Paul Zerdin: interview

Posted: Thu Nov 11 2010

Ventriloquism is the hot new old-fashioned thing in comedy, but the puppet is just the start, Paul Zerdin tells Time Out.

How would you describe your latest show, 'Sponge Fest'?
'Well, without sounding too wanky about it, it's like a one-man Muppet stand-up sitcom. That's my catchy little soundbite. Basically I'm looking after Sam, who's about to become a teenager, a baby who constantly wants to be breastfed by the woman in the front row and Sam's grandad who's deaf and senile.'

There have been a number of recent articles discussing the 'new ventriloquism' which you're seen as part of. Does it feel odd to now be considered by some a new act?
'Yeah. It is a bit strange. I've been doing it for more than 20 years now, but I guess sometimes it takes 20 years to become an overnight success. It's one of those things where if you bang on the door for long enough, eventually someone will go, “Oh, yeah, I remember him, he's really funny.”'

In general, how schizophrenic are ventriloquists?
'I went to a ventriloquist convention some years ago in Kentucky. It was packed with people all wandering around with their puppets on their arms the whole time. They're literally checking in with the puppet going, “Hi, can we have a room for two”. Honestly, it's embarrassing - that's why people hate ventriloquists. I'd never walk around with my puppets in everyday life, I'd just look like a twat - a grown man walking around with a doll: it's not normal.'

In technical terms, you are thought of as being one of the best ventriloquists working on the circuit.
'I want people to think I'm technically good, but the most important thing is I want it to be funny. Technically you can be the best in the world, but if it's not entertaining, what's the point?'

Ventriloquism has also had a huge explosion in popularity in the US recently with Terry Fator winning 'America's Got Talent' and Jeff Dunham playing huge arenas.
'That's been great for all of us. Dunham's success all came from a YouTube clip of his character Ahmed the Terrorist, which shows the power of the internet now. When I first saw it I thought it was really funny, but then I watched it again and thought: Actually he's just tapping in to Middle America's fears and prejudices. You couldn't do that here, you'd never get away with it.'

Like Terry Fator, you first came to the public's attention on a talent show…
'I won ITV's “The Big Big Talent Show”, hosted by Jonathan Ross in '96, and from that I got guest slots on shows with people like Bobby Davro, Freddie Starr, Wayne Dobson and a Shirley Bassey special. It also got me on to “The Royal Variety Show”. I was even in development for my own show when it all suddenly stopped. Telly just changed. Variety was replaced by reality. My timing was just wrong so I had to have a rethink. My agent at the time said, “Look, if you want to get more telly, you need to become credible and you need to change things.” So I started again, doing the comedy circuit. I'd come from a very different background of cruise ships and variety nights and I had to learn to let some old gags go and write my own material. It was actually the best thing for me.'

So what's next?
'Well, I'm currently writing something for television. It's a sitcom, sort of the Muppets meets “Seinfeld”, and I've never really seen that done before, but at the moment it's very much a work-in-progress.'