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Standing Up On Stage Creating a Commercial and Effective Working Stand Up Act
Supplementary notes for Scott Alexander Lecture Copyright Alexander Illusions LLC 2012
Standing Up on Stage Jim Steinmeyer, who is not only the creator of some of today’s top stage illusions, but also of some extremely clever stand up material, says that eventually every magician will end up standing on stage, with something in their hands the size of a cereal box, and talking about it. Even the pros who do large illusions often come to Jim to help script and create stand up material for their acts. Because after all, this is what a magician is supposed to do. He is supposed to be on a stage talking to the audience and demonstrating some kind of magical effect where ordinary objects do extraordinary things. It is one thing to wander the streets and bother people with your latest feat of juggling with a deck of playing cards, but it is another to stand on the stage for forty-five minutes to an hour, really entertain and engage the audience and make a real connection in a proper theatrical setting. This is the essence of stand up magic. This is what this booklet is going to attempt to help you achieve... creating a stand up show that is diverse, entertaining and amazing to all who watch. Now, put away your close up pads and lift your chins up from that deck of cards. Put down your coins and rubber bands and take off that Affliction T-Shirt and lets all stand up together. Because after all that’s what a magician does.
What Makes a Good Stand Up Act? Some stand up acts are like Chinese food, as soon as you eat it you are hungry an hour later. Whereas some stand up shows feel like a full Italian pasta meal. You leave feeling truly satisfied. Why? I believe all good stand up acts are successful for many of the same reasons. First and for most, they all feature a wide variety of different types of magic. If you do card trick after card trick, it gets boring. It doesn’t matter if you know seventy five card tricks, no one wants to see them all. Once you do one of your one good ones... you’re done with the cards. I’ve seen so many card heavy stand up acts. You can visibly see the audiences tune out 2
during the procedural stuff. If you are going to do multiple card effects, you have to make them funny, engaging and each one different from the last. Just don’t do too many. Keep in mind that people need a variety of stimulus nowadays. Just look at your TV screen while watching the news or a sports game. Not only is the action on the screen, but they have a bonanza of stuff on the sides and scrolling across the bottom. There are all kinds of other informational do-dads there to keep you engaged. The human race is able to process information at a much quicker pace now, and the old tricks and patter that worked in Tarbell sixty years ago, need to be streamlined. They are still good tricks, great even, but you need to get to the magic quicker for today’s crowds.
Variety Variety is so important in a show. The more diverse your series of effects are, the less the audience has a chance to get bored. There is always something new coming around the corner and the audience stays involved and engaged throughout. A good stand up act has layers and peaks and valleys. The sequence of tricks goes from high energy one minute, to perhaps a low key musical number. Then, maybe it switches into a slow but funny story that captures the audience’s imagination and leaves them laughing. Perhaps you even want to make the audience cry or touch them emotionally in some way. These undulations in mood and tone also help to keep a modern audience engaged in your show. Variety is the spice of life, also the spice of a great act.
Production Value Using simple ideas to add production value is also a good tip to add excitement to your stand up act. If you can get away with it in the venues where you perform, use some fire or flash paper for an effect. If you have control over the lighting, set some different tones or moods with the lights. Production value can also come by way your props, costume or tables. Michael Finney color coordinates his costume with his props and his table cloth. It makes the show look cohesive, professional and well thought out.
Production value can even come down to something as simple as standing up straight with your chest out, or projecting your voice to the back row. I see some guys just kinda lumbering and mumbling from trick to trick with no energy, enthusiasm or confidence. Maybe because they have no idea what is coming next. Maybe they just grabbed some tricks and threw them in a suitcase and have gone off to do the show.
Call Backs and Running Gags These are what I call “Finding Your Fig Newton.” If you look at Mac King’s act, he is a Jedi Master when it comes to these techniques. He uses callbacks artfully to tie things that happen at the beginning of the show, to “accidents” that happens later. There are also running gags like his Fig Newton that keeps popping up here and there. Running gags are a great way to look super polished. Maybe you can find a recurring theme in your act that could keep showing up, or a concept or idea that you could keep referring back to. If you study these running gags, you will find many successful acts use them. It becomes like an inside joke between you and the audience creating connection and intimacy with them. Jeff Hobson uses the zooming airplane noise and a swipe of his hand over his head as a running gag. Kerry Pollack uses the lie detector that beeps thru the whole show when he tells a lie. Farrell Dillon shouts the word “Rainbow!” and produces multi-colored thimbles over and over which is hilarious. I use an appearing cane that pops out when you least expect it. When I do my full show, it ties back to the beginning when the cane vanishes. So, find your “Fig Newton” and it will add some needed production value and polish to your act.
