The packed house stood up and cheered wildly as ventriloquist Jeff Dunham unrolled an Israeli flag on stage in a last bout of Independence Day fervor at the Tel Aviv Opera House on Tuesday night. Middle East jokes were the name of the game for the veteran American comedian and ventriloquist in his first show in Israel, titled “Disorderly Conduct.”
Dunham, a Presbyterian from Texas, was admittedly self-conscious about the risk he was taking with his newly written material. However, he navigated the potential political and religious minefield relatively well, winning the audience over with suicide bomber jokes and a shout-out to “the birthplace of Sodastream.”
Dunham started off strong with the character Walter, a bitter old man with a permanent frown who hates his wife. While digs at the commercialization of Judaism with the abundance of “Super Jew” T-shirts in Jerusalem fell a bit flat, Walter became an instant hit when he noted how much his wife has in common with Israelis: “She’s spent many decades co-existing with someone who wants to kill her.”
The show lost steam, however, when Dunham transitioned into an extended sales pitch for his new line of affordable miniature dummies for beginners. Although he attempted to turn what was effectively shameless self-promotion into a cute sketch, it felt out of place after the high energy of the previous act.
Dunham regained his momentum when other popular characters, like Bubba J the dim-witted redneck and Peanut the purple bully, made appearances.
However, the big draw of the night was fan favorite Achmed the Dead Terrorist, who regaled the audience with his rendition of “Hava Nagila,” claiming partial Jewish heritage due to his “bomb mitzvah.” Achmed’s trademark “Silence! I keel you!” never failed to get laughs, and neither did his likening of Israeli bus drivers to terrorists.
In a country where the Achmed sketch might be especially offensive, Israelis were quick and able to laugh at themselves and at the country’s at times painful past.
Dunham, who ended the night with a standing ovation, did note that after all, this audience was particularly quick with getting the suicide bomber jokes.
Dunham’s brand of big, loud-mouthed humor is not for everyone, but he’s nothing if not an adept observer of his surroundings and a meticulously researched performer.
Despite the large venue and the cultural divide, he managed to make the performance feel intimate somehow, with a mix of personal stories, family photos and custom- made gags topped off with the most personal of gestures: the group selfie, a la Ellen DeGeneres.