In 10 Words or Less
Racism, homophobia and old jokes through puppets' mouths
Loves: Stand-up comedy
Likes: Good ventriloquists
Dislikes: Jeff Dunham's act
Hates: Lame stand-up, the Achmed bit
I remember watching Jeff Dunham way back when he was first breaking through, with his odd purple puppet Peanut and thinking this guy's a damn good ventriloquist and a pretty good stand-up too, as Peanut's crowd work was rather funny (which is important, as crowd work for ventriloquists, where you force the audience to talk to a puppet, is one of the genre's more unique attributes.) Since those early days, Dunham's gone on to become one of the biggest mainstream stand-up acts in the industry, striking a chord with conservative and middle-American audiences, hitting his peak with a massive deal with Comedy Central that was mostly a bad fit, as the network tried pandering to an audience that just wasn't theirs and the resulting series ended after one poorly-received series.
That hasn't stopped Dunham's juggernaut success though, as him and his puppets continue to tour the U.S. of A, as evidenced by this disc, recorded during a stop in Richmond, Virginia during his 2011 "Controlled Chaos" tour. In fact, if you were to judge the quality of this special solely on the reaction of the audience, there would be no question that Dunham is the comedic love child of George Carlin and Brian Regan. While it's all fine and good that his fans gets plenty of chuckles out of his act, one needs to remember that Two and a Half Men has long been one of TV's most popular series, while Community, 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation have to beg for ratings scraps. Having an audience is often the opposite of having a quality show, and this Dunham is the perfect example of that, presenting a stand-up set built around characters he's been using for decades, and jokes far older than that. Worse yet, those jokes aren't very good, and are padded out by lame catchphrases that somehow elicit thunderous, Pavlovian responses from the crowd.
There's no arguing that Dunham isn't talented at ventriloquism, and his puppets, which he impressively makes himself, are very expressive and well-crafted and designed. The thing is, of the six puppets that get prime time in this show, all but two has been part of his act for as long as he's been on TV. Sure, Wayland Flowers was identified with Madame and Señor Wences had Pedro, but those were simpler times. We expect a bit more of our performers these days, especially if they're going to stick around a while. That's not the case with Dunham, who plays the straight man to his gaggle of insulting and angry creations, filling their manipulated mouths with lots of old gags. When fuzzy Peanut reads a letter from an angry Chinese fan, complete with swapped Rs and Ls and an "Ahh, so" accent, it would embarrass even Warner Oland, but the crowd eats it up. When it's suggested that Dunham might be gay, the audience reacts like Peter Sellers returned from the dead with a bag of eternal funny. It's almost certain that if Dunham managed to make one of his puppets take a puppet crap on the stage the paramedics would need to come in to cope with the resulting laugh-induced heart attacks. Even some of the new stuff, like the many awkward jokes he makes about his seemingly recent divorce, are old, as he was apparently separated nearly three years earlier.
Though his tried and tested material is a big part of why this act feels stale at best, his most recent creation, Achmed the Dead Terrorist (and his son Achmed Junior, who is gay (cue riotous laughter)) are representative of all that is wrong with Dunham as an act. First, it's brazenly appealing to a lowest-common denominator, offering up an easy laugh in the form of some conservative wet dream. If that was just the way in, allowing for some creative, funny jokes about cultural differences, politics or similar topics, it would be fine. Comedy often comes camouflaged. But all you get behind the turban, beard and inconsistent accent are repeats of his catchphrase "I keel you!" and near-ancient jokes about legless dogs and women's sanitary products. Yet, the audience reacted to this segment with the fervor normally reserved for rock stars, especially when the catchphrase was teased, and the payoff was deliberately delayed, essentially showing just how much the act relies on the audience wanting what they've heard before.
It's unfortunate that this is where his career went after such early promise (though with him earning tens of millions for making puppets repeat themselves, I doubt it bothers him.) This lack if inspiration is especially bothersome when this special starts out with a short biographical section that's more interesting than anything else in the show. It'd be ironic if he earned real acclaim for just being himself after years of making his name by being everything but.
This way-too-long 95-minute special arrives on one Blu-Ray disc, in a standard keepcase with a promotional insert that also has a picture of the Achmedmobile on the other side. The disc features an animated, anamorphic-widescreen main menu with an annoying cursor click and puppet comments on the choices, while options include watching the special, selecting chapters, checking out extras and adjusting the set-up. Audio options include Dolby TrueHD 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks, while English subtitles are available.
Presented with a 1080p, AVC encoded transfer, the show looks pretty nice with impressive levels of detail in the close-ups, good skintone on Dunham, strong appropriate color (especially on the attractive stage design) and deep, solid black levels. The wide crowd shots are a touch softer and have a bit of excessive grain, but aren't bad, and there are no issues with compression artifacts across the board.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack isn't hugely impressive, putting Dunham and his voices up front, along with the bulk of the audience sound, with some rather minor enhancements in the surround speakers. Having part of the sound up-front with the show sound is a touch frustrating, as there should be better separation and more of a room-filling feel to the mix. The 2.0 mix, though limited to the front of the room, is much stronger and powerful. Neither shows any issue with distortion though.
Up first is the Bubba J Winery Tour (2:24), where the redneck puppet (who is mostly absent from the special) joins Dunham on a trip to Dunham Winery (which is not owned by the comic, though they do collaborate on special releases.) It's cute, but no great shakes. There's also three previous tour opening videos (9 min) which are just the clips that start those shows.
If you were wondering if Dunham is as big outside of the States as he is inside them, Dunham Goes Global (3:42) illustrates that he certainly is, with clips from his appearances all over the world, as well as quick interviews with fans at those shows.
The rest of the extras are made up mostly of outtakes from the taping of the show. They illustrate what must have been an odd experience, as the show is repeatedly stopped by the voice of an unseen stage manager, in order to fix problems, which are the focus of these clips, or by Dunham restarting himself after making mistakes. These including an annoying necklace that hooks on his microphone, a make-up artist dealing with his sweating (and unwanted puppet attention) and a quick gag between Peanut and a member of Dunham's staff. If this is how comedy tapings normally go, this is some interesting insight, but otherwise it points to Dunham truly following a script, rather than just performing.
A quick minute-long look at a photo shoot for the special with Dunham and his puppets leads into the best bonus material, the biggest and final extra in the form of a nearly 14-minute look at the creation of the Achmedmobile, which is seen in the special's opening segment. It's this segment that earned Dunham definite respect, as he shows himself to be a true craftsman, utilizing several tools, including a 3-D scanner and printer, to create a large sculpture of the Achmed character's head for the top of the car. It's a really interesting process and maybe shows that Dunham puts more effort into the technical aspects of his material than the material itself. If he teamed up with another writer so he could focus on this side of his art, he could be amazing.
The Bottom Line
While I'm not an easy laugh by any measure, I'm not impossible to make at least smile. Yet, Jeff Dunham, with a cast of characters that has barely changed for much of my adult life and an arsenal of stale jokes that are even older than the characters, managed to leave me enjoyment-free for an entire hour and a half, time I spent wondering why the crowd was so entertained. Then I remembered the current political climate, and which side of the divide I stand on, and everything was clear. Like FOX News and NASCAR, Dunham has his audience and he gives them exactly what they want, over and over again, innovation or creativity be damned. The Blu-Ray supports a decent presentation with a bunch of clips that will appeal to fans of the show, but are just more of the same to anyone else, which fits perfectly, as that's basically been Dunham's act for much of recent history.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.