Ventriloquist Jeff Dunham Is the King of Jokers


Finally, Achmed the Dead Terrorist has a Vegas residency. Graciously, he’s invited Jeff Dunham along.

Wait … Dunham’s the headliner?

That’s the artistry of a ventriloquist who creates puppets that seem like they can stand (and in one case, run) on their own without a hand up their splinter-y asses. That makes Not Playing With a Full Deck, Dunham’s new Planet Hollywood show, a master class of sometimes profane, often scabrously funny dummy shtick that middle-fingers political correctness with both digits. With due respect to talented Terry Fator, it’s hard to imagine another ventriloquist turning this retro, mostly marginalized comic form into something more hip and flip.

Opening the production is a taped takeoff on TV’s 24 starring Dunham and his cast of knee jockeys: cranky old Walter; purple-faced Peanut; mini-doppelgänger Little Jeff; and Achmed.

Spoofing—with a slight squirm factor—the notion of a terrorist plot against Vegas, it casts Walter as the president, and Achmed, losing his thirst to “keeeel you” when handed an escort-for-hire flier and ogling the poolside parade of female pulchritude. (“The burqas here in Las Vegas are very short.”) Then Dunham warms up his own show with a standup routine built around a funny slide show of his upbringing, family and nerdy passion for voicing puppets.

Once the puppets—or, as Little Jeff says, “Wooden Americans”—arrive, Dunham is a runaway comedy train barreling through jokes that hit the expected topics (marriage, relationships, social media) but also needle President Obama, gays, Mexicans, blacks, Jews, Arabs—even hotel co-headliner Britney Spears, to whom he compares himself by quipping: “In both shows, the lip-synching will be slightly off.”

When introducing smart-ass Little Jeff, Dunham yanks off its head and exposes its hollow back to demonstrate how it’s operated. Yes, it’s a puppet, but seeing its guts can take us out of the mood—and in fact, after it’s reassembled, the audience is slower to rev back up to full-laugh speed. Yet, in a display of his deftness at character creation, Dunham animates L.J. with snippy, hilarious sarcasm, and the laughs immediately bounce back long and loud. Then, in a fabulous sight gag, Dunham chases Little Jeff across the stage and tackles it.

In fact, poking fun at his craft—and our willingness to accept the absurdity of a grown man making dolls talk—is a running thread, as when he jokes about the strain of the show: “I have to talk through at least half the show.” Or, when Big Jeff feigns a hitch in his throat, Little Jeff says: “E-nun-ciate, asshole.”

Though one segment that briefly incorporates his puppet on a stick, Jose Jalapeño, is fairly weak, the show ends on an Achmed high as the angry/cuddly little terrorist and Dunham answer written audience questions. Whether they’re planned or ad-libbed is secondary. Primary is the laugh:

Question: “If someone touches or smells your hair, is it sexual harassment?”

Achmed: “No. Unless it’s a midget.”

To use a comic’s slang for rockin’ the house: Dunham kills. Achmed keeeels.

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