What do you do when you leave school with two GCSEs, a well-worn box of magic tricks, and a book on how to throw your voice? Answer: you turn into Paul Zerdin – the man who made ventriloquism cool again.
Emma Carter sits down for a question and answer session with the comedian whom even the Queen likes. At least, Emma thinks it was him talking…
You have quite an unusual surname; is it a stage name?
It’s my own name. My grandfather on my father’s side was Russian and he came over during the revolution. It was useful at school because you could sneak in late and they would still be calling the register.
How did you get started in ventriloquism?
The funny answer is that I started playing with dolls when I was very young because I had no friends. The more serious answer is that I was given a book on how to be a ventriloquist, and I learned from that. The whole performing process really started when I was eight or nine. I was given the classic Christmas present of a box of magic tricks, and I really took to it and decided that I wanted to be a magician. But, I was also a huge fan of The Muppets and Sesame Street and I knew I wanted to do something with puppet characters. Of course, I didn’t know how to go about it or quite what I wanted to do but then the book was given to me when I was 15 and after that I spent an hour a day practising in front of the mirror and mastering the basic technique.
Magic and ventriloquism took over from this point, didn’t they?
Yes, I left school with just two GCSEs, a result of not caring about schoolwork and being more interested in showbiz and making money doing close-up magic in restaurants and hotels at weekends and performing at kids’ parties too.
What happened after you failed your exams?
I managed to get a part-time job in a magic shop called Davenports Magic which is very famous and has been running for over a hundred years. I made a lot of contacts and went to see an agent who told me that I definitely had something but that she had loads of magicians on her books… what did I have that was different? I told her I was learning ventriloquism and she said to come back when I had perfected it. When I did, she sent me straight out on a cruise ship for a summer working on a line between Helsinki and Stockholm. I did a family show in the afternoon and an adult show at midnight. I had a fantastic time and learnt very quickly about performing and came back feeling really inspired.
What was the next job up your agent’s sleeve?
I was sent up to the North East doing working men’s clubs and holiday camps. I would have been about 17 or 18 at the time. I got a head start from this experience, learning from a young age to deal with culture shock. In that arena the worst thing that can happen to you is not being heckled but being ignored – you have to learn very quickly how to cope with that and grab the audience’s attention. It’s the best training anyone can have and a lot of comics today don’t have that.
How is it doing ventriloquism in the stand-up world?
I feel I sit in that world quite comfortably because I can work any audience. Some still see it as an old-fashioned art, and have the preconceived notion of an old bloke with a dummy. I mix using puppets with talking about ventriloquism in everyday life and twists like ‘hearing people’s thoughts’ and animatronics to give ventriloquism an edge…
There is a traditional element to the show, yes, but the puppets aren’t old, scary dolls but Muppety-type friendly-looking characters who people instantly warm to.
How do audiences react to your act?
There’s a lot of audience interaction in the shows I do with the puppets – Sam, Albert and Baby – and I also do the ‘human puppet’, where I put a moving mouth over the face of an audience member and give them a silly voice. But it is all fun and not horrible. The audience have learnt to trust me by the time I get out among them and often they can’t wait to get involved.
Is there a secret chemistry that holds together your characters: the baby; Sam, the cheeky boy; and Albert, the old man?
I see myself as a one man Muppet sitcom, reigning them in. The old man has a thing for the ladies and so does Sam who is about to become a teen and knows naughty words. Between the two of them they lead the baby astray and the baby, of course, wants to know everything. I think it’s important to have characters that people can relate to rather than, say, talking sheep which are less believable.
Despite the changes in entertainment The Royal Variety Performance still makes its mark – and you’ve done really well there haven’t you?
Oh yes, absolutely. Britain’s Got Talent has made The Royal Variety Performance cool again, as an appearance there is the ultimate prize. The last Royal Variety I did I was really up for, and to have the Queen say she likes you is nice – I wish I could put it on my poster!
Who do you admire in ventriloquism?
