Wednesday, February 16, 2011

For Your Pluppets.

Jeff Dunham’s “Achmed the Dead Terrorist” video is about to crest 130 million hits on Youtube. His videos have 350 million hits overall, he’s sold millions of copies of his DVD’s and performs for sold-out venues around the world. But he’s also a ventriloquist, representative of the lowest form of comedy right underneath mime. Somehow he and his felt rags have made a killing with material that wouldn’t pass muster in a dank basement comedy club. Jamie Farr would have given him the Gong in the 70’s and Ed McMahon would have taken him aside on Star Search to gently explain that he might want to consider updating his act out of “party clown” territory.

But despite all that, he’s considered the most popular standup comedian in the country, voted higher than Louis C.K. or even the Blue Collar guys. But why? How? I really just don’t understand it. And it’s not that I don’t understand it the same way I “don’t understand” why Adam Sandler’s latest turd was #1 at the box-office this weekend. There are a lot of people with room temperature IQs in this country that find really stupid shit funny. When you chastise them for it, they typically fire back one of a handful of rote, underdeveloped arguments like “you don’t have a sense of humor” or “everyone has their own taste” or “you don’t know how to shut your brain off to have fun”. I prefer my brain “on”, thanks, but I get that most people prefer to leave it on stand-by and snort their beer at Nick Swardson’s antics in “Grandma’s Boy”. Stupid people like stupid shit. I can cope with that. But Jeff Dunham is worse than 50 Billy Madisons put together. He’s the Anti-Funny. A humor black hole where laughs cannot escape.

You’d hire a birthday clown over a ventriloquist for your 5-year-old’s party, right? Because ventriloquists are just creepy. They’re treating an anthropomorphized log as a human being. That’s why real comedians have used them as a punch line since time immemorial. Which begs the question: what is so appealing about this particular ventriloquist? What separates his act from some sleazy lounge lizard? The only thing about his act that sets him apart as far as I can tell is that he’s racist and sexist for the hell of it, getting mileage out of simply saying dirty things that are only “funny” because they’re offensive. The hicks already have Larry the Cable Guy and countless other annoying jackasses for that. Other comedians who “work blue”, yet who do so with at least a modicum of dignity, claim he gets his laughs by simply funneling his hackneyed bullshit through the pile of rags sitting on his knee. Just using a stuffed animal as a cipher makes it “funny”. Could his fan base really be impressed with the same dynamic that draws 3 year olds to Sesame Street? Something that shouldn’t be talking is. That’s funny? That hideous talking baby in those Super Bowl commercials. He’s funny too?

One of the most baffling things to me is that when I watch Jeff Dunham doing his act, I can clearly see his lips moving along with the Resusi Annie bouncing on his leg. He’s not even a COMPETENT ventriloquist! This guy should be getting rotten lettuce thrown at him in a speakeasy in the ‘20s, not raking in millions of dollars and selling out every venue he books. He’s sub Dunk Tank Clown. He’s an R-rated “Puppets Say the Darndest Things”.

His now trademarked “creations” are just reductive, facile stereotypes carved into foam. He has nothing new to add to them either, with each one sounding like something the kid who thinks he’s a hoot in the lunchroom comes up with. Walter is a filthier version of Dana Carvey’s angry old man. Achmed the Dead Terrorist is a retread of middle-eastern stereotypes that have been kicking around since “Ayatollah Assaholah” in the ‘80s. There’s the pimp and the redneck and the sub-Mencia, Speedy Gonzales-esque Mexican. What am I missing here that makes him in any way original or unique?

People who like shitty humor, typically the kind where a man-child dances around like he’s autistic, often call me a “snob” for my perceived lack of taste on their part. To a certain extent they’re probably right, and I should back off a little bit when “fun is fun”. Sometimes the most base and vile humor can make us laugh on a visceral gut level. But there’s nothing in Jeff Dunham’s act that can’t be found in countless other comedy albums and standup specials that stopped being funny years ago. Only this time it has puppets. John C. Reilly’s character Steve Brule has an irrational fear of puppets and his speech impediment often forces the word “puppet” out as “pruppet” or “pluppet”. Even that mispronunciation is funnier than anything Jeff Dunham has ever done. I just don’t get it.

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