There is a moment early on in puppet comedian Jeff Dunham's new Comedy Central special, Controlled Chaos, in which he talks about going on a recent world tour and having to alter his material as a result. He says there's a whole section of his act he won't be performing in China (then casually jokes "You'll see why in a little bit.") I've got news for you Jeff Dunham: if there are jokes you can't perform in front of a specific race or culture, IT MEANS YOUR JOKES ARE RACIST. This isn't news to anyone who doesn't like Dunham's brand of comedy -- it's the reason he puts a lot of people off -- but it's something I think many of his fans (and there are many) are all to willing to overlook. Apparently, Dunham doesn't care if you overlook it or not at this point, since he's pretty much coming out and admitting it. Not that it matters, of course -- the "You'll see why" line gets a big laugh from the audience present at the taping, as does the rest of the special. It's business as usual for Dunham, and his fans are probably going to eat it up.
The special opens with Dunham alone on stage, doing a couple minutes of traditional, puppet-free stand-up. He's lucky that he's one of the biggest names in comedy right now, because if you were to divorce his celebrity and cult of fans from his act, you would start to notice that his material is very, very weak. Give an amateur comic Dunham's exact material at any random open mic and I guarantee he or she would bomb. There is some value in these opening moments, though, as Dunham explains how he became interested in ventriloquism and is pretty self-deprecating about what an outsider it made him growing up (he even shows a number of embarrassing family pictures in which he insisted on including a puppet). It was during this section of the special that I realized that while I don't find Dunham funny as a comedian, I would be interested in just hearing him talk about being a ventriloquist. It's not saying much when I find myself wishing a professional comedian would stop telling jokes, but, then, I've never found "jokes" to be Dunham's strong suit.
From there, Dunham begins the parade of his hugely popular puppet characters, beginning with curmudgeonly old man "Walter." There's potential for a new, more honest side to Dunham here, as he opens up the tiniest bit about his recent divorce. I say tiniest bit because, for the most part, the combination of the divorce and the Walter character just give license for Dunham to do a bunch of anti-woman jokes, because as men the only way to get laughs is to fear, loathe and insult women. It only gets worse from there.
Next up is Achmed the Dead Terrorist, a character that's racist and offensive and somehow beloved by Dunham's legion of fans. Can you imagine a world in which an entertainer pulls our the charred the skeleton of a TERRORIST on stage and is met with wild cheers? Welcome to Jeff Dunham's America. He unleashes a barrage of anti-Muslim and Middle Eastern sentiment -- which he gets away with, because they're just "jokes" coming out of the mouth of a "character." Then he introduces a brand new character, Achmed's son, whose face is only partially burned away, revealing a portion of skull underneath. It's grotesque and horrible, and, once again, meant to elicit laughter. Since the Achmed character already has the market cornered on hateful Muslim material, his son is on hand to introduce some much-needed homophobia into the act; it's suggested on more than one occasion that the puppet is gay, which fills the Achmed puppet with panic and even more hate. Please understand if I don't fall over laughing.
Controlled Chaos wraps up with Dunham's best bit which, while not exactly funny, is an impressive feat of ventriloquism skill. The spastic purple Peanut character is brought out, who then produces his own Jeff Dunham puppet. Dunham then takes out a second Peanut puppet on his opposite hand and has a puppet locked away in a case as well (the Jalapeno on a stick), so for a while he's actually doing four or five different voice and characters all having a conversation at the same time. As much as Dunham's material bothers me, there's no denying his talent as a ventriloquist.
There are plenty of people who will read this review and tell me I need to "lighten up" and that Dunham is "just telling jokes." Ok, sure. I'm a firm believer that every comedian has the right to joke about whatever he or she wants. I'm also a believer that he or she should do so responsibly and consider the ramifications of those jokes. I don't think Dunham does either. I also think that, above all, it should be funny. You can get away with just about anything as long as you're funny. I don't think Dunham fits that bill I'm sure Jeff Dunham's fans will love Controlled Chaos, because it offers exactly the kind of comedy that's made him one of the biggest names in stand-up today. I had hoped Dunham would use his popularity to try and grow and improve as a comic, but that's asking too much. He doesn't need to. He's giving his audience exactly what they want, and that leaves me wondering who to blame.
- Original Broadcast Premiere Date: 9/25/11
- DVD Release Date: 9/27/11