For a comedian, the ability to deal with hecklers is a vital skill. Effective engagement with the more belligerent members of your crowd can make the difference between walking off-stage with your head held high or cowering off in shame – depending on the circumstances, it’s been known to make or break careers. In this respect, stand-up comic Jeff Dunham finds himself in a somewhat unique position. He’s a ventriloquist, a rare enough profession in this day and age. However, when audience members get a head full of steam, it’s often the puppet, not Dunham himself, who takes the heat. “I do come across that situation every once in a while,” he says with a laugh. “I know how to handle myself when it does, and I won’t say I look forward to it, although I definitely don’t fear it.”
One recent and particularly mortifying example of this took place at one of Dunham’s corporate gigs. “I was performing for a big company in a room full of hundreds of people,” he says. “I was making fun of the boss, but I wasn’t paying much attention to his wife, and she’s the one I really should have been watching out for.” The more pointed Dunham’s jokes became, the angrier the seething spouse became. “The point came where she’d had enough so she launched herself onto the stage, put her finger right in the dummy’s face, and started shouting at him that he shouldn’t be so rude to her husband,” he says. “She was really shouting, and she was dead serious. People laughed and it was really awkward, and eventually she stumbled back off the stage and the poor boss was just sitting there with his head in his hands, and the show went on. These are the kinds of situations I find myself in from time to time.”
Fortunately, physical confrontations like this are a rarity for Dunham at this point in his career – from the small comedy clubs where he started out, he now plays to sold-out arenas around the world. The venues may have become significantly bigger, but Dunham says that his act remains fundamentally the same. “The entertainment value is the most important thing to me,” he says. “When I first started doing arena tours, my number one concern was how I would connect with the audience, and even more simply than that, how everyone would be able to see. We have video screens for that, so people can get a good view of what’s going on, although ultimately the comedy comes from the spoken-word. It’s all about the conflict and tension on stage, the acting and reacting. Whether you’re 100 feet away or 25 feet away it works, and you get a great show.”
In the past, Dunham has ruffled feathers with the wilfully offensive tone of his comedy, however he insists that he is an equal-opportunity offender, and that those who are paying attention will realise that his number one target is always himself. His appearance in an episode of the cult-comedy show 30 Rock seemingly acknowledged this. “They were doing an episode that had a bad ventriloquist in it and somehow thought of me!” he says, chuckling. “They just wanted someone to play this very goofy part, and the thing I loved about it is that I was making fun of them, but also myself. I’m a man who gets up on stage with a doll and makes it talk – that’s not a serious profession, and I don’t take myself at all seriously. People get upset at me for picking on certain things, certain groups, but I always ask them to take a step back and watch my entire show. I make fun of myself more than anybody else.”
Every comedian has a line that they refuse to cross, and when it comes to his material, Dunham certainly has his. “There are certain subjects that you can joke about and certain subjects you know you shouldn’t,” he says. “For example, disasters where a lot of people were hurt or killed, or any kind of abuse. Those things for me aren’t funny. Child abuse, spousal abuse – there are too many victims of that kind of thing, and those are areas I would just never go to.” At the same time, he says, there are universal subjects that everybody laughs at. “Marriage, children, health, being fat – these are things that a lot of people confront on a daily basis, and you know you can joke about. If you make jokes about a bad marriage or a divorce, there are probably a few people who will be stung by them, but the majority will laugh, and when it comes to something like that, I’m okay with it.”
Dunham will return to Australia next month with his Controlled Chaos tour, and I ask him what exactly fans can expect from this. “Well, for anybody who’s seen my show before, it’s not going to be the same,” he says. “We’ve just finished shooting a new special which is due to come out in October, and a lot of that new material will actually be in the show that I bring down to Australia with me. It’s stuff that people have never seen before, and it’s going to look and feel completely different. More than anything, though, it’s going to be a lot of fun, and the audience will definitely get what they pay for and more.”
BY ALASDAIR DUNCAN
Jeff Dunham brings his Controlled Chaos tour to the Rod Laver Arena on Tuesday August 21.