America's Got Talent winner ventriloquist Paul Zerdin comes to New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth | Big Interview
Paul Zerdin is a man who by his own admission makes a living talking to himself on stage.
But given that the ventriloquist won America's Got Talent and has built a successful career out if it, he’s not doing too badly.
And now he’s out on tour with his new show, Hands Free, which arrives at New Theatre Royal in Portsmouth on October 1.
Over the summer Paul, who is British, and lives in Wimbledon, returned to gigging after the longest break from live performance in his career.
When we talk, he’s just finished a run of shows in Blackpool, ‘so I'm feeling match fit!’ he says.
‘It was a family version of the new show, where I've been working in the new material over the summer, so when I start the tour properly, it's all working.’
He also appeared down here at the Catherington Comedy Festival, near Horndean.
‘That was a lovely gig – I was trying out new stuff there as well.
‘I've been all over the shop, I was at a festival in Norwich the week before.
‘You can see there's a real hunger from audiences for live entertainment – they've been well up for it.’
The last time Paul had been on stage was Christmas 2020 as part of the all-star cast in Pantoland at The Palladium in London, alongside Julian Clary, Nigel Havers, Gary Wilmot, Ashley Banjo & Diversity and Beverley Knight.
‘The Palladium had been told that they would be exempt from closing – even if everywhere else had to close, so we felt quite comfortable because it had come from the top.
‘And then when we got closed down after six shows, we were all a bit: “Oh, right”.
‘Well, obviously there's a pandemic on and as we know the government keep changing their minds about things, so we just had to suck it up, as they say.
‘It was a shock, not just from the point of view of not being on stage, but also from just working and financially – not having an income.
‘That whole thing was a weird situation – but a creative one, it meant I had more time to work on stuff, and I have been!’
For the new show, old favourites Sam, Albert and Baby are joined by Roger the bodyguard and an urban fox.
Has he ever found himself talking to the puppets over the past 18 months?
‘You know I don't think they're real, right?’ He chides.
‘They are purely props – I don't talk to them offstage, unless I'm rehearsing.’
He says it’s only during the final part of the rehearsal process that he uses the puppets.
'Most of the time I'm writing material, and I write with about four other people, then once I'm happy with it, I start learning it and then I go out and try it.
‘If it doesn't work or needs tweaking - which is what I've been doing all summer... but I tend not to talk to them when I'm home alone, I'm pleased to say.’
The tour was originally pencilled in for spring this year, so has ‘only’ been pushed back once to this autumn.
‘I normally tour in the autumn anyway – I try and tour a new show every two years, so this actually feels right because it's two years since my last tour.
‘I don't think we are out of the woods yet, however.
‘I don't think things will be closed down again, I think people have just had enough of it.
‘I think we just have to get on with it now.
‘Everyone needs the vaccination and we can get on with life. You just have to be careful.
‘In Blackpool, You could feel there was a general feeling of let's just get back to normal, which I think everyone feels around the world.
‘Just be sensible.’
Like many ventriloquists, Paul has built up ‘relationships’ with his puppets over the years.
Cheeky kid Sam first appeared some 25 years ago with Albert and his selective senility, and Baby coming along soon after.
Paul adds: ‘It takes a long time for those characters to evolve.
‘The Fox character and Roger the bodyguard, they have taken a long time.
‘I used them on the last tour and I was still tweaking them throughout that because I wasn't happy with them.
‘I went back to the drawing board with them and started again.
‘I've been using them all through the summer and the Blackpool audiences, particularly family audiences, kids will tell you if they're bored!
‘You will know if you're ticking all the boxes because they'll be entertained by all the characters and all of the material.
‘There's one character, I won't name which one, because they're in the vicinity and they might hear, there was one that wasn't quite cutting it with the kid crowd, so I was making sure that I tweaked that as best I could.
‘I feel like we're in a good place now, but it takes a long time to come up with a voice.
‘You need to know more about them, where they come from, what they're all about, then once you know that, it's easier to write for them.’
Paul recounts how both he and his writers had to get to grips with ‘urban speak’ to write successfully for The Fox.
‘I've got another writer friend who's brilliant at doing that kind of urban speak, and he helped me, almost like a dialect coach.
‘So we all got together, and then the other writer was like: “Right, I get it now”. When you get your head around that, it's easier to write for that character.’
Paul knew from an early age that he wanted to go into ‘a world of showing off’, after getting some Sesame Street puppets and a magic set as presents.
But it was only when he got a book about ventriloquism at 14, that he had his lightbulb moment.
‘I was a massive fan of Jim Henson and Frank Oz and I knew I wanted to do something in that world, but couldn't quite work out what.
‘Then I saw a ventriloquist on TV and I realised, that's it – I can be involved and not hiding underneath the table as a puppeteer!’
From there it was putting in the hours and learning the trade.
‘It takes a long time to learn how to become a ventriloquist, and once you've got the basic skill of talking without moving your lips, you've then got to be a comedian as well – and it's got to be funny.
‘The comedy is the most important thing – you can be technically the greatest ventriloquist, but if it's not funny, you're just a grown-up standing on stage having a conversation with yourself which is weird.
‘And I do point that out every so often in the show…’
Although he had appeared on TV before, it was winning ITV's The Big Big Talent Show in 1996 which propelled him to national fame.
He worked steadily since that moment, but winning America's Got Talent in 2015 reignited his career.
But why go to America for it?
Paul explains: ‘Most of the ...Got Talent shows are open to anyone from anywhere.
‘You could be an amateur, you could be a professional. As long as you're entertaining.
‘I'd got as far as I felt as I could in this country.
‘ I'd been trying to get my own TV show off the ground for about 20-25 years, ever since I won a talent show on ITV with Jonathan Ross in the ’90s, I'd been appearing on TV shows, entertainment shows, royal variety shows, stand-up shows over the years, but never been able to get my own show, so I'd got kind of frustrated.
‘I thought, right, well America seems to be more up for my kind of entertainment, so I entered the show.
‘I thought, if it doesn't work out, it's a different country, it doesn't matter, no one will know.
‘Forget about the internet and the fact that everybody knows everything all the time! Luckily it went well.
‘So then I toured America and did a stint in Vegas and made the most of it. I would like to go back to America because it's a beautiful country, and an amazing place.
‘But it's nice to be home and be able to tour. To be honest, it's nice to get out anywhere...’
Paul Zerdin: Hands Free is at The New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth on Friday, October 1, 7.30pm. Tickets £23. Go to newtheatreroyal.com.
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