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The Jeff Dunham Show DVD Review

The Jeff Dunham Show: The Complete Series DVD cover art - click to buy from Amazon.com The Jeff Dunham Show (2009)
Show & DVD Details

Executive Producers: Jeff Dunham (creator); Aaron Peters, Ross McCall (developers); Judi Brown-Marmel, Robert Hartmann, Stu Schreiberg

Directors: Manny Rodriguez; Matt McNeil (segments) / Writers: Jeff Dunham, Ross McCall, Aaron Peters, Jeff Rothpan, Michael Dugan, Ian Busch, Jason Mayland, Cece Pleasants, Matt Price, Sib Ventress

Regular Cast: Jeff Dunham (Himself, Walter, Achmed the Dead Terrorist, Peanut, Sweet Daddy Dee, Jose Jalapeno, Pierre)

Guest Stars (as Themselves unless otherwise noted): Brooke Hogan, Nolan Avery (LAX Firing Range Manager), Elaine Schock (Jeff's Publicist), Jon Lorenzen (Mortuary President), Michaela Basillo (Mortuary Chief of Staff), Penelope Hsu (Dr. Penelope Hsu), Benji Madden, Joel Madden, Nancy Haller Kwok (Citizenship ESL Teacher), Debbie Donovan (Clinical Hypnotherapist), Master Andre Lima (Taekwondo Instructor), Jenny Robinson (Jeff Dunham Dancer), Dr. Drew Pinsky, Ron Blodgett (Primerica Rep)

Running Time: 150 Minutes (7 episodes) / Rating: Not Rated (Canada: 14A)
1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen / Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: None; Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled or Captioned
DVD Release Date: May 18, 2010 / Suggested Retail Price: $16.99
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9) / Black Eco-Friendly Keepcase
Series Airdates: October 22 - December 10, 2009

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Until now, the apex of my exposure to Jeff Dunham was an aerial view of the large crowd gathered for his show at a state fair grandstand. I opted to spend the final night of that fair on the midway sky glider ride, but I was aware of Dunham's appearance and his popularity.

How could I not be? Dallas-born ventriloquist comedian Dunham has been a fixture on Amazon.com's top sellers chart for years. His handful of DVDs have frequently stood among the big-budget new movies and enduring family classics that logically claim most of the e-tailer's bestseller slots.
That curious feat appears to have been organically achieved. Dunham's puppet comedy has never struck me as something mainstream or heavily-promoted, but it seems word-of-mouth and extensive nationwide touring have served the entertainer well, earning him five-star Amazon ratings that generally elude anything else with hundreds of customer reviews there.

I knew that not everyone is crazy about Dunham, but enough people are that I leapt at the chance to finally test the merits of this 21st century phenomenon. I did this by reviewing "The Jeff Dunham Show", next week's DVD debut of Dunham's half-hour Comedy Central series. One of the first things you'll notice about this DVD is the lack of a moniker. Whether it's "Volume One", "Season One", "The Complete First Season", or something in between, studios designate what it is you're getting. In this case, you're actually getting The Complete Series, but since said series ran for only seven episodes, the lack of an identifier might be read as sparing the star and the network the embarrassment of defeat.

Jeff Dunham and his beer-loving American redneck character Bubba J set up a sketch on what I believe is called "The Jeff Dunham Show."

As Dunham explains in the opening moments, this series aims to show his friends (all of them hand-controlled dummies he voices) out in the world, instead of letting them do their usual on-stage telling of their trials. Those friends are all characters whom Dunham's fans already recognize and appreciate. Newcomers will have no trouble getting acquainted with them, for each is a bold stereotypical caricature. The regulars here are bigoted old curmudgeon Walter, skeletal anti-Semitic zealot Achmed the Dead Terrorist, drunk stupid redneck Bubba J, black manager/pimp Sweet Daddy Dee, and boisterous one-shoed furry lavender creature Peanut.

The fast-thinking Dunham, who displays no real personality of his own beyond a penchant for flashy dressing, appears before the enthusiastic Los Angeles studio audience that supplies the series' laugh track. Dunham sets up video sketches with help from the segment's star puppet. There are three or four taped sketches per episode, each running about 4-5 minutes, plus the occasional brief Achmed or Walter short that cuts right to the joke.

The show's first and most-criticized sketch takes cranky old coot Walter and Jeff to a therapist who is gay! Bushily-eyebrowed dead terrorist Achmed discovers the U.S. Marines isn't the easiest way to American citizenship.

