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April 20, 2014

Everybody Loves Jeff Dunham -- Or Do They?

by Daynah Burnett, posted Nov 3rd 2009 6:10PM
Jeff Dunham These days, it seems you can't turn around without hearing about comedian Jeff Dunham, arguably the most popular ventriloquist since Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop -- and a lot more polarizing.

In case you don't know Dunham, he's been a ventriloquist for 25 years, has generated 350 million hits on YouTube and, according to Forbes, earned $30 million last year (placing him just behind Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock as America's richest comedian). He also earned record-breaking ratings last week for the the premiere of 'The Jeff Dunham Show' on Comedy Central.

But he's also got plenty of detractors, and a Dunham backlash seems to be gathering steam.

I'd had limited exposure to Dunham thus far, but after catching his guest appearance on '30 Rock,' I was curious as to how others respond to his act -- which is politically incorrect, to say the least. Sure, he's got a ton of fans; on the other hand, EW readers apparently can't stand him, and Videogum called his show "the worst thing in the entire world."Jeff Dunham These days, it seems you can't turn around without hearing about comedian Jeff Dunham, arguably the most popular ventriloquist since Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop -- and a lot more polarizing.

In case you don't know Dunham, he's been a ventriloquist for 25 years, has generated 350 million hits on YouTube and, according to Forbes, earned $30 million last year (placing him just behind Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock as America's richest comedian). He also earned record-breaking ratings last week for the the premiere of 'The Jeff Dunham Show' on Comedy Central.

But he's also got plenty of detractors, and a Dunham backlash seems to be gathering steam.

I'd had limited exposure to Dunham thus far, but after catching his guest appearance on '30 Rock,' I was curious as to how others respond to his act -- which is politically incorrect, to say the least. Sure, he's got a ton of fans; on the other hand, EW readers apparently can't stand him, and Videogum called his show "the worst thing in the entire world."



It's not as if Dunham's the first comedian to generate controversy and passionate reactions. One could say that he's just the latest in a long line of comics that includes Andrew Dice Clay, Dane Cook and Russell Brand. Could Dunham just be one of those guys that you either love or hate? Who's got it right: the critics, or the fans?

In an effort to be fair and figure out where I stand on the Great Jeff Dunham Debate, I decided to watch some of Dunham's classic bits -- you know, the ones with 40 million or more hits on YouTube -- and afterward, I was disturbed that he's been hailed "America's Favorite Comedian." While I fully understand that that title is based on numbers and not taste, it's hard to argue with $38 million in ticket sales .... but I'll try anyway.

In his act, five of the seven puppets in his cast of characters are based on racial or cultural stereotypes (José, the jalepeño pepper; Sweet Daddy Dee, the jive-talking pimp; Bubba J, the beer-guzzling redneck), and although Dunham claims he skewers everyone equally, the skewering doesn't seem intended to bridge racial and cultrual divides. In fact, it seems to cement, if not widen, them. Take skeletal Achmed, the Dead Terrorist, whom Dunham claims is not offensive to Muslims in the least (though South Africans disagree). During the act it's revealed that because the dummy has a "Made in China" stamp, Achmed doesn't even think he's Muslim. But one only needs to get to the "72 virgins" joke in Dunham's Achmed bit before it's hard to deny that he's indeed Muslim -- oh, and homophobic, too!





Much as with 'Borat,' it's not clear whether or not Dunham's audience understands that such sexist, racist and mean-spirited material is satirical. But audiences have a right to be confused, because unlike with 'Borat,' it's also not entirely clear that satire is the intent in the first place.

Thus far, I'm not convinced that Dunham isn't merely cashing in on his character's bigoted views and depictions for fame's sake. He seems to give little outward thought as to how those depictions reinforce negative stereotypes and the positive impact he could have if he played them the other way.

Why not play off those views as a means to spread a little tolerance and understanding? Why not introduce a new character to weigh in on it all? Given the enormity of his audience, it seems a real wasted opportunity.

But all that said, he IS hugely popular. Maybe we're ... missing something? So weigh in, fans (and detractors) -- what's your take on the country's most controversial puppetmaster?

ED. NOTE: We welcome your comments, but they must be civil and on-topic. All personal attacks against the author of this article will be deleted.

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