BREA — Comedian-ventriloquist Jeff Dunham prides himself on growth. Unlike too many performers in the field, the Dallas native constantly turns his act over, separating the lemons from the laughs.
The show you saw a year ago is not the show you'll see now.
Thursday night at the Brea Improv was Exhibit A. He was last there eight months ago, and that show was splendid. This show is even better.
As usual, Peanut, a light purple woozle with big red lips and a splotch of green hair, and Walter, sort of an elderly Don Knotts with a chiseled-on scowl, were the dependable chassis to which Dunham added some bells and whistles, the latest being Bubba the redneck. Bubba will not be enrolling at Auburn University soon. This red-haired, big-eared, round-faced, baseball-cap-wearing Southern man is, after all, a "Hee Haw" reject (Walter's words) who met his corndog-eating wife at a family reunion as the sun reflected off her curlers.
Also new to the show is the Dear Walter segment, in which the grouchy Walter answers audience questions. Few of his better answers, however, are fodder for a family newspaper.
Watching a Dunham show, which the comedian has over the years been trying to give a sitcom feel to through character development, it's easy to take for granted what other ventriloquists labor at.
Dunham's voices are clear and distinct, featuring foreign accents, drunken slurs, animal noises and guttural moans. He also does a fine job separating himself from the act, especially with Peanut, who pretty much works the crowd himself, including his remark about one male patron going bald: "In a few more years, it'll be like his neck is going to be blowing a bubble." It's easy to overlook that those were Dunham's insults, not Peanut's.
Dunham is prone to use the term we (as did the legendary Edgar Bergen and Muppetman Jim Henson), which helps him and the audience believe his puppets are people. The price a ventriloquist pays for that, though, is personal obscurity. While Peanut and Walter might be recognized at the mall, Dunham is not. He acknowledged at much in his opening 10 minutes, before bringing out his right-hand men. "I've reached anonymous fame," he told the crowd, adding that he was recognized once in a men's room.
But with success and growth come growing pains. And though Bubba's nine-minute portion of the 75-minute show was good and certainly has potential (unlike Bubba), there were some empty spots (much like Bubba), mainly in the first few minutes when Bubba was grazing in the political-topical field.
Other minor gripes include:
* In his pursuit of perfection, Dunham has thrown the baby out with the bathwater. In previous shows, part of his brief opening monologue included a sketch in which Dunham is holding a blanket and talking to a cooing baby. It was not in Thursday's show. It was a fine piece.
* He omitted one of his most impressive feats, a rapid-fire six-way conversation that must be heard to be believed.
But overall, the focus on growth has paid off. In a recent interview, Dunham used the analogy of a one-dimensional juggler: If all he can do is juggle, then the tricks had better be stupendous if he wants to hold a crowd. Dunham, though recognized as being among the most highly skilled ventriloquists today, prefers not to rely only on tours de force to succeed. He prides himself on his comedy and his characters.
If his stand at the Brea Improv is any indication, he's on track. All seven of his shows are sold out. Orange County fans are no dummies.
* Jeff Dunham continues through Sunday at the Brea Improv, 945 E. Birch St. Tonight: 8:30 and 10:30; Sunday , 7:30 and 9:30. Sold out. (714) 529-7878.