While the targets vary between timely (suicide bombers, gay marriage) and timeless (prejudices of all kinds), Dunham has an old-fashioned sensibility. That is not just because ventriloquism, popularized by Dunham's idol Edgar Bergen and his creation Charlie McCarthy, stopped being hip with the advent of television. It is because Dunham doesn't really seem to bring anything new or amusing to the table, at least not on this show. (Dunham's ticketed acts, which have made him the nation's third highest-paid comedian according to Forbes, may be a different story.)
The tired broad stereotypes and ethnic jokes are put through half-assed set-ups vaguely aspiring to reality TV or Ali G sketches. Thrown into that mix are obvious pop culture references, barely ironic promotional furnishments and plugs for unremarkable celebrity guest stars' ventures.

This kind of uninspired political incorrectness is easy to watch, but its payoffs are limited. There are very few laughs, even though the warmed-up studio audience seems to soak it up. The show has the feel of a talented fair performer struggling to supply Comedy Central's irreverent, edgy brand of satirical, often political humor. That isn't as terrible a wreck as it may sound and may even go unnoticed by some viewers as DVRs and online episodes continue to weaken network identities. But really the strongest praise I can offer is that I didn't quite hate the show. I can't think of a single bit or character that I liked. However, Dunham's unique arsenal and approach softens the blows of the show's failure to entertain.

The linking studio bits would seem to be closest to Dunham's standard act and they're no better than their bookends, leaving me puzzled as to his nation-sweeping appeal, which seems to be most concentrated in middle America. Dunham's popularity (perhaps most evidenced by a YouTube video with over 100 million views) has been likened to the Blue Collar Comedy Tour team of Jeff Foxworthy, Larry the Cable Guy and friends. In attempting to understand it, critics have posited that, speaking through the protection of his dummies, Dunham utters blunt sentiments that prudence prevents those thinking them from vocalizing. It's an interesting and somehow believable theory which establishes the shtick as cathartic comedy. Of course, comedy is subjective and divisive. Computer-generated recommendations might refer fans of "The Jeff Dunham Show" to "The Muppet Show", Avenue Q, and "South Park", things that produce strong, often divergent views (well, does anyone actively dislike "The Muppet Show"?).

In the first episode, Bubba J finds a new friend in gun enthusiast Joe. Indeterminate purple animal Peanut and Jeff Dunham rock out in some cool clothes, as puppet and ventriloquist are separated.

In its October 2009 debut, Dunham's show set a premiere record for the cable network by attracting 5.3 million viewers. From there, ratings plunged, with fewer than 2 million viewers tuning in for what would end up being the series' final episodes. Those numbers weren't too low by Comedy Central standards, but when compared to the show costs (including the presumably high licensing fees Dunham charged for his crowd-drawing characters), they were deemed low enough not to extend the short-lived program's life. The network reaffirmed its faith in Dunham, who they had signed to a multi-platform deal following his record-setting 2008 Christmas special (its all-time most-watched telecast). But it seems future collaborations are more likely to be stand-alone specials, which Dunham had given the network the three previous years, than weekly series.

Critics were harsh on Dunham's program, something foreseen by the comedian's reportedly uncomfortable summer appearance in front of international press. I can't dispute the prevailing unfavorable views, but I will reiterate that Dunham is clearly gifted in the technical side of his craft. I also think that charging him with racism is a bogus product of double standards. Although it's true that Dunham doesn't really condemn his dummies' bigotry and jihadism (which he himself, of course, is saying and largely writing), that seems the result that such a design would grow tired fast. You can argue that Dunham isn't critical enough of the biases exploited, but you'd be forgetting that he's paid to make people laugh, not teach social consciousness.

There are a few theories to explain the series' sinking ratings. Were they the result of Dunham, clearly aspiring to mass consumption like never before, failing the general public? Did his supportive fanbase (which numbers in the millions on Facebook alone) balk at the show's tinkering with the straight man/inappropriate puppet formula and sending the latter out into the real world? Or was it as simple as his fans not caring to see his live comedy act transformed into regularly-scheduled programming? I don't know and since I didn't laugh once in the two and a half hours produced, I don't really care.

Looking for a famous girlfriend, Peanut lands the biggest celebrity of all: Brooke Hogan. Walter learns about webcams and other technology in a Mac store visit. Achmed finds stimulation greater than taekwondo in the adult shop next door's bad nurse mannequin.

1. Pilot (21:46) (Originally aired October 22, 2009)
Jeff and Walter go to a gay therapist. A commercial advertises Achmed's new venture:
killing with comedy at the Improv. Seeking a celebrity girlfriend, Peanut is set up with Brooke Hogan. Bubba J goes gun shopping and makes a friend.

2. Episode 2 (21:14) (Originally aired October 29, 2009)
Achmed celebrates his deathday by shopping for a casket. Walter talks with Good Charlotte's Benji and Joel Madden, who show off their new clothing line. Walter has a woman doctor for his yearly check-up.

