Periodically a comic catches on much to the puzzlement of the comedy intelligentsia, or at least those who like to think of themselves as such. So it is with Jeff Dunham, a talented ventriloquist with a not-particularly-scintillating act, whose last Comedy Central special drew inexplicably boffo ratings. Dunham is back with a weekly program, one that mixes studio performances with segments taped in the field. It's hard to imagine there's a series in this, but then again, it's difficult to sort out why 6.6 million people watched Jeff Dunham's Very Special Christmas Special."
The mere fact that ventriloquism remains a viable art form in this high-tech day and age -- outside the confines of Las Vegas revues -- seems rather quaint. In Dunham's case, the stiff-upper-lipped craft hasn't really evolved much from the days of Edgar Bergen or Senor Wences, if not the bluer stylings of Wayland Flowers and Madame.
Dunham's main wrinkle appears to be that the dummies have been updated for a red-state audience, from the curmudgeonly Walter -- who gripes "You're on TV. There's a black guy in the White House" as a sign the world's going to hell -- to Achmed the dead terrorist, who gets the audience to chant "I kill you" along with him.
Dunham augments the studio bits with location pieces -- going to couple's therapy with Walter, taking another of his alter egos, Peanut, on a speed date and a third, Bubba J, to a gun shop. (Dunham's PR reps label this an "inventive mix of comedy and reality TV," which would only be accurate if those participating aren't able to discern that the dummies are, you know, dummies.)
Nothing here will expand anybody's comedy palate, but Dunham's successful formula is more basic than that -- essentially dishing up grits and cheesy foods to an audience weaned on blue-collar comedy.
Then again, Dunham's fans need to laugh, too, and for Comedy Central, tapping into that eager audience -- even if some of them have sawdust-filled heads -- qualifies as a no-brainer.