Of all the acts performing in the Sydney Comedy Festival, American comedian and ventriloquist Jeff Dunham is the only one big enough to command an arena. Household names like Bob Saget, Jimeoin and Stephen K Amos have all been relegated to the Enmore Theatre and its 1600-seat capacity. But Dunham and his entourage of puppets will take on the 10,000-seat Qantas Credit Union Arena for their new show Disorderly Conduct – and if his previous stint in the same venue two years ago is anything to go by, he’s bound to sell out.
It’s been a long, hard slog to get to this point in his career, which includes being named one of Forbes’ Top 100 Entertainers in the world. “I’ll be the first to admit, it’s pretty hard to do for a living,” says Dunham, who does his best to discourage budding ventriloquists from the trade to separate the starry-eyed from the dedicated. “When you’re an eight year old kid, I think it’s cute,” he says. “But when a 35-year-old guy comes up to me and tells me he wants to be a ventriloquist I ask, ‘Have you looked at every other possibility in comedy?’ It was something that was popular during early TV because it was its own special effect, but it’s not a typical thing for people to do anymore.”
So how’d Dunham end up doing it? “I didn’t give myself an escape route,” he says. “I didn’t plan anything else, didn’t want anything else. As a kid I knew this was going to be what I was doing.” Being an only child with “nothing better to do” he learned to throw his voice at the age of eight and a month later, performed his first show. “It was a book report. I did two or three minutes on the report, and the rest of the time I picked on my classmates, the school, the teachers, the food,” he says. “That game has pretty much stayed throughout my career: I do two or three minutes of meaningful things, and make fun of stuff after that.”
With no set structure to his performances which adjust according to new material and the city he’s in, even he can’t anticipate the “stuff” he refers to when on stage. Not least because, once placed on stage, the characters “don’t exactly behave the way I want them to.”
It’s as though they’ve a life of their own, and Dunham’s just a bystander. “I don’t think it’s me,” he says when asked the secret to his success. “People love the characters. What makes good comedy is that, unlike regular standup, I can create tension and conflict on stage because there are two or three of us on at a time. Plus,” he adds, “developing different, highly identifiable characters.”
For example, Walter the Grumpy Veteran, one of Dunham’s earliest and most beloved creations. Or Bubba J, the beer-fuelled redneck. “People in Australia love Bubba J,” says Dunham incredulously. “I thought those kinds of people were isolated to (stupid me) a certain part of the US but no, everybody has a town they make fun of where people live in trailers. He goes really well in Australia, so I’m looking forward to bringing him back.”
He’s also looking forward to introducing his newest puppet: Coffee Guy. “I felt that the coffee craze had gone ridiculously nuts everywhere – so there’s a new guy who’s addicted to coffee,” reveals Dunham. “I’m interested to see how he goes in other countries, but from what I understand a drug is a drug. He’s nuts and you have to see it. So come on to the show and tell me what you think.”