Jeff Dunham has been snowballing into great popularity in the last five years. For those of you with your minds in the gutters, I’m referring to another definition for snowballing. The entertainer (I’ll refrain from using the word “comedian”) has built a career based on ventriloquism, which is difficult to do it today’s comedy world. Now, I’m not going to jump off the handle and call him a racist, but I’ll let you decide. Here are some of his characters:
José Jalapeño on a Stick, a jalapeño with a Hispanic accent, glazed eyes, a thick moustache and a sombrero.
Achmed the Dead Terrorist, a skeleton with a turban who speaks with an Arab accent and makes violent threats.
Sweet Daddy Dee, an African-American pimp, complete with broken grammar, a loud suit, and bling. I don’t think elaboration is needed.
So, what makes his characters so much different than Frito Bandito, who angered groups such as the National Mexican-American Anti-Defamation Committee for what was seen as a negative portrayal of Mexicans. Even the Taco Bell Chihuahua met protests from groups like this.
What makes Achmed so much different than the Merchant from Aladdin, whose lyrics “They cut off your nose if they don’t like your face” brought forth protest from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee? While the lyrics ma have been offensive, Dunham’s character says such offensive and stereotypical lines on a regular basis.
What makes Sweet Daddy Dee, with his flashy suit and poor grammar, any different than the Crows from Dumbo? Wait. Never mind. I found the difference. While Disney attempted to at least thinly mask the characters by making them animals. Dunham just removes the middleman and presents his character as an African-American man.
Of course, Jeff Dunham has heard accusations of racism, and has tried to defend himself. In an article for the New York Times, the author writes “He defends himself by noting that he tries to insult all races and ethnicities equally, and ultimately seems to treat jokes about all Indians being customer-service operators or all black people drinking malt liquor not all that differently from jokes involving other well-worn comedic tropes — like all wives being annoying nags or Florida being way too humid.”
That’s right. He treats any ethnic stereotype as very mild jokes. He says that his puppets are a result of his distaste for political correctness, not his projections about his feelings toward any ethnic group. The problem is, of course, that there is a pretty thick line between being politically incorrect and being straight-up offensive. I think Mr. Dunham may not know exactly what constitutes political correctness. It’s not refraining from saying offensive words, it’s refraining from saying seemingly commonplace words that can be construed as offensive, but are not blatantly so.
Being politically incorrect is the difference between saying “black” and “African-American.” It starts toeing the line into racism when he Dunham shouts (through one of his characters, of course) to Mexicans as a collective group “Learn [naughty word] English!”
Being politically incorrect is knowing the difference between “waiter”/”waitress” and “server.” Jeff Dunham, however, stands on the other side of the line when (again, through a character), he says “I would not kill the Jews. No. I would toss a penny between them and watch them fight to the death!”
Given this information, is Jeff Dunham a racist? The stereotypes are certainly blatant, and they mirror or even further stereotypes brought out by other characters. It isn’t a thinly veiled racism he presents. Jeff Dunham is proud to get laughs from each character, no matter which stereotype is exacerbated or whatever offensive comment is made. So decide for yourself just what you are laughing at when you applaud these stereotypes.
UPDATE: Usually when I bring up this topic, fans on Jeff Dunham tend to reply “Well, he has two white characters, so he can’t be racist.” His white characters are Walter, a cranky old man, and Bubba J, a redneck who loves NASCAR and beer. So do they balance out the racial stereotypes of Jose, Achmed, and Sweet Daddy Dee?
They would balance out the characters in the same way that the slow-witted Elmer Fudd and the constantly angry cowboy Yosemite Sam balance out this Looney Tunes gem: