Paul Zerdin: Puppet Master

Note: This review is from 2012

Review by Steve Bennett

Is ‘old-fashioned’ an pejorative term in comedy? It needn’t be – anything from Tim Vine to Boy With Tape On His Face have strong elements of tradition, and thrive because of it.

Yet in the case of Paul Zerdin, the ‘old fashioned’ tag sticks because his act seems so sterile, stuck in a world of Eighties variety shows with bland pub jokes based on universally understood archetypes.

Surprisingly, it’s not because his chosen art form – ventriloquism – is languishing in the aspic of the variety halls. Despite his crimes against comedy, America’s Jeff Dunham is one of the world’s biggest-earning comics thanks to his Achmed The Dead Terrorist doll; while at the other end of the artistic scale Nina Conti continues to explore her own psyche through her foam monkey. Meanwhile The Muppets (not quite the same thing, admittedly, but not far off) are back with a bang.

In Puppet Master, Zerdin makes a few attempts to update his act for the same century the rest of us are in, but he never quite seems to have the courage of his convictions, and it’s not long before we’re back at the Stardust Lounge in Rhyl Pontins, with the safe, safe patter.

He starts off excellently well; a baby in a carry-cot starts gurgling away, and Zerdin tries to quieten him, moving the cot around, causing the pitch and volume of his tentative cries to vary. It’s a great way of showcasing Zerdin’s undeniably technical talents, and as a set piece, its’ something a little unusual.

But once the tot is on the ventriloquist’s arm, we’re back in the familiar territory of vent-puppet banter. The infant is naïve, so gets Zerdin to explain the birds and the bees, yet when he describes the light-headed feelings of falling in love, the baby ‘jokes’: ‘Like being on drugs!’ as if he’d know.

I’m prepared to suspend my disbelief for a talking foam baby but could he at least have a consistent personality where he’s not aware of the affects of psychotropic drugs? Although it’s really the quality of the gag that’s the problem.

Then the baby ruins a bedtime story by repeatedly yelling the name of his favourite animal: ‘Duck! Duck!’ which the more astute observer may have noted has another meaning. Cue cheap slapstick.

Then comes Zerdin’s most established character, Sam, a precocious boy who sounds remarkably like the baby – a surprise since Zerdin shows an impressive vocal range elsewhere. They bicker a bit, the doll insults the audience, and just when something interesting threatens to happen – when Sam and his controller swap voices – the segment evaporates into nothing.

The jokes and backchat are from the history books. ‘You’re seeing a psychiatrist? You need your head examined!’ Or: ‘I can be funny without a puppet!’/’You can’t be funny WITH a puppet.’ The biggest insult Sam can think to throw at his master is that he’s gay, and Zerdin proves his not by saying he doesn’t like Wizard Of Oz or musical theatre and his favourite colour is blue, not pink. What a rounded, enlightened view…

Never is the rickety state of the comedy more apparent than in Zerdin’s next ‘age-of-man’ puppet the pensioner Albert. He does a big shaggy-dog gag about an unloseable hearing aid, which has been around for decades – although it was about a golf ball when I first heard it. It’s as if this script has been cobbled together after googling the word ‘jokes’.

Zerdin’s finale is, however, an extremely funny take on his crafts. He rigs up a couple of artificial jaws on to two audience volunteers, and works them like his dolls, getting them to say things like: ‘I think I’m going to dance now…’ as panic spreads across the victim’s eyes. The couple he selected tonight in Hove were brilliantly game, and Zerdin’s adept at teasing them into doing his bidding, ending on a real high.

This is a prime example of how old-fashioned bit of business can be spruced up for a modern audience; but for the rest of the show, old jokes and older attitudes just don’t cut it. Zerdin’s a personable, slick entertainer, but too often seems struggling to keep up with the times.

Review date: 16 Oct 2012
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Hove The Old Market

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