If you’ve ever been to the taping of a stand-up special, there’s bound to be some moments where you’re sitting there thinking “That seems like they just came up with that on the spot”. And while there is likely to be some light riffing, in actuality, what you’re seeing has been perfected to look effortless. Really, this is material that audiences just like you have likely already seen them do.
Jeff Dunham decided to take that and flip it on its ear. In late October, Dunham took to the stage for the first time since March in Malibu to film a new special titled Jeff Dunham’s Completely Unrehearsed Last-Minute Pandemic Holiday Special. The material he did, however, had never been performed for anyone before. It was all material that he had spent the last few months writing and working on with a team of his writers. But beyond that room, nobody had seen it before. For a stand-up comic, that’s essentially performing without a net.
To pull something like this off, and pull it off seamlessly, it takes a comedian who knows what they’re doing. And seeing as how Jeff Dunham has 9 previous stand-up specials under his belt, it’s safe to say that he fits that criteria. And while he’s used to playing arenas and theaters full of thousands of fans, waiting to see their favorite characters, there was a concession to be made due to the pandemic. In the special, you’ll see a crowd of no more than 100 people, all wearing masks. It makes for a much more intimate show.
We recently spoke with Dunham about filming the special, how the idea came together, what went through his mind as he walked onstage and immediately afterwards, a new character he’s created, and what he has in mind for his next specials with Comedy Central.
I’m looking forward to seeing the special. Given the turnaround time, they weren’t able to have a screener available yet.
It was a real quick turnaround. I haven’t seen it yet. We’ve been working on the final edit. It’s not quite there yet. There’s a couple of last minute things that we’re doing and then it will be ready.
Well I look forward to seeing it. And now let’s start with this. Before everything shut down in March, were you planning on doing a new special going into this year?
No. Because I usually take 18 months to 2 years to create a special. My best analogy is building a house. And the way I did the first 9 specials, I had a house and I want to build a house, so I just refurbish the old house. And the way I did that was most bands and comics will come out with a new album, release it, and then tour and do the live shows on that album or whatever. And then they go off the road for however long creating the new material, and then they release that and come out on that.
I didn’t do that in those 10 years. In those 10 years, I never got off the road. I never went more than a couple of weeks without doing a show. But the way I would build a new special is every day I would create a few new jokes, a few new bits, and then insert them into the show. If it worked, I would keep them there and then build off of that new piece. And then I would throw away old material. So eventually after 18 months I would have a whole new 2 hours and then we’d record the special.
This one, I was shoved off the road as was every performer and everybody doing everything. And I sat there for a few months with nothing to do, only doing my YouTube videos. And then I thought “You know what? I think I can do another special, but this one is going to be different. I’m going to build this one from the ground up.” Because I went and looked at my old act, the last show I did, and nothing really applied anymore because the world had changed so much. It just wasn’t funny anymore to me. So I sat down with a few writers and we banged out some new material. And then I sat down in my office, alone, for 2 or 3 weeks for 5 or 6 hours a day, and cobbled together the jokes in a correct fashion and an order that made sense for each character.
And so now, instead of refurbishing an old house, now I was building a house literally from the foundation up. From the dirt up. And it was a refreshing way of doing things. And when I say not one joke had I ever told to anyone it is absolutely true. There is a bit with Peanut at the end, though, an old bit from when I was on The Tonight Show with Carson that I repeated. But otherwise every joke in that show, I didn’t tell them to my wife, I didn’t try them out on friends. I’d usually call somebody and be like “Hey is this funny?” or I’d go to my wife and say “Hey do you like this?” But I didn’t do that because I wanted to be able to have this conversation with you and say that I didn’t try out a single joke.
So when I walked onstage that night, I really wasn’t sure what was gonna work and what wasn’t gonna work. And the only thing I had going for me was 50 years onstage and some experience of usually knowing what makes people laugh. And it actually turned out really well. I did about a little over an hour. And by the time you edit it down for commercials, you’ve got about 45 minutes of show. And it was an amazing percentage of what actually worked for that crowd that night. And a tiny crowd. I went from 8 to 10 thousand people to less than 100. (Laughs).
