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Friday, January 22, 2010



No Identity Crisis Here: Jeff Dunham

Written by Washington Post Express contributor Alfredo Flores

JEFF DUNHAM'S STAGE show starts out as most comics' do, with a short stand-up set. That changes when he unloads boxes that surround him, and Dunham's quiet persona transforms into those of his filthy-minded politically incorrect dummies, er, ventriloquial figures. Achmed the Dead Terrorist got his start in D.C. in Dunham's 2007 "Spark of Insanity" TV special filmed at the Warner Theatre. It's the character that became a YouTube sensation with 200 million hits — the fourth-most-watched online video ever — and turned Dunham into the world's first superstar ventriloquist. Achmed — a bearded, furry-eyebrowed character who tries to act tough despite being all bones — gets frustrated when the audience laughs at his vain attempts to terrify, shouting, "Silence! I kill you." Achmed is an incompetent suicide bomber whose explosives suffer "premature detonation." When asked about his skeletal appearance, he replies, "It's just a flesh wound." To get through airport security, Achmed just says he's Lindsey Lohan. Part of the humor arises from how the characters' carefully crafted appearances immediately telegraph their provenance and attitudes — we give you Bubba J, Dunham's resident "redneck." Once the visuals have been established, the performer is free to provoke and intensify that attitude. And it gets pretty intense: "Each character is me, just exaggerated beyond the socially acceptable point for anyone living outside a suitcase." Dunham himself has become a polarizing figure. Ventriloquism has never been fully embraced by the comedy community, and for every laudatory review — Slate says he's "America's favorite comedian," although that may have been a slap at us, not him — there is scathing criticism. The Washington Post called his recently cancelled "The Jeff Dunham Show" "deadeningly unfunny," and the Chicago Sun-Times called for his viewers to "destroy all the puppets in your home." Ouch. While not all of his characters have been well received in the mainstream, they are adored by Dunham's fans. Those attending Dunham's Verizon Center show on Thursday night will hear from Walter, a Vietnam vet curmudgeon with crossed arms. When Dunham mentions that "Girls Gone Wild " was shot in Fort Lauderdale, Walter replies, "That's only during spring break. The rest of the year, it's 'Girls Gone Saggy.' Then it's 'Girls Gone Senile.' Then it's just 'Girls Gone.'" Expect Jose Jalapeno on a Stick, a mustachioed, sombrero-wearing talking pepper that's unhappy about being on stick. He doesn't enjoy skiing with the other puppets because, he laments, "I had to snowboard." Peanut is a hyperactive Muppet-like purple-skinned "woozle" with white fur on most of his fuzzy body. Peanut asks Dunham if he has ever done drugs, which he denies. Peanut then asks, "How the hell did you come up with me?" Nothing here is going to explode the boundaries of performance. Add to these mild, personality-based gags the stigma of ventriloquism as musty, corny children's entertainment and it's hard to fathom that one of America's most popular comics is a ventriloquist. (He's the third-highest-earning comedian in the United States behind Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock.) But Dunham is tapping into something. "I realized early on that the ventriloquism needed to be just a vehicle for the comedy," the Dallas native said. "It couldn't be the focus of the act. In other words, I needed to focus on the material and the jokes and keep people laughing. The ventriloquism just happened to be my instrument." Dunham has come a long way from the days of performing at any place that would have him — churches, banquet halls, a Six Flags amusement park, and heck, even a TV commercial for a local Datsun car dealership. (The name Datsun, now Nissan to you kids, is the only clue that the youthfully handsome and confident performer is 48.) After the completion of his 60-city tour, Dunham is planning on shooting another one-hour Comedy Central special, and his autobiography "All by My Selves Walter, Peanut, Achmed and Me," will be published this spring. "To me, hard work which results in success at the end is always fun and exciting. More than half the fun of the race is getting to the finish line." » Verizon Center, 601 F St. NW; Thu. Jan. 21, 7:30 p.m., $46.50; 202-397-7328. (Gallery Place)

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