Character and Connectivity A great stand up act is one in which the audience really connects with you. They like you, and would want to hang out with you after the show. If you establish this connection with the audience you will have them eating out of the palm of your hand. After all, it really isn’t the tricks we are interested in, it’s the person. Denny Haney has a great quote. “It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as they like you while you’re doing it!” I would add one more item to that. “It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as they like you while you’re doing it....and you fool the s#it out of them.” After all you are a magician! Without strong magic you might as well just be standing up there 4
telling jokes. Later I’ll discuss some great trick options to help you on your way. Having a strong character also helps immensely. If you know who you are onstage, you know what material you should be doing, and this allows you to be the best you can be because you are projecting the image you want to the audience. The crowd may not know you, but before they meet you, they are already rooting for you. They want to see a good show, so they are already on your side before you enter the room. But you can destroy that automatic advantage if you come out and do things out of character. Keep in mind that a great stand up magician really connects with the audience on a personal level, because of their character and demeanor. A simple tip to build this connection is maintaining eye contact. Of course, if you are working a room with two thousand people you can’t look everyone in the eyes, but you can create the illusion that you are. People really feel engaged with others by the level of personal eye contact they are receiving during a conversation. Try scanning the room and making personal eye contact with specific sections of people at a time. Don’t just focus on the front few rows. Look out into the darkness and imagine you are seeing specific people. Really take your time and imagine you can actually see them. Even though you can’t see them because of the darkness or distance, their perception will be that you can, and that you are talking specifically to them. This can help to break down that theatrical “fourth wall” between you and the audience and make you seem more genuine and accessible.
Scripting Versus “Scripty” “Hi, welcome to McDonalds, would you like to try a value meal for only $2.49 today?” Have you ever heard that before. The cashier has memorized their little script and just spitting out the words and couldn't care less about you or what high cholesterol food you are about to stuff down your gullet. A script in your show is very important, you should always know what you are going to say, every word of it, but you need to deliver it as if it were the first time you are saying it. There are a lot of great acts with great dialogue and fantastic tricks, but the audience just doesn’t connect with them as much as they could because they are “too scripty.” It sounds 5
like they are reading the lines from a page, or they sound robotic or too memorized. This problem then creates another problem of speaking too fast. A lot of performers will just get up there and rattle off the script and no matter how good it is, it feels forced or unnatural. A great way to combat this is of course to script everything you are going to say, but take time to pause. Those pauses between the lines will convey to the audiences that you are being thoughtful. There is nothing wrong with silence. Personally, I had a bad habit of rushing my dialogue but once I started to relax and slow down I found that I got more laughs and more applause because I wasn’t blowing through jokes or stepping on the all too important beat before a laugh. Taking your time with your dialogue will help you to appear more natural and sincere on stage. And it will give your audience the chance to hear what you say and react to it.
Sincerity Ninety percent of being a successful entertainer is sincerity, and if you can fake that, you've got it made! Sincerity is really a huge key to a successful entertainer. The idea is to be real. That is what today’s audiences want. Simply look at most popular television programs now and you will find out that they are reality shows are all about people. People are interested in other people, especially interesting people. We often come off as really “magish-inny.” We deliver patter lines like we are from the 1920’s, instead of really talking to the audience. Try to avoid going into automatic pilot and talking that “magician talk” we all do. Really relax and try to be authentic. People really want to like you so give them a chance by being your real self.
