Paul Zerdin and everyone’s favourite puppets head to Newbury
Sam, Albert, Baby, Roger the bodyguard and an urban fox have all survived 2020 locked down with Paul… well, nearly and they are heading to the Corn Exchange for a show on September 23.
As well as his hilarious characters, Paul - winner of America’s Got Talent and the star of London’s Palladium Panto - will be throwing his voice in everyday situations where anything and everything can talk back.
Comedian Paul Zerdin talks about his career and forthcoming Hands Free Tour to Bruce Dessau
I have to ask straight away – I read that you’ve said you were a weird child – when you were growing up you used to dress up and pretend to be the milkman…
Yes, that’s true. The milkman used to come around for his money on Fridays and I was fascinated by his big leather bag with all the coins in it. So, I used to copy that. And I’d dress in my mum’s clothes and pretend to be Margaret Thatcher! I was always a bit odd. I liked just showing off. I was given a box of magic tricks for Christmas and when my parents had dinner parties, I would do card tricks.
We had a serving hatch between the kitchen and the dining room, and I would do these little puppet shows. I think that came from watching Sesame Street and being in love with the Muppets. Ray Alan and Lord Charles was the first ventriloquist I ever saw, and he blew me away. I remember thinking that’s the way to have a puppet but still be in vision so I can still be the star!
What was your first puppet?
Kermit the Frog, which my mum bought for Christmas. That's how it all began. I was about nine.
You came from a showbiz family…
Mum and Dad were both actors. Dad went to RADA with Roger Moore. Dad said that he and Roger were the worst actors in the whole Academy! My mum was a presenter. So, I was in and out of studios as a kid. And I knew that I wanted to do something that was connected with that. When I was in the studio, I was obsessed by the way they talked through the glass by pressing the button on a little intercom. Maybe that’s where I became interested in voices.
In the past there have been ventriloquists who treated their puppets as if they were human. Are you like that?
There’s a story about an American who was doing a gig at the London Palladium and was overheard in the dressing room talking to his doll afterwards and saying “you weren't funny tonight. You really let me down.” I hope it’s true. But the only time I talk to them is when I'm walking around learning new material and rehearsing – strictly for professional reasons. And in fact, now when I’m walking around talking to myself, because everyone is talking on their phones through devices that you can't see I fit in quite well. No one thinks I look mad anymore.
Your new tour, Hands Free, features your famous characters – Baby, Sam and old man Albert and also more from newer characters such as bodyguard Roger…
Roger was introduced on the last tour, but he's got a bigger part this time. He was in Sponge Weekly, the YouTube series I made during lockdown, and during that time I thought ‘I know who you are now’. It's refreshing to have someone new to play with. And he's different as well because he's deadpan, whereas with my other characters have the one-liners and I'm the straight man.
He’s a bit thick and he doesn't really get it – he's a bodyguard and he's a bit slow. Roger is a bit like Buzz Lightyear, he doesn't know he's a puppet. And at one point, I have to break it to him that he’s not a real bodyguard because he starts interrogating the audience and overdoing it. And he's devastated. So, getting to grips with his character has been really fun.
You get more interaction with the audience here because he gets obsessed with one guy in the front row who he thinks is out to get him or get me. The premise is that when I won America's Got Talent the producers gave me a bodyguard and now, I can't get rid of him…
You must have a soft spot for Sam?
I created Sam for a kids’ TV show called Rise And Shine. We got axed in favour of Barney the Dinosaur. If I ever see that purple bastard again, I don't know what I'm capable of doing! But then I went back out and started working holiday camps with Sam. And so, he's my most well-known character, I think because, you know, he was the first one.
Then I introduced Albert and Baby. Albert has got some bits in this new show which I’m really excited about. He’s doing his own magic spot. He's animatronic. I'm controlling him, but I'm in the audience. He does a card trick. And then he loses his way because he's kind of senile and deaf. And it's a really good moment, even if I say so myself.
You like mixing traditional ventriloquism with state-of-the-art technology…
You can do a lot with animatronics these days. People must guess that you're controlling him, but they can't see that you're using a mini controller. They know I'm doing the talking from somewhere else, but they still believe he is real. It’s weird. I try not to overanalyse it because, of course, it's the audience that creates the illusion.
Ventriloquism used to be talked about as throwing your voice, but you can't physically do that, it is more the psychological trick through your behaviour - your physicality and the way your eyes are looking makes people think the voice is coming from somewhere else. That's what I love about it. It's kind of related to magic, which is how I started.
One of the things you are famous for is where you turn members of the audience into dummies with puppet mouths. Will that be in the new show?
It’s a great routine. The original concept predates me and was first done in America a long time ago. But in my new show I’m doing something fresh with it using technology.
It’s been a tough year, but were you able to do some gigs?
I did a short run in Blackpool last autumn. And just before I got there, they put Blackpool into tier three, which meant people couldn't travel, but the venue could still be open. It wasn't ideal, but we managed to get people in, and the audiences were fantastic.
And then I did panto at the London Palladium. I'm lucky enough to be part of the gang that does the Palladium every year and this was our fifth year. Producer Michael Harrison said he was not going to do a brand-new show with new costumes and sets, he said we’re going to do a variety show and we're going to call it Pantoland at the Palladium. They had me, Julian Clary, Nigel Havers, Gary Wilmot, Ashley Banjo & Diversity, Beverley Knight and Elaine Paige. We had standing ovations.
I also did some open air shows in Butlins in the summer. I started my show by saying ‘Now, due to certain restrictions I think you’ll understand if I put this mask on…’ That always got a huge laugh.
I just can’t wait to get back onstage. I haven’t performed since Pantoland. That’s six months without performing and I’m literally itching to go. I’ve never stopped working before. I’ve taken time off before to write, but to not be able to perform is a real shock - and to not earn any money for six months is shock too.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Wimbledon. After I left school, I went and worked on cruise ships and holiday parks and summer seasons and things. I still live in Wimbledon. It’s a very nice place and I love tennis, so it’s the right place to live!
So, you won America’s Got Talent in 2015, how was that?
It was a big, big thing. It changed my life.
Did you enter Britain's Got Talent?
No. Because I won a show called The Big Big Talent Show with Jonathan Ross and ended up doing The Royal Variety Show. If you win Britain's Got Talent, the prize is a bit of money and a spot on the Royal Variety Show. I thought, well, if I rock up having already been on the Royal Variety Show that would look a bit odd. So why not try America? And if it doesn't work out it doesn't matter. It's a different country. I forgot that everyone knows everything now because of the internet. And so had I died on my arse there, it would have filtered back.
Luckily, I loved it. But at the time I was also doing gigs on ships in Europe, so it was a bit of a crazy time. When I won the look on my face was a mix of surprise, wonderment, euphoria and jetlag. I genuinely didn't think I would win. I think I might have said, or mouthed, a rude word on live TV!
Do you think being English helped?
I think it did. They like the accent. Even though quite often they'll say: ‘Oh my God, I love your accent. Where are you from, Australia?’”
Did you ever think of relocating to America?
After winning I signed a three-year contract and rented a house in the Mojave Desert, so I was geared up for being there for three years. But for my sanity it was probably a good thing that the show closed. I never really wanted to live in the desert. I like to run 10k every day and out there I had to run at 4am as by 8am it was so hot going outside was like putting your head in the oven.
Did you enjoy appearing in Las Vegas?
My show, Mouthing Off, was at the Planet Hollywood Showroom and funnily I’d seen Jeff Dunham there the previous year. I never thought a year later I would have my own show there. But performing for an audience in Vegas was on another level. People came from all over the world, and they were not just TV fans but people who were there for the casino, people who had lost their life savings and were depressed. It was a hard audience to get the hang of and it took about six weeks to fine tune it.
I also got to meet one of my heroes, David Copperfield. I used to see his shows so that was a real thrill. I’m afraid I cannot tell you how he does his tricks as I’m a member of the Magic Circle and we have to keep things secret!
You must be good - I’ve heard that some people think your puppets are human?
We made a TV pilot for a street ventriloquism show, like street magic, but with ventriloquism. And we got Albert to order a pizza to see if people would talk to him in everyday life. I’d love that format to be made. The restaurant manager knew, but not the staff. I ordered lunch for two and the waiter spoke to Albert. Then another time Albert and I checked into a hotel room and ordered room service and Albert had a conversation about the order. Another time I used radio controls to get Albert to order poached egg and avocado. He scared the shit out of the waitress!
It’s amazing to see people actually talking to the puppet quite naturally. Though maybe they think I’m completely bonkers.
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