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Throwing Voices

by Rob Scher / 12.06.2012

Lending human qualities to an inanimate doll is kind of creepy. There’s just something not right about a grown man inserting his fist up Pinocchio’s ass and making him dance and talk. Pursuing a career in ventriloquism veers dangerously into paedo-territory. At least Jeff Dunham’s incredibly talented at it.

Until recently, Dunham’s career reflected that of your typical struggling artist. Fortunately, he had something at his disposal that helped take his characters from a sideshow-opening act, to international sensation – Youtube. Amongst high caliber offerings the likes of ‘David after the Dentist’ and ‘Charlie Bit my Finger’, Dunham’s politically incorrect deceased terrorist, Achmed, launched the ventiloqust to stardom. 350 million hits later, I watch as Dunham walks onto the Grandwest Arena stage to the adoration of hundreds of cheering fans.

It’s strange seeing a ventriloquist in an arena. Dunham falls under the banner of ‘comedian’ sure, but definitively ventriloquist first. The show begins with a little warm up monologue. Playing up the whole average American Joe shtick, Dunham regales the audience with stories of his dog and climbing Table Mountain. He looks a bit lost on stage, fumbling over his lines, his right arm dangling at his side – it’s ten minutes of awkward foreplay.

Eventually Dunham’s exhausted his dog stories and he brings on Walter. Arms crossed, Walter represents that never tiring American stereotype – the unhappily married bigot. Moments of laughter interspersed with entry-level gay jokes, Walter is an ageing Al Bundy, with less expressive eyes. The crowd is eating it up and I’m left wondering if the jokes would have as much impact if they weren’t conveyed through a puppet.

Cape Town’s shores are just one of many stops on Dunham’s worldwide tour. He chats to the crowd like he would a friend back home, retelling of a tough show experience he had back in Germany – they didn’t respond too well to cracks about Jews. His cultural repertoire apparently goes over their head. It becomes clear why, when Dunham introduces his next character, Bubba J. He’s classic Americana, beer-drinking trailer trash, with a penchant for incest jokes and bad grammar. There surely had to be a case of lost in translation during some of Dunham’s European shows. The Grandwest crowd doesn’t seem to be having the same problems, each Bubba fart joke ripples through the laughing crowd.

It’s tempting to watch the show on the screen’s set up around the arena. With the stage so far away, it’s difficult to see the puppet’s expressions or the guy in the black shirt standing inert next to the stars of the show. But it’s hard to justify paying for a ticket and then simply watching a live feed. Yet, the crowds in the cheap seats sit firmly facing the screens. It’s live Youtube, really. And that’s a poignant mirror of Dunham’s career.

The next puppet is a camp, purple anthropomorphic figure named Peanut. Peanut appears in a batman inspired costume, forming part of Dunham’s upcoming Halloween special material. The SA crowd is getting a sneak peek. The character is oddly without cultural stereotype. Dunham quickly rectifies this by introducing, José Jalapeno on a Stick – an ambivalent Mexican jalapeno pepper. In an act of ventriloquist bravado, he is grabbed out of a box by Dunham’s free hand. The proceeding scene of meta self-deprecation delivered courtesy of José and Peanut is probably the best bit of the show. They bring on a third puppet, appearing in Dunham’s likeness, controlled by Peanut. Puppet Dunham, is dressed as the superhero ‘Loserman’, and Peanut and José take it in turns to tag team Dunham with personal jabs. Dunham’s surely saved a lot of money on therapy through his career.

The crowd finally gets what they’ve been waiting for as Dunham saves his golden ticket for last. But ‘Achmed the Dead Terrorist’ certainly come with his share of problems. Our very own Advertising Standards Authority called for a ban on a ringtone using the characters voice, citing it as offensive to Muslims. Perhaps that’s part of this reason why Achmed appears before the crowd today, as a woman. Straying away from his more political material, Dunham chooses to rather play into the “safe” territory of dead vagina jokes. Achmed’s a well-formed character down to the expressive eyes, and it’s hard not to laugh at this cross-dressing skeleton talking about his woman problems.

By the end of the night, it’s been three hours of average comedy and excellent ventriloquism. The crowd is satisfied and I’m all alone with my high standards and subsequent disgruntlement. There’s no disputing Dunham’s success, but popularity and comedy are not always bedfellows. Thanks Youtube.

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