Jeff Dunham offers some fun, untested comedy with new holiday special

Photo Credit: Robyn Von Swank

Over the course of his 30-plus years in comedy, Jeff Dunham has brought his mix of ventriloquist talent and stand-up to crowds all over the world in a variety of spaces, from comedy clubs to arenas, and he’s had months to prep for whatever special he was working on at the time. But not in 2020. Instead, for his latest special, he’s doing everything last minute, but as it turns out, that may just be the best way for him to go from now on. 

With his 10th special, Jeff Dunham’s Completely Unrehearsed Last-Minute Pandemic Holiday Special, which drops on Comedy Central this Friday (November 27), the native Texan is delving into all-new material (minus one bit) to bring some holiday cheer to the masses. And while the milestone of reaching 10 specials is not lost on him, his biggest source of excitement is really just about being able to get back on stage and present the new hour in a way that has opened up a new process of preparing and performing for the comedy superstar.

Leading up to the premiere, we got Dunham on the horn to chat about the new special, how it will influence his approach to his next two specials with Comedy Central, the process of putting the set together, and having to navigate through the changing social climate with edgier material.

Jason Greenough: Starting with the reason why we’re here, your new special. Jeff Dunham’s Completely Unrehearsed Last-Minute Pandemic Holiday Special hits Comedy Central on November 27. In general, how are you feeling about the special?

Jeff Dunham: I’m feeling pretty good about it. The name is ridiculous, but it kind of encompasses everything. I came up with this less than two months ago, and we shot it only three weeks ago, so both the turn around on the creative end and the technical end are both pretty amazing. I saw a bunch of other people doing specials in drive-in and stuff like that, so I figured we could do the same thing, and maybe do a little better. 

So, I got together with a few of my comedy writer friends, I gave them the subject matter, and they sent over some jokes. The goofy thing about this is that I didn’t try out any of those jokes on anybody until I performed them that night. So when you see me or one of the characters tell a joke in the show, that’s the first time I’ve ever said that joke to any human being on the planet.

That approach doesn’t seem like something we’ve seen from you before. How did it feel doing the fresh, out of the box material as opposed to polishing it beforehand?

Well, to me, what keeps me going in the live shows is when I have a new bit to try out. That’s the one I look forward to the most, and it’s the most fun for me, and you think I would’ve been terrified doing this thing and not knowing if anything would work, but the good thing about it is that I knew I had a bunch of really good jokes in there, and it was an hour and twenty minutes of material, where we only need forty-four minutes for a TV special, so I knew half of it would be cut out, and I was really excited about it.

You know how it is. Nowadays, if the audience is going to be there for anything, they have to go through fiery hoops to get there. They had to go get tested three days ahead of time at a certain clinic, and it’s just a big rigamarole to go through, but everyone was there, ready to laugh, and they were all there for a good reason. They were all fans, and it was just so much fun. Put it this way, every aspect of the special turned out better than I thought it was going. Everything from the production to the laughing, to the lights, it was just a lot of fun.

With this being your 10th special, does it have that milestone feeling of reaching that kind of number after all these years on the grind?

Ya know, I guess we would have celebrated that more had things been normal, but I guess since this is so last minute, maybe we should’ve embraced it more, but I think there’s too many other things to focus on right now. I actually hadn’t counted, and I had forgotten that my last special was number nine, so when someone brought up the fact that thesis one was number 10, it was just amazing to me. I hadn’t even realized that we had gotten to that point. So, to answer your question, yeah, it’s pretty significant to me, and I wish we could’ve celebrated it more, but who knows? Maybe in another universe, the number 11 is more important than number 10, so we’ll celebrate number 11.

With your 30-plus year career in mind, this special seems to be new in more ways than one, given the current circumstances with the pandemic. How did this special test you in that sense of having to approach it differently than you’ve done with past specials?

So, there’s the pandemic, but there’s also just the social mores with what’s going on right now. I used to say that stand-up comedy was the last form of free speech, but that’s gone out the window. As you know, and as everyone knows, you can’t tell a joke that offends too many people. I also used to say that if a comic is offending three to five percent of the audience and making them mad, he’s probably pushing the line just about right, because whatever that five percent is angry about, the other 95 percent is laughing the hardest at.

The trouble with that is, the sanctity of live performance in a theater or comedy club is now gone, because now that five percent can end your career with a simple tweet or two, so I think that’s one of the constraints right now is having to create comedy without picking on people or making fun of stuff. That’s what comics do. We make fun of society, and how we’re living or what someone is doing, and it’s a lot more difficult right now to write stuff that won’t cause a firestorm, but still remain interesting with an edge.

I feel like people sort of miss the point of a character like Walter sometimes.

That’s why I like what I do, because I can point and counterpoint very easily. If one of the characters — and I am just creating characters. They’re not what I think. I’ve created characters that say things because they are who they are. So if one of the characters says something that isn’t quite right, I could argue the opposite side of things, so you can walk away from my show not really knowing how I think because I argued both sides, and made jokes to both sides of it. And I think that’s one of the reasons why people keep coming back to the shows, with that suspension of disbelief is there, and people walk away thinking ‘those guys were funny’ and not ‘he was a good ventriloquist.’ That’s not the point. The point is you heard a fun conversation between characters onstage, not just one guy.

So is this entire special untested, or most of it?

I’m not sure on the percentage, but I’d say 98 percent of it is brand new jokes. The only thing I repeated is a bit I worked on for 12 years starting in the tenth grade, where I worked it and perfected it until it got me onto The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1990, and I used it in my act for many years. It was more of a ventriloquist’s bit. It’s more skilled than it is funny, but  I decided to bring it back and put in this special because, like I said, I’ve gone back to keeping this special more family friendly than any that I’ve done in a long time. So, you can sit down with grandma and the kids, and sure there’s still some edge to it, but all of the subject matter is fine, and I think everyone can embrace it.

Now, with the end result mostly composed of new, largely untested material, how do you feel that approach helped you grow as a comedian, especially after all these years of world tours and arena shows that helped you fully polish the material? I absolutely don’t mean this in a snarky way, but was there a sense of “old dog, new tricks” with this one?

Absolutely. I walked off stage that night, and I thought ‘I have been trying way too hard.’ I guess it’s years of learning the timing with the characters and learning them and how they speak, and what their viewpoints are. That has taken decades, but yeah. I walked offstage having surprised myself and everyone around me because everyone who is close to me, saving a few people like my wife who thought it was a great idea, thought this was a bad idea. Everyone else had seen me struggle for so long every night in these big arena shows to try out new jokes and noodling with the show, and to see this happen so quickly this time was kind of a head scratcher for all of us. Now, what I realized is that I’m going to write my next show the same way, and just have fun with it on the road and not worry so much.

I would spend every waking moment after a show, when I would go out for five shows at a time, sitting on the bus re-working things I had done the night before, but I just think I was working too hard. [laughs]

Well, you already answered my follow-up. You have two more specials to shoot with Comedy Central in the new year, as part of your new deal with them. Are those specials already in the can? Or does this new holiday hour set somewhat of a precedent for how you’ll look to put those next hours together?

It’ll be just like this one. Well, maybe not just like it. That would be depending on what’s going on in society. I’ll react to what’s going on, and depending on the audience, if we can get into theaters, that’s great. I’ll shoot in a theater. If we’re back in the big arenas, I’ll shoot it there, and if we’re still socially distanced, we’ll do it that way. I don’t know when it’s going to be, but I’ll probably be working on that second one in the spring.

With your last holiday special becoming one of the top-rated specials in the history of Comedy Central, how do you think this one stacks up against it? Is it one of those things where you look to beat it, or allow this new hour to be its own thing entirely without comparison?

It’s tough to judge, because I don’t know what Comedy Central’s numbers are now compared to what they were back then, but there are certainly a lot more places where people consume and throw away content. There’s a lot of disposable content, so hopefully we’ll bring some new fans to Comedy Central and get big numbers. Can any network reach those numbers again? Those were the days where things were a bit more simple. That Christmas special was back in 2008, and things have changed so much with how we consume entertainment. I would love to do just a bigger number than anyone expected. I’d be happy with that. Could I beat my old one? I don’t even know if that’s possible to day with consumers so spread out.

What was your favorite part about putting this special together?

Obviously, the performance that night was when all the adrenaline was flowing, but I don’t really know. I think it would have to be that part of it, just getting it recorded and performing it. My favorite part of that aspect of it was the ad libbed stuff. I’ve always loved doing that. When I was in the comedy club world for 20 years, people knew it was not on paper when I would pick on the crowd and talk to people, and I think people recognize that now, and that it sometimes turns into the audience’s favorite part where I where I talk to them and pick on them. You’ll see a little bit of that on Friday. My favorite part of the process is the part that I don’t prepare for at all.

Is there anything else that we didn’t cover that you’d like to share about the experience?

Gather the family around, and leave your brain at the door. Nobody has to think real hard on this special. I just want you to sit down and enjoy it. That’s what I made it for, just to give people some fun, get me out of the house and keep me out of the looney bin. That’s why I did it for me, but for everyone else, it’s hopefully just a good alternative and a good bit of escapism for an hour.

Jeff Dunham’s Completely Unrehearsed Last-Minute Pandemic Holiday Special airs on Comedy Central on Friday, November 27 at 8 p.m. EST