their jokes, but even that can sometimes lead to backlash from devoted fans. He said Jose the Jalapeno's long absence from his live shows often led to complaints.

"It's like when I went to see Elton John with my wife, and he didn't sing 'Candle in the Wind.' I didn't know he had retired that song after Princess Diana died, and I was like, 'What? How can you see Elton John and not hear Candle in the Wind?'" Dunham recalled.


"So that's my thought when I retire a character, I'd better be darn sure that the audience is going to be OK with that," he said.

Jeff Dunham: Beside Himself streams Tuesday on Netflix.

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