Talk about pulling some creative strings.
Comic ventriloquist Jeff Dunham orchestrated his newest Comedy Central special in remarkably quick time — adjusting to the confines of TV’s COVID-era production reality.
“I came up with the idea literally two months ago and we shot it three weeks ago,” Dunham, 58, says of “Jeff Dunham’s Completely Unrehearsed Last-Minute Pandemic Holiday Special,” airing Friday at 8 p.m. “It was a crazy turnaround creatively and technically. I heard of so many other comics doing specials [during COVID] in drive-ins, etc. and I said, ‘We can do this.’
“This is my 10th special, and it’s always an 18-to-24-month ordeal to build them, one joke at a time … getting the breathing the same and perfecting it so it’s a lay-up,” he says.
“I like to say I tricked Comedy Central into buying an ‘unscripted’ special.”
Dunham is being modest; Friday’s telecast, his first in a new three-year deal with the cable network, was intricately planned despite the short timeframe and is built around jokes he’s never before performed anywhere. He taped two live shows (on different nights) in Malibu, Calif., before a nightly audience of 100 people (following COVID protocols).
“I pulled aside a few writer friends and said, ‘Here’s the subject matter’ and they started writing jokes,” says Dunham, renowned for his stable of characters including Peanut, Bubba J and Walter. “No one communicated with each other face-to-face … and we put it all together. We cleaned it up to be more family-friendly — no politics whatsoever. Everybody is sick of that by now. It’s just some goofy, stupid fun … literally what everyone is going through now, dealing with family members, relationships, being locked up at home … a little escapism and fun, a lighter take on this serious situation.
“I didn’t try out a single joke before [taping],” he says. “Not on my wife, my friends or business associates. When I walked onto the stage that night I’d never said these jokes out-loud to anyone on the planet. Only one bit was repeated, from my first time on ‘The Tonight Show’ with Johnny Carson in 1990. I wanted to bring that back because it’s been a classic staple in my act for a decade.”
Dunham says the audiences for the two shows were solicited online.
“We put it on social media on a first-come, first-serve basis and everyone else got put on a waiting list,” he says. “It filled up instantly. Everyone had a COVID test three days in advance — people had to jump through fiery hoops to get to these shows. The worst audience in the world is one that gets in for free and without incident. They’re always judgmental.
“These people just wanted to laugh.”
And, Dunham says, he’s got a lot of material left over once the two shows were edited together for Friday’s special.
“I only had to use half of what I did those nights — and a good portion of my road show is written now.”