After more than 40 years of performing ventriloquism on TV, Jeff Dunham not only remained popular heading into the pandemic, but commanded arena-sized audiences around the world.
We can and have debated the philosophy of using a puppet to say things the human holding the puppet would never say.
As I wrote for Decider last year when this Netflix special debuted:
If you ever stopped to think about it, and why would you, if you’re laughing with Walter, Peanut, Bubba J, José Jalapeño on a stick and Achmed the Dead Terrorist, and not at them, then who’s the butt of the jokes?
At times, especially in this hour, it sounds a lot like we’re supposed to be laughing at anyone who’s not laughing along for the ride.
Case in point. Dunham introduces a new puppet to the act, a frazzled Trump adviser named Larry. Why? Because, as Dunham tells us: “Our country is divided right now. And it’s divided like none of us have ever known. It’s not funny. It’s not fun. It’s ugly. So what is a comedian to do?” He and the audience share nervous laughter. Dunham continues: “I don’t want to cause division, I don’t want to pick sides…but you can’t ignore the elephant in the room.” So he imagines the worst possible job under Trump. Cue Larry’s entrance.
See! He can make Trump jokes! Dunham is willing to offend anyone, right?
And yet, by 2019, at least, Dunham had seemed to brush aside any and all criticism about the sense of humor that comes out of his mouth but through his puppets. Because at multiple times, he uses his puppets to reinforce the idea that if you’re not laughing along with him, then you’re merely uptight or on the wrong side because you just don’t get that it’s all just jokes.
That earns him another applause break from the crowd. Yeah! They get it! Anyone who doesn’t get it, those are the abnormal screwballs! If you’re offended, that’s your problem. He uses his Peanut puppet to make fun of the notion that you shouldn’t judge anyone on skin color or anything else, unless you’re an older white guy. Like Dunham now is. Then he pivots to manufacturing himself as a victim. This mega-millionaire arena-touring comedian decides to poll his audience, all of whom loyally support him, to see if it’s still OK for him to continue talking to José Jalapeño on a stick, and gets the audience to chant for his appearance onstage. Quelle surprise! I’m shocked, shocked, I say at that audience reaction to back Dunham wholly and completely at the show they paid to see.
Echo chambers can be loud and large, it seems.