And as you’re about to walk out onstage, what is going through your head as you’re about to film jokes you had never tried out before? That’s a pretty rare thing for a comic. Is there any fear, or is that drowned out by the adrenaline of making a special?
Well the adrenaline and fear that goes through you right before a special done the normal way is “Wow. This is exciting. This is big. This is fun.” But you also walk out with a swagger, knowing that you’ve done all these jokes so many times before and knowing that they’re going to work and that there’s fans in the crowd. So there’s no pressure that way. The only pressure is “We’ve got some cameras here. We’ve got to make sure we get this right.”
This special on the other hand, there was almost no loss for me. As I’ve told people before, the joke is that I kind of tricked Comedy Central into paying for an open mic night. (Laughs). Because with all of these jokes, nobody knew if they were going to work. But I walked onstage that night with just a handful of people and I was there to have fun. The environment was right. Everything was done right. We did everything as simple as possible. There were no stage changes. There weren’t even any stop downs where we moved characters around. None of that. It was like the old school days of the comedy club where I just had all my stuff onstage. There were no stagehands helping me. It was just “Pull a dummy out of the case. Do a bit with him. Put him back in the case. Pull out the next one.” And a very simple set. Beautiful set. Beautiful lightning. A good number of cameras. A skeleton crew to work all this stuff.
I don’t know. I think it turned out really well. And the other thing I changed from my last few specials is I made this one palatable to a majority of viewers. In other words, I took out the politics out. There’s no political jokes. Everybody’s sick and tired of that. I don’t care who you are. If you’re enjoying all of this, you’re nuts. I took all that out of it. So there’s nothing in there that’s polarizing. And it’s just good family fun. And I cleaned it up a bit so most everybody can enjoy it. If you’re 3 you’re not gonna get it, but if you’re 10, 11, 12 years old or you’re 55 or 85, I think you’re gonna love it. That’s what I’m hoping for.
And you mentioned how the crowd size went from 8 to 10 thousand to under 100. Being someone who spent so long playing arenas, what’s it like to go back and do something more intimate again? Does anything change?
Well the most fun I had was when we were doing these arenas, and during the summer last year, we went back to some theaters. And it was 1 thousand to 2 thousand people. That to me is intimate and great and perfect. Because most of my specials are shot for that kind of crowd. Because with that number of people, you still get big, big laughs. The amazing part about going to a comedy club sized audience of 100 people or slightly more or slightly less is that your jokes really do have to work because there’s not a huge number of people that are going to laugh at something that isn’t funny.
So I would say that it was exciting. But back to your earlier question, if there was a nerve wrecking part of it and something I got nervous about, it was just having the confidence of I think I knew what I was doing when it came to the jokes. But also that nervousness of knowing a small crowd is an honest crowd. And that’s the scary part.
I imagine it must have been a bit scary, going through such a rapid adjustment so fast.
And now that you’re asking that question and talking about that, I think that maybe those 9 months offstage helped me with this. Because if I had gone from 8 thousand people to 100 people one night to the next, I would’ve been shell shocked. But to have been sitting at home with my 5 year-old twin boys and my wife staring at me for so long, maybe in the back of my mind 100 people seemed like a giant crowd. (Laughs). So maybe those months off helped me step backwards like that.
And then I’ve talked to comics who have done the one-off shows like this at drive-one and such, and then there’s such a high after they get offstage before the reality sinks in that it’ll be a while before they get to do that again. Did you find that at all?
Yeah. Well the dirty little secret that most people don’t know is that when you shoot something like this, you shoot it at least twice. So it was one night we shot it, and then we did the second night. But yeah, after that second night, it was like “Okay… Now what???” So you’re right. There’s a little bit of that anticipation of launching the special, knowing that ticket sales are going to be great. And then, you’re off and running. And now it’s like “Well, why did I do this?” Well, I did this because I really feel like families are so you at home and would love the escapism and I would love to make people laugh again, just for a little bit. And I did it for me just to keep from going nuts.
Well I think it’s great that families can have this to watch, then. And now I wanna ask about a new character that you’ve just created. Is it true that you’ve had the idea for this character since 2015?
