Did the British ventriloquist who won this year’s America’s Got Talent play the judges — and America — for dummies? Two veteran ventriloquists are accusing Paul Zerdin, who won last week’s 2015 finale and a $1 million prize, of using routines remarkably similar to their own as he advanced through the show’s quarterfinals and semis en route to the big win.
“I think he stole my act,” ventriloquist Ronn Lucas told Deadline. “What bothers me is that he won by stealing other people’s acts, including my own, and that he takes credit for the originality. That’s what bothers me the most.”
Said longtime ventriloquist David Strassman: “What bothers me is that he fooled the judges and the audience into thinking that he originated these routines. I think he needs to give credit where credit is due. I don’t think it’s fair for anybody to win a talent show and a lot of money on unoriginal material.”
Comics have been stealing each others’ material since the dawn of timing, but ventriloquism theft is, shall we say, more sotte voce. (Lucas and Strassman say they’re not planning to sue.)
Zerdin won the quarterfinals with a routine in which he and his dummy Sam decide to part ways:
Zerdin: If you think you can do better on your own, then you’re very welcome.
Sam: I can.
Zerdin: Oh, really.
Sam: Yes, really.
Zerdin: OK, well this I have got to see. All right, here’s the microphone, there’s the audience, and there are the judges. Good luck.
He walks off the stage, leaving Sam propped up on a stool in front of the mic. After a few beats, the dummy comes to life, raises his head, and asks, Is he gone?
Watch the routine here:
The gag is very similar to the one created by Strassman, which he performed on The Arsenio Hall Show back in 1989. There, too, the ventriloquist and his dummy Chuck have a falling out. Three-and-a-half minutes into the routine that Strassman calls his “signature creation,” they get into a contract dispute and Chuck decides to fire Strassman.
Strassman: OK, you don’t need me? I’ll tell you what, you sit here. You want to tell a joke? You want to be a big star? Go ahead. Here’s your microphone. Go ahead, tell a joke. I don’t need this from you or no one.
He walks off the stage, leaving Chuck propped up on a stool in front of the mic. After a few beats, the dummy comes to life, turns his head and asks Is he gone?
Watch Strassman’s full routine here:
Zerdin won the semifinal round with a bit that was very similar to one Lucas performed back in 2006. In his routine, Zerdin uses a remote-control prosthetic jaw to turn judge Howie Mandel into a dummy. (In an appearance on Live! With Kelly & Michael after winning the contest, he said he usually brings a member of the audience onstage to perform the gag but that the producers asked him to do it with Mandel.)
In this bit, Zerdin operates the mechanical jaw to make Howie say funny things and then has him dance to an Irish tune.
See his routine here:
Lucas performed a very similar routine at the Rio hotel in Las Vegas back in 2006, bringing a member of the audience onstage, turning him into a dummy by fitting him with a nearly identical looking prosthetic jaw operated by a rubber squeeze bulb. “This is my exclusive property,” he says as he fits the guy with the device and then has him say funny things while making him sing and dance to “When You’re Smiling.”
See Lucas’ routine here:
“It’s very disheartening,” Lucas said. “It’s very galling.” Lucas said he came up with the routine in 1989 after Mystery Science Theater 3000 creator Joel Hodgson made an appearance on Lucas’ British TV show. “He did a routine and pulled two guys up on the stage with rubber ape masks and had a squeeze bulb and lip-synced ‘Baby Love’ and they were the backup singers. I got the rights from him and turned it into my own. After that, everyone was doing it, so I don’t know if Paul stole it from me or from somebody else who stole it from me. For a long time, I tried to protect it, but I finally gave up. Magicians publish their tricks – they have their names attached to them. But no one cares about giving ventriloquists credit.”
FremantleMedia, which coproduces America’s Got Talent for NBC, declined comment, as did coproducer Simon Cowell’s Syco Entertainment. But according to a Fremantle source, Zerdin says he’s been using the controlled jaw bit since 1997, after seeing one sold at a ventriloquist convention. Other ventriloquists who use the bit include Nina Conti, as seen here:
Zerdin also allegedly told the source that he’s been using the dummy who comes to life since ’97, when he had animatronics wizard Tim Rose create a talking puppet that operates independently of the ventriloquist. Zerdin told the source similar talking dummies can be purchased by anyone from companies such as Axtell Expressions.
“He’s not claiming that he’s the only one who uses the mask,” the source said. “It’s a common ventriloquist prop.”
Lucas and Strassman both acknowledged that Zerdin is a talented and funny ventriloquist but said he should give credit where it’s due.
“He could not have won if he didn’t have talent,” Lucas said, “and when you look at all the acts, he deserved to win. I just hope that in the future, if people win America’s Got Talent, they do it on their own originality, not someone else’s. The people who were wronged the most were the competitors who did original material.”
A contestant of Australia’s Got Talent got disqualified four years ago for plagiarizing jokes in the semifinal round when it was discovered that he’d lifted gags from comedians Lee Mack and Geoff Keith. The AGT producer, however, gave him a second chance, and on his return, he made some self-deprecating jokes about plagiarism. Trouble was, one of those jokes was plagiarized too.
On Saturday, Zerdin’s attorney told Deadline he’d contact his client in England, but Deadline has yet to receive a response.