A ventriloquist has the ability to keep his mouth closed and "throw" his voice to make it seem like a dummy or puppet is actually talking. Famed ventriloquist Jeff Dunham has mastered this skill, and his appearances with characters like Peanut, Walter and Achmed the Dead Terrorist have earned him legions of fans. Before he found fame, Dunham's involvement with ventriloquism began when he received a ventriloquist's doll for Christmas in 1970. The gift interested him so much that he soon immersed himself in ventriloquism, studying the technique and practicing intensely. And, as it turned out, he ended up with his dream career.
Dunham got his first ventriloquist's dummy for Christmas
On a visit to a Dallas toy store with his mother before Christmas in 1970, an eight-year-old Dunham happened to spot a kid-friendly version of a ventriloquist's doll known as Mortimer Snerd. Snerd was a figure used by ventriloquist Edgar Bergen. Though ventriloquism had declined in popularity since the days of vaudeville in the early part of the 20th century, Bergen had become very successful via radio. Thanks to television and film appearances, Bergen and his dummy sidekicks — in addition to an intellectually inept Snerd, Bergen worked with the debonair Charlie McCarthy — remained well-known in the 1960s and '70s.
In his memoir, All By My Selves, Dunham recounts that though he'd seen ventriloquists on TV, this was first ventriloquist's dummy he'd encountered in real life. Intrigued, he asked his mother to buy it. Though he didn't receive the doll that day, his mother had been on the lookout for Christmas gift ideas. When Dunham opened his presents on December 25, he discovered Snerd among them.
Dunham was delighted by the gift. Yet he hadn't exactly been pining for Snerd since the toy store visit — in his memoir, he admitted he'd completely forgotten about the doll. Fortunately, his mother had been paying attention, and everything else fell into place for Dunham to get this present. As he noted in All By My Selves, "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?"
Even as a child, Dunham was determined to master ventriloquism
Getting the Mortimer Snerd dummy was only a first step on Dunham's road to becoming a ventriloquist. Next, he needed to learn how to keep his mouth shut and talk as Snerd, all while opening and closing Snerd's mouth — to maintain the illusion that Snerd was the one speaking — by manipulating a string in the back of the doll's neck.
The dummy had come with some how-to instructions about ventriloquism, but that wasn't enough for Dunham. Soon after Christmas, he visited a bookmobile run by the Dallas Public Library to get materials about ventriloquism. On another visit to the toy store, he acquired an instructional record called Jimmy Nelson’s Instant Ventriloquism (Nelson was a ventriloquist who'd appeared on TV in the 1950s, most memorably in ads for Nestlé's Quik). Dunham would repeatedly listen to Nelson's recorded instructions. The final step was straightforward but required a great deal of discipline for a young boy: hours and hours of practice.
Dunham has said of ventriloquism, "There’s a skill to it, but anybody can learn to do it. It’s like learning to play a musical instrument." With his Snerd figure, he began the learning process, which included tackling issues such as how to mask the fact that certain letters are impossible to sound out without moving your lips. Dunham spent hours in front of his bathroom mirror studying his facial expressions and trying to keep his mouth still.
At the time ventriloquist dummies for children were widely available, and many of Dunham's contemporaries owned them. But Dunham stood out in how he threw himself into learning ventriloquism. The skill fascinated him, so he was willing to commit to intense practice that other kids his age balked at. And, as a shy boy, he appreciated the fact that ventriloquism offered a way for him to be more outgoing.
Dunham understood the importance of characterization
In a 2014 interview, Dunham stated, "The magic in performing as an entertaining ventriloquist happens when the characters come to life and the interaction between the separate personalities on stage becomes 'real.'" Even as a boy, he began trying to discover how to achieve this kind of characterization. He delved into encyclopedias to learn about the history of ventriloquism and studied routines he found on TV and recordings.
Bergen had already provided Dunham with his first ventriloquist's doll, but the renowned ventriloquist also became an inspirational figure. Dunham would transcribe Bergen's routines in order to further study them.
Dunham first performed as a ventriloquist when he and Snerd gave a third-grade book report on Hansel and Gretel. Since then he's never looked back. Talking to the Huffington Post, he confessed, "In all the years, ever since I started in the third grade, there has never been a point where I said, 'Maybe I shouldn't do this.'" Given the success he's found, and the people he's delighted over the years, it's good he got that first dummy and was able to teach himself ventriloquism.