Ventriloquist Paul Zerdin still searching for unique voice

This ain’t our first puppet show here in Vegas.

We are, after all, the place that allows you to comparison-shop ventriloquists. Or at least have a point of departure to describe how a new one, Paul Zerdin, fits in on the Strip.

And yet, Las Vegas is that place only because “America’s Got Talent” made it possible for both Zerdin and Terry Fator to play here, and because cable and YouTube popularized Jeff Dunham and his Dead Terrorist (who are back to play the Colosseum at Caesars Palace on Sunday).

This is ventriloquism in the TV era. But the impact of mass media seems odd and easy to forget when you watch Zerdin’s new Planet Hollywood showcase, “Mouthing Off.” For one thing, it seems you would like it better if ventriloquism is new and novel to you. And it’s such a live medium, you wonder why it works on television at all.

Zerdin, a good-looking Brit, squeaked out the narrowest of “Talent” victories last year over a comedian who overcame a stutter, but a win is a win. Like Fator in 2007, Zerdin was ready to leverage his win as a working pro already making a solid living on the variety circuit.

The first half of the new show plays like a recap of Zerdin’s career to date, as well as a reminder that ventriloquism is today’s version of Abbott &Costello-type comedy teams: The human as the straight man tees up the puppet jokes, often ending up on the receiving end of them.

“If it wasn’t for me you wouldn’t talk.”

“If it wasn’t for me you wouldn’t eat.”

Zerdin also restores some of ventriloquism’s gee-whiz novelty, putting the comic-book “Learn to throw your voice” ad into echos and “out of sync” microphones, and tricks to use in a crowded elevator.

But if Dunham tapped into the red-state zeitgeist and Fator added an extra layer of amazement to the craft by doing impressions, it’s hard to say what Zerdin brings to the party.

He is polished and practiced, with an impressive joke count, but nothing really sets him apart. The biggest surprise is that the humor is pretty raunchy, considering the 7 p.m. showtime and the association with family-friendly summer TV.

The grumpy old man Albert is better defined than his other main characters, a Baby and a Muppet-like lad named Sam. We first meet Albert on the toilet, but we get beyond the prostate and laxative jokes by the time Albert attempts a little ventriloquism of his own, with a Little Paul doll.

In terms of sheer craft, it’s another ventriloquism hat trick, as Zerdin, Albert and Little Paul get a four-way conversation going with a front-row patron.

All this is a solid introduction to ventriloquism for first-timers or your youngsters — if, that is, the show was clean enough to bring them. It’s the second half that introduces fresher ideas and suggests what Zerdin might deliver in time, if given the luxury of a long stay on the Strip.

Sam returns, this time on his own with no arm to assist him, thanks to radio-controlled animatronics. He even sings a duet with Zerdin’s stage assistant and girlfriend, Robin Mellor.

And when Zerdin puts masks on a couple from the audience to do the talking for them, it’s not the bit that is new but how far he takes it. Zerdin provides a rapid-fire exchange for the couple and even leaves them alone out there for a stretch that will either serve as a therapy session or send them home in need of one.

A layered a cappella song in the style of Bobby McFerrin accompanies Zerdin’s face on multiple video screens, and a big James Bond finale features puppets driving little Shriner cars to the strain of “Writing’s On the Wall.”

So Zerdin serves as both a recap of classic ventriloquism and a glimpse into its future possibilities. Either place is a good one to jump in, as long as the more famous and distinctive puppets elsewhere on the Strip don’t drown him out.

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

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