Interview: Paul Zerdin
PUBLISHED: 15:00 26 August 2011
Paul Zerdin is famous for talking to himself — and in his hands ventriloquism, that old staple of the variety show, isn't just child's play. SIMON PARKIN reports on the man and his potty mouthed puppets.
Putting words into other people’s mouths has become a funny business for Paul Zerdin.
The comedian is now one of the country’s most popular ventriloquists, winning over audiences with his quick wit and impressive vocal talents.
Having appeared on the Royal Variety Show and Tonight at the London Palladium, he is now taking his fabric friends on the road for his UK tour, Sponge Fest, which arrives in Norfolk this week.
Until quite recently, the mention of ventriloquism might have conjured up images of bad 1970s variety shows. But with his smart puppets and often adult humour, Zerdin is turning that view on its head.
“Originally, I think there was a little bit [of hostility from the comedy world],” he admits. “They thought, ‘who is this, coming in from the mainstream?’
“Anyone who had done straightforward stand-up did, a few years ago, look down on ventriloquists a bit, because they were not hardcore stand-ups. But I think things have changed a lot, particularly at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where this year ventriloquists had three of the best selling shows, so I think it has come back. I think it needed to go out of fashion, so it could go away and think about what it had done and come back better.”
Although Zerdin, 38, is joined on stage by a baby, a small boy and an old man, the show is for over-18s only. His ability to subvert the traditional image of ventriloquism and play to more than a family crowd seems to have worked.
“It’s been everything from holiday camps and similar environments, to panto, comedy clubs and late shows,” he said. “I always did everything, so I could work a family show, but now I can also close the show at the Comedy Store and give them what they want.”
Zerdin discovered a love of performing when he was a child and began his magic career at the age of 15. Having ‘ruined’ his GCSEs, it was fortunate he possessed a talent for comedy.
“I always wanted to do something silly, from dressing up as Margaret Thatcher when I was six, to doing card tricks,” he said. “When I was at school, in my spare time I worked in a restaurant in Wimbledon doing magic. I was one of those annoying
people who come up to you when you’re having dinner and says, ‘do you want to see a card trick?’ I always knew what I wanted to do.”
Originally inspired to learn ventriloquism by watching the late, great Ray Alan, Paul is at the vanguard of a new, brilliant and very funny generation of entertainers.
Born into a family of performers — both his parents went to drama school — Paul never really considered any other career than showbiz. Although he originally wanted to be a magician, he soon proved he could adapt to the pressures of the market.
“When I was about 17, I went to some agents and most didn’t bother replying,” he said. “One woman replied and asked me what I had that was different. I told her I was learning ventriloquism so she said, ‘come back when you’ve got an act’. So from then on I focused on ventriloquism.”
“I got a book called How to be a Ventriloquist by Ray Alan. I thought ventriloquism seemed to fit the bill [of what I wanted to do]. I had always loved the Muppets and Sesame Street characters, I liked the magic and I love comedy.”
But, I suggest, wasn’t ventriloquism deeply unfashionable by then? “It was, but having said that I had seen Ray Allen do a spot – the best spot ever – on a Paul Daniels show. I still remember it word for word. It was Lord Charles.”
Paul warms to his theme. “There was the American, Ronn Lucas. He had a puppet called Scorch the Dragon and a cowboy puppet too called Buffalo Billy. There was a comedy magician called Wayne Dobson who also did ventriloquism. I thought, that’s what I should be doing.”
Having watched these performers on television he fastened upon the mix of comedy and puppetry he wanted to create. He was 20 when he landed his first proper television job, presenting GMTV’s children’s programme, Rise and Shine.
His puppet, the cheeky lad Sam, was designed at that time and is still Zerdin’s right-hand man.
“I did that for two years, introducing shows like Muppet Babies. It’s quite a contrast to what I’m doing now,” he said. “So I worked on Sam for a few years, then I thought I should have something else and I thought an old man would be funny. Baby came along a few years later. It’s evolved into a one-man, Muppet, stand-up sitcom.”
His comic creations have taken him to some impressive places, including the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal, and Sam even sang to Dame Shirley Bassey during her 60th Birthday Special TV show.
Along the way he worked as a puppeteer on the 1996 movie Muppet Treasure Island. “Having been such a fan of the Muppets growing up to land a job where I had my hand up Gonzo and doing Sweetums, which is a big Muppety monster, was an absolute dream come true.
