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Dunham, puppets shtick it to society

All stand-up comedy is social commentary. Whether or not the comedian is actually attempting to make a statement about society, the response they receive from the audience is itself such a statement.

One statement on entertainment as a whole made through modern venues such as YouTube is that the masses still prefer cheap laughs, and any schmuck with a schlocky shtick and a camera can create a hit.

Still, sustaining stardom takes true talent, and ventriloquist Jeff Dunham, who performed Friday night for a First Niagara Center crowd that stretched into the upper sections, has become a YouTube-propelled superstar on the merits of his acutely characterized puppets and his impeccable timing.

There is an inherent immaturity to ventriloquism -- for all the craft and commitment in Dunham's act, this is still puppet play. That fact made his climb to the position of the top-grossing stand-up act in North America and worldwide demand even more steep. Exploiting that immaturity and any stereotype he can conjure, Dunham deftly harnesses the novelty of his specialty to get big laughs out of often mediocre material.

Dunham's two hour-plus set contained plenty of new material since his last visit to the downtown Buffalo arena nearly two years ago to the day, beginning with an engaging 25-minute opening bit sans puppets, in which he made himself the subject of jokes with a slideshow chronicling his lifelong obsession with ventriloquism -- from the Christmas gift of his idol Edgar Bergen's Mortimer Snerd doll at the age of 8 to school and family photos into adulthood accompanied by one of his homespun soul mates.

The puppet portion began with 20 minutes of outright orneriness from Dunham's elderly Walter, the old jerk everyone knows but might not want to admit being kin to. It was a segment for textbook old-married-man jokes -- "Did you have a good Christmas, Walter?" "Not really." "Why not?" "I told Santa what I wanted, but he wouldn't take her."

Next up was a 15-minute bit with the "white trash trailer park" drunk Bubba J, highlighted by an apparent display of improv and certainly one of timing, when Dunham stumbled over Bubba J's name, leading the character to create a gay French alter-ego, in whom the crowd delighted.

Following an intermission and stupid dog trick was Dunham's breakthrough character, Achmed the Dead Terrorist, the hapless hopeful suicide bomber whose hundreds of millions of YouTube views brought Dunham a global audience. Most of Achmed's jokes over a 35-minute period were the kind that would earn rolled eyes and groans if told only by a human, but score big when slapstuck onto a lovable turban-topped skeleton with a Middle Eastern accent, now accompanied by a new character -- Achmed's English-accented gay pacifist son, Achmed Jr.

Dunham's 20-minute closing bit featured his purple people annoyer, Peanut, and a cameo from Jose Jalapeno on a Stick, channeling the kind of unbridled energy that could get a man committed to dish random observational humor.

After a string of racial punchlines delivered as penalty calls by a football referee, Dunham scolded Peanut, saying, "That's awful." "They'll all be talking about it at the office Monday morning, trust me," Peanut replied.

Such is Dunham's social statement, and it's backed by his bank statement.