Jeff Dunham is no dummy. He just plays with a bunch of them on stage
Well before Friday's sold-out show at the Chavez Theatre, Dunham entertained, and pitched to, the gathering crowd via a video screen, on which was projected trivia about the ventriloquist comedian, word scrambles, plugs for Dunham's merchandise and a series of running jokes called "Dear Walter," in which his grumpy old man puppet answered random questions about everything from sex to old age.
"How can I get my wife to be more aggressive during sex," one asked.
"Wake her up," Walter replied.
That's the kind of old-school, snappy repartee Dunham indulges in with the most popular of his dummies. But the way he has structured his new "Disorderly Conduct" show — which, if the usual cycle applies, will become a top-rated Comedy Central special and million-selling DVD next year — the Texas native saved the best of it for the last part of his two-hour show.
By now, Dunham's devoted legions know what to expect as the comedian parades out a series of dummies whose distinct characters and and finely honed personalities are firmly etched in their hearts and minds. There's the beer-swilling, car-loving Southern hick Bubba J, the threatening yet insecure Achmed the Dead Terrorist, the caffeinated potty-mouthed purple bad boy Peanut, the reserved yet quick-witted Jose Jalapeno on a Stick and, of course, the curmudgeonly Walter.
But there's a greater sense of self in this show, an awareness of Dunham's age — he hit the mid-century mark this year — and just how unusual what he does for a living is.
There is one new character, introduced on last year's "Controlled Chaos" tour, that adds a whole new, somewhat psychoanalytical element to the show. Little Jeff is a dummy version of Dunham ("That's not narcisstic," he cracked at one point), a dummy controlled by another dummy, Peanut, on the last show.
This time around, Little Jeff has been turned into a product on which anyone can learn to become a ventriloquist. He was designed and built by Dunham and sold at the merchandise stand (along with t-shirts, tote bags and dolls of the dummies) for $125.
The first half of the show was pretty much standard fare Dunham and only mildly funny for a guy who pretty much has filled the void left by most of the Blue Collar Comedy guys. It felt like a work-in-progress.
The show started with a video of Walter, Peanut, Bubba J and Achmed being rounded up, interrogated "Law & Order" style and lined up, supposedly for their disorderly conduct. I'm sure this will be part of the DVD to come.
Dunham followed with a slide show of embarassing child photos. Several of them were school pictures, back when the aspiring ventriloquist (who's been wanting to do this since 7th grade) cleverly posed with his dummies so he'd have a promo shots.
Achmed, he of the "Silence! I Will Keel You" tag, came out first, then Bubba J (my least favorite of Dunham's characters). Most of that material, which plays off stereotypical assumptions, had a sketchy quality, as if Dunham, only a month into performing his new show, was still feeling his way through it.
Achmed did get a funny crack in about the recent Elmo scandal, no doubt for future inclusion on his new "Achmed's Daily Bombs" videos on iTunes, and a dirty one about a camel's toe. The funniest bit came when Bubba J dropped the f-bomb a few times. Dunham, slowly easing away from the "family entertainment" rep, had great fun with that.
Makes you wonder if Dunham, who recently remarried, is trying to break out of that squeaky clean image a bit.
The performance picked up steam, and got a bit weird, when he brought out Little Jeff, ostensibly to promote it to aspiring vents. After all, it comes with an autographed instructional DVD, scripts and an 8x10 signed glossy.
What was presented as a gratuitous pitch turned into an odd and inventive bit of self-examination as Little Jeff and his New York accent proceeded to insult security ("because you know people like to rush puppets!") and pick on Jeff's insecurities about being an only child obsessed with becoming a ventriloquist, calling him "an outcast, a nerd" and accusing him of being "beat up by everybody."
It had an almost confessional quality. Little Jeff got so insulting that, in a genius move, the two argued off mic, then got into a physical altercation before performing a brilliantly syncopated bit inspired by Abbott and Costello's "Who's On First" routine. I don't know how his ex-wife feels about it, but when Dunham explores his dark side, it's not only cleverly funny, it's got an edge to it.
The show really accelerated, and lightened up, from there. Dunham replaced Little Jeff with the nutty Peanut, dressed in his Batnut superhero costume, who dropped a few f-bombs, did his Darth Vader imitation (Dunham's wide vocal range is often overlooked), traded insults with his sidekick Ruben (Jose dressed as Batman's Robin), then leaned forward to confer with Ruben about how "it's all downhill" for Dunham now that he's 50.
That was a perfect time for Little Jeff to reappear as The Loser, a green-clad superhero who looked like the Joker from the old "Batman" TV show, in a bit where Dunham has Peanut manipulate the puppet, the dummy operating a dummy routine. One thing about Dunham, he's taken ventriloquism places it's never been before.
He closed with Walter, his greatest hit, who dropped a few f-bombs of his own, nattered on about marriage and his fat wife, accused Dunham of being "a middle-aged dumbass and his dolls" and noted that they started as a young man with an old man dummy, but, now that Dunham's 50 "pretty soon we're gonna be the Sunshine Boys."
Riffing on a series of questions from the audience, Walter, er, Dunham turned one woman's misspelled question about how to poop (instead of pop) the question into a running gag.
"How do we get our children to let go," one asked.
"Stomp on their hands," Walter said unapologetically.
You've got to wonder if there will come a time when Dunham wants to do just that with his dummies. Heck, he got into a fight with Little Jeff. The very things that have made him rich and famous could and might constrain him, especially if it gets harder to come up with new material (and characters) for audiences that, like music fans, just want the familiar.
We have to remember that this is a guy who, in middle school, came up with the bright idea of using school photo day to get a professional performer pictures. For six years in a row.
There's no doubt Dunham will find a way to keep things interesting — and funny — for years to come. I'm not sure Little Jeff would agree.