Hot Picks, March 24: Master of puppets

Maybe we should take those ‘learn to throw your voice’ ads in the comic books seriously – Jeff Dunham has hit the big time. He plays Rexall Place tonight – the big building. Quick: name another puppeteer who can do arenas. Can’t do it, can you? That’s because there isn’t anybody else!

It really is a weird gig: Being the straight-man to yourself. Or to your wooden alter egos, which say things the puppet-master could never get away with. Achmed the Dead Terrorist, for instance, has spewed out some pretty racist lines, plus a famous “controversial” ringtone: Silence! I kill you! But Dunham is a nice guy. He’s always there to tell himself when himself goes too far. Same for all his other “characters” – Walter, Peanut, Jose Jalepeno on a Stick, Melvin the Superhero. They can say anything and Dunham never has to take responsibility for it. Clever! It’s having your comedy cake and eating it, too. But is the craft of the professional ventriloquist only about PRETENDING to have multiple personalities – or is there something deeper, more sinister going on?

Consider the legacy of ventriloquists and their dummies in cinema:

–     The Great Gabbo (1929): Abusive ventriloquist murders his dummy, loses his mind

–     Knock on Wood (1954): Danny Kaye is a ventriloquist who can’t control what his dummy says

–     Devil Doll (1964): Evil puppet turns on its master

–     Magic (1978): Satanic dummy controls puppeteer Anthony Hopkins

–     Child’s Play (1988): Murderous doll comes to life, spawns many sequels

–     Puppetmaster (1989): Evil puppets come to life

–     Curse of the Puppet Master (1998): Mad puppeteer transfers people’s souls into puppets

–     Bride of Chucky (1998): True love, murder among puppets

–     Being John Malkovich (1999): Insane puppeteer controls John Malkovich, meets a terrible fate

–     Dead Silence (2007): Ghost of murdered ventriloquist possesses his dummy

Not a pretty picture, is it? But maybe Jeff Dunham’s mainstream success has opened a door of opportunity for talented puppeteers and ventriloquists everywhere. It’s a chance to let the world know that they’re not creepy. They just spent all that money learning to throw their voice – and now they want to share their gift with the world.

Tickets to Jeff Dunham are $80 and on sale at Ticketmaster.