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Jeff Dunham still pushing comedy boundaries with a little help from his ‘friends’

Comedy has become quite a tightrope as of late, as a stressed-out world and the extra sensitive nature of just about everyone in it leaves comedians such as Dunham in a bit of a quandary.

Stand-up comedian/ventriloquist Jeff Dunham will bring his old pal Walter (pictured) and a host of other characters to the stage of the Allstate Arena on Friday night.
Stand-up comedian/ventriloquist Jeff Dunham will bring his old pal Walter (pictured) and a host of other characters to the stage of the Allstate Arena on Friday.
Richard McLaren

For a man who has spent years letting his cast of characters do most of the talking, legendary ventriloquist and comedian Jeff Dunham has no trouble speaking his mind.

And so, he’s speaking it.

“New Year’s Eve is the absolute worst night of the year to do a show,” he says, laughing during a recent phone chat. “Like, the absolute worst.”

Nevertheless, Dunham will head to the Allstate Arena on Dec. 31 as part of his international “Jeff Dunham: Seriously?” tour. But, per Dunham’s direction, the show will take place long before the ball drops.

“If people want to pre-game at my show, that’s fine, but they’re not going to be completely obliterated by the time I hit the stage,” Dunham says of the 3 p.m. start time of his Chicago show. “People can come and have fun and see the show, and then they can go out and party. Or they can come to the show and then go home.”

Indeed, before everyone sinks into their couch to witness the arrival of 2022, Dunham will bring his cast of “inappropriate” proteges such as Peanut, Walter, José Jalapeño, Bubba J., and Achmed the Dead Terrorist to the Chicago stage. But unlike the last time Dunham made a NYE appearance at Allstate Arena back in 2018, Dunham has a new member of the family to introduce to the Windy City crowd, and that character goes by the name of Url.

“Basically, Url is a younger guy living in his parents’ basement, and always stuck on his smartphone,” explains Dunham of the new character that happens to be Walter’s grandson. “I was in college when I came up with Walter, but I had no clue that this guy was going to connect so well with people. Everybody knows somebody like him, or they are him, or they’re married to him, or they work for him. And I think Url is a little bit of that lightning in the bottle again.”

Granted, comedy has become quite a tightrope as of late, as a stressed-out world and the extra sensitive nature of just about everyone in it leaves comedians such as Dunham in a bit of a quandary.

“I would hate to be somebody brand new in comedy right now, because it’s tough out there,” admits Dunham, who plans to shoot a new comedy special next spring. “I have a great fan base and they know what I do. But yeah, I’ve had to change. I think it’s caused comedians to have to think a little harder and to be a little more creative and to tiptoe a little more carefully through the landmine.”

Jeff Dunham poses with this “hyperactive,” one shoe-wearing pal Peanut.
Jeff Dunham poses with his “hyperactive,” one shoe-wearing pal Peanut.
Robyn Von Swank

And yes, many of those landmines have to do with politics.

“Political correctness and comedy are not good bedfellows,” adds Dunham. He boasts of a fandom that includes 11 million followers on Facebook and over 3 million YouTube subscribers. “But as a comic, you’re supposed to push the envelope a little bit. You’re supposed to make people think a little bit. And so, when we’re talking about being politically correct, we’ve suddenly wiped away a whole lot of subjects or ways to approach them.”

He pauses for a moment.

“Everybody is well aware of the subjects and the subject matter and where you can go,” Dunham says. “And I think every good comedian, no matter what moment in time that you’re living in, if you’re good at your craft, you know how far you could push those boundaries. Push it just enough to make people laugh and just enough to offend maybe a couple of people in the audience, but that’s about it. If you are offending 40% of the crowd, then clearly you don’t know your audience… or your craft.”

But Dunham does have a life beyond his craft. He’s a father of three daughters who will be enjoying a girl’s weekend in Chicago on New Year’s Eve, and he’s a grandfather who just might be on babysitting duty before his own show. But at the end of the day, Dunham says he is looking forward to jumping on a plane after his NYE show in Chicago to spend the closing hours of 2021 with his family.

“I have 6-year-old twin boys, and so I have a feeling my wife and I will be doing what we do every weekend night that I’m home,” Dunham concludes. “And that is going to bed early.”