Q&A: Ventriloquist Paul Zerdin – Las Vegas Magazine


There’s a new gunslinger in town, via ventriloquism. Perhaps it’s simpler to say there’s a new voice caster in town. Chances are 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 magazineby Steve Bornfeld on challenging the public and trying to reinvigorate the art of ventriloquism.

What drew you to ventriloquism?

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 child magician since I was about 9 years old. Then I saw a British ventriloquist who just blew my mind. I was just hypnotized. I was a magician and kind of a show-off too. Ventriloquism is the best way to marry the two. I could be puppeteering, but I could also be on stage doing my stuff, instead of under the table raising my arm. So I stopped doing magic and focused more on puppets and stand-up comedy elements. You are a puppeteer, but you play and direct yourself, all in a stand-up form. It worked pretty well.

What’s the secret to getting the audience to suspend their disbelief?

When I was a kid, I would pick up a teddy bear, pull out the stuffing, and put my hand in it. I’ve always pretended there was something alive when there wasn’t. You have to make it believable or people won’t accept the jokes. In my show, the puppets Sam, his grandfather Albert and the baby are all connected, it’s kind of like I’m taking care of this dysfunctional family. Because there’s this kind of weird dynamic, it helps make the characters believable.

What inspired your comedic sensibilities?

I was influenced by old-school comedy, really. I grew up with 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 the American TV diet, so it makes sense that I end up here.

At AGT, a highlight was turning Howie Mandel into a “human puppet,” and now you’re doing it with audience members. Why is it so popular?

What I did with Howie was a shorter version of the full routine I’m doing here. I can make them walk around the stage. Sometimes I go into the audience and control them from the seat and they’re up there doing the show. I have never seen this before. It’s totally new. I previewed it with Howie and it was just the best model. On live TV it was a risk, but it was a risk worth taking. There’s a structure, but you never know how people are going to react, and that’s what’s great about doing a live show.

How is your material on your Vegas show different from what you did on AGT?

It’s a little edgy, with things you can’t say on prime time TV. It’s cheekier than what you’ve seen on AGT.

On television, 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 became a friend. I have to pinch myself because he set the benchmark here in Vegas and here I am doing a show in Vegas. Just getting a picture with him was amazing.

Do you consider yourself part of a generation of “young Turks” who have reinvigorated this art form?

I would like to think like that. It’s about doing things differently. In the show there is stand-up, there are examples of me casting my voice without a puppet, so you don’t have to have a puppet at your arm’s length. And the human puppet segment, I think that’s where it’s at. There was a British ventriloquist who used to hug people and open his mouth and put his voice in it, so this is just an updated version. And the fact that I can improvise, I think that makes it more modern. And there’s the use of animatronics, so the puppets sometimes stand on their own. We have this incredible technology at our fingertips, so why not use it? It’s not a whole show with radio control, but there are times when you can use it to punctuate a gag or a section of the show. I think people haven’t seen that too much and I think it’s refreshing and different. As long as the show is funny, I think you can do anything.

At AGT you drew attention to the way people try to see your lips move, as if to challenge the public to catch you in the act. Why do that?

I think you should just face it, because you know that’s what everyone thinks. Does his mouth move? If you can show that it’s not really moving and you have an interesting character, they move away from that and focus on the puppet. And the puppet is more interesting to watch. I remember seeing Jim Henson, he had Kermit on his arm and he was walking towards the camera. But Jim was not a ventriloquist, he was an incredible puppeteer and pioneer. And Kermit said, “I know it’s more interesting to watch the frog. And you were attracted to Kermit, even though there was a man sitting next to him who was talking and moving his lips. I would like to think that my technique is good, so why not test it? Ventriloquists were once a rung below a juggler. But now it’s considered an art form and people love it. It’s about comedy, first and foremost.

Planet Hollywood Resort, 7 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, additional show at 4 p.m. Saturday, from $55 plus taxes and fees. 800.745.3000 Ticketmaster


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