There’s an old entertainer’s joke: Put three magicians in the same room and they’ll start a convention. Put three ventriloquists in the same room and they’ll start a fight.
The Strip proved to be big enough to hold the small niche’s biggest stars, Jeff Dunham and Terry Fator.
But even a three-night run by Paul Zerdin, the recent winner of “America’s Got Talent,” continues to draw objections to his victory from a ventriloquist who headlined Las Vegas for years.
“I feel very righteously ripped off and plagiarized,” Ronn Lucas said this week, echoing comments he has made since Zerdin won the NBC talent show Sept. 16. “He had some damn good material. I’ve been breaking it in for a while.”
“It’s a shame we all can’t get on and support each other,” says Zerdin, who headlines “America’s Got Talent Live!” Thursday through Oct. 24 at Planet Hollywood Resort. “There are loads of magicians, but there aren’t many ventriloquists, and we’re all doing stuff in our own way and we want to be friends.”
The British entertainer will be teamed with two other “Talent” finalists for the shows that fulfill the TV promise of becoming “a Las Vegas headliner.” Drew Lynch, the comedian known for his vocal stutter, came in just behind Zerdin in the viewer’s final vote.
And Piff the Magic Dragon is the Las Vegas-based comedy magician and fellow Brit, who already knew Zerdin before they both became top-10 finalists. They have performed during the same summers at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Zerdin is in his 40s, so he didn’t put quite as young a face on his genre as last year’s winner (and current headliner at The Linq), 27-year-old Mat Franco. But Zerdin did appeal to the show’s younger viewers, if only for being a ventriloquist in an era when Dunham and Fator have re-energized and legitimized the field.
“You used to have an image when you say the word ‘ventriloquist.’ It used to be some old odd-looking bloke, with a dodgy-looking scary doll, which they’ve seen in the movies, becoming some psycho killer,” Zerdin says of flicks such as the British classic “Dead of Night” and Anthony Hopkins’ breakout role in “Magic.”
“But now it’s become cooler,” he says. “I can’t tell you how excited I am, not just for the art but just generally for myself.”
But Lucas and David Strassman — a ventriloquist who seldom plays Las Vegas — have been vocal about saying Zerdin went too far with routines that go beyond the natural overlap of the format.
“To me he’s like a ventriloquist’s version of a cover band,” says Lucas, who had resident shows at the Rio, Excalibur and Luxor in the 2000s. “He comes on and does four or five other ventriloquist’s bits and leaves letting the audience think he wrote the songs.”
It gets down to hard-to-parse differences between the method and the material, the restrictions of the format, and whether it’s OK to have a similar routine if the jokes aren’t line for line the same.
“We’re all thinking along the same lines, but just trying to do it in a different way,” Zerdin says. “Nobody’s stealing anything. Because of the nature of the act and what we’re doing, we’re all going to think along similar lines.”
“You’re limited, because you’re standing there creating the illusion that the voice is coming from somewhere else,” he adds.
Lucas says he was the first guy to make an audience-participation bit of a mask controlled by the ventriloquist, as Zerdin did with Howie Mandel on TV. Terry Fator paid Lucas a licensing fee to use the bit in his show at The Mirage.
“There are ventriloquists all over the world doing the mask, but they’re all doing their own version of it,” Zerdin says. “I had mine specially made.”
Lucas says he essentially gave up trying to protect the routine when it became so popular. But after a corporate booking two weeks ago, “the people who hired me came up and said, ‘We just saw that routine on ‘America’s Got Talent.’ ” They didn’t know (Zerdin’s) was remote controlled or a different face.”
Zerdin has so far worked different markets than the American ventriloquists and said he first auditioned for “Talent” to test a new market and see if his British humor translated.
“My plan was, if it hadn’t gone well, I could have got on a plane home and nobody would have been any the wiser, and if I’d been humiliated on national television in America it didn’t matter, because it’s a different country. What I forgot about was social media. There’s no escaping it,” he adds with a laugh.
Zerdin says it isn’t lost on him that the “Talent” show is in the same Planet Hollywood theater where Jeff Dunham worked for almost 11 months, before deciding to go back on the road again after his wife gives birth to twin boys. Zerdin and his girlfriend made a side trip to Las Vegas just to see Dunham after auditioning for “Talent” in Los Angeles.