Jeff Dunham was born in Dallas, Texas on April 18, 1962. When he was three months old he was adopted by by real estate appraiser Howard Dunham, and his homemaker wife Joyce, who raised him in a devoutly Presbyterian household in an affluent Dallas neighborhood as an only child. He began ventriloquism in 1970 at age eight, when his parents gave him a Mortimer Snerd dummy for Christmas, and an accompanying how-to album. The next day he checked out a how-to book on ventriloquism from the library, and explained in 2011 that he still had it, remarking that he was "a thief in the third grade". By the fourth grade, Dunham decided he not only wanted to be a professional ventriloquist, but the best one ever. Dunham began practicing for hours in front of a mirror, studying the routines of Edgar Bergen, and the how-to record Jimmy Nelson's Instant Ventriloquism, finding ventriloquism to be a learned skill, similar to juggling, that anyone with a normal speaking voice can acquire. Dunham explains that as an only child, he enjoyed being alone, likening his solitude to a "warm blanket" with which he could explore his own thoughts and ideas, which prepared him for the solitude of living alone when he later moved to Los Angeles as a struggling comedian.
When Jeff Dunham was in the sixth grade, he began attending the Vent Haven ConVENTion in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, an annual international meeting of ventriloquists that includes competitions, where he met Jimmy Nelson in person. Dunham has missed only one ConVENTion since then, in 1977. The organizers of the ConVENTion eventually declared Dunham a "retired champion", ineligible from entering any more competitions, as other attendees were too intimidated to compete against him. The Vent Haven Museum devotes a section to Jeff Dunham, alongside Señor Wences and his idol, Edgar Bergen.
Jeff Dunham began performing for audiences as a teenager, in various venues such as school, church, and during his job at Six Flags. By his middle school years, he began to perform for banquets attended by local celebrities such as Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, having developed his style of lampooning those he performed for, using the puppets to say things too risque for him to say without them. Dunham's television debut came in 1976 when the still prepubescent performer caught the attention of Dallas reporters like Bill O'Reilly, who interviewed Dunham for a local news story. Dunham later did commercials for Datsun dealerships in Dallas and Tyler while in high school. While emceeing a high school talent show, he dealt with a heckler, and won over the rest of the audience. During this period he became so associated with his craft that he and one of his dummies "cowrote" a column in the school paper, and he would pose with his dummies for yearbooks as an inexpensive way to acquire professional photos of his act for promotional purposes. He was voted Most Likely to Succeed, and in 1980, after he graduated from high school, Dunham gave himself a career goal of obtaining, within ten years, an appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, which was seen as the "holy grail" for comedians.
That year Jeff Dunham began attending Baylor University, hoping to graduate with a degree in communications, while performing around campus. He would also fly around the country on weekends, doing up to 100 private shows a year, entertaining corporate customers such as General Electric, whose CEO, Jack Welch, he mocked during his routine. By his junior year in college (1983-1984), Dunham was making $70,000 a year, and as word spread of his act, he landed featured spots opening for Bob Hope and George Burns, though he still perceived his act as raw, as he did not have any knowledge of standup comedy beyond his Bill Cosby albums. He caught a break in 1985 when he was asked to join the Broadway show Sugar Babies with Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller, replacing the outgoing variety act. For the naive and devoutly-raised Jeff Dunham, Broadway was a new world filled with beautiful showgirls and crusty stagehands, and his first taste of entertainment industry egos came when Rooney called Dunham into his dressing room, and told him he was there for one reason alone: so that Rooney could change his costumes. Dunham also performed at the Westbury Music Fair on Long Island. These early experiences, in which he used characters like José Jalapeño on a Stick, taught him the value of modifying his act regionally, as the jalapeño jokes that worked well in Texas were not as well received by audiences in Long Island.
