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by on December 7, 2012

The other day in our lecture, we talked for a while about how puppets can push social boundaries (such as political correctness) further in performances than a human can. Ventriloquists are artists who can ‘throw their voice’, making it seem as though a puppet is talking instead of them, and their craft has been around since ancient times, when it was used to trick people into thinking they were hearing the voice of their gods.

‘Achmed the Dead Terrorist’ is a puppet controlled and voiced by Jeff Dunham and is a particularly contraversial character. He is the skeletal puppet of a suicide bomber, with the catchphrase ‘silence, I kill you’. The theme of terrorism is one very rarely broached by comedians due to its sensitivity, but the puppet makes racist and provocative statements and jokes – but the audience do not react negatively. Dunham is able to stereotype and then mock Arabs through the cartoonish portrayal of Achmed.

People have questioned whether Dunham himself is racist, or whether it is the puppets themselves – the character mocking these stereotypes rather than Dunham himself. An example of a joke from his tour:
“Jeff: I don’t want racist jokes in my act.
Achmed: OK, how about if I kill the Jews?
Jeff: No…
Achmed: I’m kidding. I would not kill the Jews. I would toss a penny between them and watch them fight to the death.”

In itself, this joke is racist and possibly quite offensive, but with the puppet saying it, the audience is only further enamoured of the puppet. In an article for the New York Times, “Dunham describes them as moments of “catharsis,” when the dummy says something “everyone wants to laugh about, or that you snicker at with one or two friends, but that you could never say out loud.”” Dunham himself is one of the highest earning stand-up comedians in America, perhaps due to the unusual nature of his act.

Avenue Q is another example of when puppets are used to talk about adult situations in order to make them seem ‘more okay’. Puppets being racist against other puppets for being a ‘monster’ is a way for them to talk about “the sensitive subject of race” without appearing to commit a social transgression in the eyes of the audience. Even though the puppeteers are visible, the audience still accept that the puppet is speaking for itself. The entire show is done as a Sesame Street spoof, so the child-friendly voices that the puppets appear to have can then be contrasted with their lines and their actions.


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