Star interview: Paul Zerdin

Paul Zerdin will be appearing at the Lighthouse Theatre on September 12
Paul Zerdin will be appearing at the Lighthouse Theatre on September 12

Comedian/ventriloquist Paul Zerdin is coming to the Lighthouse Theatre, Kettering, with his brand-new show.

We grabbed five minutes with him before the show arrives in town on Friday, September 12.

Let’s delve into the world of Paul Zerdin.

Ok, just don’t mention ventriloquism! I love saying that during radio interviews, panicking the presenter just before we go live on air.

So, tell us how you first got into puppetry and showbusiness.

I used to watch Sesame Street and then The Muppet Show. I remember getting a teddy bear and I cut the back open, took all the stuffing out and put my hand into the mouth and made a puppet out of it.

I’d been given some puppet marionettes by a friend of the family and we built a puppet theatre. My family all recorded the voices with me. I come from a family of show offs!

I started doing that for friend’s birthday parties about the age of 12 and I was interested in ventriloquism but I didn’t know how to do it properly.

Me and my friend used to do shows together for our friends, which included me doing magic.

I wanted to be a magician first and foremost and I forgot about the puppetry initially and became a magician when I left school.

It’s lovely that the whole family got involved.

They didn’t have much choice to be honest!

Do you come from a showbiz family?

My father went to Rada and still works as a freelancer. He was on the BBC World Service.

My Mum does talks on her showbiz career now; she was a presenter on television and radio.

My sister’s a journalist, too. I was always going to do something a bit ‘starry’.

Tell us about your very early performances.

I used to sit in the audience of Paul Daniels’ shows as a kid and watch shows being filmed. They had guest acts on from all over the world; some amazing acts from Vegas.

The puppet thing I grew out of and couldn’t see myself doing that long term, whereas magic, you can do ‘close-up magic’ and show people card tricks or do an illusion show on stage.

I did shows at school, and normally someone would recite a poem, sing a song or do a tap dance... but I levitated my sister!

I got an agent when I left school, but she had lots of magicians on her roster and told me I needed something different to stand out.

So I started learning ventriloquism properly. I got a puppet built and did a bit of Tommy Cooper-style comedy magic and some gags with the puppet. Eventually I phased out the magic.

When was your first professional gig?

One of my first gigs was close-up magic at the Savoy Hotel for a private function and I got paid great money.

I was seen by a few people who then booked me and it was a knock-on effect. I put together an act and my agent got me a gig working on a cruise ship in Scandinavia.

I did a family show in the afternoons and a late night show around midnight so I was knackered! The ship went between Sweden and Finland and the sun never sets. That was a party ship, I can tell you!

Then I moved on to working men’s clubs and that was the real training. They really let you know what they think of you and you have to get them on your side within 30 seconds.

When did you discover your talent for voices and mimicry?

I could always do silly voices. As a kid I was always fascinated by voices and constantly mimicked cartoon characters. I had a short career in radio, too.

I did airport information radio; travel information on all the flight times at Heathrow on medium wave. I had a mid-morning show on a satellite radio station too.

I used to do all crazy voices, like Donald Duck reading the weather. Sadly, you can’t understand a word he says, so it didn’t quite work out! I only lasted four months.

What happened?

I was just finding my feet. I came in one day and I spilt coffee all over the mixing desks and the whole station went off air.

At the time I was gigging and I was changing around some of my radio slots to accommodate my magic shows at night and the station boss said, “You’re either a DJ or magician”. and I replied, “I think you can do both in this day and age”.

I came in the next day and someone else was doing my show. They fired me and hadn’t told me!

Fast forward to the present day and you’re about to embark on a new tour, The Paul Zerdin Show. Tell us what we can expect?

If you liked the last show, you’ll love this one. The old man, Albert, is determined to find me a girlfriend from the audience, so we’ll be getting the crowd involved there.

Sam has delusions of grandeur thinking he can enter himself in to Britain’s Got Talent and the baby is becoming a rap artist.

