‘America’s Got Talent’ winner brings the magic, and comedy, of ventriloquism to the Strip

It’s a thin line between a magician and ventriloquist. And maybe not even a line.

“A link. A close link,” Paul Zerdin says.

“It’s all deception, isn’t it really? It’s all illusion. You’re creating the illusion that something is coming to life.”

A little later, the British ventriloquist who won last year’s “America’s Got Talent” takes his old-man puppet, Albert, out of a duffel bag and brings him to life.

“Who is this? Who are you?” Albert wants to know.

And you can’t not answer him. Soon, there’s a three-way chat between Zerdin, Albert and reporter.

When Albert is back in the bag and off to a photo shoot without his human enabler, Zerdin can again make eye contact and remembers long ago watching a TV interview with his idol, Jim Henson.

“He had Kermit the Frog on his hand and … as he talked, the camera tightened up into a close-up of Kermit. He’s so much more interesting than a human. You are automatically as an audience drawn to that puppet.

“There’s some weird magic-y thing that happens with puppets,” he notes. “I don’t know whether it’s sort of ingrained because we’ve all grown up with some sort of puppet as a child?”

Las Vegas will soon have a lot of them. Zerdin officially debuts Friday (after a week of previews) as an ongoing Planet Hollywood headliner. That’s a mile down the Strip from second-season “America’s Got Talent” winner Terry Fator, who already visited Zerdin’s show and posed for a photo to reinforce that the two are friendly competitors.

(The pair will go puppet hand to puppet hand only Tuesdays through Thursdays; Zerdin is off on Mondays and Fator off Fridays to Sundays).

Come July, the Jim Henson Company will be at The Venetian with the raunchy “Puppet Up!” And Jeff Dunham, who proved a ventriloquist could go viral and fill arenas, will be back at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace on June 5.

But Zerdin says he’s still riding momentum from the NBC talent show victory last September. When he polls the audience, at least half of them applaud because they watched him on “Talent,” “which shows you the amazing power of TV,” he says.

The show itself was exported to other countries, and YouTube clips go to places the show didn’t reach. The exposure has led to performances for Saudi princes and at Montreal’s Just for Laughs festival.

“I’ve never been so busy. It’s been absolutely crazy,” Zerdin says of almost-weekly flights across the Atlantic between post-“Talent” North American bookings and previous commitments in the United Kingdom.

Like Fator, Zerdin won “Talent” as a working pro ready to jump right into the next level of fame.

Zerdin was 43 when he competed last fall. After a 25-year career working British resorts and television, he wasn’t sure how he would respond to putting himself“in that position where you are open to criticism and being judged on live television.”

If the judges “had said some horrible things, I don’t know how I would have reacted,” he confesses. “It could have gone the other way. It could easily have gone wrong.”

Like comic magician Piff the Magic Dragon — a fellow Brit and now a fellow Las Vegan — Zerdin said he would have been happy with the TV exposure and “genuinely never thought I would win it.”

But he emerged with a narrow win over comedian Drew Lynch, and performed in the same Planet Hollywood theater with Lynch and other finalists last October. Those shows were scouted by Base Entertainment, which offered to produce a year-round residency, sharing the second-floor theater with showman Frankie Moreno.

“It’s a bit of a change,” Zerdin says of moving to the desert from his house in the Wimbledon district of London. But it was “also sort of a no-brainer” for he and his actress-singer girlfriend, Robin Mellor.

Zerdin has long visited Las Vegas to check out the entertainment and once helmed a Las Vegas-type production show in the resort city of Blackpool, England.

“I’ve got a relatively good following at home. I’ve been able to tour on the back of television and royal variety performances,” he says. “But I suppose coming to America is like starting again in a way. It’s a whole new audience that doesn’t know who I am or what I do.

“In a way, it’s good. I can kind of start again and I can start again slightly differently as well. The mistakes I made at home, I know not to make them again with this audience here.”

Zerdin was the opposite of David Copperfield, who set out to be a ventriloquist as a child and then switched to magic. Zerdin wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do. He wanted to be funny but didn’t want to do stand-up.

“I was never interested in just standing there talking about things because I didn’t really have anything to moan about,” he says. “I come from a nice happy family background. I’ve got nothing to complain about really. I had a really lovely childhood.”

So he started out as a comedy magician and then learned ventriloquism from a book by British master Ray Alan. He broke in at the workingmen’s clubs. “You’d find a lot of them in the north of England, the mining towns. A place where you go and drink. The bingo was the star, not the act. And if you got in the way of the bingo, and weren’t an act that they liked, you would know about it pretty soon … . They would throw things at you. They were pretty rough places.”

But they also were “the best training ground for this kind of work.” Once Zerdin did cross over to comedy clubs, he was relieved to find “they wouldn’t throw things at you, they’d just shout at you.”

Zerdin is filling his expanded stage with new material and technology, including radio-controlled animatronics. “It’s still ventriloquism, but we’re doing it in a different way,” he says. “There’s moments when there’s ventriloquism being done onstage and I’m not necessarily there.”

At one point he leaves a couple onstage by themselves, supplying the voices for both. Another bit is a four-way conversation that includes a puppet operating a dummy of Zerdin.

But the guy who never wanted to be a stand-up also says he will never let the ventriloquism upstage the comedy.

“There’s no line in the show that’s meant to get a laugh that doesn’t get a laugh. If it doesn’t, I fix it,” he says. “Comedy is the most important thing. It’s a comedy show. You could be technically the greatest ventriloquist in the world, but if it’s not funny, what’s the point?”

Read more from Mike Weatherford at reviewjournal.com. Contact him at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com and follow @Mikeweatherford on Twitter.

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