Jeff Dunham has started watching his words.
Within a minute of picking up the phone for our interview last month, the comedian and ventriloquist lightheartedly requested any of his “ums” or “ahhs” to be left out of his quotes.
And his attention to language goes much further than conversational fillers.
Whether he’s talking to a reporter or posting something on Twitter or telling stories on stage, Dunham says he has had to rethink his words and his jokes as to avoid “getting into trouble.”
“In our society today, there’s a political correct aspect to how we communicate,” Dunham said. "And, it’s really affecting stand-up comedy."
Dunham, who is now one of the country’s top-grossing stand-up comedians, has long defined his craft as “the last true form of free speech.”
“And now,” he said. “That has been taken away.”
At best, Dunham said, “It’s all a little iffy now.”
“You really can’t say what you think anymore and give an opinion or make jokes about something in a comedic way without getting hammered and sometimes losing a career,” he added. “You have to have been on stage long enough and in front of enough audiences to really have your finger on the pulse of what’s OK and what’s not OK. And even if it’s OK for your audience, now with social media it can be misinterpreted and put out there and you can become the villain.”
It hasn’t always been that way, he said.
He got into ventriloquism as a third-grader and his career took off when he appeared on “The Tonight Show” in 1990.
Dunham and other comedians have in recent years grappled with a shift in what is acceptable.
“I look back at some of my old stuff and say, ‘There’s no way I would do some of that today,’” he said.
When asked if that's a good or bad change for comedy, Dunham said, “Even answering that question can get you into trouble.”
He put it this way: “I do think it’s all been taken too far and it’s sad.”
Still, Dunham finds ways to push boundaries, mostly by speaking through his collection of characters.
On his “Passively Aggressive” tour, which makes a stop next week at the TaxSlayer Center in Moline, Dunham has added new characters, including “Larry,” the made-up and “very stressed out” personal adviser to President Donald Trump and conjoined twins who are “literally and politically divided.”
“Whether you like (Trump) or you loathe him, there’s comedy there,” he said. “How can I pass that up? I mean he’s one the greatest gifts to comedians to come along in a long time.”
Even though it may ruffle some feathers, Dunham said it'd likely be awkward if he didn't make jokes about the president.
"If you go to a comedy show and politics aren't mentioned, that would be a little odd," he said.
But, of course, he aims to talk about such things in a way that will keep him out of trouble.
“Sometimes comedy is shock value, but at the same time you have to weigh, 'Is that laugh worth the chance of being misconstrued and you being in trouble later on down the line?'"
At this point in his career, Dunham said he wants to focus on entertaining and offering a form of escape for this fans.
“A while ago, I realized I was holding onto something and perfecting something that could serve a lot more than my fame and fortune,” he said.
Dunham donates $1 of each ticket he sells to charity and often performs benefit shows, including one in December benefiting the victims of the Borderline Bar & Grill shooting in Thousand Oaks and the Woolsey Fire in California. The flames from the Woolsey Fire came within about 400 yards of Dunham's house.
He also gives back in another way: His comedic takes on the "human experience."
"I get these handwritten letters and messages from people who say my comedy has helped them or impacted them in some way," Dunham said. "And that is so important to me."
That part of his job? It's no joking matter.
"I think in our society today, we need laughter," he said. "We need something that’s going to take our minds off the troubles of the day.”