I dare say I enjoyed it, mostly? Jeff Dunham acknowledged he’d been touring constantly for the past 48 years before the pandemic forced him to take a time out. As I wrote in Decider…
Perhaps the layoff did him some good. It certainly made him more likable in my eyes in this hour. Because, let’s face it, I’m not the only comedy fan or critic who noticed that Dunham’s material had become more pandering and problematic over the years. And there remain times here where he’s trying to thread the needle on race, offensiveness, and outright racially offensive material.
Achmed gripes that he never had it as easy as this year’s “rioters,” and I don’t have neither the time nor the energy to explain how wrong this quick quip was.
But it’s Bubba J who dares to find the line the most, engaging in crowd work with a Black man in the audience, before bemoaning to Dunham about all of the jokes he wishes he could direct toward a Mexican woman sitting farther back from the stage, suggesting he could’ve done so safely 15 years ago. Bubba J asks Dunham for permission anyhow. Dunham demurs. To which Bubba J appeals: “Trust me, they won’t realize it’s you.”
Ay, there’s long been the rub. The cognitive dissonance that Dunham can play nice, while his puppets go naughty and cross any racist or sexist lines as they may wish. That the audience can imagine the puppet as a separate sentient being. It combines innocent childlike imagination with indulgent adult fantasy. Anything we can’t do or say, the puppet can. So Bubba J can still fire off one last zinger before going back into the suitcase, responding to Dunham’s question about Black Friday shopping by replying: “Jeff, all Fridays matter.”
It’d be less problematic if Dunham ever put his puppets back into their place, so to speak.
But they always have the upper hand, even though it’s his hand controlling them.
There are enough glimpses, however, of Dunham’s natural talents as a performer and a ventriloquist that remind all of us why he has remained so popular for so long.
He shows off his voice-throwing skills in a brief solo bit coming out of a commercial break, where he demonstrates how he teased the sound techs at soundcheck by mismatching the vocals with his lip movements.
And in great contrast with Kevin Hart’s 2020 special, which he indulgently built a stage inside his home to perform in clothes custom-tailored to look like pajamas, Dunham rented the Calamigos Ranch in the mountains above Malibu, and had his puppets mercilessly mock him over the choice of venue.