All By My Selves: Walter, Peanut, Achmed, and Me

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"The most popular standup comic in the U.S." --Time

Whether he's breathing life into Walter, an old curmudgeon; Peanut, an over-caffeinated purple maniac; or Achmed, a screaming, skeletal, dead terrorist, comedian and ventriloquist Jeff Dunham is the straight man to some of the wildest, funniest partners in show business.

All By My Selves is the story of one pretty ordinary guy, one interesting hobby, one very understanding set of parents, and a long and winding road to becoming America's favorite comedian. With wit, honesty, and lots of great show business detail, Dunham shares all the major moments in his journey to worldwide fame and success.

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About the Author:

Jeff Dunham is one of America’s best known and successful comedians. His mix of stand-up and ventriloquism has won him a legion of fans across the country, fans who have bought over 6 million copies combined of his DVDs, made 3 of his clips the top rated on YouTube of all time, and made him the top grossing comedy act in the world. He lives in Los Angeles, California.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CHAPTER ONE

The Gift That Kept On Talking

Stand-up comedians aren’t normal. As a rule, most of us had bad things happen to us as kids, or grew up in less-than-perfect circumstances. Adversity builds character, or so the adage goes. It also creates problems and eventually might send you to therapy. Many of the best comics are the most screwed-up folks on the planet. Some end up with guns in their mouths, or at the least, don’t function like “normal” folks. You’ve probably heard the stories. But life’s trials fuel a comic’s twisted mind, allowing him to look at the world a little differently and make observations that average folks don’t piece together. Sometimes when I hear a great comedian I think, “Wow, he’s funny. Wonder what screwed him up.” This of course isn’t every comic, but a lot of them, admittedly, could have had happier childhoods.

I don’t envy the guys who grew up with a great deal of strife, but many of them have been able to mine their early years for comedy gold. Fortunately or unfortunately, that’s not me. I’ve had to work really hard at being funny because pretty much everything for me as a kid was positive, uneventful, and almost boring. Sure, Lady Godiva and William the Conqueror are somewhere in the Dunham lineage, but I was adopted. That means wacky ancestors don’t count, right?

My parents, Howard and Joyce Dunham, adopted me a few months after my birth in April of 1962. I had a happy, drama- free youth, growing up in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Dallas, Texas. The only thing that was slightly unusual compared to most of my friends was that I was an only child. . . . I don’t think that’s why my parents gave me a dummy, at least they’ve never copped to it.

Walter: If your parents only knew then what they know now. . . .
Jeff: What’s that supposed to mean?
Walter: Wonder if it’s still too late to return you and get a refund.

My father was the sole proprietor of the oldest real estate appraisal firm in Dallas until he retired a few years ago. My mother is a housewife. They are solid church-going Christian folk, and my mother still gets upset when one of my characters uses bad language. I keep trying to tell her, “MOM, it’s not ME!”

Not long ago when I told my parents that I would be writing this book, my mother turned to my father, and as if I wasn’t even sitting there, said, “I’m very worried about what he might say about us.” To which my father replied, “I’m very worried he won’t say anything about us.”

Peanut: Your dad’s like a comedian!

Achmed:

Did he beat you as a child?

Jeff:

NO!

Walter:

That’s too bad.

My mother and my father have always supported me. Now in their eighties, they actually clamor onto the tour bus with me once or twice a year so they can watch the performances and hear the crowds. Traveling with eighty-something-year-olds on a tour bus . . . There has to be some sort of reality show in that.

But even if my parents are cool with life on the road, no one will ever describe them as “hip.” However, if it hadn’t been for them, I may never have become a comedian. As I mentioned earlier, the seeds were sown very early in elementary school.

**

At eight, I was a fairly typical kid. I did well in school and had a few friends in our neighborhood. I rode my bike everywhere and would take off on all kinds of adventures, usually alone, to explore as far as I could pedal before dark. Rain or shine, freezing rain or searing heat, I would ride my bike to school every day. And sickness? I got the perfect attendance award every year from first through sixth grade. I wasn’t an athlete but my parents insisted I play on every baseball, soccer, and basketball team possible. Of course, the only sport I really liked was football, but they wouldn’t let me play that because the mother of the only child thought I’d get killed. The same group of elementary school boys from my grade was on every team and I was always the third worst player. If teams were being chosen at recess, I was one of the last three guys picked.