After graduating from Baylor University in 1986, he continued honing his act in comedy clubs in the Southwest with new characters such as Peanut and Jose Jalapeño, but struggled against the perception he relates from fellow comedians that he was not a true a comedian because he relied on props. His experience at Catch a Rising Star in New York City served as a bitter confirmation of where ventriloquists stood in the comedic food chain, as the emcee at that club gave Jeff Dunham little respect. According to Jeff Dunham, after he arrived at the club in the evening and informed the emcee that he was a ventriloquist, the emcee reacted with derision, telling Dunham that he would be given a late time slot, and after that time slot came and passed, kept postponing Dunham's stage time until Dunham left the club. By the end of 1988, Dunham felt his career went as far as it could go in Texas, and he moved to Los Angeles, California, never having, as he has commented, "a real job", much to the concern of his parents, who assumed he would relegate his act to local venues such as church groups. When he first arrived in Los Angeles, the comedy in his act bombed. Dunham attributes to his underdeveloped comedy, explaining that while the characters' personalities were developed at that point, his jokes were not. In addition to this, the comedy world was not welcoming to ventriloquists, and his manager, Judi Brown-Marmel, did not use the word "ventriloquist" when finding bookings for him, choosing to present him as a comedy duo. After Dunham became friends with Mike Lacey, the owner of The Comedy & Magic Club in Hermosa Beach, Lacey gave Dunham a steady slot at the club, where Dunham sharpened his act by observing the techniques of comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, and taking the advice of colleague Bill Engvall, moving away from his G-Rated material toward edgier, more adult themes.
At the end of 1988, Jeff Dunham was told by James McCawley, a talent booker for The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, that Dunham would be given a spot on the coveted program. Though the 26-year-old Jeff Dunham was elated that his 10-year goal was arriving two years early, McCawley later cancelled Dunham's appearance after attending, with Roseanne Barr, a public performance of Dunham's the day before Dunham's scheduled Tonight Show taping. McCawley informed Dunham on the day of the scheduled taping that he had been wrong in his initial assessment of Dunham, whom he now said was not ready for The Tonight Show. His dreams dashed, the humiliated Dunham continued to tighten his act in Los Angeles clubs, performing same six minute segment with Peanut a total of nine times for McCawley over the next few months. Finally at the Ice-House in Pasadena in April 1990, after Dunham did the same segment, McCawley informed Dunham that he would finally get his Tonight Show appearance. Dunham and Peanut appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson on April 6, 1990, alongside guests Bob Hope and B.B. King. Following his bit, he was invited to sit on Johnny Carson’s couch, a mark of approval that only three comedians had ever garnered during their first Carson appearance. Upon sitting down next to Carson's desk, Jeff Dunham pulled out Walter, who told Carson sidekick Ed McMahon, "Stop sending me all your damn mail." At the time, Dunham saw his Tonight Show appearance as his big break, but was frustrated at his parents' initial disapproval over Walter's use of the words "hell" and "damn", and he would toil in obscurity for another twelve years, continuing his stand up at venues such as The Improv chain, and appearing in small roles on TV. One of these was such as a 1996 episode of Ellen, in which he appeared with Walter. Dunham also appeared with Walter in a TV commercial for Hertz. Jeff Dunham would appear on The Tonight Show a total of four times, as well as similar TV venues such as Hot Country Nights, appearing in one segment on that show with singer Reba McEntire. This exposure helped make Jeff Dunham a large theater headliner, a rare accomplishment for a ventriloquist, but by the mid 1990s, his television appearances had dwindled, and with them, so did his stage audiences.
