Ventriloquist Jeff Dunham works with a cast of puppet characters. (Richard Mclaren
‘Dunham Show’ laughs are strictly for dummies
There are those who enjoy watching a guy lock his jaw closed and tighten his lips, clenching his entire face into an expression of no expression, looking as if there is a gremlin freaking out at the entrance to his esophagus because his throat muscles are flexing and twisting so demonically. You know who you are.
Personally, I find the art of ventriloquism strange, and so I may not be the best judge of Comedy Central’s “The Jeff Dunham Show,’’ which premieres tonight at 9. No, I’m not a sufferer of automatonophobia, the fear of humanoid figures, but I just find it stressful to watch a person speak in kooky voices while fiercely pretending not to speak. Dude - we can see your larynx lunging up and down! Get a turtleneck! Even the maternal Shari Lewis mystified me, as she gave the cuddly Lamb Chop to the world.
“The Jeff Dunham Show’’ doesn’t offer much to those of us who aren’t mesmerized by ventriloquism. Essentially, it’s a weekly half-hour showcase for the comic, who has found huge success in recent years with his national tours, TV specials, DVDs, and YouTube videos. Dunham introduces a few pre-filmed segments, each of which features him with one of his familiar characters, or he does standup with them in front of a live audience. As the dummies spout predictable jokes, most of them revolving around racial stereotypes, Dunham stands by looking like a smirking Kiefer Sutherland.
Dunham’s most famous character is Achmed the Dead Terrorist, a skeleton with crazy yellow eyes. Tonight, Dunham gives us a fake ad for an Achmed standup DVD, then talks to Achmed about it onstage. Asked by Dunham how his comedy career is going, Achmed talks about his success at the Kabul Chuckle Dungeon. “Every Thursday is ladies’ night,’’ he says. “You’ve gotta trade in a lady for a drink.’’ In another sketch, a purple fuzz ball named Peanut plots to get a celebrity girlfriend, someone “hot and frickin’ famous.’’
The material is all easy and, when it comes to the caricaturing, ambiguous. It’s not always clear if Dunham is asking us to laugh at the ridiculousness of stereotyping or if he’s doing some stereotyping of his own. I tend to think the latter. But Dunham doesn’t let on, as he maintains his composure and works his dummies, his hand up their backsides.
I can image a TV series about a guy and his dummies, and maybe the way his puppets become real to him. Watching a ventriloquist work bears some similarities to watching a little child act out issues with dolls. With clever scripting and a more imaginative single-camera technique, Dunham could have mined that psychodynamic for sharp comedy. Instead, he has decided to give us just more Ventriloquism for Dummies.