Throw in some audience participation, a little bit of magic and you’ve got a truly sponge-based night of comedy.

Sam is doing ventriloquism himself too and he has a little dummy of me. I can’t wait to test that out and see how that goes down.

Do you often have a temptation to throw your voice in everyday life?

I can be a bit of a prankster. In my act I talk about how I fool my girlfriend into thinking we’ve got the latest Sat Nav by pretending to be its voice.

I did a hidden camera show for Sky where I did the voice of the lift, telling people to get out as they were too fat.

I also ordered room service in hotel rooms and food in restaurant for me and the puppets, and both of our orders would be taken with some strange looks. Knowing you’re being filmed for TV makes it even more fun!

Do you have to keep training to practise the voices and make sure you don’t mess up during a show?

Yes I do practise if I’m not working but I work most of the time so my voice is used regularly.

Sam is a falsetto voice. If I have to do an interview early and I’ve been working late, the next morning Sam takes a little more warming up.

During the show I do ad lib quite a bit which keeps each performance fresh, but I’ve been doing it for so long, I know what I can do.

How did you go about constructing the characters of your puppets?

Sam was built for a kids’ show I used to present on GMTV. I play games with my three-year-old nephew now and observe him. He gives me great ideas for Sam and the baby.

I love people watching generally, so I get a lot of inspiration from that. Sam is basically me. A really, really immature version who gets away with a lot more than I could.

The baby is my interpretation of if a baby could talk – what it would be like.

The old man, Albert, my father is turning into him. He’s losing his hearing. I’m not taking the mickey out of deafness, Albert is deaf and losing his marbles, and we’re just trying to find the funny side of that.

The puppets are caricatures and it gives you licence to push things further than you usually could.

People tend to be more cautious today, even comedians. Do you feel we live in a too-sensitive world?

We live in a very overly PC conscious world. You have to be careful and it’s a shame. I’m not saying it’s good to say outrageous things, but I do feel we’re too sensitive. There’s always someone who’s going to moan.

Yet people seem to say what they feel like online...

People online are in their own little secluded world. Look what happened with Tom Daley and those spiteful tweets he and his family received.

They found the people who did it. You’re not as anonymous as they think. You have to be careful.

What do you feel are the major differences between ventriloquism and more traditional stand-up?

I do stand-up sections within the show about being a ventriloquist, to give that real-life element. Ventriloquism is a form of stand-up, but it’s just me talking to me. I’m talking to something stuck on my arm.

Ventriloquism is a very old tradition but it’s not traditional stand-up, it’s kind of like a sitcom. A situation is developing and out of that will come a joke between myself and the character.

I don’t do observational stuff, it’s about their lives. It’s almost like interviewing. Like Albert: I’m the interviewer but he misunderstands my questions, then that enables me to do jokes about his old age. I’m acting and reacting all in one.

We love that you present your shows almost as a sitcom. Is a television sitcom something you’d like to do?

Yeah, I did a mini-pilot for a production company and I’m writing one with a friend of mine for Children’s BBC, which is quite a grown-up sitcom really.

I have a wife and children in the show and it’s about my relationship between my kids and the puppets and it’s going down the right road.

It’s based on my life as a jobbing ventriloquist and all the things I’ve done. I’ve flown out to Iraq and Afghanistan to support the troops; you really do get to do the most amazing things and it shows how I balance a family life with that.

It’s still early days, but it’s exciting.

You also worked on the smash-hit feature Muppet Treasure Island. How did that come about and what was that like?

I got the job by accident. I was about to do a tour and had a couple of months before I started. It was after I’d been a kids TV presenter.

A friend of mine was a puppeteer who did Nobby the sheep on a kids show called Gimme 5 and I went to see him. I’d edited a show reel and a CV on the off-chance that I could maybe meet one of the bosses and show him my stuff.

I was introduced to Kevin Clash who was the main Muppet coordinator who did Elmo and lots of other characters on Sesame Street.

