Ventriloquist Jeff Dunham, who will perform Wednesday at James Brown Arena, believes that his take on the tight-lipped style of puppetry is effective because he always approaches it as a tool rather than his primary performance purpose.
Responding to a series of e-mail questions (Dunham was on voice rest) he wrote that although ventriloquism is his methodology, he's a comic first.
"I realized early on that ventriloquism needed to be just a vehicle for comedy," he wrote. "It couldn't be the focus of the act."
"The ventriloquism just happened to be my instrument."
Dunham has created a large ensemble cast. His puppets include Melvin, a less-than-super superhero, the ambiguously alien Peanut, Walter the grumpy old man, and Jose the talking jalapeño. One of his more popular characters is Achmed the Dead Terrorist, a martyr with an attitude Dunham uses for some of his more political bits.
"None of the characters have a similar genesis," he wrote. "Ideas come from different places."
He said that he is involved in every aspect of creating the characters, from writing their bits to building their bodies.
"I do everything from selecting the materials used to the complication of movements and the type of paint and how it's applied," he wrote. "I construct the characters myself and much blood, sweat and angst is put into every one of them."
Dunham does acknowledge that in interacting with a puppet on stage, he's not exactly reinventing the wheel. He said part of what he tries to do is introduce the art of ventriloquism to an audience that might not, in recent years, have been exposed to it.
"I think that a few folks that are good performers have caused a resurgence in the acceptance of ventriloquism," he wrote. "There are a couple of generations, right now that, up until the past couple of years, had never seen a good ventriloquist. Put it this way: If there was a plate spinner who was truly great and truly entertaining, plate spinning would come back, too."
His goal, he said, is to make ventriloquism seem viable and contemporary.
"I'm just trying to put a fresh patina on an old, tired and sad art and make it hip and fun again."
He said the great ventriloquists are not people who can pull off the difficult "P" sound without moving their lips, but rather are artists who infuse their ordinarily inert performance partners with enough vitality that audiences forget they are watching a solo performance.
"That's the ultimate compliment," he wrote. "Sound guys or radio jocks will almost regularly put a mic in the character's face, forgetting for a moment or two that they are a bit misguided."
"It's pretty funny stuff."