Is Jeff Dunham racist? No, but his puppets might be

Name any movie that doesn’t depict puppeteers as insane or evil. Think about it: They talk to themselves, they play with dolls, they say terribly offensive things they wouldn’t have the courage to say in real life if they weren’t pretending to talk through their creepy puppets.

But isn’t that what good comedians are supposed to do – say what everybody else is thinking but afraid to say out loud?

Jeff Dunham – returning to Rexall Place on Saturday, March 19 (updated March 2016) – comes off like a nice guy. He spends a lot of time talking about his own life, in his own (normal) voice, and he has a knack for getting his audiences to like him – setting the stage for puppets that get away with murder. Achmed the Dead Terrorist stereotypes Arabs, Latinos are poked by Jose Jalapeno on a Stick, and basically everybody else gets it from Peanut, Walter and a host of other unpleasant Muppetoid homunculi. There is a fine line between “racial” comedy and “racist” comedy, and Dunham’s dummies are sitting on it.

We put the question of whether Jeff Dunham is racist to a panel of local professional comics. Lars Callieou was one of two who replied on the record, and wants to make clear the distinction between the man and his material. He wouldn’t call Dunham racist, but his jokes?

“Fuck yes … Achmed the Dead Terrorist is incredibly racist,” Callieou says. “He played on stereotypes and used it to get laughs. It’s no different than Larry the Cable Guy making fun of people from the South, or using the word ‘retard’ to illicit a response. It’s cheap and it’s easy. When told through a puppet, people feel less guilty, it’s cartoonish. Somehow that makes it OK.”

Sterling Scott doesn’t agree: Dunham’s jokes aren’t racist, he says, they’re just “over-the-top stereotypes” to make the puppets funnier. Hmm, a white guy thinks Dunham’s material is racist, a black guy doesn’t. Interesting. Or is that a racist observation?

Watching Dunham’s act is rather like watching a cartoon. He is obviously a skilled ventriloquist, a master of puppet body language, which alone, without dialogue, creates much of the humour. Great chunks of his act also consist of making fun of foreign accents in the tradition of Jerry Lewis doing the Chinese guy. Dunham is clever at deflecting blame away from himself for his most allegedly racist material. Consider this exchange between Jeff and Achmed, from his 2007 show Spark of Insanity:

Jeff: I don’t want racist jokes in my act.

Achmed: OK, how about if I kill the Jews?

Jeff: No …

Achmed: I’m kidding. I would not kill the Jews. I would toss a penny between them and watch them fight to the death …

Now that’s racist, but since it’s Achmed talking, the puppeteer gets away with it. Maybe he’s not telling racist jokes, maybe he’s just making fun of people who tell racist jokes. Makes your head hurt. Moreover, Achmed is quick with the next line as a cover up: “ … I did the same thing with two Catholic priests and then I tossed in a small boy.”

The puppeteer is again aghast at what, er, he has said, “Don’t do jokes like that! People will get offended.”

And so on and so forth, all the way to the bank.

The comedian respondents, who didn’t want their names revealed, offer mixed reviews of Jeff Dunham. One said, “His crime is not racism. His crime is lack of better material.” Another defended him, saying that just because he talks about race doesn’t mean he’s racist; “He just points out the things that everyone else is thinking.” Another was critical of the environment that allowed Dunham to become so popular: “I think making fun of terrorists doesn’t make you a racist. In the United States it makes you a hero.” One comic polled declined to answer at all because calling out another comic for being racist just isn’t worth the grief you will likely get afterwards – especially if you happen to be walking the racist-racial line, too.

Look at Russell Peters. He also talks about his own life, gets the audience to like him, and like Dunham, draws laughs by exploring the stereotypes of different races. First thing he said at his last show in Edmonton was, “Black guy – what the fuck are you doing in Edmonton? What are you running from?” Does Peters get away with it because he happens to be a member of a visible minority, and so freely tees off on his own race? Would Jeff Dunham be able to do the same joke? Probably not. He’d give it to Peanut.

Shaun Majumder, the Indo-Canadian comic who isn’t Russell Peters, doesn’t do racist jokes. He does anti-racist jokes – though in placing the twist, he does have to hit the nugget of humour in the odd racist joke from time to time. He has one routine he admits he’s nervous to bring out because it has the word “nigger” in it. It’s based on a true story of coming off stage after a comedy show he’d shared with two white comics.

Majumder recalls, “This guy comes up and says to the two white guys, ‘oh, my God, you guys were so funny …’ Then without even looking at me, he walked away, but then he points back to me and said, ‘Oh, the nigger was funny, too.’ He said it really clearly and specifically to the other white comics … I say: look people, if you’re going to be racist, you can’t be ignorant. You have to be well read, understand the race you hate, and what the correct terminology is for the slang of the race. That’s just pure lazy racism and not acceptable in the higher echelon of racist clubs around the world.”

This topic was illustrated recently by an amateur comic, 630 CHED sportscaster Dan Tencer – who despite having never done stand-up before (and never again, he vows) won the title of “Funniest Media Person” at the Edmonton Comedy Festival. His line was about seeing an Asian person board an airplane with one piece of carry-on baggage. “Guess what it was,” he asked the crowd. “If you said ‘camera,’ you’re racist. Correct, but racist.”

If you laughed at that joke, you’re a racist. If you laugh at Achmed the Dead Terrorist, you’re a racist. And if you think Jeff Dunham’s material isn’t racist – you guessed it – you’re a racist. Everybody’s a comedian, and everybody’s a racist. See how easy it is to throw the word “racist” around? There wouldn’t be any racist jokes at all if there weren’t people laughing at them.

As for the effect of racist jokes on real racism, if any, or vice versa, that needs further study. Just don’t ask Achmed. That guy is crazy.