Confidence The most important thing to any performer is CONFIDENCE! The problem is that many performers confuse confidence with arrogance. Where does the confidence come from? Well, some are just born with it. They have a certain “IT FACTOR.” This kind of thing really can’t be taught, you either have it or you don’t. I think that many more people have it but simply don’t exercise it. It can be thought of as a muscle, the more you exercise it the stronger it gets. Good ways to do this are to maybe take some theatre classes, or a dance or public speaking class. Video tape and audio tape every show and sit down after the performance and analyze 6
things you did in the show that can use improvement. And these should not simply be technical things like tricks or sleights, but analyze the way you stand on stage, the way you deal with the volunteers you bring up, listen to the laughs and spot where you might pause more to punch up a laugh line. This type of analysis is invaluable to making you a more confident performer. Confidence also comes from doing your homework. Write out every word you are going to say onstage, make sure all of your props are in the right places and easily accessible so there is no fumbling or dead time. Make every detail as perfect and as rehearsed as can be in your show. Real productive rehearsal is so key in building confidence. Know the material, the jokes and the bits like the back of your hand. My wife Jenny and I opened for Dennis Miller in Vegas and we got to watch his show from the wings. We commented on opening night on how funny and off the cuff he was. But guess what? We watched him for a whole week and everything was completely scripted. Even what seemed like off the cuff spontaneous observations, or ad libs, were locked into his script. What a lesson that was! Rehearse often and repeat your lines and routines over and over again until they are simply second nature to you. Get your prop placement tight and rehearse picking up and getting rid of things from your case and tables. Formulate and construct everything, right down to which pockets you are going to get things from every time, and how you are going to ditch and pick up loads. If you can do all of this stuff with ease and like it is second nature, it will help to free you up to let your personality shine and give you that all important show biz commodity...confidence.
Components for a Stand Up Act The Opener In Showmanship for Magicians, Dariel Fitzkee suggests opening to music that is colorful, flashy and fun to get the audience ready for the magic. There are a ton of effects that fit this bill perfectly. I don’t think this is the gospel truth that you have to open this way, but it is a good way to establish 7
a mood. Often, when I am permitted, I will open with a fire eating routine to music that is both highly visual and funny. I have also used the Cane in the Newspaper as a quick musical opener, much like Fred Kaps. Whatever you choose, if you are going to go the musical opening route, it should be short and full of magical moments. I would say no longer than two to three minutes is a good length. Two openers that come to mind that have been wildly successful for other entertainers past and present are things like Kevin James’ Bowling Ball from Sketchpad or back in the 40’s and 50’s, Roy Benson’s “Oh, See the Pretty Thing.” I have taken Benson’s idea and given it a little update and use it to open some of my stand up shows. In the early 1900’s, the 20th Century Silks was all the rage. It seems from looking thru old magicians programs, that nearly every magician opened with it in 1908 and for good reason. Its a great visual trick and it is long overdue for a comeback. Sometimes I open with the new version that Puck and I have created called Hanky Panky. Other successful and effective opening numbers have included manipulation pieces such as appearing candles, canes etcetera most notably used for comedy in Kozak’s opening set. You could put together a nice series of manipulative magic to set the tone for your act. Sometimes I will open with a talking piece like the Roy Benson trick, but I always have walk-on music. This music sets the tone of the show. Is it going to be mysterious, fun, lighthearted or quirky? Whatever you choose, I highly recommend walking on to some kind of song that sets the tone. In my cruise ship shows, I open with a pop song that is light and fun and then I greet the audience and go into a vanishing and appearing cane sequence that is about two and a half minutes where I vanish a cane fairly quickly to establish a really magical moment right up front. After that, I’m heavy on comedy which will be the tone for a lot of the show. Whatever you do, don’t come out and just talk for a long time with no magic going on. You want to hit them right between the eyes up front and make them sit up and pay attention.
Personality Piece My vanishing and appearing cane sequence qualifies as a personality piece. I do several jokes to establish my character. If I am opening with a musical number such as the cane in the newspaper, I will then typically go into something like the torn and restored newspaper to allow about 4 minutes to chat with the audience while I am tearing up the paper. This format is the basis for many successful acts. The key is to really establish your character in the first moments of the show and let it slowly unfold. The newspaper is a great way to do this, in that you can do topical humor of the day based on the headlines in the newspaper or, if you are not particularly good at writing, you can use some of the standard jokes, delivered well to start building your bond with the audience. Cut and Restored rope is another trick that allows you time to do this. Michael Finney does the Six Card Repeat to accomplish this introduction period with the audience. Denny Haney uses the Torn and Restored Newspaper, Amazing Johnathan banters with the audience heckling THEM in the first few minutes of the show. All of these approaches are helping to introduce your style and tone to the audience. In this section of your show, the audience will be sizing you up. But also here is a good opportunity for you to size them up. Here is where you may want to begin looking around the audience for friendly, smiling faces of people you may want to bring up on stage to help you in later effects. This is the place where you really set the tone for things to come and look for some possible volunteers you may want to call on for later audience participation effects.
