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Read his lips: A chat with Jeff Dunham

Image: Jeff Dunham
Jeff Dunham and one of his many wooden alter-egos, Walter — the crotchety, opinionated senior citizen.Bill Lyons / AdMedia file
/ Source: Special to

Comedian and ventriloquist Jeff Dunham’s career is taking off. He has been a Comedy Central staple for years, and his two DVDs, “Jeff Dunham: Arguing With Myself” and “Jeff Dunham: Spark of Insanity,” have been selling wildly, while his latest tour has been sold out all across America. See him in concert or check out the DVDs and you’ll be introduced to his wooden alter-egos: the crotchety, opinionated senior citizen known as Walter, Achmed the Dead Terrorist, Jose, Melvin the Super Hero and Peanut. We caught up with this very busy man recently to talk travel.

Q: First, the issue anybody who follows your career probably wants to discuss ... Checking all those puppets at the airport has to be problematic, right?

A: There’s no doubt. What’s really interesting is that now more people recognize me, so it actually makes it easier. Now a decent percentage will see me and the heads in the suitcases and say, “Oh, you’re that guy.” Before the Comedy Central stuff hit, it was a major pain the neck. It used to be that I would only carry Walter because he was the most fragile and only had one copy of him. I literally folded him up in suitcase like a little kid, and he’d go through the X-ray. Though I dreaded it, I really did love seeing the expression of the person running the machine. It was like a dog cocking his head, a real confused look, then a concerned look, and then the person would look at me, smiling and waving back. Usually I’d go, “It’s a head.” And they’d go, “What?” But the goofiest one ever was in Birmingham, pre-9/11. The guy looks at me and then looks at the suitcase. He says, “Hey, you got a banjo in there?” Matter-of-factly, I said, “No, it’s a head. Have a nice day.” So there you have it. Our security at work.

Q: Speaking of security, have you had problems on that end because of Achmed?

A: At one point, I would joke just a little bit. But now you can’t tell jokes. You know, they ask, “What is that?” And I answer, “It’s a dead terrorist”. They’d be like, “Ssssshhhhhhh.” They would hush me. And I’m like, “But it is!” I realized that if I get harassed one too many times by people with zero sense of humor, I might get detained for a while. But then, they open it up and see this terrorist puppet with big, bulging eyes and it gets a big laugh.

Q: Any other good ones in the security line?

A: Oh, yeah. Remember the old Apple computers, when the system would crash and it would show a picture of an actual bomb? And then you’d get the “Twilight Zone” sound as the death sound? Well, my buddy and I were going through security, and back then you had to turn on the laptop, show them it worked and then close it. So he’s got this concerned look on his face. I said, “You have a bomb.” He’s like, “Come on, man! You can’t say that in an airport!” It took me a minute to realize exactly what I’d said—not a good idea.

Q: Walter’s pretty bitter. Is it tough to keep him happy on long plane flights?

A: There’s nothing better for a comedian than adversity. The worse things go, the more material I have for Walter. The colder the weather, the more fodder for his cannon. When a bad experience happens, you just chalk it up to the great fact that you just got five more jokes in the show.

Q: You’ve got three daughters. Are family vacations tough to manage?

A: No. It’s way more interesting and more fun now. Put it this way: I don’t pull the celebrity card too often, but if we can’t get a table at a restaurant, one of the girls will go up to the host and say, “Do you know who my daddy is?” I discourage it, but every once and a while, it’s fun. Their mother does it too, and it mortifies me sometimes.

Q: What’s the best vacation you ever had?

A: Without a doubt, when we went to St. Thomas. I left every bit of business in the office and took nothing with me except a bathing suit and a few changes of clothes. We went with a couple other families, sat on the beach and in the Jacuzzi and drank heavily. It was an honest-to-goodness eight or nine days of complete paradise. And I hate the beach—I’m a mountain guy. I’d much rather face a bear than a shark, but that changed me over—that was something special.

Q: Dream destinations?

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Q: And finally: Give us your most embarrassing travel experience.

A: My parents live in Dallas, and on American Airlines you go through there. Not long ago I had a 2 ½ hour layover, so I invited my parents to have lunch at DFW. They needed a special pass to get through security, and my dad’s 80 and my mom’s 78. So I’m standing on the other side of security waiting for them, and my mom is taking forever with jewelry. Meanwhile, my dad keeps beeping going through. They said they think it’s his belt, so he takes off his belt and his pants fall down to his ankles. Of course he’s wearing red and white boxer shorts, and of course my mother bursts into laughter. I had to walk away. I’m just thinking, “Holy Toledo. I’m related to these people.”