Appropriately enough for a guy who talks to himself for a living, Jeff Dunham is a little complicated. On the one hand, the Dallas-born ventriloquist is the most popular comedian in America. His DVDs have sold six million copies. His YouTube clips have been viewed half a billion times. Forbes recently declared him the highest-paid comic in the country, with an estimated annual income of $22.5 million. On the other hand, for every fan who loves Dunham, there’s someone else who really does not. Critics have branded him a racist, a sexist, and a homophobe. His most popular character, a bug-eyed skeleton named Achmed the Dead Terrorist, has been denounced as an example of “outstanding Islamophobia.”
One person whose take on Jeff Dunham has rarely been heard is Jeff Dunham. In interviews, he has long been reluctant to scrutinize his own work. So one approaches his memoir, All By My Selves: Walter, Peanut, Achmed, and Me (Dutton, $25.95), with curiosity, if mild skepticism. The book obligingly traces Dunham’s rise with earnest anecdotes about his childhood, career, and family. But given the opportunity to grapple with his critics, Dunham does so only glancingly. By turns reflective and self-serving, he comes off as a basically decent guy with a deeply cynical act.
Texas comedians tend to fall into one of two groups: button-pushing provocateurs (Bill Hicks, Jamie Foxx) and plain-talking good ol’ boys (Blue Collar Comedy Tour vets Bill Engvall and Ron White). Dunham is a bit of both. Everything about him is slightly old-fashioned, from his retro-vaudeville routine to his Boy Scout charm. A Baylor alum, he grew up in Richardson, the son of a real estate appraiser and a housewife, with all the trappings of a seventies Texas boyhood: rooting for Staubach and the Cowboys, working a summer job at Six Flags, going to Luby’s every Sunday after church. In keeping with his straight-laced upbringing, Dunham plays it safe in the part of his act where he performs without dummies, telling jokes about airport security and his dog. The dummies, meanwhile, seem similarly nonthreatening. There’s Peanut, a fuzzy purple ape thing; Walter, a wizened old grump; and José Jalapeño on a Stick, a, um, jalapeño on a stick. They’re a cute, harmless-looking bunch—until they open their mouths.
Humor, it’s often said, is based on incongruity—the gap between what’s expected and what really occurs (think of the semantic left turn of “Take my wife … please”). In Dunham’s comedy, this disconnect comes from cartoonish puppets saying obnoxious things: Black people are drug fiends, Mexicans are lazy, Jews are cheap, gays speak with a lisp. In All By My Selves, Dunham claims to make comedy for “Middle America, all the normal folks out there.” Just don’t think too much about his definition of “normal.”
A charitable observer might chalk these stereotypes up to simple ignorance. In one of the book’s more embarrassing passages, Dunham recounts the creation of a particularly fraught dummy, a jive-talking black pimp named Sweet Daddy Dee. First, he writes, he “got on the Internet and found some black guys whose faces I really liked”—a sentence that encapsulates a particularly twenty-first-century form of cluelessness (couldn’t he at least have gone to the mall?). Later, when it comes time to flesh out Sweet Daddy as a character, Dunham starts by enlisting the help of some actual black people but ultimately decides he’s better off watching Snoop Dogg DVDs and browsing “urban” dictionaries online. Racist? Not exactly. Oblivious? Fo’ shizzle.
Other times, Dunham seems to know better. Onstage he plays the role of straight man, delivering not-quite-convincing rebukes to his dummies’ outbursts. Take this typical exchange, between Dunham and Walter:
Walter: I dated a girl in India. Lovely young lady. Weird-ass country.
Dunham: What was wrong with India?
Walter: Most of the women got a red dot in the middle of their forehead. What the hell is that? “ YOU. ARE. HERE.”
Dunham: [nervous look]
Walter: Maybe it lights up when the coffee’s ready.
Dunham: [to audience, embarrassed] I’m sorry.
Walter: Scratch it off, you frickin’ win something.
Dunham: Will you stop it!
Clearly Dunham knows these jokes have the potential to hurt. And yet in his book he refuses to acknowledge it. He writes that “literally only two or three times in twenty years did someone get upset and think I was being racist”—a suspiciously small number, considering the space he devotes to justifying himself. In the section about Sweet Daddy, he writes, “As far as the people with whom I spoke after the shows, I didn’t seem to be offending anyone”—apparently not considering the possibility that someone who finds Dunham offensive probably wouldn’t pay $70 to see him in the first place.
Dunham’s detractors sometimes portray him as a red-state rube, Larry the Cable