Jeff Dunham combined puppets with Johnny Carson's approach to comedy and it paid off big

In 1970, Jeff Dunham was given a Mortimer Snerd dummy, a gift from his parents. Twenty years later, at age 28, he made his first appearance, along with Peanut, on “The Tonight Show.” Dunham could’ve never envisioned he’d be one of the most famous ventriloquists on the planet, and that his one dummy would turn into many, that he’d have arena tours, 12 comedy specials and be wearing a rat suit on “The Masked Singer,” but here he is.

Fresh off releasing his 12th special on Comedy Central called “I’m With Cupid,” Dunham is bringing his exceptional game of puppetry to the Toyota Arena in Ontario on Thursday, Feb. 22. Along with his “little people in the boxes,” Dunham’s “Still Not Canceled” tour has it all, if “all” means Dunham hilariously squabbling with the big personalities of Peanut, Bubba J, Walter, José Jalapeño, and Achmed the Dead Terrorist. And if the show in Ontario is anything like “I’m With Cupid,” you might hear a conversation about, missing extremities.

First off, congrats on being part of the Improv’s 60th anniversary show. It was so fun to watch your “throwback set.” What made you want to pull out the classics?

Jeff Dunham: I thought, OK, this is the anniversary of the Improv so why not, instead of blowing new material on a television show, why don’t we just be nostalgic and do some of the stuff we used to do at the Improvs? I did it and I’m telling you, I remembered those jokes killing! It made me realize how far my relationships with my characters have come, and how far our dialogue has come. It’s not just setup, punchline. There’s actual conflict and tension onstage, rather than just a guy with a dummy telling jokes. I’m not complimenting myself, I’m just saying after 30 years, you had better be a little better than you were! The suspension of disbelief is my favorite part of what I do. When people walk away and say, wow, I really felt like it was just two people talking, that’s a huge compliment.

You took ventriloquism to the highest level humanly possible and made it cool. Not that it was uncool … you get it.

Oh, I get it. This is how I know for sure that we’re living in a simulation. There’s some dad out there and his kid is going, “Hey, Dad, watch this!” And the dad goes, “A really famous ventriloquist? No, that would never happen!” Not sure if you know this or not, but even in the vaudeville days, the ventriloquist was the act that they shoved onstage when the curtain came down to keep the audience entertained while they reset the stage for the real act.

You used to be one of the fe,w comics selling out arenas, and now there is this amazing comedy boom. Do you feel like you should get a finder’s fee?

It’s pretty great what’s going on! The one thing that’s sad about being a headliner is that you hardly get to interact with other big headliners to share stories and talk about how long it took, and what it took to get to the top. What’s also interesting to me is what comes along with social media and being able to put yourself out there instantly. If I had a choice to try to come up now or when I did, I’d choose then. It just seems crazily difficult now, with all of the social rules, and what you can and can’t make fun of. If you’re an established name you have a bit of a license, but even then, you really have to navigate those waters and know your audience. And then, even if you know your audience and are in front of them, you say what you want because you’re emboldened, and then it’s taken out of context and clipped and now your career is over. I really feel like the world is full of good people and it takes a handful of idiots and a— to mess it up for everyone else.

Such a gift and a nightmare. Your new special, “I’m With Cupid,” is so great — I laughed hard and then also got the chills at the end. It’s quite a journey. And I gotta say, Tampa Bay are absolutely your people.

Thank you! When I started doing bigger arenas around ‘07 and ’08, one of the first places I played was Straz Center. For some reason, and I don’t know why, the Florida crowds are really enthusiastic. You’d think I’d sell more in the red states, but it’s the opposite. Tickets sell fastest in the Northwest and the Northeast. So, I chose that town very specifically because they’ve always been a great audience and you know, you set yourself up for success, and that was definitely the place. I will say though, I subscribe to the Johnny Carson way of making fun of politics that doesn’t alienate either side, no matter who you’re making fun of. I think that art has been lost because of the amount of hate there is, for whichever side you’re on. It’s a little bit sad to me because it’s a difficult dance to try to figure out how to joke about those things. Now I’m making fun of Biden, but I made fun of Trump when he was in office. It’s a real compliment when people from both sides say it’s funny and that these are things we are all joking about.

I think both sides can come together over their love of Pi-Rat on Masked Singer. I could feel the fun coming out of your rat suit.

At what part did I have fun? Let me think about it. No, it was a great time! It was just like doing one of my shows in the sense of, after all of these years, that nervous 15 minutes, or 30 minutes or an hour before the show feeling I get. It is a huge responsibility because people have paid good money for tickets and have traveled and paid babysitters, people are counting on you to do a really great show. Those moments I hate, but the minute I get onstage and get the first laugh, I never want to get offstage. It was like that with the Masked Singer. And I didn’t get to keep the costume, but they did give me a picture!

Walter gets to play dress-up too in “I’m with Cupid.” What made you pick Valentine’s Day to wrap your newest special around?

Well, I did a “Very Special Christmas Special,” and then “Minding the Monsters” for Halloween, but this is kind of more universal because love is the theme. Everyone can relate to it. Love, hate, relationships, and everything that goes with it. It also goes back to this thing we did on “The Tonight Show” when we were doing guest spots and Walter would dress up like some character and we would do a bit on the show. One time he was Cupid, and it went over really well. I even used a couple of the jokes from that guest spot, just as a homage to that time. Plus, I did have that naked body for Walter!

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