Before we get into the review, I think it's very important to point out that Jeff Dunham knows what he's doing, and has been doing it for a long time. How long? Long enough to perform and do panel with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show back in 1990. Let's take a look at that, shall we?
So that was Dunham 19 years ago, showing off his ventriloquism skills with his star attraction sidekick, cranky old Walter. And this month, in addition to his new Comedy Central show debuting tonight, The Jeff Dunham Show, he'll also be appearing on an episode of NBC's 30 Rock.
Reading the reviews for his show, however, has been highly amusing (though perhaps not to Dunham himself), as reporter after reporter has acknowledged they are dumbstruck by it all, either because they had not been aware of Dunham's popularity before, because they're not fans of ventriloquism, or both. They're quick to mention how Dunham's 2008 Christmas special was Comedy Central's most-watched show ever, with 6.6 million viewers — some also mention the hundreds of millions of YouTube views, the four million DVDs sold, and the success of his live touring. But when you read the reviews, it's as if the critics are saying either a) 6.6 million fans couldn't be wrong, could they?, or b) conversely, 6.6 million fans must be dummies themselves because they're dead wrong.
It's not as if ventriloquism or puppetry can't be a hit. Edgar Bergen did it generations ago with Charlie McCarthy (no relation!). On the trippy soap-opera parody of the 1970s, Soap, the characters had fun not knowing what to make of ventriloquist Jay Johnson and his sidekick, Bob (check out this scene, for example). There have been plenty of other success stories: From Senor Wences to Sherri Lewis and Lamb Chop, Willie Tyler and Lester, and 2007 winner of America's Got Talent, Terry Fator.
So why do critics seem to have a problem with Jeff Dunham? Let's roll a preview clip of his Comedy Central series, in which Dunham explains in his debut's monologue to the audience, "We took the little guys out in the real world — real life, real situations, with real people — and we saw what would happen." You mean things like this?
First things first. Very little about this show, at least from the first half-hour I watched, seems real. While you can suspend your disbelief when you see celebrities talking to the Muppets — for one very famous example that children and adults alike could relate to — how would you have felt watching any celebrity talking to Kermit the Frog while the late Jim Henson stood right there working him. It ain't easy being green, indeed. And when you see Brooke Hogan go on a date with Peanut, well, just be thankful that it's a fairly short sketch.
But sending Dunham and Walter to the fake therapist, who just so happens to be gay, which makes for jokes such as Walter wondering if he and Dunham are thought of as a gay couple? I'm pretty sure if a man has sex with a puppet, that's not a homosexual act but something else altogether and not filed under comedy (nor is seeing Walter sitting on a toilet). And when a gun shop salesman and a "gun enthusiast" are shown talking to Bubba J, with Dunham standing there (mouth slightly moving and arm stuck up in Bubba J), confusing the latter guy's retired teacher for "retarded" teacher, well, um, WTF? How did Dunham get from Walter, who seemed like an homage to Don Rickles and insult comedy, given the added spin through ventriloquism of being part of a two "man" act, to this?
I get the sense that Dunham's attitude is, and always has been, that his act should be retitled Puppets Say The Darnedest Things. It's not him saying these politically incorrect and sometimes just plain awful jokes. It's the puppet! Which, of course, also gets the heart of how so many people can find joy in Dunham's creation that took him to this heightened level of success: Achmed the Dead Terrorist. You see, when he says "I Keel You!" it's funny because he's already dead? The terrorists didn't win? Hooray? Let's all crack open a beer and celebrate? The TV series debut includes a parody commercial in which Achmed (without Dunham appearing in it at all) tries out a career of his own as a stand-up comedian, but eventually gets heckled and things get ugly.
Dunham himself, however, doesn't get heckled. Fans adore him. They have for years, as I've seen firsthand.
So why wouldn't Comedy Central want to be in business with the guy who gave the network its best ratings ever (and get a piece of his merchandising and commercial sales)? For critics to simply say it's not funny or that it's not for them because it's ventriloquism aren't doing much to advance the conversation or give their readers any insight into whether they should watch or not.
Here's what Dunham had to say in a new interview with The Futon Critic about his sense of humor.
Your style has been compared to Don Rickles. Have you met him or do you know if he's seen your act? I've never met him and that's a true compliment. A generation of folks loved him and he can get away with murder up there and you know he does it all in good fun. In what I do, I try and take on anybody and everybody. All races, all different walks of life and I try to make fun of myself more than anybody but I hope most everybody has a sense of humor knows that it's all coming from a good place. None if it is meant with malice or to be mean but the bottom line for a comedian is that you get a laugh and if that's how I get laughs and we laugh at each other then so be it.
Just looking at his fall tour shows that millions of people love it, as Dunham is playing to 10,000 fans or more at a time on his current arena tour through America (and into Australia). Just check out his schedule: