For those who don't recall, Jeff Dunham is a comic whose Christmas 2008 special earned Comedy Central record ratings -- a full 6.6 million viewers. Those are numbers Jay Leno would drool over these days, but for most of the country, Dunham is a complete unknown.
So now that Comedy Central has rewarded Dunham with his own variety show -- an extension of his Las Vegas stand-up act -- it's worth finding out: What do 6.6 million people love so much? Having watched the pilot of The Jeff Dunham Show, the answer is, Heaven knows.
The half-hour, which premieres Thursday (October 22) at 9 p.m., is fairly basic: Dunham takes the stage, a rangy middle-aged guy, nondescript and not funny. What makes him worthy of a spotlight and a live, fanatical audience is what comes attached to his hand: One of a series of eyebrow-wagging, eye-rolling puppet grotesqueries.
It has been more than 50 years since Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy charmed the nation with ventriloquism, and NBC's America's Got Talent already awarded its top prize to one such act, so perhaps dummies and masters should make a comeback. But there's a reason those dolls are now grist for Twilight Zone episodes: They're creepy and, most relevant here, unamusing.
In Dunham's hand, they're also racist caricatures, full of meanness and cliches, ranging from Achmed the Dead Terrorist (a skeleton with the heavily accented catchphrase I kill you) to Peanut, the disturbing Muppet-like troll creature who has the hots for guest star Brooke Hogan. Whether part of the stage-act banter with Dunham (whose clenched lower jaw quivers unsettlingly) or in cutaway short-film segments (where Dunham seems pretty superfluous), their escapades are at best wretchedly crude (did we need to see a doll on the toilet?) and at worst homophobic.
It's all a complete train wreck, but it still is can't-miss comedy because after watching an episode, the rest of television looks better by comparison. Perhaps that's the secret of those 6.6 million: They're not looking to laugh. They're looking for the life-affirming moments that come from the commercials.