The day after Thanksgiving, comedian and ventriloquist Jeff Dunham will debut his 10th special. Jeff Dunham's Completely Unrehearsed Last-Minute Pandemic Holiday Special is not like his previous releases, however, considering that he recorded it in front of a socially-distanced crowd wearing masks. He also headed to the stage without testing roughly 99% of his bits.
Speaking with PopCulture.com in an exclusive interview, Dunham detailed the recording of this unique style of the comedy special. Instead of heading to a massive arena or theater, he and his "friends in the trunk" went to a much smaller venue to perform two shows for a limited number of fans. Dunham detailed having some nervousness as the show approached considering that he hadn't previously tested the material — outside of one bit from the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson — and he didn't know how people would react.
"When I first realized that I was going to be wearing a mask, I thought, 'Oh, boy.' Then when it turned into banquet seating, meaning tables, separate tables, four people maximum at a table, I thought, 'Well, there's another strike against this working well,'" Dunham told PopCulture. "But I thought, 'You know what, I know comedy fairly well. I've been on stage for 50 years now, and I think I have a pretty good barometer of what will make people laugh and what won't.' We just went for it.
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"We made everything as simple as possible, made it as charming as possible," he continued to explain. "Found a venue that was just perfect. It was out in Malibu, out in a forest in the mountains. The set design was just great and it was, again, very simple. There's no stagehands; there are no set changes; there's no stop down during the set. We made it as live of an experience as we possibly could have. Just a simple of setup as could be."
Heading into the new special, Dunham worked with his writing partners and tried to develop some bits that everyone would appreciate. He avoided political topics due to "everyone being sick of it" and looked for more relatable material. Dunham briefly discussed the pandemic but did not spend the entire time on stage discussing everything going on in the world.
"I think if you ignore the elephant in the room, then that's not good either. You don't want to focus on just one thing," Dunham said, adding there have been some "relatable" subjects, including relationships and enduring the pandemic. "Everything that we've been going through has affected relationships left and right. But relationships are relatable, and you don't have to be talking [about] the pandemic to talk about relationships. But you can talk about, 'Well, we've been together an awful lot,' and go from there. [...] I think if all you do is go about and talk about the pandemic, I think that's going to get old too because people are sick and tired of that as well. There's escapism involved in a lot of comedy, and I think that that's something to be focused on as well."
Throughout his career, Dunham has incorporated various stories from his life during his opening monologue. He discussed a previous divorce, buying a blue Toyota Prius, getting married to his wife, Audrey, and raising two twin boys. His characters, such as Walter and Peanut, would then react to this material and entertain fans.
The upcoming 10th special is very similar in that Dunham wrote material that would be relatable in 2020. His characters then reacted as they would to any other story — making jokes and easing the tension. The specials differ because Dunham traditionally spends 18 months to two years creating two hours of material for each special. He tests out the content on the road and then figures out which works the best. This time, he built the special from the ground up by simply writing the jokes and putting them together on paper.
Regardless of his approach to joke-writing, Dunham has found a staggering amount of success in his career. He has 10 specials recorded and a deal to create two more for Comedy Central. Dunham also isn't taking any of this success for granted, considering that he started in small Texas venues before becoming a comedian with fans worldwide.
"There's two things that I've said over the years that have surprised me. The number one thing was going to the arenas because when I was a kid in college and started dipping my toe in the comedy club world, and then got pretty good in the comedy club business, my goal was to always be on The Tonight Show," Dunham said. "I hit that after 10 years, after graduating from high school. Then I got to the 2000-seat theaters and started selling those out. Then my agent said, 'Well, it's time to go to the arenas.' I'm like, 'What's an arena?'
"The second one was the international aspect," Dunham continued. "When YouTube came along and Achmed the Dead Terrorist took off like a rocket, and it went around the world. So then I was able to sell out shows in so many different countries, that was the second. That's the surreal part. When I'm on the stage in Abu Dhabi or Singapore or South Africa somewhere or Australia, that's the part where I go, 'How in the world did this happen with a stupid little puppet show?' It's fun, and I don't take any bit of it for granted. I know that tastes change very quickly. Most people have 15 minutes of fame, so I treat it like a business and treat the fans in the most appreciative manner as possible."
Jeff Dunham’s Completely Unrehearsed Last-Minute Pandemic Holiday Special will premiere Friday, Nov. 27 at 8 pm ET on Comedy Central. The special will become immediately available on the Comedy Central app and Video On Demand after it airs. Fans will also have the opportunity to watch the special for free on the Comedy Central app from Dec. 13 until February 2021.