Laughing in the face of terror? | Brian Logan meets the vent act who always bombs...

Laughing in the face of terror?

Brian Logan meets the vent act who always bombs...

Is comedy scared of fundamentalist Islam? According to some critics, stand-ups are ever-ready to lampoon Christianity, but sheepish when it comes to belief with a bomb on its back. The argument gets overstated: if I had a virgin for every time I’ve heard a joke about 72 virgins, I wouldn’t need to blow myself up.

But next week, an act arrives in London to refute the charge for good. Welcome, then, to the man Slate magazine calls ‘by every conceivable measure, America’s favourite comedian’, Jeff Dunham, and his skeletal ventriloquist’s doll, Achmed the Dead Terrorist.

Chances are, you know of Achmed already. A clip from Dunham’s Sparks of Insanity DVD featuring the puppet cadaver (catchphrase: ‘Silence! I keeeell you!’) is the sixth most downloaded video in YouTube history. Since Dunham, 46, incorporated Achmed into the act he has been hawking around the States for 20 years, his career has sky-rocketed.

‘Achmed has put me in the stratosphere,’ says the Texan ventriloquist, on the phone from the US. Last year, he was the highest-grossing stand-up act in North America. But the Dead Terrorist’s popularity is global: the US ranks only ninth in Google searches for Achmed sorted by country. Which is why Dunham – who ‘never even thought of being big beyond the borders of the United States’ – is heading off on his first international tour.

The origins of Achmed – a skeleton in a turban, with a beard, bulging eyes and animated eyebrows – lie in post-9/11 America. As Dunham remembers it, ‘We were still looking for Osama bin Laden and nobody could find him. I was walking through a store one day and saw this big plastic skeleton. And I thought, if you dressed it up right, that could look like the dead Osama bin Laden.’

It was a rogue idea, bearing in mind that, even today, Dunham says ‘never is there anything funny in the States about 9/11’. But he persevered. He bought the skeleton, re-tooled it as a ventriloquist’s dummy, and launched a new act on his New York City audience. It was a year after the terror attacks he says, ‘and they couldn’t have laughed any harder.’

Dunham regenerated Dead Osama into Achmed the Dead Terrorist when, recording a 2007 DVD, he realised that ‘if we catch [Bin Laden], or if he’s found dead, then my act would look dated. So I thought, instead of making fun of him, I’ll make fun of an entire group of people.’

But the precise nature of the Achmed joke is a moot point. Dunham’s intention was to ‘make fun of those guys [ie, suicide bombers] and that mentality that most of us in the free world don’t understand’.

Achmed is therefore just ‘a bumbling terrorist who doesn’t have his heart in it. And if he did, he wouldn’t necessarily be good at it’. The act is purely about ‘entertainment... I’m not making any political statements whatsoever’.

Not everyone sees it that way. Last year, the South African Advertising Standards Authority withdrew a TV commercial for an Achmed ringtone, after a complaint that the ad portrayed all Muslims as terrorists.

Dunham’s response is to say, ‘watch the entire show. At every performance, Achmed points out that he’s not Muslim.’ But that’s disingenuous in the extreme. The puppet talks in an Arab accent. He is dressed like a Muslim, down to the (and I quote) ‘towel upon my head’. He talks about ‘killing the Jews’ and – as per the lyrics of Achmed’s Christmas song Jingle Bombs – he blatantly represents America’s adversary in the so-called war on terror. ‘I used to be a man / But every time I cough / Thanks to Uncle Sam / My nuts keep falling off.’

So there’s a jingoistic edge to the joke that some will find unattractive. But Dunham is an equal-opportunities offender. Another dummy, Bubba J, sends up so-called white trash America; a third, Jose Jalapeno, draws on Latino clichés.

Dunham cites ventriloquist’s immunity from responsibility for these stereotypes. ‘I don’t say any of these things,’ he jokes. ‘I have nothing to do with it.’

That supposed impunity must be why the world’s most notorious spoof of Islamic extremism has come from a voice-thrower. ‘If I was a straight stand-up, I wouldn’t do material about terrorism,’ says Dunham. ‘But there’s an unspoken license that comes with using a dummy. There’s an innocence about an object coming to life. You get away with a lot more than if a live person was saying it.’

There is indeed an innocence about Achmed the Dead Terrorist. Yes, the act is crude, silly, and triumphalist. But it’s not (usually) mean-spirited. Achmed succeeds because ‘we like to laugh at our fears,’ says Dunham. ‘We’re poking our thumb in the eye of something most of us don’t want to think about.’

The character de-fangs terrorism, if only for ten minutes, and makes a terrorist human again. ‘Achmed is conflicted about what to stand for, what to believe, and what to yell about,’ says his creator with paternal affection. ‘Some people identify with him, believe it or not.’

Finally, comedy has caught on to Islamic terrorism – but not in the way anyone would have expected. ‘If someone had said I was going to come up with a suicide-bomber dummy, and he’ll be a sympathetic character that people will like...’ Dunham trails off in disbelief. ‘Well, that’s just the stupidest thing I ever heard.’

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