What We Talk About When We Talk About Jeff Dunham

The New York Times had an extensive article in the Sunday Magazine yesterday about your boyfriend, Jeff Dunham. It is a pretty interesting read for both the Jeff Dunham fan and the Jeff Dunham opposite-of-fan. It describes his career trajectory and the ways in which his “comedy” (still not sure about that classification) has surprised TV executives and blah blah blah. You should read it! But if you don’t feel like reading it, I have pulled a lot of choice quotes from the article. In a word: yuck!

[Jeff Dunham] quickly realized that a dummy could crack jokes and level insults that he was too shy to touch.

OK, just so we’re all on the same page on this: Jeff Dunham is touching those “jokes” and “insults.” Because he is writing them. And he is saying them. His hand my be holding a puppet, but that puppet is not alive and that puppet cannot talk. I understand what the reporter is saying here, we all do, but I feel like this is a classic Jeff Dunham feint, and maybe we should not be so quick to justify and absolve and legitimize it. Even he doesn’t seem to be able to do that:

He’s become a genuine connoisseur of the big, goofy laugh and confessed to me that there are still times Peanut’s Chinese routine makes him break character and lose it a little onstage.

He confessed that sometimes the blatant racism in his routine makes him break character and lose it a little onstage? How charming! “Even he can’t help but laugh at how stupid Chinese people are.” Even Jeff Dunham. He’s like a young Jimmy Fallon but, you know, with racism.

Going back to that first quote, I’m also not really sure that I would classify the hesitation to spew unapologetic hate speech on stage as “shyness.” It’s more like self-preservational common sense, and also a modicum of human decency. He might be an unfunny nightmare with hate in his heart, but he is not a stupid nightmare with hate in his heart! He knows that you can’t just say the stuff that he just says. Which of course goes back to the coward thing, but we’ve already discussed that.

Here are some things we haven’t discussed:

Gradually, a lot of Dunham’s material has come to reflect his exhaustion with political correctness.

Can we please not pretend like this is a thing? The fight against political correctness is such a nonsensical throwback argument to the early-’90s. No one is pushing for “political correctness” as a decontextualized blindly dogmatic philosophy. What people are pushing for is not pretending that racism and homophobia and misogyny and anti-semitism don’t exist, or trying to camouflage these things as “jokes.” Suggesting that hate speech is offensive and upsetting and dangerous if used in an unilluminating and…well, hateful way is not “politically correct,” it’s just correct. If Jeff Dunham wants his puppets to “say” the word nigger, or whatever, he should just do it. That’s his constitutionally-protected right. But please, let us not pretend that it has anything to do with a non-existent, hyperbolic, media-created movement from 15 years ago.

But this is the real mind-blower right here:

He defends himself by noting that he tries to insult all races and ethnicities equally, and ultimately seems to treat jokes about all Indians being customer-service operators or all black people drinking malt liquor not all that differently from jokes involving other well-worn comedic tropes — like all wives being annoying nags or Florida being way too humid.

Dunham does concede that he’s extra-sensitive to one of his largest constituencies: the conservative “country crowd.” “That’s why I don’t pick on basic Christian-values stuff,” he told me. “Well, I also don’t like to, because that’s the way I was brought up.” He then stopped himself short and said: “Oh, boy. I’m walking into something here.”

Dunham started to explain — as if realizing it for the first time — that this would appear to make the jokes he does about Islam with Achmed “hypocritical.” But he quickly unburdened himself of the idea. “I try to make the majority of my audience laugh,” he said. “That’s my audience. They’ll laugh at the dead terrorist.”

Uh, yes, Jeff Dunham, you were walking into something there! You try to insult all races and ethnicities equally except for your race and ethnicity? You know what that is called? EXTREME RACISM. “No way, man, I also make fun of women as being the worst.” Perfect. I also like that “all Indians are customer-service operators” and “all black people drink malt liquor” are jokes? Those are jokes? Good jokes! Those sound like funny jokes. “A black guy walks into a bar and orders a malt liquor and the bartender says ‘would you like any crack with that because of how all black people also smoke crack?'” That’s how jokes work, right?


Of course, as I have always maintained, the most depressing thing about Jeff Dunham is not Jeff Dunham himself, but the popularity of Jeff Dunham, which is something that we, America, have created. His awfulness would simply be the disgusting rantings of a lonely man if it weren’t for us. We do this.

In fact, the jokes that get some of the wildest, loudest reactions aren’t really even jokes, just statements. Like when one puppet shouts that all Mexicans should learn English, or when Dunham wishes Walter “Happy Holidays” and Walter responds: “I’ve been wanting to say this for a couple of years now: Screw you, it’s ‘Merry Christmas’!” And the crowd doesn’t laugh; it riotously applauds. Dunham describes them as moments of “catharsis,” when the dummy says something “everyone wants to laugh about, or that you snicker at with one or two friends, but that you could never say out loud.”

Shame on us.

The article did contain one pretty epic diss:

J. P. Williams is the Hollywood producer behind the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, which first demonstrated that there was an overlooked and hugely profitable audience for comedy in Middle America, and even he told me he doesn’t think Dunham’s act is that funny. “His material is pretty soft,” Williams said. “If you take away the puppets and close your eyes, there’s not really that many jokes there. He’s not a comic. He’s a ventriloquist. He’s got a great gift, and his gift is that he makes stuff talk and he keeps his mouth pretty much closed when he does it.”

He is not a comic, he is a ventriloquist who keeps his mouth pretty much closed? Yikes. J.P. Williams is a ZINGtriloquist! Also: agreed!

But perhaps the most problematic paragraph in the whole article was this one:

For weeks, Dunham’s handlers had been stressing to me how “multigenerational” his audience is. They were so relentlessly on-message about it that I assumed they were exaggerating — until I saw it for myself. It was an odd kind of diversity: the crowd at the Prairie Capital was almost entirely white, but other than that, I was hard pressed to find a phrase to describe even a majority. Maybe “not thin.”

Really, New York Times? A tossed-off remark about Jeff Dunham fans’ weight? This is seriously why middle America hates the New York Times, and why Rush Limbaugh and pals win. What a lazy, poorly thought out comment! Did all the editors get fired last week and this article just got rushed straight to print? No one thought “hey, let’s not call all of Jeff Dunham’s millions of fans, who often view the New York Times as antagonistic, Communist propaganda, fat for no reason since it has absolutely nothing to do with any of the genuine problems that Jeff Dunham’s popularity poses, such as the resurgence of a self-congratulatory type of bigotry that wears its hatred as a badge of honor. Just a bunch of silly fatsos? Perfect.

This is going to be a long, protracted culture war! Well, not that long, I guess. Two years.