On Saturday morning, I awoke confused and terrified by an awful dream.
From what I could remember, there were puppets everywhere. One was a skeleton wearing a turban; another was a grouchy old man in a bow tie. Others joined them on a stage to tell 10-cent jokes about Miley Cyrus, Kanye West and Obamacare. Then, after they were done, replicas of the puppets were shot out of a military-grade T-shirt cannon while Nickelback riffs stormed from arena speakers. It was horrifying.
Unfortunately, as these recollections washed over me, I realized this wasn’t a dream at all. It was simply the details of my Friday night with comedian/ventriloquist Jeff Dunham and his Disorderly Conduct Tour at First Niagara Center. But, over a two-hour set full of colorful dummies and cheap laughs, Dunham continuously delivered for thousands of fans whose niche was my nightmare.
If you know the Dallas native’s act, then you’re familiar with his tour’s players, such as salty curmudgeon Walter, purple Peanut and pepper-on-a-stick José Jalapeño, and the type of sassy barbs exhaled from their manipulated mouths. For the rest of you, let’s address the obvious question: How in the name of Howdy Doody can a ventriloquist book First Niagara Center in 2013?
As confusing as it may be to discern how Dunham is using puppets to pack in arena fans like Pearl Jam, understand this: The numbers don’t lie. According to Pollstar.com, he’s currently rolling across the United States as the country’s most popular stand-up comic. According to Forbes, he’s 2013’s fourth top-grossing comedian at $19 million, wedged between names like Jerry Seinfeld and Louis C.K. He boosts Comedy Central’s ratings with his performance specials (including 8.3 million viewers for 2011’s “Controlled Chaos”), boasts YouTube videos with 700 million views, and sells crates of DVDs at a time when the medium is going the way of the eight-track.
So how does he do it?
By giving his fans what they want – starting with a terrorist skeleton named Achmed.
After Dunham led off his Friday evening with a slideshow of pictures from the road – with such edgy images as a toilet in Norway and a sign that read “wiener nougat” in Sweden – he introduced his aforementioned boney buddy. According to the character’s storyline on Dunham’s website, Achmed “set himself on fire, then he accidentally blew himself up, and within no time he became the world’s only beloved dead terrorist.” And, once the on-stage dialogue started flowing, Achmed became the first beloved dead (yet talking) terrorist puppet to repetitiously take Western New York’s weather to the woodshed.
(Example: Buffalo’s “bone-chillingly” cold in December. Take that, Nickel City. Burn.)
Thankfully, Dunham took Achmed’s foot off the weather pedal long enough to work his jaw through a pair of reworked Christmas songs: “12 Days for Infidels,” which uses the calendar formula to run through predictable jabs at Alec Baldwin, Chris Brown and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford; and “Jingle Bombs,” a rocking holiday ditty about one of Achmed’s thwarted bombings.
As odd as it was watching a bug-eyed skeleton sing lyrics about accidently blowing himself up after being shot by the U.S. military, it was even weirder listening to the crowd joyfully clap along with the tune.
But, once again, Dunham knows what his fans want. They don’t fork over cash for concert tickets, DVDs and ventriloquist kits (now on sale at jeffdunham.com for $124.95) because they’re overly concerned with having their doors kicked down by the PC police. They just want to laugh at a fleet of freaky puppets unleash lowbrow jokes about tabloid celebrities, terrorism, flatulence, sexuality and illegal immigrants. If this kind of action is your cup of comedy, then Dunham’s Friday night exhibition was dummy-fueled dynamite.
If not, you might have mistaken the evening for the nightmare after Christmas.