Welcome to Puppetland

A second plush-filled residency hits the Strip. Could this be a sign of a trend?

Illustration by Jon Estrada

Illustration by Jon Estrada

Here are the times puppets are acceptable and not terrifying: On The Muppet Show, The Muppets Take Manhattan, The Great Muppet Caper or other Muppet-related properties. Especially the ones that involve Madame Trash Heap.

End of list.

But here we are, about to enter a golden age of puppetry on the Strip not seen since Edgar Bergen brought Charlie McCarthy to Caesars Palace on his farewell tour in 1978. Bergen died three days after the end of his two-week run there. The Strip is clearly a vengeful god that doesn’t tolerate ventriloquism. Which makes Jeff Dunham’s upcoming residency at Planet Hollywood somewhat troubling.

Dunham, as you’re now aware if you’re the kind of person who gets excited when they’re re-running one of his specials on Comedy Central 63 times a week, signed a six-month residency deal starting November 28 at the Planet Hollywood Showroom.

This all does make a certain amount of sense. Planet Hollywood already has one dead-eyed headliner who moves her mouth to sounds emanating from somewhere else. And Dunham routinely clocks in near the top of Forbes’ top-earning comedians lists since at least 2009, so it’s logical for the P-Ho from a business standpoint.

Especially when bookers can look across the street to The Mirage, where Terry Fator is five years into a deal that takes him through 2016—and is rich enough to generally place him either right before or right behind Dunham on those same Forbes lists. Caesars Entertainment took a good long, hard look at MGM Resorts packing asses in seats, and decided that what America wants is puppetry. So, so much puppetry.

Even the Riviera, in its Pawn Shop Live! sports an oversize Old Man puppet. So we have to ask you this, sincerely, and in a spirit of emotional honesty and intellectual curiosity: America, what is your deal? Why do you have an insatiable lust for cheap puns delivered through 80 bucks worth of felt?

Is there just blood and stuffing in the water and everyone’s reacting like one giant googly eyed, plush great white? Is this like a peanut allergy thing that sprung up out of nowhere and all of a sudden people are recoiling at the sound coming out of the mouths of people purporting to make it? Or is this a weird side effect of going gluten-free? Like when they used to use mercury to treat animal fur and all of a sudden every hatmaker from London to Lisbon was freaking out and inspiring Lewis Carroll characters?

With Carrot Top entrenched at the Luxor, Dunham on his way and Fator established, we’re seeing a ton of broad, cartoony comedy take the top spots as headliners. Had Frank Caliendo hung on for the full ride he signed for at the Monte Carlo—he’d be five years into a 10-year deal by now—that would be four.

It could be cyclical. Gallagher was, for a time, one of comedy’s top draws (and he was, until recently, headlining the Laugh Factory at the Tropicana). It could be Cirque fatigue. There isn’t much that’s further away from the high-end pretense of O than a jalapeño puppet making vaguely racist jokes. Unless someone straight-up signs a fart-noise keychain to six shows a week. (This was actually under consideration at the Sahara before Sam Nazarian came knocking.)

But whatever it is, it’s unsettling. Can two puppet shows thrive in competing venues? Fator has often been complimentary of Dunham’s act in interviews, but that was before he was going head to head with him. But Fator’s routine, with its musical component, at least has a hook to keep some space between the two.

What we’re really worried about is the Puppetpocalypse this portends. If Dunham is successful, buckle up. An All-Star Tribute to Wayland Flowers and Madame nightly at Paris? Those Creepy DirecTV Marionettes: The Musical taking over Monte Carlo? Team America: World Police getting a stage adaptation at The Smith Center? (That makes a ton of sense, actually.) Avenue Q at Lux—oh. Sorry. Old wounds and all. It’s all on the table. Frankly, Pawn Shop Live! could, in retrospect, be ahead of its time.

But if all that comes to pass, don’t expect us to stick around for it. We’ve read the tea leaves, and we told you right up front the Strip is a vengeful god. If one more guy turns up with a trunk full of dead-eyed characters, we’re getting the hell out of here. The last thing we’re sitting through is a 50-foot Peanut pulling his best Stay Puft Marshmallow Man routine on Las Vegas Boulevard and Flamingo Road. Nobody steps on a church in my town? We’re not equipped for that. Stomp on what you want. We’ll be in San Diego.

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