The work of a ventriloquist is based on misdirection and illusion, however, the real magic of Jeff Dunham’s show is his interaction with ‘the little people in the boxes’. Dunham is more often than not appalled and slightly embarrassed by what his characters have to say about the audience, the name of the town or the current events, but he clearly needn’t worry about offending anyone, when audiences around the world, and in the packed Thebarton Theatre this past weekend, are crying and clutching their sides in laughter.
If you’re wondering just how funny a group of dummies can be then you’ve never seen a Jeff Dunham show. Seeing Dunham perform live is even more immersive and entertaining, and it’s easy for the breadth of his talent to simply wash over you, until you stop and realise just how much skill is displayed in his show. Beginning with 45 minutes of stand up, we learn about Jeff Dunham’s childhood, the first dummy he was given as a Christmas gift and how he’s been able to turn the solitude of being an only child into a career of talking to himself. Dunham has a presence and a comfort on stage which makes him instantly likable, as well as an experienced comic’s talent for storytelling, self-deprecation and relatability.
Each character is a true individual, with their own life, family and unique relationship and history with each other and with Dunham and his family. Their individuality is reinforced early on as Dunham tells us in his introduction that he has a lingering cough, and assures us that luckily, he hasn’t passed the cold onto any of his characters. Sure enough, when his first character Walter comes on, Walter stops in the middle of a story he is telling to ask Jeff if he needs to cough, saying ‘I don’t know how I knew that’. It is this seamless combination of maintaining our suspension of disbelief that Walter and Jeff are individuals, while inviting us through the fourth wall and letting us in on their private joke, which are the special moments of hilarity in the show.
For example, does it matter whether Peanut flying across the stage was really an accident, and his jaw really did get stuck open, or is it simply impressive that Peanut trying to talk with his mouth stuck open is achieved while Jeff’s mouth stays firmly closed, before he then asks Peanut ‘How is it the audience can understand you and I can’t’? And while Peanut commenting on Jeff’s three-year-old twins tormenting his dog is entertaining, what’s more amazing is when you realise Dunham is not only giving his characters a voice but also sound effects, animal noises and impressions from Bill Clinton to Bush Snr.
The material of Dunham’s show is clearly not aimed at younger audiences, with references to US Presidents from the 90s and Aussie scandals from the 80s, again inviting us into a world before over-corrected political correctness and when gender specific pronouns were still appropriate. However, these comments are not made by Dunham but by his characters, as it is Jeff who corrects Achmed’s use of ‘Hey man’. The distance and individuality of the characters allows them to say things Dunham himself would never say, and don’t we all wish we had an alter ego or two for that in our lives? Dunham is passively along for the ride as his characters aggressively attack celebrities, society and the modern culture of complaint, where everyone is outraged yet no one is willing to change – perhaps we are the ones whose aggression is too passive to affect change?
Interview done by Vanessa Delisio