I had a lot of different ideas about how to review the Jeff Dunham "Identity Crisis" tour stop at the amazing BOK Center on Thursday night.
This was a challenge for me as I am only tacitly familiar with Dunham’s schitck and all day prior to the show I struggled with notion that a ventriloquist act was going to be playing our 18,000 seat venue and make it reasonably full.
To my considerable astonishment, during my preliminary research I was shocked to discover that most of the available seats in our beautiful arena were sold. Indeed, day-of-show, you could not buy any seats together. I was amazed. Sure, Jeff Dunham was a famous TV star and all that, but I was floored with the knowledge that he was going to attract nearly ten-thousand fans. That dialed my skepticism down a few notches.
Undaunted and in need of a good laugh, I shook off all doubt and entered the BOK Center. After all, though this was a show where the main focus was the puppets, but at it’s heart it was still a stand-up comedy act and hopefully the jokes and stories would be funny and would balance out the obvious gimmick that Dunham’s puppetry would provide. I had a delicious Billy’s Theta Burger and Onion Rings, found my seat, and eagerly awaited the start of the show.
Once in my seat I noted the elaborate staging that the show would utilize. An enormous screen dominated center stage which was dressed with the trunks that presumably held Dunham’s puppets, the traditional single microphone of a stand-up comedian, and a lighting scheme that would befit a rock and roll show. For roughly 30 minutes prior to showtime, the screen displayed a slide show of images of Dunham both past and present, and various quizzes involving his characters.
There was a hilarious Q & A with Walter, Dunham’s opinionated old man who would reply to advice column questions in his unique fashion. EXAMPLE: Q: "Walter, what’s your advice on how to pick up women?". A: "Where I used to hang out, we used needed a forklift!". It was a nice way to take your mind off of the obligatory extended wait you go through while people are being seated for a show, but one thing killed it for me. At a few times during the presentation your were offered ringtones and jokes from the characters via a text…for a price.
That’s right, for two bucks a throw you could have your cell phone ring with the dulcet tones of Achmed the Dead Terrorist screaming "SILENCE! I WILL KEEEL YOU!", among other catchphrases from the puppets in Dunham’s lineup. Kudos to the promoters of the show for wanting to make a fast buck, but with t-shirts near $40 on the concourse I wondered how many people took the bait on that one.
Oh, and for those who proudly bought the IPhone 4 earlier on Thursday like half the civilized world, you couldn’t get these ringtone/joke combinations. Darned technology!
Anyway, the lights went down and on came Brian "The Guitar Guy" Haner, Dunham’s opening act. Sporting his signature equipment he took the stage energetically and began a commentary about age, and being a parent. His improvised songs were topical and funny, and mercifully brief, and after a rousing Jimi Hendrix-like version of The Star Spangled Banner, and a brief intermission fell over the crowd. The break gave me the opportunity to get a look at the crowd I was in and it did not escape my gaze that there were quite a few kids in the crowd. Not a big deal you say?
Okay, I know that this is a show where puppets are the stars of the show. I get that. But that said, this isn’t Sesame Street Live and it occured to me that what little I knew of Jeff Dunham’s act involved jokes, stories and innuendo that wasn’t exactly age-appropriate. Far be it for me to tell parents what to do here but I dare say that a few parents reconsidered the material once they finished seeing the act live and in person. With that, I conclude the rant.
Jeff Dunham took to the stage wearing a black leather jacket and sporting a black Cain’s Ballroom t-shirt. Nice touch. He did a brief bit without his wooden sidekicks that included a hilarious story about how awkwar5d it was for him to accompany his teenage daughters to "Ciley Myrus" (Miley Cyrus) concert earlier in the year. After that, on came the puppets, starting with Walter.
Walter, for those unfamiliar with the character, is supposed to represent the crotchety, opinionated, sarcastic old man who dislikes the world around him and, as Jeff Dunham introduced him, "someone in your family or someone you know or work with." What followed was a "conversation" between Walter and Dunham that covered a number of topics, including politics, marriage, love and Dunham’s recent divorce. Being unhappily married, Walter asked his master pleading questions about what it was like and could not understand why Dunham was reluctant to talk about it.
After that, Jeff Dunham cycled through all his characters. Achmed The Dead Terrorist, Peanut, and Jose (a jalapeno pepper of a stick). All were conversation bits and all provided some serious laughs. The interaction between the puppets and Dunham was funny enough from a dialogue/material standpoint, but so too was the visual interaction between the two. After finishing the set with a bit featuring Peanut and the opening act Brian Haner it looked as if the show was over and we were headed into an encore segment.
At that point Jeff then abruptly stopped the show and told the audience that he had a bit part in an upcoming film this summer starring Steve Carell and Paul Rudd called "Dinner with Schmucks" in which he and the movies director, Jay Roach (who directed Austin Powers, Meet the Parents/Fockers, among others) who developed a puppet he was going to play in the movie.
Jeff Dunham then introduced the five-minute trailer, which can be seen right now in the megaplexes around Tulsa. I had a big problem with this for some reason. Okay, I know he was probably under contract to plug the movie in some form or fashion, but this part killed the momentum of the show for me. It was unnecessary. After the trailer was over he brought out the puppet that was in the movie, a lush named Diane. Of all his routines with all his other characters, I can honestly say that this bit died. It wasn’t funny, and even the flubs where Dunham couldn’t read the teleprompter could not save it.
Mercifully he had the presence of mind to bring out Bubba J as his encore bit, and that managed to salvage the show. Jeff and Bubba did their thing, and the show ended with Dunham tossing, then shooting t-shirts into the crowd with progressively larger and more powerful gas powered launchers.
Photos by: Kevin Pyle
Despite the shameless plug about the movie, overall the show was very entertaining. It’s not that I’m against him plugging his movie, but he should have had the better sense than to kill the flow of his show by doing that. Taken as a whole however, that one black mark was not enough for me to pan the show. I would go see Jeff Dunham again. He is a genuine comic talent above and beyond his abilities as a ventriloquist and his show is worth the price.