Jeff Dunham has been pursuing a career in ventriloquism since his first performance at age 8. In his new memoir, “All by My Selves: Walter, Peanut, Achmed, and Me,” Dunham explains how he went from being an ordinary kid with an interesting hobby to a widely known comedian. His book is punctuated with running commentary from his beloved dummies. Here is an excerpt.
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, dramafree 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?
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.
The making of a ventriloquistAt 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.
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?
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 song — “CHOhawwww-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 stand-up comedy. ... But somehow I figured that if I developed this skill of ventriloquism, I could make people laugh; I could finally stand out.
The secret of sound substitutionIf you want to learn ventriloquism, or “vent,” you can find a few courses online, or on DVD. You can even find CD copies of Jimmy’s albums here and there. But the mechanics of learning to “throw your voice” are pretty simple. Anyone with a tongue, an upper palate, teeth, and a normal speaking voice can learn ventriloquism. This isn’t an instructional book, but I can give you the basics. The first thing to know is that a ventriloquist simply learns a different way of pronouncing words. Most sounds in the English language are produced without the use of lips, and are made inside the mouth and throat. Only a few sounds and letters utilize the lips. The only way a ventriloquist speaks differently is that he forgoes using his or her lips, and learns to reproduce sounds using the tongue, upper palate, and teeth only. Those “difficult” letters are B, F, M, P, V, W, and Y. Every other letter in the alphabet can be pronounced without moving your lips: A,C,D,E,G,H,I,J,K,L,N,O,Q,R,S,T,U,X, and Z. Go ahead! Try it! Put your teeth lightly together, part your lips slightly, hold them still, and pronounce that long list of easy letters. If you watch in a mirror, you’ll probably be impressed with yourself.
But now, try and pronounce the “difficult” letters without moving your lips. It can’t be done ... unless you use the ventriloquist’s method: Sound substitution.
Here is where I tip my hat to Jimmy Nelson and his record album “Instant Ventriloquism.” Recently Jimmy graciously granted me permission to share his method. This is the simplest way to learn vent: For the difficult letters, you say one letter, but THINK another. So for B, use the letter, D. The word boy becomes, doy. You can say, doy without moving your lips, but it doesn’t sound anything like boy. The trick is thinking the actual word and rehearsing. After you practice it over and over and over, the substitution sound starts to sound like the real sound, and eventually you will figure out for yourself how to make the sound as close to the real one as possible.
Here are a few more examples:
F becomes, Eth
M becomes N
P is T
V is The
W is Duddle-oo
Y is Oh-eye
It all sounds ridiculous at first, but with many hours of practice, it can become very convincing. “Ny oh ny, tretty thunny stuth, don’t oo think? Holy noly! Ethen ny nother can tronounce oords like ne!”
Walter: That explains it.
Jeff: Explains what?
Walter: Why I sound like an idiot most of the time.
After you master sound substitution, you have to learn to speak in a different voice from your own, manipulate the dummy, act, react, use proper microphone technique, et cetera. Oh, then there’s that part about actually being funny. ...
Walter: Did you tell them you’re still working on that part?
Jeff: I’m always working on that part.
Back to the story at hand. Remember, I’m eight years old. I spent a lot of time listening to the record player in the art room, and sitting in my bathroom in front of the mirror for hours, practicing and practicing to make Mortimer come to life. I had the goal of impressing my classmates and making them laugh. After about a month of doing little else in my free time, I knew I was ready for my debut.
Peanut: And your parents knew it was time for a therapist.
Jeff: Very funny.
Peanut: I think I would have left out the part about doing little else in your free time.
Peanut: Other than sounding pathetic? No reason.
Mortimer and I were going to give an oral book report on “Hansel and Gretel.” I put my little buddy in his red-and-white-striped corrugated shipping box, strapped it on the book rack on the back of my bike, and off I pedaled to Northwood Hills Elementary School for our debut in Miss Bentley’s third-grade class. Today, if I’m visiting my parents, I still like to go by my old school after hours and look in the window to where I first sat in front of the class. ... I can see Mortimer on my knee, and me clutching him by his shoulder and pulling the string on the back of his neck.
Bubba J.: My elementary school teacher was a nice lady. Since I was having so much fun in the third grade, she let me repeat it three times.
We did a two-minute presentation on the book and then launched into a ten-minute unscripted routine in which we poked fun at my classmates, our teacher, and the lunch ladies: So-and-so was pretty; so-and-so’s feet smelled. I don’t claim that Mortimer and I were terribly witty, but to third graders, it was pretty funny. Even
Miss Bentley liked it. She gave me an A+.
It’s clear to me that the dummies helped me through my early years at school. Miss Bentley didn’t give me an A because I gave a good report. She gave me that good grade because there was something more to what I was doing. The shy, almost pudgy, fairly unremarkable kid with freckles and braces had found something that he might be good at. And it was something different. Miss Bentley and my parents were the first ones to really encourage me. My friends did too. I remember standing in line ready to file outside for recess after my book report. I asked a couple of friends, “Did it really sound like Mortimer was talking?” They all said yes, and that it was funny. Funny? Really? Me?
Excerpt from “All by My Selves” © 2010 by Jeff Dunham. Published by Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Excerpted with permission from the publisher. All Rights Reserved.