Jeff Dunham is a famous American Ventriloquist, known globally for his puppet “Achmed, the Dead Terrorist.” He is also an actor and a stand-up comedian, who has made numerous guest appearances, and appeared in four specials on Comedy Central, one of which went quadruple platinum in its first two weeks by selling over 400,000 copies!
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He was born on 18 April 1962, in Dallas, Texas, USA, but was soon adopted by real estate agent Howard Dunham when he was only three months old. Howard and his wife, Joyce, were devout Presbyterian and he was raised likewise.
Dunham’s interest in ventriloquism was aroused when he received a ‘Mortimer Snerd’ dummy as his Christmas present when he was just eight years old.
Posted by Jeff Dunham on Thursday, December 31, 2020
He then proceeded to the library in search of a “how-to” book on ventriloquism, which he never returned; Dunham would later joke about this in 2011, saying he was ‘a thief in the third grade’. By the time he was in sixth grade, he had already started attending a yearly international meeting of ventriloquists, the Vent Haven Convention in Kentucky, where he got a chance to personally meet Jimmy Nelson. He was soon prevented from entering any more competitions in the convention, because other participants were intimidated by him, and so he was declared a ‘retired champion’.
The solitude he experienced as an only child was compensated for by his long hours of practise, usually in front of a mirror. It also prepared him for his move to Los Angeles to begin his career.
Dunham had been performing for his church, school and his work place at Six Flags since he was a teenager. He then went on to events which local celebrities like Roger Staubach, the quarterback for Dallas Cowboys, attended. He made his television debut in 1976, after being interviewed by Dallas reporter, Bill O’reily, for a local news story. This small but yet impactful exposure further landed him commercial deals with Tyler and also Datsun while he was still in high school. Dunham matriculated in 1980, and then attended Baylor University the same year with the aim of obtaining a degree in communications.
His performances during his student year didn’t stop, instead, he was doing more than a 100 shows in a year, flying across the country and also entertaining various corporate audiences.
His act soon spread and by his junior year in college, Dunham was already making about $70,000 annually. He got his first big break when he was asked to replace a variety act in the Broadway show “Sugar Babies”.
After his graduation in 1986, he proceeded to entertain in comedy clubs, and also developed newer characters for his act: Peanut and Jose Jalapeno. Although he was gaining popularity amongst audiences, he was not regarded as a true comedian by his colleagues because of his use of costumes and props. After suffering a series of setbacks, Dunham returned to Los Angeles from Texas in 1988, to the dismay of his parents who worried that he didn’t have ‘a real job’. He later met and became friends with the owner of The Comedy & Magic Club, Mike Lacey, who gave him a placement at the club, where he worked alongside Jerry Seinfied and Bill Engvall.
He was able to upgrade his act to a more sophisticated but somewhat adult level content.
About two years later, Dunham got a coveted spot in “The Tonight Show”. He made his first appearance in the show with peanut, one of his props, on 6 April 1990. He continued performing at clubs, and also appeared in small television roles such as the 1996 episode of “Ellen” and a commercial for Hertz. He made a total of four appearances on “The Tonight Show”, which helped propel him as a headliner for a large theatre, an impressive accomplishment for a ventriloquist. He made his first solo appearance in Comedy Central on 18 July 2003; the half hour act though successful wasn’t continued because organisers didn’t think he was suitable for their audience. In 2005, he released his first comedy DVD, “Jeff Dunham: Arguing with Myself” and also appeared in the feature film “Delta Farce” in 2007.
The same year, Dunham released his widely successful second special, “Jeff Dunham: Spark of Insanity”, which was filmed in Washington D.C. when his most popular character, Achmed, the Dead terrorist was introduced. It garnered over 140 million views on YouTube and became the most viewed clip as at October 2009, marking the beginning of Dunham’s explosive career. He became sought after, and his career finally crossed borders into countries around the world. His third special was highly successful, and became Comedy Central’s highest rated.
