New Interview: Ventriloquist Paul Zerdin

Paul Zerdin

America's Got Talent star Paul Zerdin is one of the UK’s top ventriloquists. He has entertained the troops, sold out at the Edinburgh Festival and Las Vegas and appeared on the Royal Variety Performance. He is regularly accompanied by his three unruly puppets. Sprightly old timer Albert is ruining Paul’s love life with his hard-of-hearing ways. Meanwhile gobby pre-pubescent Sam is looking to step out of his master’s shadow and branch out on his own and Baby is up to his usual antics. Pictures by Steve Ullathorne.




Beyond The Joke: What is the most dangerous thing you have ever done?

Paul Zerdin: Maybe performing for our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq and being shot at in a helicopter on the way back to Kuwait City one night. But then again the late show at Jongleurs Battersea could be pretty hairy some nights!


BTJ: What is going through your head just before you go onstage? 

PZ: It depends how far into the tour we are. If it’s early on then all of my thoughts are on the new material and if I can actually remember it all. I’m not one of these performers who are a gibbering wreck before they go on stage, I’ve always been fairly relaxed and I think if you’ve rehearsed enough and given yourself all the preparation you can then you are as best equipped as possible. That doesn’t always apply to private functions e.g. corporate gigs which I do a lot of when I’m not touring. You can be doing your oldest, strongest and safest material and yet you have to deal with the shape of the room being awkward for all the audience to see you, the lighting may not be conducive to a performance, you can be on too late, the audience can sometimes have had too much alcohol at the free bar. You just have to do anything to win the crowd over and get their attention before you even start with material. But touring is a far more pleasurable experience as people generally have come to see you and give you a chance when you get on stage in those first few moments.


BTJ: What did you make of Peter Brough/Archie Andrews being a ventriloquist on the radio? Did you hear the radio play about it recently?

PZ: They weren’t the first! Modern ventriloquism started in America on the radio with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy who then became a TV and film stars.            

I was away and so missed the Rob Brydon play but I hear he was fantastic. I’ve heard recordings of Educating Archie and you can see why it was such a big hit. Of course when you say ventriloquist on the radio everyone automatically thinks it’s crazy but once you’ve got past that first thought and listened to the whole show you realise it’s just a sitcom and it’s all about the writing and the different characters, one of them just happens to be a puppet. I’ve been working on a sitcom idea for TV for some years now and have been developing it as a more adult show as there hasn’t really been a good puppet based grown-up sitcom for a while. I see myself as the sort of babysitter in the middle of a puppet family, a baby, an old man and a teenager that I have to look after as carnage erupts around me. Of course the difference here is that I control them all. Its sort of Seinfeld meets the Muppets meets Outnumbered.


BTJ: Ventriloquism seems different to comedy in that material can be “shared”. Both you and Nina Conti have done the “human dummy” routine - what are the origins of that and who revived it first?

PZ: Well I know what you mean but to be honest it’s the same as stand up. Yes you have a puppet some of the time and there do seem to be obvious jokes to come out of a situation where you have a hand up the backside of a puppet character. But to be honest once you’ve made the obvious jokes about “Vent: Don’t talk when I’m talking - Puppet: Don’t worry you’re not that good” then it’s up to you to try and be different with the material and you can go anywhere, talk about anything because you have hopefully made the character believable enough to then take the audience on a journey with you. For example, my character Sam is a puppet but we deal with that early on with a few jokes then we start discussing his puppet hangover and his problems at school and it’s jokes and dialogue about any topic you like really.

The human dummy routine I’ve been doing since 1997 when I saw a ventriloquist selling this moving mouth prop at a convention in America. I thought it was a great idea and came back and designed my own and have been doing it ever since. I did it on The Palladium TV show in 2000 with Bruce Forsyth and then again on the Royal Variety Show in 2009 and it’s interesting when you now look on YouTube and see virtually every ventriloquist is doing it! I have a brand new animatronic version that is totally my original design and invention and this enables me to control a couple on stage without going anywhere near them. I think it just takes it to the next level.Paul Zerdin


BTJ: Do the same countries that like stand-up comedy like ventriloquism or are there particular places in the world where ventriloquism is particularly popular?

PZ: Ventriloquism fits well into any show whether it be a bill at the Comedy Store or at The Palladium and so you get seen on the circuit or if you do TV then you get shown in different countries particularly after doing a Just for Laughs show in Montreal which they then sell all around the world. This opens doors and I’ve been all over the place. The audiences seem to like it everywhere. I’ve done a lot of work in South Africa and they go nuts for it there. Jeff Dunham had a massive hit on YouTube a few years ago and now sells out arenas all around the world so he is definitely helping make it cooler globally.


BTJ: The first time I saw you was at the East Dulwich Tavern. I think Daniel Kitson was compering. You went on in the middle and did the human puppets and Kitson’s inevitable response was “how the fuck do you follow that?” Has that been a problem on the circuit?

PZ: Not really. To be honest it helps you become a headline act faster because you are different and the most obvious place is for you to close the show. But I am happy anywhere on the bill. The downside of being on last is that all the other acts have buggered off and you are getting home later, especially when you’re closing the late show at Comedy Store.

Interview continues here.

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