Before The Terrorist

7 August 2012 | 6:45 am | Paul Andrew

“These appearances coincided with the rise and rise of DVD sales and YouTube. YouTube has become the perfect medium for us.”

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Long before YouTube sensation Achmed The Terrorist, ventriloquism had a history of representing the dead. Ventriloquism – the art of throwing one's voice – is as ancient as theatre. Originally a religious practice named Gastromancy by the Greeks, these strange voices from the stomach were believed to be the voices of the un-living. Modern Ventriloquism was popularised in the US during the days of Vaudeville in the late 19th Century when performers like The Great Lester made a character – a puppet dummy crafted from wood – utterly believable. It was Edgar Bergen, who comedian Jeff Dunham – as a student of The Great Lester – recounts transformed one of Vaudeville's one-trick ponies into a radio sensation, his infamous character Charlie McCarthy, the girl crazy smartarse whose shows were aired from 1937 to 1958.

Dunham was aged eight when he and his mum went browsing in a toy store in his hometown of Dallas, Texas. “What do you want for Christmas?” asked his mum, and the loner schoolkid snatched a Mortimer Snerd doll from the shelves, “I want this,” he shrieked.

As Dunham recounts of that formative childhood experience his mother was less than impressed. “Why would a boy want a Mortimer Snerd dummy for Christmas?” Dunham explains that Mortimer Snerd was another Bergen dummy and cites Bergen as “the” artist who “revolutionised ventriloquism into the modern comic medium we know today.”

And just as Bergen changed a vaudeville sideshow into a modern form of comedy, Dunham is widely accepted as having propelled the craft to its outer limits. His irreverent cache of comic characters; the gothic Achmed “I keel you” the Terrorist, his gay wayward son AJ, Bubba J the Southern yokel, Walter the dry pensioner and the Mickey Mouse/Kermit/Bugs Bunny-inspired Peanut have almost become household names. “I wanted to do something different with each of these guys, and the Monster Show was born, in time for Halloween.

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“What type of monster would Walter be,” Dunham asks me. I tend to see Walter's character as fairly monstrous as is. “Something Edgar Allan Poe?” I guess. “Frankenstein,” he reveals. “Walter is Frankenstein but without the two bolts on his neck or the green shading. Universal has copyright to the two bolts and green shading.

Dunham reveals he never sets out to make a particular character. “Walter was a character I imagined having a small role, maybe for three shows. I didn't think anyone would be able to put up with his dark dry humour. I was wrong. AJ was the same. There was a show when Achmed mentioned a son, and I thought I could make a son character, once again for a few shows; he's been around for a while now too. We were lucky with timing; four appearances with Carson on The Tonight Show between 1990 and 1991 gave us a sort of legitimacy. There was a time in the 1960s and 1970s when one appearance with Carson sealed your fate, your career was made.”

It was in 2005 and 2006 when Dunham's 20-year career of performing in comedy clubs took centre stage at Comedy Central. “These appearances coincided with the rise and rise of DVD sales and YouTube. YouTube has become the perfect medium for us.”

See Jeff Dunham's Controlled Chaos at Brisbane Convention Centre Monday 13 August, Sydney Entertainment Centre Friday 17 and Melbourne's Rod Laver Arena Tuesday 21.

The man responsible for bringing Achmed The Terrorist to the collective conscious, Jeff Dunham chats to Paul Andrew about how it all began.