Q&A: Ventriloquist Paul Zerdin
There’s a new gunslinger in town, ventriloquially speaking. Perhaps it’s simpler to say there’s a new voice-thrower in town. Chances are good, though, that you’ve already met London-born ventriloquist Paul Zerdin, who won the 10th season of America’s Got Talent. Zerdin recently launched his new show, Mouthing Off, at Planet Hollywood Resort. Recently, Zerdin spoke to Las Vegas Magazine’s Steve Bornfeld about challenging audiences and trying to reinvigorate the art of ventriloquism.
What was it about ventriloquism that attracted you to it?
I loved comedy and I loved the Muppets in particular, and Sesame Street. As a kid I always wanted an Ernie and Bert puppet. And I was a kid magician from about the age of 9. Then I saw a British ventriloquist who just blew me away. I was just mesmerized. I was a magician and kind of a show-off as well. Ventriloquism is the best way to marry the two. I could do the puppeteering, but I could also be onstage doing my stuff as well, instead of being under the table sticking my arm up. So I stopped doing the magic and concentrated more on the puppets and the stand-up comedy elements. You are puppeteering but you are acting and directing yourself, all within a stand-up form. It’s worked out quite well.
What’s the secret to making audiences suspend disbelief?
As a kid, I would take a teddy bear, take the stuffing out and put my hand in. I always pretended there was something alive when there wasn’t. You have to make it believable or else people aren’t going to buy into the jokes. In my show, the puppets Sam, his grandpa Albert, and the baby, they are all kind of related, so it’s kind of like I’m looking after this dysfunctional family. Because there is that kind of weird dynamic, it helps make the characters believable.
What inspired your comic sensibilities?
I was influenced by old-fashioned comedy, really. I was brought up on Laurel and Hardy, and Abbott and Costello, and British comedians. But I love American comedians. Jerry Seinfeld is one of my favorites. I was brought up on a diet of American television, so it kind of makes sense that I wound up here.
On AGT, a highlight was you turning Howie Mandel into a “human puppet,” and now you do it with audience members. Why is that so popular?
What I did with Howie was a shorter version of the full routine I’m doing here. I can get them walking around the stage. Sometimes I go into the audience and I’m controlling them from the seat and they are up there doing the show. I’ve never seen that done before. That’s totally new. I did a sneak preview of it with Howie and he was just the best dummy. On live television, it was a risk, but it was a risk worth taking. There is a structure to it, but you never know how people are going to react, and that’s the great thing about doing a live show.
How is your material in your Vegas show different than what you did on AGT?
It’s a bit edgy, with things you can’t say on prime time television. It’s cheekier than what you saw on AGT.
On TV, you performed with Terry Fator, who performs at The Mirage. How do you feel about competing with him?
When I was here before, doing three nights at Planet Hollywood, we hung out and he’s become a friend. I have to pinch myself because he’s set the benchmark here in Vegas and here am I doing a show in Vegas. Just to do a shot with him was amazing.
Do you think of yourself as part of a “young turks” generation that reinvigorated the art form?
I would like to think so. It’s about doing things in a different way. Within the show there’s stand-up, there’s examples of me throwing my voice without a puppet, so you don’t have to have a puppet at the end of your arm. And the human puppet segment, I think that’s where it’s going. There was a British ventriloquist who used to squeeze people’s arms and open their mouths and put his voice in there, so this is just an updated version. And the fact that I can improvise, I think that makes it more modern. And there is the use of animatronics, so the puppets stand on their own sometimes. We have this amazing technology at our fingertips, so why not use it? It’s not a whole show with radio control, but there are moments when you can use it to punctuate a gag or a section within the show. I think people haven’t seen too much of that and I think it’s refreshing and different. As long as the show is funny, I think you can do anything.
On AGT you brought attention to how people try to see your lips move, as if daring the audience to catch you in the act. Why do that?
I think you should just confront it, because you know that’s what everyone is thinking. Is his mouth moving? If you can show that it isn’t really moving and you’ve got an interesting character, they move away from that and concentrate on the puppet. And the puppet is more interesting to look at. I remember seeing Jim Henson, he had Kermit on his arm and he was taking to the camera. But Jim wasn’t a ventriloquist, he was an amazing puppeteer and pioneer. And Kermit is saying, “I know it’s more interesting to look at the frog.” And you were drawn to Kermit, even though there was a man sitting next to him talking and moving his lips. I’d like to think my technique is good, so why not test that? Ventriloquists used to be one rung below a juggler. But now it’s thought of as an art form and people love it. It’s about the comedy, first and foremost.
Planet Hollywood Resort, 7 p.m. Tues.-Sun., additional 4 p.m. show Sat., starting at $55 plus tax and fee. 800.745.3000 Ticketmaster