Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Jeff Dunham Is a Comedy Genius

Ventriloquism and comedy aren’t an unusual mix.  Actually, almost all – if not all – ventriloquist acts I’ve seen are comedic in nature.  But there’s something about Jeff Dunham that made me feel as if I’m seeing ventriloquism comedy for the first time.  He’s that remarkably talented and innovative.

I first learned of him years ago.  I read an article listing the most viewed (or most popular? I forgot) videos in Youtube, and a clip from Jeff Dunham: Spark of Insanity was in it.  That clip was the debut of Achmed the Dead Terrorist.  When the puppet greeted everyone, “Good evening… infidels!”, I immediately burst out laughing.  From that moment on, Jeff’s sets constantly have me in stitches.  I’ve since watched his specials Jeff Dunham: Arguing with Myself, Jeff Dunham: Spark of Insanity, Jeff Dunham’s Very Special Christmas Special, Jeff Dunham: Controlled Chaos, Jeff Dunham: Minding the Monsters, Jeff Dunham: All Over the Map, and Jeff Dunham: Unhinged in Hollywood as well as many of his videos in Youtube.
As a comedian, Jeff ridicules everyone and everything – including himself – making use of sarcasm and stereotyping to optimum comedic results.  And with his puppets as medium for many of his jokes, not only does it add additional layer to his humor, but it also somewhat serves as an “excuse” for him to become more unrestrained in delivering jokes that others may feel are offensive already.  But Jeff has always made it clear that he hates political correctness.  And I think that he has never displayed any sort of actual prejudice.  I feel that his ultimate concern is making the most clever and most hilarious joke.  If it happens to be “offensive” to some, then so be it.  But he was never really mean for the sake of being mean.

There are critics who say that Jeff’s jokes only work to hilarious effect because of the novelty and charm of being delivered by puppets.  But is that really a negative thing?  That doesn’t discount the comedy at all.  On the contrary, utilizing puppets and ventriloquism should be seen as a refreshing innovation.  
Jeff really put so much personality in his puppets.  He does a fantastic job in making the audience subconsciously treat them as separate entities from himself.  Aside from Achmed (who has arguably become he’s most popular puppet), his typical partners – referred to as “The Guys in the Trunk” – are Walter, a grumpy old man; Bubba J, a “white trash trailer park” redneck; and Peanut, a… I don’t know what Peanut is.  There’s also José Jalapeño on a Stick – literally a Mexican jalapeño pepper on a stick – who is frequently partnered with Peanut.  Puppets that Jeff had retired from his acts are the pimp Sweet Daddy Dee, Melvin the Superhero Guy, and Achmed Junior (I think I only saw them featured in one set each).  His newest character is Little Jeff, a pint sized caricature of himself, which debuted as Peanut’s puppet during Controlled Chaos.  When he returned in Unhinged in Hollywood, he was operated by Jeff, and they did the most hilarious use of physical comedy in a ventriloquist act I’ve ever seen.
But, for me, Jeff’s most brilliant moment, not only as a comedian-ventriloquist, but, more importantly, as an artist and advocate of free speech was when he had a show in Malaysia in 2014 (as depicted in All Over the World).  Mere hours away from the show, Jeff was informed that the government’s Muslim-sensitive censorship department was “requesting” him to refrain from including or mentioning Achmed in his set.  He was understandably upset since the show was being promoted with Achmed as a highlight, and the Malaysians fans were expecting to see him (again, Youtube made Jeff and Achmed world famous).  Still, Jeff managed to quickly think of an ingenious and inspired solution.  With “Achmed the Dead Terrorist” banned from serving as the set’s finale as usual, he instead debuted Achmed’s “brother” Jacque Merde (“jack shit” in French), the French Terrorist.  It’s actually just Achmed, but with a French accent, mustache, and beret instead of a Muslim turban and a Middle Eastern accent.  Moreover, throughout the performance, Jeff made delightfully subtle but obvious implications that this was essentially Achmed pretending to be his “brother” Jacque.  With “military guys with rifles” (as Jeff described them) in attendance, he managed to pull off this awesome ruse.
I know of no other comedian or artist that had been in a similar critical situation, and was able to essentially not compromise his craft but, at the same time, get away with it.  That, for me, makes Jeff Dunham a distinctive comedy genius.

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