— -- Jeff Dunham is the No. 1 touring comedian, filling more seats and grossing more per year on tour than competitors like Jerry Seinfeld and Jeff Foxworthy, according to Pollstar magazine. He owes his success to technology, more specifically to online exposure.
Dunham's videos — featuring him and an assortment of characters including Peanut, Walter the curmudgeon and Achmed, the Dead Terrorist — are widely viewed on YouTube, where they have been seen in total more than 500 million times. His most popular, featuring him and Achmed, has nearly 150 million views.
Dunham says the videos help him sell out concerts. This week he'll appear in Wichita Falls, Texas; Little Rock, Ark., and Springfield, Mo.
The comic/ventriloquist is also a major tech geek, who collects Apple computers and cars, including the Batmobile used in the film Batman Returns. We met him at a warehouse in Los Angeles, where he houses his toys.
Finding his audience on YouTube
"It was a perfect storm of technology. To get that much exposure on a worldwide basis had never happened that way. If YouTube hadn't come around, if that character (Achmed) hadn't come around…it all met at the perfect time, and that's when things started going bonkers. Growing up, I thought it would be great if I could do big theaters. Now we're doing arenas. I thought it would be amazing to play foreign countries, and now we're doing that. We sold out Helsinki on Easter. It just shows you what technology has done. It's made the world such a smaller place."
Advice for comedians
"Stand-up comedy is tough right now. Anybody can come to a concert, tape you, and put you up on the Internet. You either fight it or embrace it. (Online) is not live entertainment. People will still pay dollars to come see live."
The tour bus
Dunham performs between 150 and 200 shows a year, grossing more than $12.5 million in 2011, according to Pollstar. He gets to the gigs via his outfitted bus, which includes a gym, three flat-panel TVs, a workshop where he repairs or builds dummies, and a video-editing station, where he works on concert DVDs. He also brings along a suite of Apple products — a 17-inch MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, iPad, iPod and iPhone. "I'm a geek to the bone," he says.
The car collection
Dunham has nine vintage and custom cars on display including a 2009 Viper ACR and one of the three original Batmobiles used in the filming of Batman Returns, a modified 1934 Ford with his character Achmed in the grill.
He won't say how much he paid to acquire the Batmobile, but adds "how do you pass it up?"
In the warehouse, there are 40 fully-functioning Apple computers, everything from the first generation Apple II from 1976, to early models like the Lisa I and Lisa II (1983) and and every color of iMac (including Flower Power and Bondi Blue) made before it switched to white and silver in the current era. Dunham says he's never thrown a Mac away, and many of the models were purchased via eBay or collectors.
"I wanted to start my little (private) Mac museum because I would not be where I am without the technology."