Comedy is a highly selective thing. One man’s banana peel is another man’s insurance settlement. Mel Brooks once said, “Tragedy is if I cut my finger. Comedy is if you walk into an open manhole and die.”
So it is probably not surprising that of the three most popular comedians working today, two — Dane Cook and Larry the Cable Guy — are among the most polarizing. Larry the Cable Guy, who appeared at the Sovereign Bank Arena on October 2, gets (or should we say “gits,” in honor of his most famous catch phrase, “Git ‘er done!”) the blue collar crowd. Dane Cook is the favorite of high school and college age audiences, mostly male.
That brings us to the third member of this unholy trio, Jeff Dunham, who brings his “Spark of Insanity” show to Sovereign Bank Arena on Friday, October 23. He is the most unusual of the three; a ventriloquist who has broken out of the Vegas clubs and Shriners conventions to nationwide acclaim. His audience, too, is the toughest to pin down. One thing is for sure — he and his dummy friends have a huge following.
It has been a long time since a ventriloquist displayed such popular appeal — in fact, it’s happened only once in American popular culture, and that was over 50 years ago. The only other ventriloquist to resound so clearly with his audience was Edgar Bergen in the 1930s. So well-received was Bergen, with his wooden sidekick, Charlie McCarthy, that in addition to several film appearances, the duo had a hit radio show from 1937 to 1956. There were some other well-known acts throughout the late 20th century — Paul Winchell; Jimmy Nelson; and Willie Tyler, the first African-American ventriloquist to attract a following — but their appeal was primarily limited to children, and none of them ever became big stars on the level of Bergen and now, Dunham.
Dunham, a 47-year-old Texas native, began throwing his voice around when he was only eight. He graduated from Baylor University in Waco in 1986, but he already had been working in clubs since he was 12, and by the time he graduated from college he had appeared with Mickey Rooney on Broadway in “Sugar Babies,” a hit pastiche of burlesque routines. He moved to Los Angeles and was building a strong fan base in comedy clubs, but Dunham wanted more. “I felt like I was under the ice and couldn’t break through,” Dunham told Forbes magazine in June, 2009. “I knew the audience was there if we could just get to them.”
The breakthrough, as is almost always the case with comedy, was television. In the ‘90s Dunham started to become a familiar face on TV, making it to the Tonight Show, Ellen, Hollywood Squares, and Blue Collar TV (which starred Larry the Cable Guy). And his DVDs, some of them self-financed, began to sell. To date, he has moved over four million copies.
The entertainment industry really stood up and took notice when Dunham started to appear on Comedy Central. His 2008 show, “Jeff Dunham’s Very Christmas Special,” garnered the highest ratings of any show in Comedy Central history. The network has rewarded him by giving him his own series, which will debut the night before his Sovereign Bank Arena appearance.
It’s been all uphill since then. Entertainment industry magazine Pollstar lists Dunham as the highest-grossing stand-up of 2008, following Cook in 2007 and Larry the Cable Guy in 2006. His “Achmed the Dead Terrorist” clip is the fourth most watched Internet video of all time, with over 196 million hits worldwide. His CD album, “Don’t Come Home for Christmas,” went to #1 on the iTunes CD sales chart and was in the Top 10 on Billboard’s independent chart. He’ll publish his memoir later this year, and embarks on his first U.K. tour in the spring.
Achmed is one of Dunham’s latest inventions, an inept, unimposing, skeletal figure who fancies himself as a really bad dude, an image that is hard to sustain when your legs keep falling off. He managed to blow himself up without harming anyone else, and his constant shrieks of “Silence! I keeelll you” has audiences howling in laughter rather than fear. He is actually, if such a thing is possible, rather sweet.
Dunham’s other recurring characters include Walter, a grumpy old man, Bubba J, a cretinous redneck, Sweet Daddy Dee, a pimp, and Jose Jalapeno on a Stick, who is pretty much what he sounds like. By far the most popular with children is Peanut, an amorphous, shock-headed, hyperactive, naughty Muppet type.
Dunham has also created a cottage industry in dolls based on his characters. “People want a piece of the show,” he told Forbes. And children line up to buy mini-Peanuts.
So who is coming to these shows in such huge numbers? Judi Brown-Marmel, Dunham’s manager, told Slate.com that she’s never seen a comedian who plays to so many different demographics. And Dunham was quoted by Forbes as saying, “When you come out to my show, you can’t put a finger on who the demographic is — there’s old people, young people, professionals, blue collars, teenagers.”
He hasn’t been without controversy. His shows include a number of gay jokes. Acerbic Walter (think an R-rated version of Oscar the Grouch) offends everyone in sight. Jose Jalapeno on a Stick and Sweet Daddy Dee are something of racial stereotypes — during one of the Comedy Central specials, the camera wanders through the crowd, desperately trying to find an African-American face laughing at Sweet Daddy. It’s an elusive search.
And then there’s poor Achmed. Dunham must have been well aware that there would be complaints from the Muslim community about a comedy terrorist. Dunham told Fox News, “Achmed makes it clear in my act that he is not a Muslim…I’ve skewered whites, blacks, Hispanics, Christians, Jews, Muslims, gays, straights, rednecks, addicts, the elderly, and my wife.” His wife may not have gotten the joke; they are divorcing.
Dunham teeters on the edge of hipness. He will make an appearance on NBC’s “30 Rock,” a show that wins awards despite low ratings, a sure sign of hip. And on October 13, he appeared at the National Press Club luncheon, raising the possibility that he is now being viewed as something of a trend-setter.
So the question remains: If Dane Cook appeals to young men, and Larry the Cable Guy to men who have never grown up, who is Jeff Dunham’s crowd? Is Achmed political satire or does he appeal to our worst feelings about the Muslim world? Is Walter a man who says what we are all thinking or is he just the angry old man two houses down from you who hates everyone? Is Sweet Daddy an homage to Willie Tyler’s Lester, or a ridiculous stereotype from a Sixties blaxplotation flick? And what the hell is Peanut?
Jeff Dunham, Sovereign Bank Arena, Hamilton Avenue at Route 129. Friday, October 23, 8 p.m. “Comedy Central Tour” presented by Dunham and his sidekicks in conjunction with “The Jeff Dunham Show,” a half-hour sketch show. Dunham’s autobiography, “All by My Selves,” will be published in November. $45.50. 609-656-3222 or www.comcasttix.com.