Once again I'm among the last to experience a performer everyone else knows about. I'd heard a little about Jeff Dunham and seen a few pictures of him and his dummies, and passed by his other disc releases in stores but "Minding the Monsters" is the first one I've actually watched (although I did check out some of his other stuff on Netflix afterwards to get better acquainted with his act.) This is a presentation of a live show performed at a large theater in Savannah, GA, done around Halloween and so the theme is slanted towards monsters and trick-or-treating with an elaborate haunted-house setup on the stage. Dunham works with a number of different puppets as he does in his other shows, but the twist this time is that they're all in costume.
The show begins with Dunham onstage alone, doing a conventional standup routine where he talks mostly about his dogs, including one who wore a collar that was supposed to control his excessive barking but the dog just found a way to co-exist with it. After this, the "little people in boxes" begin to join him. Each is introduced here with a movie trailer parody (done after the live show and edited in).
The first visitor is "Walter", a cranky elderly man who usually insults Jeff and complains about his wife. For this show, he's dressed up as Frankenstein, or as he says "Crankenstein". Dunham gets lots of self-deprecating humor in, with Walter calling him a guy who "plays with dolls, and now he's playing dress-up with his dolls."
Next up is "Bubba J", a "good ol' boy, NASCAR loving, beer guzzling white trash product from the famous 'tornado alley' of the South" (according to Dunham's website). Here he's dressed up as Dracula, and looking more formal than he ever has. He's only got one fang though, which he says is for opening beers.
Then out comes "Peanut", a monkey-like creature, driving onstage in a small Batmobile-like car (controlled by someone backstage) and dressed as Batman, or "Batnut". He's then joined by Jose Jalapeno, who is basically a talking jalapeno pepper on a stick- rather simple compared to the other characters, but still funny enough. (On the commentary track, Dunham acknowledges that he can't do too much with him, but says audiences have been disappointed when he does a show without using him at all.)
Peanut sends Jose back into his box, and brings out "Little Jeff", a replica dummy of Jeff Dunham himself. He's made so that Peanut can actually operate him- a ventriloquist act withing a ventriloquist act so to speak. Little Jeff wears a costume similar to Batman's Riddler, only he's "The Loser". (More self-deprecating humor- gotta love it.) If this intrigues you, a "Little Jeff" dummy is available to order from Jeff Dunham's website which also comes with an instructional book and DVD.
The final 'guest' is Achmed the Dead Terrorist. Normally he's a skeleton, the remains of a terrorist who blew himself up but is still alive, whose catchphrase is "I KEEL you!" For his Halloween costume, he's in drag.
What I enjoyed about Jeff Dunham's routine was his ability to interact flawlessly with his 'co-stars'- while of course all the voices are really just him, he has gotten everything down where each character really appears to be a separate entity. (There are a few minutes of outtakes in the extras section however that show things didn't really go as smoothly as they appear, which I'll comment on later.)
The show is shot in 1080i HD video, (encoded in AVC) at the traditional video frame rate of 30 frames per second. It looks just as a live performance video should, with almost every detail of the dummies' material visible along with the threads of Dunham's all-black outfit.
Audio is in 5.1 Dolby TrueHD (with a separate 2-channel Dolby Digital mix also included). While the sound quality is fine, the surrounds are hardly used at all, with just a little bit of audience laughter and applause audible from them, most of it is kept up front. There is an echo in Dunham's speech, but all of that is confined to the center channel. The sound mixer does get creative at one point by moving his voice to the right as "Jose Jalapeno" speaks after he has been put back in his box. SDH-style subtitles are also included, using a font that is a bit small.
There is a small amount of profanity in the show, and you are given the option to watch a version with the offending words bleeped out by selecting "Bleeped" or "Unbleeped" when the disc starts- you cannot switch back and forth without reloading the disc each time, so those who are easily offended don't have to worry too much. The subtitles also show "(bleep)" in place of the naughty words, and even the commentary track and extras are bleeped when that option is selected.
Special Features? More like "Let's fill up the DVD with crap!" Hey, I didn't say that, it's what you hear when you go to that menu! The extras on this disc are pretty extensive and show how much work Jeff Dunham really puts into his act. First is "Creating Crankenstein", where he shows how he added the Frankenstein elements to his "Walter" dummy- mainly adding a new piece to his head. "Monstrous Mistakes" shows outtakes from the main show- while the show may appear to go very smoothly the first time you watch it, it turns out that he was able to stop and re-do some bits if they didn't go right the first time. There are a few times where he flubs his lines but the audience is understanding and just goes with it, and he improvises some insults to himself from the characters as well. "Tour of Terror" has Dunham showing off the stage set after it's been installed and before the audience has arrived. "Minding the Miniatures" shows him using a 3D printer (I'd wondered for a while exactly what those were and how they worked, and now I have a better idea) to design some of the models used in the opening segment, taking much more time than that segment itself. "Frightening Photos" shows a photo shoot with Dunham and his pals for the disc's cover and other promotional materials, and "Monster Movie Magic" shows yet more modelmaking with the 3D printer and how some of the parody trailers in the show were made. In this segment we also learn a bit about Dunham's collection of early Macintosh computers as he uses one as a prop, and he shows us some funny pictures from the original owner's manual.
The movie trailer parodies which introduce the characters are also viewable separately. During the main show, there is an audio commentary with Dunham along with Matt McNeil who directed the parody trailers and the show's intro, and Kelly Asbury, author of the book "Dummy Days: America's Favorite Ventriloquists" and director of several animated movies including Shrek 2. Dunham further describes how he made the dummies used in the show, shares some of his views on comedy in general, and they all basically have a good time.
I would call Jeff Dunham not only a comedian, but also an artist given the amount of work he puts into his performances, including making his own characters. This works well for him, since he can keep his act fresh by bringing out new ones whenever he thinks of them, and can retire those who get stale or don't go over well with audiences. I'll be watching for more material from him, and try to see him live if he comes to my area.
Jesse Skeen is a life-long obsessive media collector (with an unhealthy preoccupation with obsolete and failed formats) and former theater film projectionist. He enjoys watching movies and strives for presenting them perfectly, but lacks the talent to make his own.