Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Does "America Got Talent'?

"Their takin' our jobs."
I thought it was satire when I heard that British Ventriloquist Paul Zerdin won "America's Got Talent".  Isn't there a "Britain's Got Talent" Show? Why didn't he try out for that one?  I thought this was a competition like the Olympics, you have to be American to compete for America's Got Talent. If you win the American Contest then you get to compete in the "World's Got Talent", the winner of that gets to represent the World in the "Universe's Got Talent". That's when the competitions gets really tough. At the "Universe's Got Talent" one has to compete against Arrillian Gorp Jugglers and the best Ear Whistlers from the Nebulon system. 

If anyone can enter any of the "Got Talent" franchises in the world, why aren't we all trying to win "Romainia's Got Talent" or "Slabovia's Got Talent".  I'm saying, crossing borders to win talent contests causes all kinds of problems.  Where are the Trump supporters using Paul Zerdin as an example of immigration out of control. 

Trump: "These Brits are coming over her, they're thieves, they're drug smugglers, ventriloquists. And I assume some are good people." 

 Is it time to scream, "They're taking our jobs... and stealing our puppets." 

Full Disclosure. I rarely watch America's Got Talent, and I  don't know Paul Zerdin.  From what little I have seen of his act on Youtube Paul seems to have great technique and good stage presence. I do, however, know Ronn Lucas and David Straussman very well, they also have great technique and great stage presence. All three now seem to be involved in a controversy over intellectual property, original ideas, and the difference between instruments and art. 

I do not always agree with the "ventriloqual trickle down theory." That is the idea that what is good for one ventriloquist at the top is good for all the others down line.  It doesn't work in economics, why would it work with variety arts?  In this case,  is winning a talent contest so important for all other ventriloquists that we will look the other way when we know some winning bits were  lifted from someone else's act?  We'll get back to that.

Think of it this way. Ventriloquism is like music. The puppet (mask, electronic, soft puppet, knee figure) is like the instrument.  The act that a ventriloquist does with this puppet instrument could be equated to music.  Any one can play the piano if they want to. No one owns the rights to piano playing. You practice and get good enough and you can become a great pianist.  You might even become good enough to play like Dave Brubeck (look him up if you're not sure).  You might develop a style that audience members hail as the next "Dave Brubeck like" sound.  Everything is kosher until you play, "Take Five" and claim credit for writing it.  Then you have crossed over from being a musician to being a plagiarist.  Other musicians would not let that claim go unchallenged.  

David Strausman may not have exclusive claim to the "instrument" of a mechanical remotely controlled puppet. Ronn may not have exclusive claim to the "instrument" of a moving vent mask, (although he makes the legal claim he does.) These things are instruments and are like saxophones for sale to anyone who wants to lean how to play them.  What seems to be the issue at hand now is did Paul Zerdin use these instruments to play songs written by David and Ronn? That would cross the line of intellectual property, courtesy and integrity. 

It does not matter if some piano player says he has been playing "Take Five" since 1997 when he saw a piano for sale at a pianist convention. "Take Five" was composed in 1959.  End of story, end of claim.  It belongs to someone else, write your own song. 

We are back to trickle down ventriloquism.  If it is so important to have ventriloquism win for the benefit of all ventriloquists that we turn a blind eye to the original "song" writers: that becomes its own reward.  But it's a slippery slope. Ventriloquists will be encouraged to watch others and instead of saying, "Wow, I wish I had thought of that... it's brilliant", they will be saying "Wow, I can use that in my act."  That is not trickle down that is poisoning the well. 

I'm not stirring the pot or trying to take sides. I'm just pointing out the truth. In life you have to  "do your own work".  Whatever grade you get in life's exam, make sure it is your work.  That is the definition of originality and the soul of a musician, artist, dancer and ventriloquist.
As you were,


Unknown said...

I have seen so many magic acts do the same trick on many shows around the world. In theory, there are only 7 magic things that you can do. 7! So if a magician cuts and restores a rope, it is the same trick as Sawing a woman in half and putting her back together! Putting a coin in the hand is basically moving a woman from one side of the stage to another. Different methods, same trick. It is hard not to copy today with all the Youtube and other videos flooding our youth. Years ago, you would be lucky to see an act on TV like Paul Winchell. I am sure there were acts copying his stuff but Paul never saw it. I admit to using a few of his jokes from his many shows and 'borrowing' Bergen's routines from radio. I had Jimmy Nelson records and did all the jokes on them. I think we all did. Did the winner of AGT steal an act? There are a lot of vent masks out there and a lot of vents doing that act. There are a lot more vents doing robotic puppets. It is like having Rich Little getting upset that Terry Fator is doing impressions.

P. Grecian said...

If Zerdin is using scripts from other vents without asking their permission and offering payment, that's wrong.
If, on the other hand, he uses a vent mask and his own scripts...well that's another thing entirely, eh? Vent masks have been around a long time and lots of people use them. If there's a patent, then Ronn Lucas has the right to sue and win.
Now...a remote-controlled vent figure? I've seen several of those over the years. Seem to remember Stanley Burns using one...and, of course, Steve Axtell has several for sale.
But if Zerdin used Strassman's script without permission or payment, that's stepping over the line.
I confess that when I first started in vent, many decades ago, I did the "Ventrikalist/Ventriloquist" bit, which I'm pretty sure I stole from Winchell...and I added Linoleum/Aluminum, which I stole from Phil Silvers. I've since seen others make those same connections.
I don't know Zerdin, Strassman or Lucas personally...I admire them all. I might even steal Zerdin's "What's that?" baby script. :-D
But...probably not.

Al Stevens said...

