If there is one thing we need more of, it’s a good laugh. Enter Jeff Dunham and his Completely Unrehearsed Last-Minute Pandemic Holiday Special, filmed in front of a socially distanced audience in Malibu, California.
The comedian and ventriloquist is proud of the fact that not a single joke had been tried on anyone ahead of time. That is except for one classic bit involving Peanut, the beloved purple-skinned “woozle.” Here Dunham explains how he flipped the script in preparing for his 10th special for the network.
How did the idea for the special come about?
Jeff Dunham: Usually, [you] come out with an album or special and tour on that for whatever amount of time. I build one joke at a time. I write some new jokes and bits and insert it into the show if it worked, then throw out some old material. It’s like a snowball rolling down the hill. I’m constantly touring, so it’s a really great formula. Then this [coronavirus] mess comes along and I’m off stage for months.
So I thought I could do something completely different. It was completely unrehearsed. I got together with a few of my comedy writer friends and wrote a few jokes. Then I spent two or three weeks, five to six hours a day, every day, putting it all together and making sense of it. From the time I came up with the idea of doing the special to the final edit it hasn’t been more than two months. It’s crazy. Everyone working on this thing worked very hard. I’m so happy with the final product.
What kind of adjustments did you have to make for your performance?
It’s the most family-friendly, or most palatable, show I’ve done in a long time. I left out politics completely. I think everyone is sick of that. It’s so polarizing and not funny anymore. I just talked about the stuff we’re dealing with. Having been with my kids, I have 5-year-old twin boys, three older daughters. I became a grandfather during all of this, too.
Sitting at home with your family that long, your perspective changes a little bit. You see those sing-a-longs and family shows, the ratings are huge. I felt like people were looking for something different. Comedy Central is really stepping up to the plate releasing it the day after Thanksgiving at such a big TV time.
Do you maybe view this special as a reminder as to why you got into the business to begin with?
That’s a great question. I’ve done it the same way for so long it was becoming a job. I never wanted what I did to become a job. This was an unbelievable challenge. I haven’t been nervous about performing in years. I went from having eight-to-10 thousand people a show back in March to less than 100 people where everyone is in masks sitting at tables. It was a little bit intimidating, but those people were ready to go.
People have to jump through fiery hoops to be able to walk into the door or, in this case, walk outside down the pathway to their table. Everyone was there ready to laugh.
Tell me a bit more about what production was like.
We did it with as few people as possible, but the staging was brilliant and the lighting perfect for what it was with the cameras we used. I’m a big advocate for sound. I don’t care if it’s a blank screen and nobody can see anything. They have to be able to hear the jokes and laughter. We had a microphone at every single table, which was important. The laughs are real. Everybody did their job beautifully.
If the audience likes this and it gets a big number, there’s no reason not to repeat this formula. Who knows how long we’ll be in this situation where we can’t have mass public gatherings. We did this three-part deal in hopes the next two [specials, in 2021] would be for the bigger audiences. If not, we’ll do it like this one. It was great with the outdoor venue. You can see the moon. You could even see Mars.
Do you find your approach to comedy has changed given the current environment?
You now have to have your radar ready. You think, if you do push it and take the joke out of context, your career could be over with or hit a giant wall that will be hard to get over or around. It’s not as fun as it used to be. You come up with a joke with a bunch of your buddies and think it would kill for a certain crowd. Now you have to look at it with a different filter and different lens. The positive is that it’s a challenge to be more creative and joke about things that are unifying or people can relate to. It’s easy to find the divisive subject matter. It’s harder to find unifying humor.
How has your family been as an audience?
All these jokes I wrote for the show I didn’t try out on anybody. But do you know what got the biggest laugh out of my boys? We’re sitting at lunch and I pick up a damn chip clip and start making it talk. They were on the floor laughing. Makes you think I’m trying too damn hard.
Jeff Dunham’s Completely Unrehearsed Last-Minute Pandemic Holiday Special, November 27, 8/7c, Comedy Central
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