When British ventriloquist Paul Zerdin won America’s Got Talent, the biggest surprise wasn’t that one of our own triumphed in the States.
No, it’s the fact that Paul Zerdin is actually a cutting-edge talent. He’s certainly funnier than a performing dog or Diversity. Dubbed “The South Park of ventriloquists”, the Londoner managed to win the hearts of judges including Mel B and Marlon Wayans as well as millions of viewers on NBC with his lewd trio of puppets.
Zerdin won an upcoming residency in Las Vegas as part of his Simon Cowell-approved prize – and he took a break from the Vegas Strip to give Loaded a private performance.
Deaf pensioner Albert, cocky pre-teen Sam and the precocious Baby form Zerdin’s puppet crew, and he admits: “Ventriloquism has fallen in and out of fashion. But these things always come around – and it’s back in vogue again.”
Zerdin certainly knows about the skill’s various knockbacks. He won ITV’s Big Big Talent Show final hosted by Jonathan Ross in 1996 – but has often performed on cruise ships in the intervening years before his America’s Got Talent triumph.
“If I ever talk to my puppets off stage, the men in white coats will have to take me away”
Now aged 43, Zerdin says: “When I started doing ventriloquism at 16, it seemed there was always a ventriloquist on TV. But as I started doing well, I realised how difficult it was becoming to get on TV doing something different. Reality TV wiped the slate clean, and there were very few platforms for what I do.”
Although US ventriloquist Terry Fator won America’s Got Talent in 2008, Zerdin confesses he didn’t think he had a hope of winning when he entered the talent show on a whim.
“I thought I’d do well as I was confident my material would work,” he ponders. “But I never thought I’d actually win it. I thought if my audition didn’t work that I could nip back home to Wimbledon with no-one any the wiser.
“I forgot about social media and how nothing escapes anybody now, so everyone I know ended up watching me on the first week!”
Away from his “family trio” of puppets, Zerdin is a self-deprecating, straightforward guy with a calm manner. There’s no sign of the cliché that all ventriloquists are frankly nuts – a stereotype that Zerdin admits is well-earned.
“I’ve heard of ventriloquists talking to their puppets when they’re not on stage,” he smiles. “One American performer who hadn’t done well at the London Palladium was overheard shouting at his dummy ‘You weren’t funny tonight! You’ve let me down!’ If I ever get to that point, the men in white coats will have to take me away.”
Zerdin does throw his voice to play pranks on his girlfriend, pretending there’s a monster under the stairs, but insists: “I’m just pissing around. I don’t wake up in the morning going ‘Hello Albert, want some tea?’ and replying ‘Yeees, hello’ in his voice.”
“I”ve never wanted to be a stand-up. I had too nice a childhood”
Most ventriloquists “hate each other”, he laughs, recalling a ventriloquism convention he attended in Kentucky where “The guy next to me says he was checking in for two… You’d hope they at least had twin beds, though nothing would surprise me!”
Inspired by Paul Daniels, Zerdin began as a magician (“I still do magic when I’m pissed”), before turning to ventriloquism and his ITV talent show win.
“I’ve never wanted to be a stand-up,” he explains. “I had a really nice childhood, so I never had anything I could moan about in my stand-up routines. Magic is a nice hobby, but the audiences were so rude, going ‘Make yourself disappear’ as soon as I came on.”
Zerdin finds it much easier to be rude to audiences himself as a ventriloquist, as “You can get away with saying anything if it’s done through a puppet. It is odd that grown men and women will let themselves be insulted by a puppet – even when I point out to them ‘You do know that it’s just me saying this?’”
Getting ready to unveil a fourth puppet (“One who isn’t human and is a bit sick”), Zerdin also hopes to introduce a female puppet in future, having failed some years ago with one based on his mum. “My father is going deaf and is turning into my Albert puppet,” he smiles. “Dad finds it hilarious that he’s inspiring my act.”
Citing Live At The Apollo regular Nina Conti and Jeff Dunham – whose routine with terrorist puppet Ahmed went viral – as peers helping to make ventriloquism hip again, Zerdin emphasises that his forthcoming Planet Hollywood Hotel residency in Vegas won’t see him quitting Britain for good.
“I play shows here as much as I can,” says Zerdin, who is trying to develop a TV show based around living at home with his puppet family. “There’s nothing better than lying on my beanbag watching telly with a cup of tea in the front room. I make sure that happens often enough. Otherwise I will go mad and start talking to the puppets.”
Paul Zerdin tours his Spongefinger show from April 8. For dates, see his website. Follow him on Twitter at @paulzerdin.
Loaded’s deputy editor John Earls has covered entertainment and sport across a range of national newspapers, plus several football and music magazines, since 1990. Follow him on Twitter at @EarlsJohn