Hank Stuever's TV preview of 'The Jeff Dunham Show' on Comedy Central

KINDA CREEPY: Jeff Dunham with Peanut, one of the stereotypical characters on his sketch series.
KINDA CREEPY: Jeff Dunham with Peanut, one of the stereotypical characters on his sketch series. (Richard Mclaren/comedy Central)
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By Hank Stuever
Thursday, October 22, 2009

Every so often the inexplicable success of a bad comedy act just cannot be explicked. I mean, you don't have to like Larry the Cable Guy in order to see why his fans do. Same with Dane Cook: Even if his comedy drives you up a wall, you can always stop mid-climb, look back, and at least understand why so many millions are laughing and laughing at his jokes.

But Jeff Dunham? Readers, I'm stumped.

Dunham, 47, apparently has been selling out shows in Las Vegas and on the road for years (years!), and his television comedy specials have won weirdly high ratings. (Six million or so people reportedly tuned into his cable Christmas special last year; 4 million have bought his DVDs; 350 million have watched him on YouTube -- that, or Dunham has clicked on his own videos 350 million times.) Like you, I'm perfectly able to shrug off -- and not begrudge -- the success of something I simply don't find funny, but "The Jeff Dunham Show," a sketch series premiering Thursday night on Comedy Central, baffles me. Not only is it deadeningly unfunny, it also defies all the known constructs of television criticism. I simply have no idea why it's on.

"Holy crap, what has happened to this world?" asks nose-haired curmudgeon Walter, one of Dunham's vulgar dummies, and he's talking about the show. One thing that makes "The Jeff Dunham Show" worse is a constant fourth-wall acknowledgment that it's a bad show, which is supposed to make it better somehow. Each sketch involves a little of Dunham onstage, with his hand up a dummy, and then goes to a taped segment. (Example: Walter and Jeff decide to go see a therapist to manage Walter's anger.)

The laughter sounds canned. And I haven't reviewed th e finer points of ventriloquism in a while, nor was I born in the vaudeville days, so I ask: Are we supposed to so easily see Dunham's lips moving while Walter is talking? Or are 21st-century ventriloquists given a certain latitude? (What a creepy art form, anyhow. I put it down there with birthday clowns.)

Sadly, Dunham's got more puppets, all of them based on one stereotype or another. Apparently his fans (reveal yourselves!) have a favorite in Achmed the Dead Terrorist, a deranged skeleton in a turban. ("I keel you!" is his trademark line, at which the canned laughter howls.) Another dummy, Bubba J, looks like a beer-gutted Howdy Doody wearing a Dr. Buck's overbite. Then there is Peanut, who is purple, but Dunham has described as Micronesian. Midway through the show, Peanut goes on a blind date with C-lister Brooke Hogan (spawn of Hulk), who is promoting her new CD of Auto-Tuned disco hits -- as if to spray a new layer of yuck on something already putrid.

Over lunch with Hogan, Peanut goes into anaphylactic shock. Paramedics arrive, and I'm sorry to report that both Peanut and the man whose hand is inside him are still going strong.

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