The book I learnt from – A Gottle of Geer – was written by a man called Ray Alan, who sadly died recently. He had an aristocratic character called Lord Charles and he was the best ventriloquist ever; his lips didn’t move at all. I was influenced by ventriloquist-comedian Ronn Lucas, too, and by comedian-magician Wayne Dobson; together they represented everything I wanted to do.
I like David Copperfield too. He gets terrible press in this country for being schmaltzy and over the top but he is brilliant live. The comedy stuff he does with the audience is like watching a master at work; it’s a shame people don’t see him in the same light as I do.
You cite Bob Monkhouse as an influence too?
Bob was so slick. He was often accused of being too smarmy, particularly as a game show host, but when you saw him live that was what he was best at. He was a comedian’s comedian… I remember rehearsing for the 2002 Royal Variety Show with Jimmy Carr and Lee Mack, and Bob came over and tapped me on the shoulder and told me this was the best spot I’d ever done. It’s a great feeling when someone you respect knows you and knows what you have done.
I worked with Bruce Forsyth on the last series of the Palladium shows and did a double act with him where he was a human dummy, wearing a massive mask made up of a big chin and a moving mouth. It was really funny. I’ve been a guest on Today with Des and Mel a few times and to work with someone like Des [O’Connor] who I have looked up to is really exciting.”
Tell me more about the things that you do year round?
I’m popular on the corporate circuit and I travel all over the world with that. I do Panto every year, and have done for the last 15 years. A few years ago I did Richmond with Nigel Havers, and then Birmingham with John Barrowman the year after. Most recently I appeared with Christopher Biggins. I love the feeling of being on stage with other people after a year of gigging on my own and talking to myself!
You have visited Afghanistan and Iraq… Eventful?
Indeed. When I was in Iraq there was a threat on our hotel because they found out that Bruce Willis was staying there. We were told that we had five minutes to grab our stuff and go, taking care to close the curtains in case an explosion blew the glass in. It was a scary feeling, wondering if it was a hoax or not but you don’t question it, you do what they say. It was exciting in a strange kind of way and odd to be out there doing things like flying in a Chinook helicopter up the River Euphrates and seeing Saddam Hussein’s private yacht lying on its side with a massive hole in it.
The Edinburgh Fringe in 2009 and 2010 was the starting point for what is turning into a marathon Sponge Fest tour – how did you find it?
Edinburgh is the springboard for success. If you get it right, as happened in 2009 with a five star review in The Scotsman, then you can sell out the run as I happily found out. Last year we went for a bigger venue and I did a slightly different version of the show, hence calling it Sponge Fest Revisited. It takes more than a year to write a completely new show but I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to go up and get the show seen by a wider audience. But this year I have decided to play holiday towns in August followed by an Autumn tour and play to an even wider audience.
What are you working on for the future?
I am working on a sitcom treatment at the moment which is like The Muppets meets Seinfeld (another influence of mine), and I am trying to get the live show to be like this concept more and more. I want to conquer TV and have my own show the way I want to do it. From that I hope I will go on to other things… I don’t see myself being a ventriloquist forever. I am writing a film screenplay with a friend of mine at the moment. It’s showbiz related, a bit like Entourage in that it is behind-the-scenes. People are more showbiz-savvy now so things like this are not too much an ‘in joke’ anymore.”
What do you do when the puppets are asleep and your voice is your own?
I am very much a fitness person – I go to the gym every day, and I like waterskiing and scuba-diving. I like the nice things like eating out and beach holidays…
Basically, I am pretty normal – not one of those ventriloquists who talks to their puppets off stage. I have heard of one who, after a bad performance, was overheard shouting at his puppet in his dressing room ‘you weren’t funny tonight!’
I also remember being at a convention and watching other ventriloquists checking in with their puppet… and asking for a room for two. I don’t think this will happen to me…
Paul Zerdin (plus Baby, Sam and Albert, of course) will be appearing at
the Radlett Centre on Saturday 24 September, at 7.30pm.
Tickets are £15 and £14 (concessions).
See www.radlettcentre.co.uk or call 01923 859291