Tuned In

Jeff Dunham: What Am I Not Getting?

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I usually believe in accepting defeat gracefully. When my preferred candidates lose an election, I do not threaten to move to Canada. When my government chooses a policy I reject, I do not believe that makes it constitutionally illegitimate. Part of being a grown-up is recognizing that decent, reasonable, non-brainwashed fellow citizens can simply disagree with you.

That was until last week, when The Jeff Dunham Show became Comedy Central’s highest-rated debut ever. 5.3 million people watched—and this was against heavy competition including The Office and Grey’s Anatomy. 5.3 million people? For a ventriloquism show starring a Halloween skeleton badly impersonating a Muslim terrorist?

I want my country baaaaaack!

Seriously, I was aware that Dunham was popular: he gets big audiences for his stand-up and had a huge tune-in for a Comedy Central special. But sustaining a series, with a few corny characters that half the time are not even in the same frame as him during his “ventriloquism”? When I got the screener, I figured that it was a curiosity, I had other things to write, and there was no point picking on it.

Clearly I was wrong, so I ask you in all seriousness: what is it about Jeff Dunham that I do not get?

Before you ask, I am not prejudiced against puppetry, people. Crank Yankers, The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock, Greg the Bunny, TV Funhouse—I’m there. My problem with Dunham’s puppets is that, besides being broad and cornball, they just don’t work as characters. Take his signature act, Achmed the Dead Terrorist. Some people call him offensive, but I can take offensive, if it’s funny and there’s some coherent point of view behind it.

But Achmed is really just a grab-bag of funny-foreigner jokes; even his trademark “I keel you!” barely sounds recognizably Middle-Eastern. He doesn’t have any particular satiric point about the war on terror, or extremism, or even religion. In the pilot episode, for instance, Dunham did a joke about Achmed that (predictably) played off the virgins-in-Paradise reward promised to suicide bombers. But he also did one about Achmed drinking alcohol. Which might have made sense if there was a joke-within-the-joke—about Achmed being devout enough to blow himself up but not to deny himself booze in accordance with Muslim beliefs—but there wasn’t. Dunham just happened to have a joke that involved drinking.

[Update: By the way—and further to my point—some of Dunham’s routines suggest it’s questionable whether Achmed even is Muslim; as far as I can tell, he’s crypto-Muslim when it suits the joke, and not when it doesn’t. Also a reader on Twitter argues that Peanut is really Dunham’s “signature character,” not Achmed. That may be—I’ll leave the call to Dunham fans—it’s just that Achmed is by far the one that Comedy Central has most heavily been promoting with the show.]

More or less the same is true about Dunham’s other characters, like Peanut; they have a couple typical traits (old and cranky, young and stupid) but mainly, they just exist to look and sound funny.

And, OK, some people like that; that’s fine. I’m going to be grown-up again; I am glad to accept that some people are going to like this kind of wacky-puppets humor better than, say, the showbiz-referentiality of Greg the Bunny, they don’t overthink it, and their cup of tea just happens to be different from mine.

But even accepting that Dunham’s brand of comedy is just not mine, there just doesn’t seem to be anything special about what he does—not 5.3 million viewers on Comedy Central special, anyway. Is it just that there was an unspotted yearning in America for ventriloquism-based comedy, a national mourning for Waylon Flowers and Madame that Dunham happened to jump on? Is it a case of him—like Dane Cook—brilliantly having built up his fan base through old-fashioned retail comedy?

If you’re a fan (or just an observer), tell me, because I really would be curious to know. I’ll be checking the comments for your theories. From Canada.