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November 19, 2018

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Planet Hollywood:

Paul Zerdin, from ‘AGT’ ventriloquist champion to Strip headliner


Steve Ullathorne

Ventriloquist Paul Zerdin won Season 10 of “America’s Got Talent” on NBC and $1 million and is now a headliner at Planet Hollywood.

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Robyn Mellor and Paul Zerdin attend attend opening night of Frankie Moreno’s “Under the Influence” on Wednesday, May 4, 2016, at Planet Hollywood.

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Ventriloquist Terry Fator and Paul Zerdin on Friday, May 6, 2016, at Planet Hollywood.

For the second time, NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” has produced a $1 million ventriloquist champion. Paul Zerdin from England on Season 10 now winds up as a Strip rival at Planet Hollywood to Season 2 winner Terry Fator, who headlines less than a mile away at the Mirage.

And with Mat Franco at the Linq Hotel, Paul becomes the third “AGT” winner currently headlining on the Strip.

“I think there’s room for Terry and myself,” said Paul when I sat down with him over lunch at P.F. Chang’s in Planet Hollywood before his opening night Saturday, April 30, of “Paul Zerdin: Mouthing Off.” “We’re both different, and he’s been very welcoming to me here in Las Vegas, even being a great mentor of getting me ready for this run.”

Terry, in fact, attended Paul’s show Friday night. Here are the two ventriloquists together on the “AGT” finale in September.

Paul continued: “There is definitely room for everyone. Everybody loves a ventriloquist. I hope everyone would not only come to see my show, but Terry’s show, too. In fact, everyone’s show and love them all. After doing three nights on ‘AGT,’ I met up with Terry. We had coffee, and he gave me some good advice.

“You don’t have much to do with other ventriloquists because you are never on the same bill. There will be lots of comedians, musicians, magicians, but there will never be two ventriloquists together on the same show. That’s why I jumped at the opportunity for ‘AGT,’ and then it was nice to come to town and have a friend who is a big headline act in Las Vegas.

“Hopefully someone who goes to see Terry’s show will come back and see my show, as well, and vice versa. It proves that someone can go see one show and come back and see another. It’s a different venue; it’s a different crowd.”

Paul has landed a three-year contract with Base Entertainment for its PH Showroom on the mezzanine floor above where Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez, Pitbull and Lionel Richie perform at Axis at Planet Hollywood and celebrates his VIP and media grand opening Friday night.

Paul agreed when I said that Terry was more about singing impressions with his dummy dolls, and Paul was more about standup comedy. Then I pushed it and remarked that he had an edgy, somewhat rude humor onstage with his dolls.

He told me, “Definitely cheeky. I like to see how far I can go. I do try to push it, and that’s because I don’t want to get bored up there onstage.

I was amazed watching Paul present his winning act on “AGT” because somehow he managed to talk judge Howie Mandel into becoming a ventriloquist’s doll.

I know Howie is germaphobic — I couldn’t believe that he could bear to be inside a dummy’s mouthpiece.

I thought that could be an issue. I didn’t realize until the first show that he was a germaphobe, and he’s very OCD about it. But we checked with the producers, and I said he would be the perfect person to use. They said they would check with him.

I said, “Don’t tell him too much about it.” I didn’t want him to know what I would have him doing. If you want the natural reaction, it’s hard to say, “Would you be involved in a routine that might involve having some sort of mask put over you? But we can’t exactly tell you what it’s going to entail.”

Anyway, he was happy to go with it. He was really cool with it. His reaction was brilliant. It was half of the routine. I’d seen him work with other magicians, and I thought he would be the best, and he really was.

However, it was still risky doing it on live television, and I could have lost.

Were you cheeky from the get-go with this act?

I started out as a kids entertainer — it was anything but cheeky. I was a television presenter for Disney, so I was always very, very squeaky clean. After that contract was over, I started doing other things that were more grown-up.

I had to be a bit more cheeky, more rude in order for people to take me seriously. Otherwise, people would have just called me a circus act. Therefore, adult content needed to be added to my characters.

One is old, becoming senile, so I can joke that he took his Viagra instead of his proper medication. That gives me the opportunity to have more adult issues for a more grown-up situation.

Paul Zerdin and Terry Fator

Paul Zerdin and Howie Mandel

Are you doing the “AGT” routines here in Las Vegas or different?

I did some snippets from my live show on “AGT,” so it’s both ways, but there’s a lot of additions, and I have a new American character. I don’t want to give too much information away yet because the American character is not finished. I’m constantly adding material to my current puppets. They have all evolved and have their story.

What comes first — the character, their look or the voice?

Sometimes the voice comes after the character. I get the look down first. It is whatever works, so there are no set rules. It doesn’t have to be a certain way. I’m going to make the show a big production here in Las Vegas.

Coming to Las Vegas has been a change of pace for me — totally fantastic. I had commitments in Britain previously, with meetings in New York and elsewhere before the new show. I’m still jet-lagged even arriving in Las Vegas. It takes me a long while to adjust to the time travel.

