WALLA WALLA -- Anyone wondering what "the most popular comedian in America" might have been doing at the Walla Walla Regional Airport this week need only begin with a name.
That is, after all, the common bond between ventriloquist and standup comedian Jeff Dunham and Dunham Cellars winery.
As the story goes: The funnyman -- who earned the aforementioned title from Time Magazine -- discovered the Walla Walla winery through the drink menu at his local Ruth's Chris Steakhouse in Los Angeles several years ago. Initially drawn by the name, he loved what he tried in the bottle.
In late 2008, he contacted winery owners, including Mike Dunham, with a plan to create a special label for three of his signature stage characters on Dunham vintages. The collaboration resulted in an "Achmed syrah," "Walter trutina" and "Peanut riesling."
It also led the comedian to a new idea: Using the winery as a backdrop to one of numerous bonus features on his next DVD, the first such release for Dunham in three years and in the works now. So it came to be on Wednesday that the man whose TV specials and series have been Comedy Central's highest rated programs in history ended up on the crush pad at Dunham Cellars with a three-person crew shooting video.
What his beer-guzzling, NASCAR-fan-of-a-character Bubba J was doing there, on the other hand, befuddled even Bubba J himself.
"So, Bubba J, you like wine?" Dunham asked the puppeteered dummy as the camera rolled.
"Yes," said the voice of the proud redneck through Dunham's barely-parted lips. "Except for how it looks and tastes."
In take after take, Dunham worked multiple jokes, testing the funny waters with the crew. The concept for the storyline is that Dunham himself landed Bubba J the job as the winery's new tour guide.
"He had the right last name," Mike Dunham quipped.
But as fate would have it, the camouflage-cap-wearing Bubba J is more interested in finding a secret stash of beer he's sure is hidden somewhere at the facility.
With no audience to play off of, videos like the one shot Wednesday are put together a little differently than Dunham's usual show. As Dunham tours and performs for live audiences, as he was slated to do Thursday in Portland, he's able to rework his material based on the crowd's reception. His best stuff ends up as the show that ultimately makes the DVD. The extras are a different story, he said during a sun-infused break in the courtyard of the winery, housed in a former World War II hangar on Boeing Avenue.
"You just have to guess what you think is funny," Dunham said. "You use the best jokes and the best takes and end up with the final piece."
The numerous segments filmed throughout the winery -- and interrupted by the occasional pass of a plane overhead -- will be pieced together for a three- or four-minute bonus feature on the DVD. Dunham said he might also consider posting it on Youtube. By the way, the video-sharing website has been fertile ground for Dunham who has received more than 350 million hits on Youtube. According to Wikipedia, his introduction of "Achmed the Dead Terrorist" in Dunham's "Spark of Insanity" is the ninth most watched YouTube video.
Those who follow Dunham and haven't been able to make one of his live shows will find a couple of new developments with his characters on the DVD. For starters, "Achmed the Dead Terrorist" -- described as a skeletal corpse of an incompetent suicide bomber -- has a son named Achmed Junior, or AJ for short. The furry purple "Peanut" has taken up ventriloquism himself. Dunham, apparently, is the model for his dummy. Attendees of Dunham's performance in Kennewick were treated to this a week ago.
But an equally exciting introduction that came from the visit this week is a possible new collaboration between the L.A.-based Dunham and the Walla Walla Dunhams. After putting their heads together Wednesday, they decided a Bubba J cabernet may be in order to add to the list of special-label wines.
If nothing else, the unusual pairing of the comedian with the Walla Walla business helps bring together comedy-lovers who may not know the Dunham Cellars name and wine fans who may not be familiar with the work of the ventriloquist.
"It's worked both ways," the comedian said.
As for whether Dunham's comedy will ever be performed in Walla Walla's wine country, the comedian said you never know.
"It all depends on whether there's a venue," he said.
Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8321.