Wednesday, April 08, 2009

On watching Jeff Dunham learn

Last night's show at the Hammersmith Apollo (sheesh, what a dump!) was Jeff Dunham's first and only show in the UK. He had only arrived from the USA that afternoon, so he had had no time to imbibe any culture or vocabulary. He more or less had to figure it out on the fly, and he was probably jet lagged to boot.

Someone had obviously told him that the English hate the French, because he touched on that quite early on. But there were moments when some of the jokes didn't work because the audience didn't understand them. One of these involved what I think might have been an American chocolate bar. Another was a reference to Depend products (Walter says, "Does Depend make a thong?"). My kids told me afterwards I was the only person in the whole auditorium who got that joke (we have Depend in South Africa, too - in the UK it's called Tena). Embarrassingly for them, I laughed exactly as I would have done if the whole audience had got the joke. Ever had one of those moments?

But what was interesting was the way Jeff handled these moments. When the audience didn't laugh, he would have a discussion with his dummy about it. For example, when we didn't get the reference to the chocolate bar. He said to Walter, "Maybe they don't have those here," to which Walter replied, "Maybe I should have said 'masher and bangs'." They then had a brief exchange about what that might be, both declaring themselves clueless. Then, way later in the programme, Jeff suddenly declared triumphantly, apropos nothing at all, "It's 'bangers and mash'!" I guess that was another heads up he had been given - perhaps by his taxi driver.

When the Depend joke flopped, he said "Well, either they don't have thongs or they don't have Depend." Then he moved on with the show.

Can you imagine how vulnerable he felt, not knowing which jokes would work and which would not? His learning was happening in a very public arena (the show was sold out and the theatre seats over 3,700 people. There were people standing around the edges, too!). But he had the presence of mind to handle his learning and moments of 'failure' (if you could call them that) in a way that further endeared him to the audience. It could so easily have gone horribly wrong. But he said from the outset that he didn't know how much of the humour would transfer across the pond. And, bless his heart, he started with London. We speak English. He goes from here into mainland Europe, where the audiences will primarily not be native speakers of the language.

I wish him every success.

Oh, and just a little aside... a few seats away from us, a woman was clutching a Peanut doll. Peanut is my absolute favourite. So I went over to find out where she had got him. My opening line was, "I have a serious case of Peanut envy." My sons, to whom my husband had explained the sort-of-pun told me as I returned to my seat that I took a risk making a joke like that to complete stranger. My reply? "Anyone who has spent this much money getting here, certainly has enough of a sense of humour to handle it!"

It was a once in a lifetime opportunity. My husband knew little about Jeff Dunham beforehand, not having imbibed his every YouTube video the way the boys and I have, so it was a gamble. But it paid off. He roared with laughter the whole way through.

... and I am now utterly broke. I'm expecting my bank manager to knock on the door any moment!

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