Audience Participation Now, we come to the heart of the show. You have come out strong, hit them between the eyes with some great quick and visual magic and you have established your character. If you still have an audience at this point, it is time to get into the meat of the show and have some fun with the audience. There is an easy pitfall to get into and that is having too much audience participation in your program. If you keep having people come up and 9
down, it can really put a drag on the pacing of the show. It takes time for grandma to hobble her way up onstage and then hobble back down. Of course, you can cover this time with play on and play off music, but too much of the time getting audience volunteers up onstage and back to their seats is wasteful and kills the energy flow of the show. There are a few ways to avoid this waste of time. One way is to stagger your audience participation pieces. Maybe you do one bit with an audience member, and then do a silent piece to music. Then, you can bring some more folks up afterword. You can also avoid bringing someone up onstage to just pick a card and stand there for 3 minutes while you do your shtick and then reveal it by simply walking into the audience yourself and having the card picked. This too is a trap to avoid. Sometimes when you walk into the audience you can take the energy down because focus is lost since you are no longer standing on the stage. You have to really take charge when you leave the stage and command the audience’s attention. When you do it, just don’t stay off stage too long and perhaps have a supporting bed of music playing low in the background to keep up the energy. Also if you have control over the house lights, maybe only bring them up to half intensity. It’s great if you have the luxury of a follow spot operator who can keep you lit as you go into the audience. Sometimes if the houselights pop on really bright all of a sudden it startles the audience and can suck the energy out of the room. People are much more likely to laugh and applaud in the dark, because they have the illusion of anonymity. If they perceive that no one can see them or judge them, they will be freer with their response. Another way to avoid having to bring someone on stage for something like a card effect, is to perhaps change the method and have the card merely thought of by someone in the audience. In my Invisible Deck presentation, I simply toss the invisible deck to someone in the audience and have them stand up where they are, and turn to face the audience while shuffling. This speeds up the trick and lets me get right into it without having someone meander up onstage to just do the invisible gags and stand there until I reveal the card. Basically, if you don’t absolutely have to have someone onstage with you, leave them in their seats.
There are times, of course where you simply must have one, two or even multiple people up on stage with you. Plus, you do want some of the audience members onstage at some point in the show. People like to see audience members up there with you and see you having fun with them. But if you do bring people up there, please treat them with respect. Help them up on to the stage and then take their arm and help them down. This subtly suggests that you care about them. Jeff Hobson and MIchael Finney can act like “a-holes” and make fun of the people while they are onstage, but you can be sure that they help them up and help them down from the stage with courtesy. Even though comedy is sometimes ascerbic, being courteous with the way you get someone up and down suggests that it is as Devant said, “all done with kindness.” There are times that you can show that you are warm and genuine, despite all the dick jokes and double entendre. There is a fine line with just how far you can go when ribbing an audience member. If you cross the line it turns from playful to disrespectful. The way you handle the audience member says subtle subliminal things about you and your character. The audience picks up on these clues and they all become part of their judgment of your performance. How can you do some simple things to improve this aspect of your demeanor? Let’s say you are doing a kid show. Take some time during a routine to get down on your knee and address the kids on their level. This appears extremely endearing since the magician is making an effort to be eye to eye with the kid. A lot of kid show stuff is about the kids messing up but you should always thank them when the bits are over and let them know what a great job they did. Even give them a little token to take back home with them after the show. I’ve seen Jeff McBride and David Oliver give inexpensive magic wands to the kids. You would be surprised how far the old Hat Tear trick goes in terms of forming a rapport with the kids and the audience. It is an easy trick that is a real fooler and the kid goes home with a little trinket from his or her time on stage with you. I’ve seen kids leave the stage with such pride, that it’s something I always include if kids are in the audience. At a corporate event making fun of a long boring speech or executive is a guaranteed laugh. The client might ask you to “Really mess with Joe, he is 11
our head of sales and is a really good sport.” Sometimes this can backfire though. Maybe Joe has had a really bad morning and if you start messing with him it could turn the whole show sour. You really have to trust your instincts on these calls as, crossing the line can again look disrespectful. If this type of thing is not in your sphere of abilities, and you know you can’t pull it off, then it’s best to not go for it. When in doubt, leave it out! One other way to really endear your self to the audience is to whisper something nice like, “Thank you,” or “You did a great job, I really appreciate your help,” right before the audience member is walking off stage. It should appear casual or unrehearsed, a real spur of the moment thing. The audience will see that you are taking a special moment that’s “not part of the show” to personally say something to your volunteer. This really makes you appear more likable and genuine. Watch for this the next time you see a real stand up pro. You will notice most do it at some point in their show. Of course, I’m not asking you to fake sincerity. You are naturally grateful to the volunteer for their help! In the hustle and bustle of doing your show it’s sometimes easy to let these niceties slip away, as the “thunderous applause washes over you.” Just be yourself and use your manners. Mama didn’t raise no punk!
