Last night, Paul Zerdin became the second ventriloquist ever to win the top prize of $1 million on America’s Got Talent. Tonight, Jeff Dunham stars in an NBC special, Jeff Dunham: Unhinged In Hollywood. Yay: It’s a mini-renaissance in ventriloquism! And like most such high-profile bursts into the mainstream for this ancient art, the renaissance will probably last another 48 hours and disappear again.
I was rooting for Zerdin despite the fact that, contra what judge Howard Stern said on Tuesday, the British ventriloquist has not “brought ventriloquism to new heights.” (Stern did, however, correctly predict Zerdin’s win.) What Zerdin has done is bring some common contemporary uses of ventriloquism to a public that remains mostly indifferent to the genre until they see what it’s capable of — how entertaining it can be. The season-two winner, vent Terry Fator, came out to congratulate him. So I rooted for Zerdin as an ambassador of ventriloquism, in the hope he’ll spark some interest in better, homegrown vents, such as Dan Horn, Jay Johnson, and Dunham.
Also, I was super-glad Zerdin defeated the mediocre, mawkish, sympathy-manipulator stand-up comic Drew Lynch in the final round.
Jeff Dunham’s Unhinged in Hollywood special was taped at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood and features guest stars Brad Paisley and Chuck Liddell — a country star and an MMA star fit right in with the Middle American audience with whom Dunham is a success. Critics want little to do with Dunham’s crowd-pleasing act featuring vent figures such as Achmed the Dead Terrorist, the grumpy old man Walter, the hick dope Bubba J, and the purple, crazy Peanut.
Unlike Zerdin, whose lip control is impeccable, Dunham isn’t the greatest technician in his field. But Dunham has done something essential that goes back to the person who remains ventriloquism’s biggest star ever, Edgar Bergen: he has invented vivid characters that engage audiences thoroughly, no matter whether you can see his mouth move occasionally.
Unhinged reaches its high point not with Dunham’s best known characters, however, but with what could have been a shameless, irritating plug: Dunham sells a ventriloquist figure called Little Jeff — it’s a miniature Dunham, which he peddles for $95, he says in the special. Dunham brings out Little Jeff for what he calls a “live commercial,” and the interchange between Big Jeff and Little Jeff is by far Dunham’s funniest material this evening, and the moment when you can fully appreciate just how skilled he is at manipulating the dummy with fluid, sometimes excellently slapstick movements.
Dunham’s humor is pretty cornball — Peanut refers to Kanye West and Kim Kardashian as “the big ass who married the bigger ass” — and his idea of topical humor is “You’re the Donald Trump of ventriloquism: you have no idea what you’re doing but you’re really good at it,” a line he also used on promo appearances on Fox and Friends and The Today Show, and which, come to think of it, doesn’t make much sense in addition to not being funny. Dunham is also still making Obama-wasn’t-born-in-America jokes.
Nevertheless, I will watch and root for anything he does, because I really want ventriloquism to avoid becoming a dead art. It can be a wonderful, transporting experience when done well, but decades of pop culture that reduces vents to neurotic creeps, and their figures as scary dolls, has nearly ruined the genre. (That’s one reason Dunham is getting one hour and magician Mat Franco is getting two hours for his NBC special that follows Dunham’s.)
So congrats to Paul Zerdin, and continued success to Jeff Dunham. The world may not know it, but it needs you.
Jeff Dunham: Unhinged In Hollywood airs on NBC Thursday night at 9 p.m.