Ventriloquist Paul Zerdin is rarely lost for words (or for that matter, his band of puppet sidekicks) – but the Jewish entertainer from south London looked stunned when he won the 10th series of America’s Got Talent last month.
The former children’s television presenter, known to British audiences for his stints on BBC’s Tricky Business and GMTV’s Rise and Shine, was rewarded with a cool $1million (£645,120) and a show at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas.
Paul spoke to Francine Wolfisz this week about his incredible win, his love for puppetry and his lovable characters including pre-teen Sam, pensioner Albert and Baby.
Q: Many congratulations on winning America’s Got Talent! How did you feel when they announced your name? And how will Sam be spending his 50 percent share of your winnings?!
A: Thank you! I felt a mixture of euphoria and jet lag! I was convinced by the time it was whittled down to me and Drew [Lynch, a stand-up comedian], I thought he’s got it and was preparing to wish him the best and to tell him the best man won. But then it turned out to be me. I was very happy! I wanted to thank a load of people, including the judges for their lovely comments and the American people for voting, but we ran out of time as it was a live TV show. Sam doesn’t know about the prize money – shhhh!
Q: Sam seems like quite a cheeky character – is he your alter ego? Likewise, have you based Albert and the baby on anyone you know?
A: Sam says the things I think, but could never get away with saying. He’s me in a character cartoon form. Because we look and sound so different, the contrast really seems to make it work. Albert is loosely based on a couple of actor characters I’ve seen and, strangely, my Dad is slowly turning into him! My dad’s deafness causes much hilarity and it inspires me enormously. I’m not taking the mickey out of growing old, but just seeing the comical side. The baby’s attitude is based on my five-year-old nephew who is so confident and comes out with the funniest comments.
Q: You’ve been known to turn people into human puppets. Now that you have won America’s Got Talent, who would be top of your list to “play around with”, so to speak?!
A: Ooooh, now that’s a question! Well how about getting my new friend, ventriloquist and previous America’s Got Talent winner Terry Fator turned into a vent dummy? See how he likes it! My favourite thing about my new human dummy routine is using a married couple from the audience. You never know how they’re going to react, which makes me have to keep on my toes and ad-lib.
Q: Your voice is one of your most precious assets – do you need special insurance for it and how do you keep it in fine form?
A: You know, I’d not really do anything. I have always been able to do silly voices and even when I get a cold the puppet’s voice is always somehow ok. I used to smoke a long time ago, but I decided that really wasn’t going to help things.
Q: Was The Muppet Show a big influence on you in your younger years? What do you think about the show’s comeback and do you think puppets are becoming more popular again?
A: Yes, The Muppets were a massive influence, in particular Sesame Street and Ernie and Bert. It’s wonderful they’re coming back and by the looks of things they’ve really moved with the times. I hope it’s a tremendous success. I think the fact that America voted for another ventriloquist shows that people do love a puppet.
Q: What attracted you to ventriloquism? Was it a talent you noticed from a young age and where was your very first performance?
A: I first saw Ray Alan on The Paul Daniels Magic Show on BBC1 and he blew me away. I’d seen other ventriloquists, but Ray’s technique was perfect. I was enchanted. I ended up learning from his book and I think it served me well. My first performance as a ventriloquist, apart from in front of my family, was a spot I did at my sister’s secondary school in assembly. That gave me enormous confidence.
Q: On America’s Got Talent you demonstrated your ability to throw your voice and trick sound guys into thinking the microphone is not working. Have you ever played tricks on anyone else?
A: I once threw my voice when an actor was knocking on the dressing room door of Anita Dobson, while we were in panto together. He knocked and I pretended to be her, saying “Come in!” He opened the door and she screamed and told him to get out as she was changing. I couldn’t help it!
Q: You’ve already performed in front of a huge list of well-known names, but is there any celebrity you would still really love to impress?
A: I bumped into Jerry Seinfeld by accident last Friday in a diner around the corner from my hotel and I begged him to let me have a pic with him, which he very graciously agreed to! I would love to be on The Jonathan Ross Show and make him into my dummy. I could control him with my radio control and get him to ask sillier questions to his guests!
Q: You performed alongside Terry Fator in the finals. Would you like to reunite with him again for your Vegas shows?
A: He was an absolute gentlemen and what a privilege it was to share the stage with him. Terry has very kindly invited me to perform with him in Vegas on his show, so I might take him up on the offer.
Q: What are your family saying about your win? Are they kvelling with pride?
A: My family has always been very supportive – even through the hard times and, believe me, in showbiz there are plenty. They are thrilled and looking forward to a nice holiday at my expense!