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COMEDY REVIEW : Jeff Dunham’s Not a Dummy When Laughs Are at Stake

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ASSISTANT SAN DIEGO ARTS EDITOR

Jeff Dunham just wanted to do something different. Even though the ventriloquist-comedian was a huge fan of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, he felt he could do something more.

So, about four years ago, he came up with Peanut, a woozle, and Walter, a crank. Peanut is light purple with a splotch of green hair and one red high-top tennis shoe--or as Walter describes him, “a Muppet on heroin.” Walter is human, almost. Neither creation will be mistaken for the wooden Charlie. Dunham will not be mistaken for the avuncular Bergen.

The new dummies, Dunham told a crowd of about 275 at the Improv in Pacific Beach on Tuesday night, also have another benefit. “No more termite jokes.”

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He was right.

Besides the safe fare, Dunham’s humor can be biting, bitter and belittling, with a slight dip into the macabre. For most of the 60-minute set, he kept the gags consistent, avoiding dry periods that plague many headliners trying to fill their time on stage.

Technically, Dunham’s skills have to be heard to be believed. At one point, he did a rapid-fire, six-way conversation, with six distinctive voices. It’s no fluke that this Carson show veteran is considered tops in his field by the International Ventriloquist Assn.

Besides Walter and Peanut, the supporting cast features a jalapeno-on-a-stick, a dummy that resembles Dunham, a gorilla, a bottle-dwelling worm and two cockroaches.

Though Peanut (whose single shoe contains a phone and an answering machine) and Walter are the messengers, it’s easy to overlook that fact that Dunham is the one putting the words in their mouths. He stands back from the action, and, when there’s a pause, the crowd looks for Peanut or Walter to get the show going again. It’s as if Dunham isn’t there. That’s the sign of a good ventriloquist. Dunham’s style is to forgo the usual back-and-forth banter in favor of letting his creations carry the operation. They have voices and minds of their own.

Dunham opened the show with Peanut, brought out the minor characters to work with him and then introduced Walter, who writes greeting cards for a living, for a solo slot. The grumpy Walter just got back from his second honeymoon at Disneyland, which he enjoyed, except for one area. “They should turn “It’s a Small World” into an international shooting gallery,” he grumbled.

The night’s only stumbling point came with the gorilla, the latest addition to the menagerie. This portion of the show contains a tasteless play on zoo gorillas that could easily be lopped from the act and not missed.

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Dunham got his start when he was still in elementary school in Dallas, when he gave a book report on “Hansel and Gretel” using a hand puppet. He spent five minutes on the report and 10 minutes making fun of his classmates.

When not on stage, Dunham, who now lives in Redondo Beach, is consumed by a relatively rare hobby. He builds and flies helicopters. And one time on the “Tonight Show,” like a proud papa, he pulled a photo from his wallet and showed Johnny Carson his handiwork. He keeps his helicopter at Gillespie Field in El Cajon because of the proximity to the desert, mountains and coast. He also has friends down here.

Dunham also had plenty of friends at the club Tuesday. They cheered, laughed and looked at each other knowingly whenever Dunham brought out a new dummy, the kind of fan recognition that comes with repeated exposure on the Carson show, “An Evening at the Improv,” “Hot Country Nights,” “Comic Strip Live,” comedy clubs, corporate gigs and college stops.

An impressive list. Not bad, as Peanut reminds him, for someone who plays with dolls for a living.

Jeff Dunham will play the Improv, 832 Garnet Ave., through Sunday. The club is calling this a special event, so no passes will be honored. Opening the show is Terry Dadd with Fran Solomita as the middle act. Show times are 8:30 tonight and Sunday, 8:30 and 10:30 Friday, and 8 and 10:30 Saturday. For more information, call 483-4522.

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