He took me into an office and Brian Henson, Jim Henson’s son, was there. He asked me if I was any good and then said “What are you doing Monday? You’re working for us!”

That’s how I got in. I did a few weeks, they asked me to do more but I couldn’t because I had to do tour! But it was amazing.

I mean, Tim Curry was Long John Silver. You learn a lot about how film works.

It must be very different to performing your own show?

Yes, you carry out their orders and do what they want. I was underneath a grassy mound with Gonzo and I was there for hours.

Your body goes into spasm. My arm never goes above my shoulder in my shows, as my puppets are eye height, but with the Muppets everything is above your head and you have to be out of shot.

It’s a totally different craft and when they shout action, you have to give it your all!

You’ve also performed all around the world and even appeared with Cirque Du Soleil in Vegas...

Yes, a friend of mine is an English producer in Las Vegas and keeps asking me to do them, but I can’t right now as I have this tour.

The acts all chop and change and he gets all these people together in a massive variety show. He brings in the most amazing acts that you see occasional glimpses now on shows like Britain’s Got Talent.

With that and cruise ship performances, I’m used to US audiences.

Do you find you have to alter your show for Americans?

No, I just have to speak a bit slower. Sometimes I talk too quickly. My Dad comes to see me and the only things he says are, “The band’s too loud and you talk too quickly”. Those are the only notes I get!

You’re also a festival regular. Do you find audiences at Edinburgh differ to other places?

There’s more of a buzz in Edinburgh as a lot of the audiences are going from show to show. I love doing both; the audiences have all paid to come to see you. I’ve done Montreal, South Africa, Asia, but Edinburgh in particular there’s a special vibe. You feel different, it’s just very exciting. I love doing festivals, I didn’t used to, but I feel you can do more things you may not get away with elsewhere, as maybe the audience are more accepting. They know it’s a festival and they know you may be trying out new and different things.

One of our favourite parts of your show is when you get audience members on stage to participate. How do you identify who would be the ideal guests?

Mostly, it’s random. A couple that aren’t too old to get on to the stage is a help. I’m looking for people who look like they’re having a nice time and aren’t going to be panic stricken or freak out when they get on stage.

There’s nothing worse than seeing people who look like they don’t want to be there; that’s not fun for anyone.

Similarly, you don’t want someone who’s too much of a show-off, it looks like they’re set up. It’s a fine line. I’ll ask them if they’re up for it, if they’re not I’ll leave them alone.

You have to invest in that time finding the right people, because if you pick an individual or couple who’s up for it, then the next 15 minutes are gold.

You have to be quick but not too quick or the whole routine that follows won’t work. You learn from experience. I got one guy up on stage and I got the mask on him and the guy freaked out backstage.

He had a strop and said: “How dare you make me do it. I’ve come here to watch a show not be part of it.” But that only happened once. I sent him back to his seat.

Can you pinpoint both the best and worst moments that have happened during one of your shows?

The worst thing was opening night at my show in Blackpool. A guy got up and stage and punched me! He didn’t like being called ugly by Sam. I don’t do it anymore; I have new jokes. He didn’t punch the puppet, that would have been funny, but he punched me. I’ve had people punch Sam too, which, for me, is the ultimate compliment. I was coming out of London comedy club Jongleurs one night and a guy who I picked on was waiting for me outside.

He said, “You better tell your little mate to watch his mouth”. I laughed it off but he said, “No, seriously!” That was for real. That was funny.

The best thing is getting to work with some lovely people from the audience. It’s a really nice feeling to know you’ve come up with something original and they love it.

I had a couple who sang Time of my Life and they actually did ‘the lift’, too. Probably a huge health and safety issue right there, but the audience loved it!

if you could pick on special guest star to perform with, who would it be?

I would say to work with a Muppet. To work with Miss Piggy would be fun!

Finally, if you could control a political figure, which one would you choose and what would you make them say?

I’d like to get my hand into Ed Miliband and give him a personality. I’d give him a better voice!