Yeah. He’s this internet troll kind of guy. Because we all know the internet trolls. We all get the hate now and then. And I had designed the head and just hadn’t finished him. And now this was the perfect time. So I built him during all this downtime. I was going to use him in this special, but then I realized “You know what? Here is where I’m not going to step over that line.” And that line was I know these other characters backwards and forwards because I’ve been with them for so long. I think like they think. I have to. I know what they would say in any given situation. And if I give each one of them the same set-up, hopefully each one of them would have a slightly different punchline. So I know them that well. This guy was brand new. And it takes me a few months to get to know a character onstage.
So I was gonna use him in this special. But then I thought “Nope. I’m not gonna set myself up for failure because I don’t know who this guy is. I really don’t know if these jokes work for his personality because his personality hasn’t really grown yet. But he is a potentially great character. I named him Earl. But Earl is spelled U-R-L. And mechanically I pat myself on the back for this. He has a little cell phone in his hands and I made it so he can be typing. He’s typing away with his thumbs. And I also did something odd with his eyes that I’ve never done on a character. Most dummies eyes go side-to-side. I made his so they can go 360. They can go up and down and left and right and all around. So if I’m talking to him, like everybody, you know when you’re talking to somebody and you see them look down at their phone and then you see them typing? (Laughs). That’s what this guy can do. He has the earphones in. And I just think there’s a heck of a lot of potential here. And I look forward to getting onstage with him and getting to know him a little better. Because I think everybody is gonna be able to identify with him. We are either that guy sometimes or we have a kid like that or we know a friend like that where they just can’t let go of their phone.
Especially this year. But was this time you ever let fans behind the curtain and see the process of creating a character?
It is. During the downtime I was like “What am I gonna do?” And I thought “Well, I’m just gonna enhance my YouTube channel“. Because I have a pretty good following on that and FaceBook and a little bit on Instagram. And I thought “Yeah. This will be a good way to engage with fans a little bit, show them the back side of things.” And I would never have done that before. But when we did the first live version of that, people were really engaged. And I think it was more out of boredom than anything else because they have nothing else to do. But people really seemed to enjoy it. So I thought “What the heck. We’ll do the whole series”.
And then they did get to see the finished product finally in one of your videos.
Yeah, I used him in one of the videos. And again, after we get through this special, I’m not sure what’s next. Is it going to be more videos or am I gonna be preparing for the next special? Because it is a three special deal with Comedy Central and Viacom. And once they launch Paramount+, I’m sure they’re gonna want another special. And is it gonna be during this lockdown stuff? If so, great. We’ll do it again, then. The formula worked once before, I don’t know why it won’t. Again, I have to see what the reaction is to this special and if people really like it and if there’s room for it. Otherwise we’ll wait for the big tent events and we’ll shoot the second one then. But I think URL will definitely be a part of that. There’s been a great reaction online and a good reaction to the video.
And the last thing I wanna ask is, how’re you feeling before the special comes out? Did it all come together, in spite of the circumstances, the way you envisioned? Do you still get nervous about it?
Well, it’s like launching a movie or a television show. You don’t know until the fans or the public takes a look at it. You take the good reviews and the bad reviews and you weigh them out for yourself and learn from them and keep going. So yeah, there’s a little bit of a nervousness. “What kind of rating are we going to get? What kind of number? Are people going to come to it? And will that remain? Are people going to come back for the re-airings? And then how will it do on Video On Demand?” Yeah. It’s just like launching any project at all. “Are they going to like the next widget? Who knows!” I hope they do. And everybody’s worked really hard on this.
And by the way, you asked about walking offstage and you’re right. The big question mark is “What’s next?” What I always forget, every time I’ve done this, I walk offstage and I go “Wow. That was a lot of work. Glad that’s over with.” And then post-production starts. And then it’s publicity and doing interviews like this and then looking at the first cut and then looking at the second cut and the third cut. We have to cut it down to 44 minutes. What do we lose? What do we keep? And so post production is a monumental task. So we’re still in the middle of that. We’re at the two yard line I think. But it’s been a lot of work.
Jeff Dunham’s Completely Unrehearsed Last-Minute Pandemic Holiday Special premieres tonight at 8 PM ET on Comedy Central.