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Book Review: All By My Selves: Walter, Peanut, Achmed, and Me by Jeff Dunham

Non-Fiction Reviews

Book Review: All By My Selves: Walter, Peanut, Achmed, and Me by Jeff Dunham

All By My Selves by Jeff Dunham
All By My Selves: Walter, Peanut, Achmed, and Me
by Jeff Dunham
Dutton, 368 pp.
CLR [rating:4.5]

Why Achmed Always Saves the Day

Jeff Dunham’s YouTube videos have been seen over 400 million times, his comedy DVDs have sold more than six million copies, and he’s been one of the top touring comedians for the past two years. Here’s the good thing–Dunham’s book comes across a lot like his audience-pleasing live shows. In this well-written book, he’s funny, self-deprecating, socially relevant, and multi-vocal. Yes, his dummies (he points out early on in the book that the politically correct term for them is “figures”) jump in from time to time to comment on what he’s written, so fans of Peanut and Bubba J will get a fine dose of them too. (You can tell who is saying what because each bit of dialogue has an image of the appropriate figure in front of it.)

Here’s an example where Peanut follows up on a story about how during their first visit to The Tonight Show, he had his own little dummy.

Peanut: I still have a dummy.

Jeff: Who is it?

Peanut: He just asked “who is it?”

And here’s an example of how the curmudgeon Walter interrupts to say:

Walter: I think this part of the book really gives the folks some insight into the “real you.”

Jeff: Who’s the real me?

Walter: An emotionally boneheaded man-child.

Dunham isn’t content to simply tell his own story. In addition to showing the influence of his family throughout his life, he also offers a real sense of the history of ventriloquism (or “vent” as it’s often called), including spending a page or so explaining how a Jimmy Nelson vinyl album called “Instant Ventriloquism” taught him how to throw his voice. Apparently the tricky sounds are F, M, P, V, W, and Y, because all require the use of your lips. How do you get past it? Sound substitution, which is using similar sounds to mimic those difficult ones. W is “duddle-oo” for instance. Y? Oh-eye.

It might not sound right when you first try it, but trust me–he’s a two-time winner of the Ventriloquist of the Year award (the only person to ever win it twice). He knows what he’s talking about.

One of the other surprises that this book reveals is Dunham’s obsession with helicopters. He spent many months building one from a kit, and like most people with an unusual vehicle addiction, he had a near-death crash with it. Instead of letting it squash his love of flying, he rebuilt his helicopter and went back to the exact same spot he’d crashed months earlier and performed the difficult maneuver that got him into trouble in the first place. It’s that kind of stick-to-it nature that kept him on the path toward being one of the country’s top entertainers despite various setbacks along the way.

Just to hear his many close calls of getting on The Tonight Show–one of his early goals for himself–is enough for readers to be pulling their hair out in sympathy. The biggest heartbreaker is how the booking agent, Jim McCawley, finally said Dunham would be on Carson’s show. “He said I’d done a great job making it [the act] just right for Johnny and The Tonight Show audience, and that he’d call me the next day and give me a date.” The date was December 30. Dunham’s parents proudly bought him a $1,200 outfit, including an Armani jacket, and they told everyone he’d be on. The morning of the actual show, however, came The Call.

“Jeff, I made a mistake,” McCawley said. “You’re not ready.”

Dunham describes this setback in excruciating detail.

“For a long time I stood there, staring at the wall in front of me with the dead phone still to my ear. I looked down at my desk and touched my father’s electric pencil sharpener that he’d given me from his office a few years before. As I touched it, the knot in my stomach tightened even more. When I moved to Los Angeles and was setting up my desk, I plugged the sharpener into the wall and vowed to never empty the shavings until I had been a guest on The Tonight Show. Not hours before, I had looked at it, knowing I would be emptying it before midnight. I pushed it back a couple of inches. I hung up the phone.”

To make matters worse, the person McCawley got to replace him was Merry Christmas, a woman with the same name as the holiday greeting. He’d been honing his act for nearly two decades and that was the caliber of his replacement.

Another emotional high point of the book is how Dunham struggled with the end of his first marriage and how it nearly killed him to break up his family (especially worrying about how it would affect his three daughters), though he knew the marriage was over and it was the right thing to do. This huge decision affected his health, his happiness, and even the quality of his shows for a long time. In an age where celebrities’ lives are plastered on grocery store tabloids, his breakup is one that managed to stay relatively private. This accounting covers it in detail, but doesn’t linger too long to be a true downer. In fact, he soon finds love again with Audrey, a woman who didn’t know that Jeff Dunham was, well, the famous Jeff Dunham who Forbes magazine estimated to have made $30 million between June 2008 and June 2009. She just knew him as the guy who asked her out for a cup of coffee.

At this point in the book, Walter jumps in with his own cranky analysis:

Walter: I’m still not sure she knows what you do for a living.

Part of the real fun of this book is the many stories Dunham shares that came in from fans, such as the substitute teacher from Florida who didn’t know Dunham’s comedy routine, but months earlier was having a very difficult time with a particularly rowdy class of second graders. She finally let loose with a “SILENCE!!!!” to which one of the jokers yelled back Achmed the Dead Terrorist’s favorite tag phrase, “I KEEL YOU!!!!!”

If you’re a fan of Dunham’s this book will be a tremendously enjoyable read that has enough emotional pull to make it memorable, and enough humor to keep the guffaws coming. If you’re not familiar with Dunham’s brand of humor, well, you’re in for a treat. He’s the straight man for the funniest comedy team in the business, no matter whether he’s yukking it up with crazy Achmed, grumpy Walter, hyper Peanut, weird Melvin, snarky Jose Jalapeno, or the one-of-a-kind Sweet Daddy Dee. Sit back and enjoy this fine read by one of America’s finest comedians.

Ryan G. Van Cleave was the 2007-2008 Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Washington at George Washington University. He has taught creative writing and literature at Clemson University, Eckerd College, Florida State University, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as well as at prisons, community centers, and urban at-risk youth facilities. He lives in Sarasota, FL where he works as a freelance writer, editor, consultant, ghostwriter, and script doctor. He serves as Director of CandR Press, a non-profit literary organization based in Chattanooga, TN.

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