The music analogy is flawed. Instrumentalists do indeed play the compositions of other instrumentalists. Systems exist (performance licenses, mechanical licenses) to reimburse the original composer. Those systems are provided for in copyright law.

The article implies that Dave Brubeck wrote "Take Five." He did not. Paul Desmond wrote it. Just a nit.

Lucas's claim is flimsy. You can't copyright an idea. He rattles sabers and threatens ventriloquists with his deeper pockets. I did a mask on an audience volunteer in the 1950s.

Anonymous said...

I am with Jay 100 per cent in regards to borders. What America Got Talent allowed is no different than a Little League from Fastorious, Florida butting into the Georgia Little League championship. They are not from Georgia, hence they can not be Georgia Champs.

Roy said...

i have seen hack performances of comedians whose whole act was performing a more famous comedian's act. And it is usually awful. There is so much in a performance--timing, planned funny business, etc. To me, an artist is one who can take lots of bits and "business" and meld them into an original funny act. The problem: how to better define the difference between a hack doing stolen material and an artist who has taken some known bits and made something new. The line may not always be clear. I have gotten in trouble with the "music police" when I was performing standards in a restaurant with a small Jazz combo. I was doing it for free, and we were simply having fun playing together. But we got a visit and a warning because we did not have official permission from the song writer, singer, etc. ASCAP rules.
A church was threatened with a law suit for singing a benediction to the tune of "Edelweiss" thinking it was a real folk tune. Nope. the song is the property of the Richard Rodgers estate, and they will protect their copyright. Different than outright stealing but close.
How can we define a standard or line that distinguishes stolen work from a new work that is built upon but not a copy of someone else?

Romhany said...

Re British acts on AGT. I know several American Acts (Dan Sperry magician) and others who have gone to other Got Talent shows around the world - because after their appearance on AGT they were asked by producers. For an entertainer to actually perform on AGT (from overseas) they have to get an 01 VISA - getting this is NOT easy and very expensive all paid for by the performer (around $6000). To get this they also have to prove to the US Immigration that they are considered the best in the world at what they do and at a level others are not. I believe that is why we saw three British acts in the finals - they have all spent their lives working on their craft and obviously popular in the UK. I would imagine they wanted to enter AGT because of the huge audience it put them in front of - something they would not get in Britain.
Just my two cents on HOW and WHY they were on AGT.

Romhany said...

Side note: I thought Don Bryan was the first to do the remote controlled puppet piece before David Strassman? I believe the history of that will be in Don's upcoming book -

Bruce Gold said...

His comment that these things he's doing are "common" makes me think of this example: Imagine he's been married for decades and his young colleague comes along and sleeps with his wife. His colleague would say, "well, people sleeping with other people's wives is common in this biz, and besides, you're not the first person who's ever slept with her." That may be pushing it, since no woman is a man's possession, but it feels the same. The artists that he "borrowed from" have what we in the business call squatters rights. They been doing what they've been doing for so long and in a very particular way that when someone comes along and lifts pieces of it it is obvious to anyone with even the smallest bit of knowledge about the craft. The fact that other people are doing the same is not an excuse.

Unknown said...

I was just speaking with friends of mine who after doing agt were flown out to Frances got talent. There was no visa involved.

Unknown said...

Wow- I loved Jay's idea of equating our arts props to instruments. It changes my perception and widens the frame of view. Bravo Jay!
Not sure why I am compelled to put in my 1 cent. (I work for less since Obama has entered office)
However I understand there are only
-Seven Jokes
-Seven Notes in Music
-Seven Principals in Magic etc...Considering this, there's a mathematical limit, only so much one can do with the combinations of
"the notes" in any art. Tons of variations to produce in the end a unique combination of the notes or a result. A million variations on a theme.

This leads me to see all of the arts are being built upon each other in one form or another.
The same way Windows 9 had built Windows 10 on top of its predecessor and will continues to do so.
The difference is who owns intellectual property of the first Windows? Aha the originator, and then the argument of whom created dos operating system?
and so on, we go down the rabbit hole.

So I see it as we all need to build upon one another to "some extent" but not by plagiarism, but by combining what exits "with exception to someone's current created content"
with something new. For instance NYC had “JapaDog”. American Hot Dogs done Japanese style. Two standard items combined to form a new product that makes both become something entirely different.

I believe we need to see (foretell) where our art in the future will be going to clearly help it's evolution, for our benefit as well as our audiences. This is where our focus should be...The past bleeds away from us.

I am sure no one would copy me as they don't want them to make the same mistakes..(lol)

Unknown said...

Well stated Jay, John, and Bruce. The further popularization of ventriloquism that trickles down from Zerdin's win on AGT does indeed come at a cost to the art form. For that matter, so does the ignorance of the public and the attitude of club owners who are only interested in making more money. I have preformed in many a comedy club that loved my show and got great reviews but did not want to rebook because drink sales had dropped that week from people becoming mesmerized by the show. I learned a long time ago that the needs of the business of Comedy sadly seem to trump the desire to promote the art of comedy. Unlike the trickle down theory of economics however, the money does not get stuck at the top with the exploiters. The corporations that want a ventriloquist for their next event, but can't afford to get the most well known will look for another professional who is within their budget. So the gain is only a financial gain and most likely a short term gain as well. Thank God for the true artists like Jay who have always taken the higher path of success of the soul that comes from being true to ones own creative instincts instead of looking only to increase their own financial gain by capitalizing on the creativity of others. In the end, that is what real success is all about. Bravo for a life well lived and for reminding us all why we ever started doing what we do through "The Two and Only". I know the first time I entertained with ventriloquism, the last thing on my mind was making money at it, and I'm sure most others had the same experience.