“Then I appeared on The Big Big Talent Show. I auditioned for it and Nigel Lythgoe, who does So You Think You Can Dance and Pop Idol, was producing it. He said: ‘That was brilliant. I think we’re going to see a lot more of you.’
“So I got that... got through to the final and I won the final.
“It was quite a big show for the time  but it wasn’t nearly as big and it didn’t get me near the heights of Brit-ain’s Got Talent and The X Factor.”
But: “It got me going and got me on the Royal Variety Show and all the big entertainment-type shows that were popular at the time.”
Creating your own sidekicks must require some wise decision making, but Paul thinks the secret of his success lies in his chemistry with the puppets.
“They are my dependants, so it’s all quite real. There’s a kid, a baby who wants to be breast-fed by someone in the front row and an old man who still chases women, but can’t remember why. I try to keep it as real as possible and they are all things people can relate to. I’m in the middle, trying to rein them all back.”
Although he has been working with Sam for about 17 years, Zerdin has no plans to introduce a crowd of new puppets to his act.
“It’s continually evolving and moving forward, but I don’t have plans for new characters,” he said. “I think I can do a lot more with the characters I already have. I want to be ‘Paul Zerdin, the stand-up and ventriloquist’ – when you see him, you might see characters you have seen on TV, but it’s more about good comedy. I want to make it bigger and better and take it to the next level.
“You can have the best technology but if it’s not funny, what are you doing it for?”
Ventriloquism has changed since the early days of television when the viewing public could see the radio stars’ mouths move.
“People have memories of ventriloquists who aren’t very good so they think it’s some old bloke with some knackered, scary old doll. They have this image and you have to break those preconceived ideas.
“The thing is that in music halls the performers were a long way from the audience and you couldn’t see their mouths move. On radio too... I love doing radio,” he jokes.
“Television was a real shock to the system with the cameras coming in close. It meant people had to be better.”
Does Paul now see a new generation of ventriloquists coming up that he, perhaps, has inspired. “I saw a clip of a kid on Britain’s Got Talent the other day. This kid did one of my lines!”
There’s a lot of new material in Paul’s current tour: “I’ve got a whole new routine where I get a man and a woman out of the audience. I’ve just re-written it, so it’s all changed.”
With his stuff being bandied about on YouTube — one clip alone had three million hits — Paul says: “I’m having to raise my game and take it to the next level which I’ve just done.”
He is philosophical. While he wonders if people might have seen parts of his act, ‘Cor blimey, have they all seen this?’ he also knows that if he doesn’t do it, people complain that they’ve seen it on telly or YouTube and they want to see it live.”
He describes his current show as “kind of like a sitcom in a way. It’s one-man, puppet, stand-up sitcom.
“I’m in the middle, there to look after my dependants who are Sam and the Baby and Sam’s granddad, Albert, who’s kind of senile. He’s still chasing the women, he just can’t remember why.
“The humour comes from the situations rather than just a bloke standing there with a puppet doing jokes for the sake of doing jokes. It’s a comedy and the comedy comes from real life. For example the old man takes Viagra. Comedy.”
Audiences can often imbue the puppets with independent life.
“There’s a moment in the show where I put the puppet into the bag and the audience are crying out ‘no, no, you can’t!’
“It happened the other night and I’m thinking, okay, it’s 10 o’clock at night. These are grown men and women sitting here going ‘No!’ and I picked the puppet out of the bag and just dangled him and said, ‘Look it’s me. It’s me [working the puppet]. Come on.’
“It’s weird. They know that and yet...
“I like playing around with it and deconstructing it.”
So does Paul feel he has a relationship with his puppets?. “I don’t talk to them off-stage,” he says quickly. Perhaps too quickly? I love them but I’m not precious about them. It’s just an act. As soon as I’ve finished they go straight in the bag and I don’t talk to them until the next show.”
He is looking forward to visiting the region again. He has previously performed at holiday camps along the East Anglian coast and Lakenheath RAF base.
“The tour is called Sponge Fest because the puppets are sponge. It is like a festival of sponge. Hopefully, there’s something in it everyone will like. Hopefully, they’ll like all of it. It is a family show PG,” he says, adding that he wouldn’t advise it for young children.
n Paul Zerdin appears at the Britannia Pier in Great Yarmouth tonight, £15 (£14 cons), 01493 842914, www.britannia-pier.co.uk
n He will also be performing at the Princess Theatre, Hunstanton on August 28, £15 (£14 cons), 01485 532 252, www.theprincessonline.co.uk