Muddy meets celeb ventriloquist Paul Zerdin
He won America's Got Talent and is finally back on tour. Muddy talks to ventriloquist Paul Zerdin about weird fan mail, dressing up as Maggie Thatcher and his beef with Barney the Dinosaur.
Where are you most excited about visiting during your UK tour?
Lockdown has given me itchy feet. To be honest, I’m looking forward to going everywhere. I’m was doing Pantoland at the London Palladium – me, Julian Clary, Nigel Havers, Ashley Banjo and Beverley Knight. We managed six performances when they shut us down at Christmas. I’ve never stopped working before, but to not be able to perform is a real shock – and to not earn any money for six months is shock too. To get back get back on stage now is pretty emotional.
What do you love and loathe about being on tour?
The travelling gets on your nerves. When you’re stuck on the M25 at 1am, you know you’re 40 minutes from home, that’s a pain the arse. But I love being a live performer. It’s all I know. It’s a fun process putting together the show.
What’s the most extravagant things on your rider?
Oh no.I learned quite quickly that the rider gets charged back to you. So I tend to ask for fruit and water. It’s not as rock ‘n’ roll as Champagne and cocaine, but it’s a lot cheaper.
Is it true when you were growing up you used to dress up as 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.
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 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.
Your new tour, Hands Free, features your famous characters – Baby, Sam and old man Albert and newbie Roger the bodyguard…
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. He’s a bit thick and he doesn’t really get it. 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. He’s devastated. 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 your OG 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 b*****d 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.
Who gets the most fan mail – you or your puppets?
I have some fans who knit jumpers for the puppets. But I once worked with a famous actor in Birmingham and he had pubic hair sent to him in an envelope and in a cake. I haven’t had that, thank God! But the puppets are sent gifts all the time. No, I’m not jealous.
Where do you get inspiration for your characters?
Albert is kind of based on my father. My dad is very deaf. He’s been deaf – selective deafness. Dad will laugh, I’m sounding like Albert now. Sam is cocky little shit, so basically he is me as a kid. My 10-year-old nephew is also a big source of inspiration. It’s basically a dysfunctional family.
So ventriloquism is now super techy…
You can do a lot with animatronics and I’m lucky enough to have worked with a couple of guys who work on Star Wars. People must guess, 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. 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. It’s kind of related to magic, which is how I started.
Weirdest/ funniest moment on stage?
I was doing a three-way mastermind routine. Baby in the highchair, baby in my arms and Albert. It was a quick-fire Q&A. But I got so confused with the voices and completely lost my thread. The audience was in hysterics – they love it when things don’t go to plan and feel the gaff makes that performance unique to them. It worked so well, I kept it in.
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.
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, why not try America? And if it doesn’t work out it doesn’t matter. I forgot that everyone knows everything now because of the internet. Had I died on my arse there, it would have filtered back.
Luckily, I loved it. When I won the look on my face was a mix of surprise, wonderment, euphoria and jet lag. I genuinely didn’t think I would win.
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. We got Albert to order a pizza to see if people would talk to him in everyday life. The restaurant manager knew, but not the staff. I ordered lunch for two and the waiter spoke to Albert. Another time I used radio controls to get Albert to order poached egg and avocado. He scared the shit out of the waitress!
Would you ever do a full theatre show like Avenue Q?
I love Avenue Q. I’m working with my friend Nigel Havers and an Avenue Q style show. It’s based on a musical. The puppeteers and the puppets are so attractive that you think they’re real.
Tickets are on sale now for Paul Zerdin’s Hands Free tour. He’ll be playing Leamington on 30 Oct.