This Looks Terrible! Jeff Dunham's Achmed Saves America
Do good ventriloquists exist? I’m not asking as a rhetorical question, I’m genuinely curious, because I can’t say that I’ve ever found myself beginning a sentence with, “Hey, you know what contemporary ventriloquist I really like?”
I honestly can’t name a single modern ventriloquist I enjoy but I can easily single out a ventriloquist I detest in Jeff Dunham, one of our commercially successful comic superstars and also one of the worst. Like the rancid orange in the White House, Dunham is a poster boy for the reverse meritocracy.
Because Dunham is the worst, I’ve limited my exposure to his racism and stereotype-based comedy but when I discovered that Achmed the Dead Terrorist, Dunham’s most controversial dummy, got his own feature-length animated spin-off in the form of 2014’s Jeff Dunham’s Achmed Saves America, it looked so terrible I just knew I had to write about it for my column, This Looks Terrible! It’s devoted to things that look terrible. This fit the bill.
As the Gathering of the Juggalos program description for veteran corporate ventriloquist Marc Rubben this year observed, “Yo…on some real shit? The art of ventriloquism is straight-up amazing. How the fuck do they throw their voices like that? It’s truly an epic art form that has been passed down throughout the generations, shrouded in secrecy, and only bestowed upon the chosen.”
That is undeniably true. The art of ventriloquism is straight up amazing, the way they throw their voices like that, and also how it's passed down from generation to generation. Dunham is among the chosen to carry on this noble tradition. Sure enough, Jeff Dunham’s Achmed Saves America begins with a live-action Dunham and Achmed facing the screen for an intro where Achmed confesses his incongruous (some might even say comically incongruous) love for Tigger while Dunham watches with that perpetual smirk of unearned self-satisfaction that is his default expression.
Dunham plum can’t seem to believe the words coming out of his dummy’s mouth but when Achmed “wishes” to become animated, he receives his wish (from “Tinker Bubba”, a fairy-godmother version of Dunham’s hillbilly dummy) and we receive our wish to no longer have to look at Dunham’s smug fucking face when the action goes from clumsily live-action to crudely animated.
Achmed Saves America is consequently a vehicle for a ventriloquist’s dummy that removes the whole “ventriloquism” aspect from Dunham’s whole shtick, along with the Dunham part. This makes Achmed Saves America a ventriloquism-derived movie with almost no actual live-action ventriloquism and a Jeff Dunham vehicle largely devoid of Dunham as a live-action performer, and Dunham-written material.
Instead of Dunham performing Dunham material opposite his trusty supporting cast of dummies, Achmed Saves America was written by Michael Price, a veteran comedy writer best known for his work with The Simpsons. Needless to say, this is an improvement, even if the sixty-one minute “movie” feels unmistakably like a back-door pilot for a “politically incorrect” social satire that imagines what Family Guy might be like if fan favorite Stewie was replaced with a ghoulish caricature of a crazed Jihadist who is supposed to come from a fictional Middle Eastern country but who actually shares the eastern european accents and much of the personality and inflections of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and Ren of Ren & Stimpy fame.
I like to watch movies with closed captioning because my hearing isn’t particularly, but I also love closed captioning because the juxtaposition of words and images sometimes results in accidental jokes, or things that strike me as funny. After the hillbilly dummy fairy godmother exits, for example, farting and falling as he leaves, we’re left with a scowling image of Achmed above the words [Flatulence, crash].
Flatulence, crash. What more needs to be said?
Early in Achmed Saves America, it is established that despite looking and acting suspiciously like a crude stereotype of an Islamaphobic caricature, Achmed is not Muslim. The idea seems to be that a xenophobic caricature cannot truly be Islamophobic if he’s not actually Muslim.
This reminded me of something that happened to me when I was working at a Blockbuster Video in college. For reasons known only to him, my manager spent an entire shift doing what I saw as an offensively over-the-top caricature of a screaming queen. When I objected that it seemed a little homophobic, he told he that it couldn’t possibly be homophobic because he wasn’t pretending to be gay, only effeminate.
I wasn’t buying my manager’s reasoning, nor am I buying Achmed Saves America’s. It seems disingenuous and dishonest. Christ, Jar Jar Binks is a fucking outer space toad-man. He wasn’t even born on the same planet as Africa but that doesn’t make the character any less of a racist caricature.
Achmed Saves America offers an origin story for this beloved hateful stereotype that begins with him incongruously alive yet characteristically committed to killing Western infidels, albeit not in the name of Allah.
At the risk of being all Trumpy, Jeff Dunham, either utter the phrase “Extremist Islamic Terrorism” in connection with Achmed the Dead Terrorist, who is clearly supposed to be Muslim, or resign from the world of ventriloquism in disgrace over your cowardice. Actually, Jeff Dunham, I’d actually just like to encourage you to retire from ventriloquism, and comedy, and the whole public arena, just because.
Achmed just wants to kill Americans but he’s not very good at it, yet he never finds himself in the archetypically all-American town of Americaville, USA. Ahmed is mistaken for a French exchange student (a gag that was mildewed back when the Coneheads used it four decades ago) but finds it difficult to be anti-American when small town America goes out of its way to be the best possible host to a rage-filled foreigner with an unmistakable “Isis vibe.”
It’d be weirdly, queasily prescient even if Donald Trump didn’t make an appearance on a newfangled Mount Rushmore of our nation’s four most revered figures, alongside Taylor Swift, Tom Cruise and Lance Armstong.
Yes, Achmed Saves America inhabits a bizarre alternate universe where Americans err on the side of treating foreigners and immigrants too nicely. Achmed is treated so well that he soon finds himself saying “LIfe to America!” Yes, Achmed Saves America depicts American life as so idyllic that even an American-hating terrorist type can’t help but be won over. So while the first half of Achmed’s animated vehicle is devoted to him dying and seeking to kill Americans, the second half is devoted to him loving Americans and trying to save the family that took him in.
Achmed Saves America would like to fancy itself an equal-opportunity offender, but as you might imagine, it’s really more about scapegoating and punching down. I was particularly struck by the following exchange between Achmed and the film’s nebbishy token liberal:
“In the words of Michelle Obama, for the first time in my adult life, I’m really proud of my country”—the film’s token leftist
“Yes, we heard her say that. That is when we recruited her.”—Achmed
“She is a true American”—Liberal
“Yes, and her hair is actually straight.”—Achmed
At best, that’s a clumsy, stiff bad joke that lands really wrong. At worst, it feels a little racist, and at the risk of getting on my soap box about fucking Achmed Saves America, if I were Michelle Obama and I endured the level and volume of racism and hatred that that she did, I would hate the United States. Oh yes I would. I would hate the United States with an almost inconceivable level of vitriol and anger. But the Obamas clearly don't hate our country in spit of everything.
Ah, but Achmed Saves America isn’t just jarringly personal attacks on Michelle Obama’s patriotism. There’s also a lot of Family Guy style randomness, from Achmed referring to Jessica Chastain as “the crazy bitch from The Help” to Glee references and multiple song and dance numbers. There’s also a bit of winking meta-commentary when the son in the family that takes in Achmed tells him that he’s going to be a ventriloquist and Achmed looks directly into the camera and says, “Who is going to pay to see anyone do that crap?”
The same question can be asked of Achmed Saves America. It’s not as bad as it could have been, but that’s primarily because a premise this screamingly offensive has an almost bottomless capacity to be not just terrible but unforgivably offensive.
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