One of the most popular puppets on YouTube has got to be Achmed The Dead Terrorist, a creation of Ventriloquist Jeff Dunham. Achmed is a brilliant idea for a character – even if Jeff’s humour is sometimes questionable (see previous post) – but what I think really makes audiences respond to Achmed is the way Jeff performs him, especially the way he creates the illusion of thought and focus.
Jeff’s performance of Achmed is pretty minimalist. He doesn’t do much with the puppet, but what he does he does incredibly well. When you watch the clip above, pay close attention to what Jeff does with Achmed’s head and eyes. Achmed’s focus is only on two things – Jeff and the audience – and he alternates between them with almost perfect timing.
Like most Ventriloquists, Jeff relies a lot on mechanisms in his puppets to get laughs and when he’s moving Achmed’s eyes or eyebrows to get a laugh he’ll usually keep the rest of the puppet very still. This is partially for practical reasons – it’s very difficult to operate multiple mechanisms simultaneously on most Vent figures – but also because by not moving the rest of the puppet the gag movement is exaggerated and draws a bigger laugh.
By making very specific choices about where Achmed looks, Jeff subtly communicates to his audience where their focus should be at any given moment in his act, like a magician masterfully misdirecting his audience on stage. Watch Jeff’s performances with a critical eye and I think you’ll learn a lot.