Dunham’s delayed Vegas residency is a victory lap with a nice touch of creepy

Jeff Dunham made it to Las Vegas in time to celebrate.

Granted, he’s worked on the Strip since he was in his 20s — did you know he was Julio Iglesias’ opening act at Caesars Palace in 1990? — and was an occasional headliner on his own by 1997.

Still, in youth-obsessed show business, Dunham was the latest bloomer since Rodney Dangerfield, not packing the big theaters until the 2000s.

This all reads through in “Not Playing With a Full Deck,” the showcase the star ventriloquist has settled in with at Planet Hollywood Resort after coming off the road, or at least cutting back on the frequent-flier miles.

The first weekend had the air of a victory lap for the 52-year-old, a celebration with the people who made him what he is. He even devotes most of the segment with his most popular character, Achmed the Dead Terrorist, to note-card questions from fans.

It’s no doubt the actual technique of ventriloquism which freezes Dunham’s mouth into a sort of bemused smile. But it still makes him seem like he can’t believe he got this big either.

He never seems to be in a rush or trying to prove anything. He just makes it look easy, and not just with the ventriloquism stuff — though he will occasionally slip in an echo, a Fat Albert “Hey, hey hey!” or a nursery rhyme with lots of P’s.

The real skills are in the timing and the ad libs (whether real or preloaded). Dunham and his strange alter-ego Peanut pulled material almost as good as the scripted banter from a front-row patron named Ed about his career in the Las Vegas pest control industry. This comes only from having done it since he was a kid.

We know he has because of the photos. Dunham sneakily turns the first 15 minutes into a biographical crash course for the few who might be new to the world of purple puppets and dead terrorists.

On this day, at least, it was a small percentage of people who might not have known Dunham’s puppets are prone to casual profanity — usually not full-on dirty jokes but conversational swearing, which is still funnier when it comes from puppets. Or that he makes talk radio and Fox News-style jokes about the president — like the very name “Obama” sounding like something terrible, “ebola” or “Osama” — that are still fairly rare for entertainers not named Ted Nugent.

The most transgressive thing in the custom-Vegas show is the opening video. A parody of the TV show “24” is vaguely disturbing in how lightly it treats the city’s darkest collective nightmare, a terrorist bombing on the Strip. At least we get to see chief suspect Achmed succumb to the corrupting power of poolside babes (“The burqas here in Las Vegas are very short.”)

When it’s time to get down to the business of “the little people in the boxes,” the routines have a greatest-hits feel, even if the jokes are new. But the characters create an instant rapport unique to a ventriloquist’s art.

They are now old friends who let younger folks experience “team” comedy and old-school one-liners, such as grumpy ol’ Walter’s burst of “my wife” jokes, which might be new to those who grew up on observational stand-up.

Dunham’s success may relate partly to how mainstream he made a dying niche of show business that had become a little creepy, when you think of ventriloquists clutching bug-eyed puppets in an age of computer-generated marvels.

Truth is, you need a little of that creepiness. The segment where Dunham seemed to be entertaining himself as well as the audience was “a freakin’ infomercial” for Little Jeff, the entry-level mannequin he has fashioned in his own likeness, and, for some reason, has given Joe Pesci’s voice.

If you know a kid “who’s a social outcast, sucks at sports and girls won’t talk to him, you can give him a (expletive) doll,” Little Jeff explains. Big Jeff ends up chasing Little Jeff around the stage and wrestling him to the floor.

Is this Dunham going outside the box fans have put him in? A strange manifestation of self-loathing? Either way, it was a welcome left turn in the victory lap, making you hope the coming years will find more reasons to keep him on his feet.

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

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