Jeff Dunham's new Netflix special caps a big week for ventriloquism

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Jeff Dunham (Photo: Netflix)

The past week has been huge for the small but fervent world of ventriloquism. First, Darci Lynne Farmer advanced further in the America’s Got Talent finals and now bids fair to become the third ventriloquist to win the whole thing. Then a too-hip-for-the-room ventriloquist, Hannah Leskosky, appeared on The Gong Show and captured the heart of even so jaded a cynic as Will “BoJack Horseman” Arnett. Over the weekend, during the Miss America pageant, Miss Louisiana, Laryssa Bonacquisti, pulled out not one but two puppets and her yodeling skills to score points and raves in the talent segment. And now, today, Jeff Dunham has premiered a new special on Netflix, called Relative Disaster. Not bad for an art form routinely referred to as a “dying” one.

Not that there isn’t a certain amount of dead air in Dunham’s Relative Disaster special. In this hour-plus, this country’s most famous living voice-thrower (give or take Terry Fator) journeys to Dublin, Ireland, ostensibly because he’s only recently discovered that he has, as he puts it, “a huge percentage of Irish descent.” He pulls out his well-known characters — all the soft puppets, hard dummies, and bony figures (well, how would you describe Achmed the Dead Terrorist?) that his audience loves, along with a new figure: a big Irish baby named Seamus. Dunham’s Irish accent in voicing this one is a little wobbly, but the Irish audience loves it anyway, every single childbirth and diaper joke delivered in a brogue.

In recent years, Dunham has made his politics known — conservative, which means he puts down Hillary Clinton here while giving Trump a pass. He notes that because of political correctness, he no longer has his African-American figure, Sweet Daddy Dee, in his act, and sticks in a weak topical reference: “Black puppets matter!” proclaims his grumpy-guy puppet Walter. In the great tradition of ventriloquism, Dunham has his dummies, not him, make the rudest comments. (Interestingly, Dunham’s chief vent-world competition, Fator, is also a conservative, popping up with his Trump dummy multiple times on Fox News.) Within the vent community, however, it’s not Dunham’s politics that will raise eyebrows — it’s his language here. Ventriloquism is a culturally conservative community — at its annual world gathering the Vent Haven Convention, four-letter words are forbidden, and so Dunham’s 15-plus invocations of the F word in Relative Disaster are bound to light up ventriloquist message boards.

All of your Dunham favorites are here: In addition to Achmed (“I keel you!”) and Walter, there’s dumb hick Bubba J and the manic Peanut. Much of the new material is about Dunham’s current private life as the father of young twins and his marriage to wife Audrey, who is 18 years his junior. (Hey, he’s the one who brings up the age difference — like, a lot, with numerous puppets.) As always, Dunham’s technique is solid, and he’s become particularly good at what the pros call manipulation — how he makes his figures move in lifelike motions. His material is mostly a collection of cheerful groaners (Jeff: “Bubba, do you have any experience with debate?” Bubba: “Sure — I use da bait to catch da fish”); and the pace is impressively rapid, Dunham’s delivery admirably precise. This special doesn’t quite fit in with Netflix’s lineup of cool comedy like BoJack and hip standup specials, but that just makes Dunham’s entry onto the streaming network that much more novel and welcome. Plus, you know: ventriloquism!

Jeff Dunham: Relative Disaster is streaming now on Netflix.