My first experience with comedian/ventriloquist Jeff Dunham, unbeknownst to me, came from a t-shirt in the mall. I didn’t know what I was looking at, this turbaned skull with bloodshot eyes above the phrase “Silence! I Kill You.” What does this mean? What was it for? Had the tidal wave of Middle Eastern stereotypes extended to cheap-o t-shirts available between the Starbucks and Auntie Anne’s? What the hell was going on here?
It wasn’t until an October, 2009 episode of 30 Rock, “Stone Mountain,” that my questions were answered. In this episode, Liz goes in search of a new TGS cast member, and Jack sends her to find a comedian for Middle America in Stone Mountain, Ga. It was there that I first saw Jeff Dunham.
In 2009 Dunham-mania was reaching a fever pitch. After struggling on the comedy circuit for the better part of three decades, Dunham was King of the Hill. Dummies Peanut, Walter, and, of course, Achmed the Dead Terrorist had made Dunham the most famous ventriloquist in the country, and a lucrative multi-platform deal with Comedy Central sealed the deal, securing Dunham several specials, a standup tour, DVDs, consumer products (which included weird, racist t-shirts), and a new TV series.
The Jeff Dunham Show premiered on October 22, 2009, one week before he guested on 30 Rock. The show, which aimed to bring his infamous cohorts to a bigger and broader audience, featured Dunham giving each of his characters the spotlight and allowing them to interact with real people and run amok in the free world. For example, in the show’s opening bit, Walter, Dunham’s bigoted old man character, freaks out at the therapist when he learns the doctor is gay. Comedy.
The show would put all of Jeff’s characters in situations like this. Achmed the Dead Terrorist would go to job fairs to enlist people for his terrorist organization. Sweet Daddy Dee, Dunham’s African American character, listens to a Barber Shop Quartet and has a meltdown. Peanut the star-obsessed (and mentally challenged?) puppet interviews big celebrities like Brooke Hogan. But over six episodes, the show, declining in ratings and increasing in budget, headed towards quick cancellation.
The Jeff Dunham Show looks, sounds, and acts like any other comedian’s show on the network. Chappelle’s Show being the most famous example of the format, a comedian comes out, introduces the show, and after half a minute of comedy, they throw to pre-recorded sketch. Comedy Central must have this down to a science at this point, and with Dunham doing all the heavy lifting, you’d assume they’d have an even easier time putting the show together. Dunham just needs to bring his puppet to a different setting and annoy one specific type of person at a time. It’s almost exactly like The Tom Green Show.
The show premiered to huge numbers with 5.3 million people tuning in to see Peanut’s groundbreaking interview with Brooke Hogan. It was the highest-rated first episode in Comedy Central history. The success, built by a massive marketing campaign, was short lived, however; by week two, all curious and new viewers checked out and ratings dropped 66%. Week after week, numbers dwindled as Dunham’s fanbase abandoned the broader, less racist(?) version of Dunham’s act and newcomers simply tuned out. By episode six, a meager 1.3 million were left to see Dr. Drew rehabilitate alcoholic puppet Bubba Jay. Drew was crushed.
As per Dunham’s and the network’s expectations, The Jeff Dunham Show’s quality remains entirely on how you view Dunham as a performer — though, the sharp drop in viewership might indicate that even Dunham diehards weren’t thrilled. Critics eviscerated the show. One review, entitled “The Jeff Dunham Show is the Worst Thing in the Whole World,” had nothing but negative things to say about Dunham and his “racist, homophobic, misogynistic, anti-semitic, [and] shithead puppets,” declaring him “THE ABSOLUTE FUCKING WORST DUDE IN THE WORLD.” The review may be a tad hyperbolic, but it isn’t necessarily wrong. For the most part, Dunham builds his comedy on stereotypes and racism. “A gay therapist? Uh-oh! What if he thinks we’re gay?!?” The bits are sadly outdated, predictable, and just plain unfunny.
Jeff Dunham and Comedy Central miscalculated Dunham’s actual appeal. First, by broadening and softening (really?) his act, and then asking the American public if they really wanted this guy to a resounding, “meh, not all the time.” Of course, this did not slow Dunham’s career. His deal with Comedy Central held out, and he found success on the back of his own enormously successful live show. Just this year some website reported Dunham was the fifth highest-paid comic in the world. Somebody’s watching this guy, just not every Thursday at 10.
Matt Schimkowitz is writer, TV watcher, and former mall employee, who enjoys drinks served in coconuts and wondering just who the hell buys stuff from those stands anyway. Read more reviews at tvsfault.wordpress.com. Follow his everyday trials and tribulations on Twitter @borntoslug