I was just beginning to see girls in a new light, and Cub Scouts was starting to lose its minimal appeal. I wasn’t exactly looking for something new to do, but I certainly hadn’t found anything I was particularly good at yet.

Just before Christmas in 1970, my mother and I were walking around in a store called Toy Fair, at the Northwood Hills shopping center. For my birthday that year I had picked out a purple Murray bicycle, a banana-seat two-wheeler from the same store. (I didn’t have an older brother or a knowledgeable enough dad to tell me I should have pushed for the much cooler Schwinn Sting-Ray.) As we walked around the store, I begged my mom for stuff here and there. I kept saying, “It’s not too close to Christmas! PLLEEEEEASE?” Of course, I now realize she had taken me there to get ideas for Santa and had no intention of buying anything that day.

After we rounded a corner, just above my head, I saw a small, vinyl, orange-haired, bucktoothed ventriloquist dummy. His name was Mortimer Snerd. I’d seen ventriloquists perform on television but had never seen a dummy in real life. He was a simple little guy, about two and a half feet tall with a cloth body, a fake straw hat, a little checkered suit, and a bow tie. Sticking out of the back of his neck was a string you could pull to make his mouth open and close. I took Mortimer down and showed him to my mother. She seemed totally unimpressed. So, back he went to his shelf as I went to hunt for other treasures. By the time we got home, I’d forgotten all about him.

Peanut: Poor Mortimer.
Jeff: Why?
Peanut: Imagine how depressing it must be to be rejected by a nerd.

Like most kids, I woke up early on Christmas morning, long before my parents, and snuck quietly into our family room where the tree and presents were piled, and get a peek at everything. Well, I’d feel more than peek—at five a.m. it was still too dark to see much of anything, and I was too scared to turn on a light for fear of getting caught.

This particular Christmas, one of the gifts was not easily identifiable. It was sitting on the couch, and it had a cloth body and a molded face of some kind. I was stumped. A couple hours later when I was allowed to run in for the “first” time with lights ablaze and the eight-millimeter movie camera rolling, I had my answer—it was Mortimer!

Life is a series of “what if”s. What if I hadn’t made that turn in the toy store and seen the ventriloquist dummy? What if my mom had thought it was a feather-brained idea and that boys shouldn’t play with dolls? What would I be doing today?

Well, it’s now forty years later, and I’m still at it.

Walter: And if you keep practicing, maybe one day it will work out for you. . . . But I doubt it.

Trust me when I say that it doesn’t take much for an eight-year-old to learn to talk without moving his lips, throw his voice, and manipulate a dummy all at the same time. It’s just a step-by-step process and one that I pursued relentlessly.

Not long after Christmas, my father took me to the Dallas Public Library’s bookmobile, where we checked out a couple of books on ventriloquism. I confess that I still have one of those books, and writing a check for that fine now just might require a five-digit number. And it did. More on that to come.

Achmed: You know what happens if you’re late returning a book in my country?
Jeff: No.
Achmed: Me neither. We don’t have libraries.
Bubba J.: I have a question.
Jeff: What is it, Bubba J.?
Bubba J.: How fast can a bookmobile get up to?

Not too much later, my mother and I went back to Toy Fair and purchased a record album, called Jimmy Nelson’s Instant Ventriloquism. If you don’t recognize the name Jimmy Nelson, your parents might. Jimmy, who is now in his early eighties and has become a good friend, was a regular on Milton Berle’s hugely popular television show, Texaco Star Theater, in the 1950s. He and his wooden partners Danny O’Day and Farfel did live commercials during the broadcast, both for Texaco and for Nestlé’s Quik. Danny was a mouthy boy dummy, and Farfel was a talking, long-eared dog. Danny would sing: “N-E-S-T-L-E-S, Nestlé’s makes the very best. . . .” And Farfel would then finish the songLM—“CNOPhawwww-klit!” and slam his jaw shut with a resounding clomp. During his heyday, Jimmy released two instructional record albums with Juro Novelty Company that taught ventriloquist lessons, and produced toy versions of Danny and Farfel.

The idea of making a dummy talk fascinated me, and I spent long hours in our “art room” listening to Jimmy’s instructional LPs over and over and practicing the basics that any beginner must learn to perform ventriloquism. I can’t exactly put my finger on why it appealed to me so much, only that it was unique and I figured it was a way to get myself out of my shell. I wasn’t popular and I wasn’t an athlete. Girls didn’t pay attention to me, and with the other boys, I just kind of blended into the background. For an eight-year-old at that time, there was no such thing as ...

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