Jeff Dunham moved back to clubs, more than 200 appearances a year. To maintain a connection with his fan base, he would use question cards that he had audiences fill out for his performances to build a database, which was tailor-made for the the burgeoning World Wide Web. Though he was voted Funniest Male Standup at the American Comedy Awards in 1998, his club work kept him away from his wife and daughters between two and three weeks each month, which put a strain on his marriage, and made paying bills for his expanded family difficult. By 2002, Dunham was hoping to obtain more TV work to raise his profile and ease his standup schedule. Such exposure was elusive until a successful appearance on The Best Damn Sports Show Period, where Dunham and Walter made jokes at the expense of co-hosts Tom Arnold, Michael Irvin, John Salley and John Kruk, generating laughter from them, and giving Dunham much-needed exposure. In 2003, Dunham was the frontrunner to replace Jimmy Kimmel on Fox NFL Sunday, but hosts Howie Long and Terry Bradshaw were not amenable to the idea of being upstaged by a puppet, and, as Dunham tells it, did not provide a welcoming atmosphere to Jeff Dunham, nor allow him to get a word in edgewise during his appearance.
Finding stardom: Dunham's first Comedy Central specials
On July 18, 2003, Jeff Dunham appeared on Comedy Central Presents, his first solo appearance on Comedy Central. During his half hour piece, he showcased José Jalapeño on a Stick, Walter, an early version of Melvin the Superhero Guy and Peanut, whom Dunham had begun to merchandise into a line of dolls. The appearance was successful, but Comedy Central resisted giving Dunham more airtime, feeling that he was not a good fit for them. By 2005 Dunham decided to gamble on financing his own comedy DVD, Jeff Dunham: Arguing with Myself, which was taped in Santa Ana, California. Dunham’s manager, Judi Brown-Marmel, lobbied the network to air it, pointing to Dunham's drawing power and merchandising profits, and arguing that the network needed more diverse content. Surprised by the high ratings of the first Blue Collar Comics concert movie that same year, the network began to reconsider its brand. In late 2006, Comedy Central aired Arguing with Myself, drawing two million viewers when it aired, and selling two million DVDs.
His second special, Jeff Dunham: Spark of Insanity, was taped at the Warner Theater in Washington, D.C. that same year. It served not only to cement Dunham's stardom, but to introduce his most controversial character, Achmed the Dead Terrorist, which became a viral Internet sensation. A clip of Achmed from Insanity attracted over 140 million hits on YouTube, making it the ninth most watched clip on that website as of October 2009. By 2008, Dunham's characters had crossed language barriers, with his specials dubbed for audiences in various countries such as France, and Dunham attracting requests for performances in South Africa, Australia, Norway, Denmark, China and the Middle East. Jeff Dunham's Very Special Christmas Special was taped at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, Wisconsin that same year, and premiered on Comedy Central on November 16, 2008, watched by 6.6 million people. It became available on DVD and Blu-ray on November 18, 2008. The special's premiere was the highest rated telecast in Comedy Central's history.
In September 2008, Jeff Dunham's career reached new heights as he began performing in arenas filled with tens of thousands of people. Jeff Dunham was somewhat wary of such large venues, but adapted by adjusting the timing of his often rapid exchanges with the puppets so that audience members farthest from the stage could have time to react.
In addition to his comedy specials, Jeff Dunham also released his first music album, Don't Come Home for Christmas, on November 4, 2008. It contains original Christmas songs as well as a parody of "Jingle Bells" by Achmed entitled "Jingle Bombs". All the songs, with the exception of "Jingle Bombs", were written and accompanied by Brian Haner, who joined Dunham's act as "Guitar Guy". His first onscreen appearance was in Jeff Dunham's Very Special Christmas Special.
2009 – present
In March 2009, Jeff Dunham signed a multi-platform deal with Comedy Central. It included a fourth stand-up special to air in 2010, DVDs, a consumer products partnership, a 60-city tour beginning in September 2010, and an order for a television series called The Jeff Dunham Show that premiered on October 22, 2009. Despite having the most-watched premiere in Comedy Central history, and higher average ratings than other shows on that network, the show was canceled after only one season, amid poor reviews and higher production costs than other Comedy Central shows.
Jeff Dunham appeared in the 2010 Steve Carell/Paul Rudd comedy, Dinner for Schmucks, as Lewis, with a new puppet named Diane.
His fourth special, Jeff Dunham: Controlled Chaos, premiered on September 25, 2011 on Comedy Central.