Musical Pieces Hans Christian Andersen once said, “Where words fail, music speaks.” Music is a universal language. It truly does speak across all boundaries. It can take a magic trick and really elevate it to a show piece. I performed my Cut and Restored rope routine called Slashed for years but it was not anything special, until I paired it up with The Beatles, “Come Together”. When I put this routine to this piece of music, it seemed that the music was written especially for it. A trick that got a decent reaction, was suddenly being singled out by audience members I spoke with as being a real highlight of the show for them. This is the power of music. Music has the power to affect people in ways that a trick alone could never do. It’s a tool that I employ often to immediately create a deeper connection between the audience and effect. You should definitely have two or three silent routines to music in your show for variety sake. If you are a talking act who is doing a forty-five 12
minute show, the audience may get weary of all the words. By adding a few musical pieces sprinkled thru the program, you give the audience a chance to take a break from the intellectual task of processing what you are saying and allowing them to just focus on the music and the action. Not to mention that you get a break from running your “yapper.” I find that I really enjoy the musical interludes myself as a welcome break from having to talk. I can just kind of zone out into my own zen-like world and just flow with the music. When choosing music for your act there are a few ways to go about it. One way is to make a list of songs that you like on one side of a page, and then a list of effects on the other. Then go through and try and pair up the words of the song or the feeling and tone of the music, to the actions of what might be happening in the tricks. Another way is to just put on some music that you really like and pick up some billiard balls, thimbles, cards or even rope and just jazz some moves to the music. I find that the website Pandora.com is great for this kind of thing. You can type in artists or types of songs you like, and it creates a customized radio station just for you, based on the type of song or artist you enter. As it cycles through similar songs, just let your mind wander over your repertoire or tricks you’ve thought about doing and maybe you might find a sudden burst of inspiration. You could even take routines that you currently do and try them with a few different songs. Maybe just pop in a CD or fire up your iTunes and try the same routine with different songs. You may think of a certain routine you are doing as a slow and lyrical piece of magic, but maybe a fast song will shuffle thru next and if you try the trick you are working on to that music it may change your perspective. All of a sudden you may find yourself working this trick that you thought should be slow to this new fast and exciting music and really stumble on to a great new style of doing the trick. I also like to use the radio this way while driving. I will think about tricks as I hear different songs on the dial. Basically, it works one of two ways, Your either build the routine to the music, or find music that supports your existing routine. Both approaches are perfectly valid. Just allow yourself to experiment with different types of tricks and varying musical styles, and you might be surprised what you find. 13
Show off Your Skillz Steve Martin once said that “Magic is the only talent you can buy.” And he would know because he started out as a demonstrator in a magic shop and a magician himself. A lot of people have the mindset that if they just had that “tricky box” they could do the trick too. It is an ugly reality. But by doing something skillful and obviously manipulative, something that you are obviously using your hands and simple objects like cards, coins and balls, you are showing the audience that you are not just a guy with a bunch of props and one liners, but that you are an artist. I think it is important, especially if you are a comedy magician to display some kind of real tangible, physical skill to an audience. Even if they know that somehow you are doing some kind of sleight of hand they can appreciate the years of practice you apparently have put in to make it flawless. This is why I always include my Card Manipulation routine in my act. Even though the audience doesn’t know the specifics on how I am doing it, they sense that it must have taken hours of dedication and practice to do it so smoothly. This is fantastic, because it did!