Dunham signed a mutli-platform deal with Comedy Central and went on to release his fourth, fifth and sixth specials which were all widely successful. In addition to his comedy specials, he released a music album, “Don’t Come Home for Christmas” with a parody of Jingle bells by Achmed entitled “Jingle Bombs”.
He also appeared in several sitcoms and comedy series, such as “30 Rock, Disney”, “Channel” and “Hart to Hart”.
He began dating Paige Brown, his future first wife in 1992 and married her two years later. He adopted her daughter Bree and the couple later had two daughters, Ashlyn and Kenna, in 1995 and 1997 respectively. In November 2008, the couple filed for divorce amidst rumours that his prolonged absence from home while touring may have put a dent in the marriage – the divorce was finalised in 2011. He later met his future second wife, Audrey Murdick, a certified body builder and Nutritionist in 2009. She was assigned to him as a personal body builder, and the two later became fond of each other, fell in love and married in October 2012. Jeff Dunham’s family increased with the birth of twin sons, James Jeffrey and Jack Steven, on the 11 October 2015, born two hours apart.
A controversy arose when Audrey Dunham, formerly Audrey Murdick, sued Paige Dunham for registering some domains in her name. The lawsuit stated that “Defendant knew at the time she registered the Accused domains, that Plaintiff would soon change her name to Audrey Dunham”. She was represented by attorney Wilmore Holbrow and the requirements attached to the lawsuit included a restraint from cyber piracy and claimed damages of about $100,000 for each domain name.
Dunham was dubbed “America’s favourite comedian” according to Slate, and holds a Guinness World Record for selling the most tickets for a stand-up comedy tour, in 2014. His “Spark of Insanity” comedy tour sold almost two million tickets and performed worldwide from September 2007 to August 2010.
His timing and unique style were praised by the Dallas Morning News, and he was also voted as the Top comedian in Comedy Central’s “Stand-Up Showdown.” He was nominated as the “Comedian of the Year” by TNN Music City News Country Awards, and has won “ventriloquist of the Year” twice.
Though Dunham has received a lot of positive reviews for his work, but his adult rated content has also raised some eye brows, and led to accusations of being sexist, homophobic and racist. One of his television commercials involving Achmed the dead terrorist was banned in South Africa, due to complaints from the Muslim community. In Dunham’s defence, he stated that ‘Achmed makes it clear in my act that he is not Muslim’. He was also criticized on several occasions for mocking Lauren Correo, Comedy Central programming chief and other TV critics during his 2009 tour to promote his show “The Jeff Dunham Show”. The show initially received good reviews, but wasn’t a favourite among critics.
His book “Dear Walter” was released in 2003 under BRASMA Publications, and then his autobiography, “All by My Selves: Walter, Peanut, Achmed and Me” was published in 2010.
Dunham loves building and flying his kit helicopters. He is also enthusiastic about collections like muscle cars, Apple products and restoring ventriloquist dummies.
Thanks to social media platforms like YouTube, Dunham has enjoyed a successful career as a ventriloquist. With a net worth of $140 million, he is considered to be one of the highest-paid comedians in the world. His videos which include his more popular characters like Peanut, Achmed, the Dead Terrorist and Walter the curmudgeon were viewed over 500 million times, with Achmed drawing in 150 million views.
NERD ALERT FOR THROWING YOUR VOICE! Throw your voice into a dummy or across the street! THIS is how it’s done! pic.twitter.com/af4bOawOjt
— Jeff Dunham (@jeffdunham) February 25, 2021
Pollstar referred to him as the top-grossing stand-up act in North America, having sold over four million DVDs and made about $7 million. In 2009, he was ranked as the third highest-paid comedian in the US by Forbes, with Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock ahead of him. He also raked in about $30 million from the period of June 2008 to June 2009, making him one of the top grossing comics during that period. It’s also been rumoured that Dunham earns between $15 to 30 million annually from his over 200 shows.
You can join his over 800,000 followers on Instagram and two million on Twitter by visiting his handle @jeffdunham.