3. Episode 3 (21:05) (Originally aired November 5, 2009)
Achmed tries to become an American citizen. Walter learns about computers. With a barbershop survey, Sweet Daddy Dee helps Jeff improve his African American appeal. Peanut pitches his own energy drink in a short infomercial.

4. Episode 4 (21:07) (Originally aired November 12, 2009)
Peanut records a rap song with Walter's wife's friend Kundry Black. Bubba J goes to the doctor and then tries to conquer his fears. Achmed visits the adult novelty store next to his taekwondo studio.

With Jeff dressed like Abraham Lincoln, pimp manager Sweet Daddy Dee and his imposing "secretaries of defense" spice up a Civil War re-enactment. In the series' penultimate episode, Brim, Peanut, and Jeff audition those hoping to become Jeff Dunham Dancers. Achmed brings Funyuns and intolerance to a job fair. Regarding his sign's question, who could hate a nation that makes Jeff Dunham a multi-millionaire?

5. Episode 5 (21:36) (Originally aired November 19, 2009)
Sweet Daddy Dee visits and spices up a Civil War re-enactment. Achmed records spoken ringtones in a professional studio. Walter considers foreign vacation destinations for his wife's anniversary gift. Bubba J shows a family how to "drunk-proof" their home.

6. Episode 6 (21:36) (Originally aired December 3, 2009)
Peanut auditions dancers for the show. Walter offers couples relationship advice. Achmed tries to be a Marine, but struggles with push-ups. Bubba J records ringtones.

7. Episode 7 (21:37) (Originally aired December 10, 2009)
Bubba J goes to rehab with Dr. Drew. Walter issues his weekly in-advance apology to his wife. Achmed sets up a suicide bombing booth at a job fair. Walter records ringtones.

VIDEO and AUDIO

Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, "The Jeff Dunham Show" looks pretty great on DVD. You can tell the series doesn't have a bigger network budget. But the picture is satisfyingly sharp and clean, exhibiting only the rare compression artifact. The fine 2.0 stereo soundtrack also merits no complaints. It bleeps curse words (even ones other basic cable networks air), which tend to be uttered a few times per show. Disappointing but par for Comedy Central, no subtitles or closed captions are offered.

We get a Behind the Scenes look at Dunham and Bubba J taping a Comedy Central promo. The promos themselves are nowhere to be found. Sweet Daddy Dee stands thigh-high with the a capella group he's helped refashion in this (largely) unaired sketch. Popping up, José Jalapeño (on a stick) gets about as much time on the DVD main menu as he does on the entire show.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

The light extras slate starts with three short "Behind the Scenes" looks. Covering the filming of show sequences, "Camp Pendleton" (2:20) and "Achmed's Funeral" (1:40) give us a vague idea of the series' creative process.
(The former also lets us hear from Dunham's fans in the Marines.) "Comedy Central Promos" (1:10) oddly shows us just pieces (used or not?) rather than the promos themselves.

Next up is an unaired sketch, which runs 7 minutes with its stage introduction. In it, slumlord Sweet Daddy Dee resolves a situation between German bartenders and a young a capella group. It's no worse than sketches that made the cut, but it runs a little longer, so either it was cut for timing or to bolster the DVD's value. A small fragment of this appears in the final episode.

Finally, a Bloopers reel (1:35) primarily serves up puppet goofs. It's amusing because like Muppeteers, Dunham stays in character through mistakes and ad-libs accordingly.

The DVD's main menu sees Dunham standing and his four most-employed puppet friends sitting to applause. Though that occasionally subsides, some other puppet characters (like the briefly-glimpsed José Jalapeño on a stick) pop up. After animated transitions, the equally turquoise other menus are static and silent.

Achmed the Dead Terrorist eventually delivers his catchphrase "Silence! I keel you!", as one of three characters to record studio ringtones. Curmudgeonly bigot Walter tries to cover all his bases in this pre-emptive final episode apology to his wife.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

"The Jeff Dunham Show" is sort of like what you'd expect from Jay Leno if Leno had ventriloquism talents instead of the power to turn failure into personal gain. I didn't find the show remotely offensive or genuinely funny. Those two qualities aren't related in my book and of course the latter is much more troubling on a comedy series. While it's not terrible, the show is closer to that than very good.

Though fairly skimpy on the special features and playback options, the DVD is complete, low-priced, and presentable. If you're part of Dunham's massive fanbase, then this merits at least a look. But if the clips on Comedy Central's website don't do it for you, the show won't either.

More on the DVD / Buy from Amazon.com / Jeff Dunham Tickets

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Reviewed May 12, 2010.



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