Add an Element of Danger “Ladies and gentlemen you paid for your whole seat...but you’ll only need the edge!” Everyone likes danger and fear. It causes excitement. By doing something apparently dangerous in your act, you add a level of excitement, or uneasiness and drama. A danger piece also adds variety to the show. You are not just doing tricks but risking your safety. Jugglers use knives, torches, stun guns, rola-bolas and all kinds of danger tricks constantly. We as magicians have our go to danger tricks too. Premises involving russian roulette, razorblades, or needle swallowing, straitjackets and escapes, dismemberment devices such as guillotines or arm choppers all add a layer of excitement and anticipation and should not be overlooked. My element of danger piece is the Razor Blade Swallowing. Great magicians like Paul Potassy, John Booth, and even the great Richardi, all made a feature of the razorblades. My routine really combines the comedy with the magic in a way that the audience can accept the danger because it is buffered by the comedy. Each one supports the other. The comedy 14
makes the danger easier to accept. The unease of placing sharp blades in my mouth is offset by the laughs I am getting by the comic approach I take to the effect. The Blades is one thing in my show that always leaves a memorable image in the audiences mind. Some don’t like it but are fascinated. They tell me, “I couldn't watch, I thought you were going to cut yourself.” It is a powerful thing to have that kind of effect on an audience. We are trying as artists to move and effect people on many levels and making them nervous or anxious is a legitimate response. On the other side of the coin, some come up to me and comment on how much they loved it and thought it was hysterical and have no idea how in the hell I did that. The reactions are varying, but the important thing is that I am getting reactions. That is the goal.
Finish on a Warm Fuzzy Note There is a great tradition that was a standard in vaudeville. If a comic came out and did a goofy act or smart aleck act or was slightly “blue” in his comedy routine, the last thing he would do is sing a lovely song, or relate a charming, heart warming story or do a pantomime piece that would move the audience emotionally. Red Skelton was a master at this type of act. Again we show the audience a different facet of ourselves. Today this trend seems involve a dead grandpa or snow. A ton of magicians are ending their stand up acts with the snow storm. Also a good number of them are ending with a sappy story about life using a gypsy thread effect. There is a reason these type of tricks are being done to death. It is traditionally a good idea to end an act of comedy leaving the audience thinking you are a nice guy. But let’s get creative! You don’t have to make it snow!! Think of something personal that is real. Not some phony baloney story about how growing up you never saw snow. That’s been done, it belongs to somebody else. You could pick up a Chen Lee Water Suspension and do a trick about you being scared of going in the water when you were a kid. Or do a ring on string and talk about how you almost lost the engagement ring right before you proposed to your wife and how much you were upset, but it all worked out. Anything that is not snow for crying out loud. I have two pieces that I often close with. One is the Axtell Drawing Board. Yes, I said it! I sing Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong and do the a vocal 15
impersonation of him, singing in my own voice, then his. Before I sing the duet, I talk about what the song means to me. That we often take for granted the simple things in life. Every once in a while we should stop and appreciate these everyday gifts of life we are given. It is just a simple, and charming way to end the show and the audiences eat it up. Puck and I have developed another charming routine called Wishes that we have marketed as a sort of alternative to the ubiquitous snow storm. Wishes is a misers dream routing with soap bubbles. It’s the snowstorm without being the snowstorm. All the feel, but none of the confetti clean up! In the effect, the bubbles represent wishes. They are collected the the bucket as they turn to real crystal bubbles. Then they vanish as bubbles float up out of the empty bucket creating a “bubble storm.” The routine shows charm, personality and features audience participation, culminating in a nice shower of bubbles. The story is about the wishes you had as a child coming true, it is about youth and innocence and how we begin to loose it over time. This is touching, personal and not to mention, universal stuff. Jiggle your thinking cap, and come up with a personal experience you can share with the audience and then look for a trick with a theme or effect that might support it. Who you are onstage, as we have seen, is revealed thru a multitude of little things that add up over the course of the show. You want to appear warm and charming, funny and likeable, and you want to choose a variety of differing effects that show your range and abilities not only as a comedy guy but as a real worker of wonders. Choose strong magic and pair it with a good stage deportment, using the tips and ideas we are discussing. You want to create the image that you are multi-talented and multi-faceted human being who is funny, nice, and above all... real.
