Every summer, ventriloquist, comedian and Richardson product Jeff Dunham would work at a summer camp in Van. In the spring of 1980, after he auditioned in an open call for performers at Six Flags Over Texas, he put in his notice.
He had just turned 18, and was doing shows with his ventriloquist dummies at just about any function where he could set up a microphone or stand in front of people and turn inanimate objects into smartasses who'd make fun of everyone in the room, including himself, and still make them laugh.
"I remember going (to Six Flags) and I did really, really well and they said, 'Thank you,'" Dunham says from his home in Los Angeles, "'that was great,' and everybody laughed and it couldn't have gone over better and they said, 'OK, we'll call you,' and I thought that means they were going to call me and I waited and I waited."
The young Dunham got tired of waiting for a call that never came, so he called the park and talked his way into a job by acting as his own agent, one who wouldn't take no for an answer.
The producer he auditioned for at Six Flags told him the massive theme park didn't have a spot available for a ventriloquist. Dunham persisted and eventually got the park's head of production to get someone to take him through the park and listen to his pitch.
"I think I just exhausted the guy," Dunham says.
The walk around the theme park wasn't any more encouraging, but again, Dunham persisted.
"It's getting more and more depressing, and we started walking by the Southern Palace (Theatre) and it was about 10 minutes before the doors would open for the next show and I said, 'Why not right here?'" She goes, 'No, no, that's a production show.' Well, why couldn't I be on those steps and perform and give them something to do and you could literally see her think as we sat there, and she said, 'Oh, well, that might work.'"
Dunham did six shows a day in a coat and tie under the punishing Texas sun for two summers, including a string of shows at now-defunct Astroworld in Houston. Forty years later, Dunham's natural talent for showmanship and business will bring him back home for two performances, this Friday and Saturday, in a much bigger performance space for a much bigger audience.
Dunham will perform two live comedy shows for the end of his multi-city Passively Aggressive Tour in Dallas at the American Airlines Center. His crew will also record footage for both Dallas shows for his second hourlong Netflix special.
"I'm very much a pretty emotional person, so if I started thinking too much about, Wow, this is where it all began and here's how big it is, then yeah, I might start getting misty-eyed onstage, and I don't want to do that," Dunham says with a laugh. "But to look deep down, it is pretty amazing to be at that place in this city and with this number of folks."
Dunham has checked off just about everything a career comedian would have on a list of goals. He's performed on practically every late-night talk show going back to the mid-1980s. His first appearance on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show was a goal he says he'd set for himself, using his 10-year high school reunion as a deadline. He also got the famous call over to Carson's couch several times, even after his grumpy old man dummy Walter asked emcee Ed McMahon, "Don't you have some envelopes to lick?" and later told Carson, "It'll be a cold day in hell before I come back."
Soon came performances all over the world – from clubs and small show houses to theaters and arenas, the release of eight comedy specials that have sold millions of copies. Dunham has also produced his own prime-time show on Comedy Central.
The comedian's first shows happened around Dallas after his adoptive parents, Howard and Joyce, bought him his first ventriloquist dummy for Christmas from a toy store in a shopping center at the corner of Spring Valley and Coit Road. He says he taught himself how to throw his voice from a book he and his father found from the Dallas Public Library's bookmobile and would put on shows for any kind of interested audience.
"I was doing Cub Scout banquets," he says. "I was doing shows in church. I was in the talent shows in school. It was a really mixed bag of audiences, and I was put in front of many different types of groups and I really think that helps as a younger performer, because if you start in stand-up as an adult, you're only doing comedy clubs and you're not given the opportunity to do these shows for families, and I think it helped me develop some sort of sense for what a general audience would want."
Showbiz jobs continued until he left town to attend Baylor University in between his other side hustle as a private helicopter pilot before he made the leap to Los Angeles to save up money and fully get into the game at an age when he wasn't "too young, too naive and too inexperienced to head out to LA."
Once he graduated and moved out to Hollywood in the late 1980s, he started performing anywhere he could in the hopes of making his way into the new, lucrative chain of improv comedy clubs. Dunham eventually made it in, but only as a middle act opening for headliners.
"Then it all came to a head when I was at the Tempe Improv and I was the middle act that week and me and my Texas upbringing with Jose Jalapeño on a Stick and I only had to do 15 minutes," he says. "And I would slay that room every single night and the roof would come off the joint, and finally the headliner started complaining that they couldn't follow me."
The comedy started to become a bit more competitive as other comics and club owners would label him as just another prop comic and "not being a real 'stand-up comic.'"
"Then the numbers spoke for themselves when I started becoming a draw and then became a headliner," he says. "You just can't argue with that kind of success. You look back to Carrot Top and it was the same thing. Other comics made fun of Carrot Top and said he's not a real comedian using props onstage but the dude was selling places out all over the country. I mean huge numbers. So how can you not respect that?"
He's also been labeled as playing for one side of his audience with characters like Achmed the Dead Terrorist, a bug-eyed skeleton with a beard and a turban. The British newspaper The Guardian labeled his "offensive puppets" as "the voice of Trump's America" in an interview in 2018 before a string of shows in the U.K. Dunham says he's playing to a much broader crowd that roasts everyone. His latest tour features a new character named Larry the Trump Advisor, a frazzle-haired guy who works in Trump's White House and always seems to be on the edge of a full-blown panic attack because, well ... just turn on the news.
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"With me, I know I have folks from not from both sides of the aisle but from all sides of the aisle," he says. "If you pick a side of the audience, you're going to start alienating it. So that's another balancing act of how do I keep everybody happy without, you know, offending people but at the same time being edgy enough that will make most everybody laugh."
He also has plenty of other things to worry about with his shows beyond just the material, especially when it comes to his comedy special. Once the shows are done, he and his crew will have to edit down hours of material to Netflix's algorithm-approved running time of less than one hour. Once that's done, he's back on the tour circuit and has three months to develop a brand new act before the Netflix special's release makes his current material obsolete.
Dunham says that even with the stress of being so highly in-demand and having so many things to tend to on a daily basis, he's having fun and he'll be able to have a drink celebrating more than 40 years of success, in the place that gave him his start.
"I was at The Majestic many times before it turned into arenas and that was amazing and fantastic," he says. "And now to move on to the American Airlines Center and I've been at the American Airlines a few times but this, yeah, it's big. It's big. It's special. Hey, it's Texas."