The Puppet Master

How playing with dolls has earned Jeff Dunham fame, fortune and fans by the million

Gregg Segal for TIME

Jeff Dunham

For most people, being caught in an enclosed space with either a terrorist or a ventriloquist would qualify as a hostage situation. But Jeff Dunham, a ventriloquist, is perhaps the most popular stand-up comedian in the U.S. And he broke through by playing straight man to a terrorist — a fiberglass one.

Ventriloquism? Yes, it's a profession, and Dunham, 47, has been paid for doing it since he was 12, having been given an instruction manual and LP when he was 8. He started performing in Kiwanis clubs and church socials in his hometown, Dallas, and worked his way up to...

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