Was it a long journey to so-called overnight stardom?

I was 20 years old when I first came to Las Vegas as a tourist. I went to see David Copperfield because back then I had dreams of being a magician. It’s every entertainer’s dream to have their own show on the Las Vegas Strip, so I’m thrilled that my dream is coming true. I never thought I’d land up here as a ventriloquist, but my life has always been about voices.

For a long time, I worked in the men’s clubs in Britain. I can still remember when they threw ashtrays at me when they announced that I was a ventriloquist. I can remember one night when I only had seven people in the front row of a show, and five of them were my family and business reps. So just two paying customers in the entire theater.

I was trying to be a ventriloquist but got fired from two jobs the same week: I was an airport announcer of plane arrivals and departures and slept through my shift. My mum woke me up, but it was too late, so I lost that gig. A night later when I was working as a DJ in a radio station, I got fired because I spilled coffee all over the engineering deck.

You’re very well known in Britain and even performed on the queen’s “Royal Variety” command performances. Has “AGT” made you just as famous here?

“AGT” has really gotten me more known vs. being really well known back home. Everything I did on “AGT” turned out to be amazing, and I thought it should work. However, I thought someone else was going to win. I was ready to say congratulations to Drew Lynch (the stuttering comic). But when I won, I was shocked but very grateful.

I knew “AGT” was a big show, but I didn’t realize just how big. When someone made a scene at the Las Vegas airport yelling, “It’s the puppet guy,” he dropped his phone accidentally, knocking over the perfume breaking a bottle.

The clerks had to clean up the mess. It caused such a commotion everybody recognized me, and I ended up doing photos with everybody before getting on the plane for London.

A Brit can get onto “America’s Got Talent” because it is part of the “Got Talent” franchise whether it is “Britain’s Got Talent” or America. I did it in New York because no one knew who I was here. I figured If it didn’t work out, I could go back home where I was successful.

Will it lead to more TV appearances while you are here at Planet Hollywood like the specials that 2014 “AGT” winner Mat Franco, now at the Linq Hotel, has filmed?

I’ve done a little bit of street ventriloquism. You don’t have to have a puppet to be a ventriloquist. I have this idea of doing some hidden camera-style stuff, which I love doing. We’ve shot some stuff, and most of it has worked.

There might be a possible hint of that in this show, but I don’t want to give away too much as we’re saving it for a TV special if talks are successful with NBC. I wants to get people laughing first before I pull out the puppets.

I always believe people think ventriloquism to be at the last rung of the show-business ladder. In a sense, it is a dying form. They call you the ventriloquist for the “South Park” generation.

There is a whole new generation. Terry Fator and Jeff Dunham helped make the new generation. Jim Henson expanded the art form with the soft figures where the characters were more friendly. Jim Henson and the Muppets were my biggest influences, but Terry and Jeff are responsible for making it cooler.

The new “Puppet Up” show by Jim Henson that’s coming to the Venetian this summer is a great idea. It’s improv comedy, like “Who’s Line Is It Anyway?” but with puppets. There is a bit of improv in my show. I get to pick out somebody from the audience and turn them into puppets. I love that kind of improv.

Who’s the tougher audience, the queen of England, Howard Stern or a Las Vegas fan who has partied way too much?

They’re all different. I’ve had hard gigs where I did the same material from another show and only got half the reaction. You just carry on smiling like everything was alright.

Our audience age group here will be 14 and up because it is a little bit cheeky and rude. I love that this PH Showroom is an intimate theater, but I have done everything from private functions for eight people to audiences of over 2,000.

My show is about comedy, and comedians have become the new rock stars. I’ve had good and bad experiences over the years, so I’m very happy that comedy ventriloquism is now well accepted.

For a long time, I was the opening-supporting act for big British names. Some were the best experiences when I got thrown into it. You have to learn quickly.

Once when people threw ashtrays at me because I got in the way of them waiting to see the big star, I was in tears driving home thinking, “Why? What am I doing?” Some of the clubs I played were just plain rude or snooty and didn’t respect a ventriloquist. I got frustrated working on this for years.

I had a skill, I had an act, and suddenly it was when reality TV started. It is frustrating when the reality-TV stars grab the headline more than the many other people who deserve the headlines and don’t get it because of the reality-TV antics. That will hopefully change.

This show is my biggest to date. It has raised my game. My plan worked on “AGT.” I needed to make an impression in every spot I had, and fortunately I had a lot of material to choose from in order to make that happen. Live shows are fun, but you have to get it right every time on the first try.

I am committed to three years, plus maybe a bit more. We’re working very hard to raise the game so I’m here for even longer.

Paul and his characters Sam, Baby and the belligerent old man Albert perform at PH Showroom in Planet Hollywood at 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, dark Mondays.

Robin Leach of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” fame has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past 15 years giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

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