Types of Effects Selecting the tricks for your stand up show is important in that you want to display a wide variety of effects to keep the show interesting. In David Devant’s book Our Magic, he lays out a detailed list of types of effects, and then further breaks them down into sub-categories. If you haven’t read this book, it should definitely be one that you delve into. It is not an easy read 16
because the language is a bit archaic. However, if you can fight your way thru the verbage, it will open your eyes to things you may not have even though about. A lot of the tricks described in those pages will give you inspiration and perhaps you can used your creativity to modernize some of them and work them into your act. For our purposes, I will simplify the categories of effects to a basic eight. This will start you on the path to thinking about variety in your stand up show.
Transformations These type of effects are where one object changes into another. Some great examples of classic tricks that include transformations are things such as the Color Changing Silks, Vanishing Cane to Double Silks, Milk to Silk and even the crusty Snowstorm in China. All of these items are typically visual in nature with a simple plot. These type of effects are well suited to pantomime routines to music, but also can be included in talking routines, as long as they are not about your dead grandma.
Transpositions/Teleportations This type of effect is where something changes places with something else or something travels to an impossible location. Sucker Silk to Egg, Cards to Pocket, Bill in Lemon, and Ring Flight are all examples of things teleporting somewhere or transposing with other objects.
Appearances/Disappearances These type of effects are the heart and soul of magic. After all, what do people always say to a magician...”Can you make my wife disappear?” Tricks like Appearing Cane, Multiplying Bottles, Square Circle, Egg Bag, Six Card Repeat, Vanishing Bird Cage, and The Vanishing Coke/Ketchup Bottle all fall into this category
Penetrations Penetrations are my favorite! (Bada-bing!) They are a great way to add variety to your show. The Linking Rings, Silk thru the Microphone Stand, The Himber Rings, Rope thru Body, Sword thru Neck, and Knitting Needle thru Mirror/iPad are all examples of wonderful penetration effects. Many
other tricks incorporate penetrations in their plots such as Cups and Balls, Chop Cup and Misers Dream.
Destruction and Restoration This is a great category full of wonderful effects. These include the classic Torn and Restored Newspaper, Gypsy Thread, Hindu Turban, Killer Cut, Cut and Restored Rope, and the Torn and Restored Cigarette Paper. All of these effects are great for adding time to your show and allowing you to chat with the audience while you are going through the destruction process.
Levitations/Telekinesis/Animations Making something float is one of the top five things people say when asked what a magician does. Things like the Floating Table, Zombie Ball, Floating Rose, The Thing, and Dancing Cane. Just watch Losander to see the affect these type of tricks have on the audience. They add an air of mystery to your show, but can also be employed to bring a bit of humor in depending on how you play them. These tricks lend themselves wonderfully to musical presentations and can be either funny or spooky and add some much needed visual variety to any program.
Mental Phenomena It seems that mentalism is the style du jour for many performers today. Everyone is going totally mental! It can be argued that some laymen see mentalism as being above magic in the entertainment food chain, in that people today are more likely to believe a mentalism effect as something real, rather than a magic trick that is obviously an illusion. The idea that you have some sort of other-worldly powers and can read someones mind appeals to people. Tricks like the Book Test, Design Duplication, Mental Epic, and really any “Thought of Card” effect are all examples of arcane mental dexterity. Walk with caution when mixing the mentalism, with the magic stuff. For example, don’t do a killer Confabulation effect that blows people away, and then whip out your Sponge Ding-Dong and Bra Trick. This could cause a slight drop in credibility on that prediction bit.
Display of Skill Tricks like Card Manips, Billiard Balls, Thimbles, and manipulative magic all fit this category. Also in this realm are tricks like the Bullet Catch, Fire Eating, Razorblades/Needle Swallowing and any ancillary juggling stunts you may do. These are the things that your audience intrinsically realize must have taken years of practice to pull off. They are obviously tricks you didn’t just grab off the magic shop shelf and push a button and poof it works automatically. These are things that the audience can appreciate for their difficulty even though they have no clue as to how they work. I love Lance Burton’s line for the slow spread of the cards on his arm for the Card Sword. “This isn’t the most flashy part of the trick, but it is the most difficult.” When you show a little manipulative skill, especially after doing heavy comedy, the audience will appreciate those you even more. *** The material you choose is the spine of your show. It supports the rest of the act which is basically you and your personality. The tricks are just tools, and if you fill your toolbox with the right ones you can get the job done. How’s that for a metaphor? So, now you know how to build the basic skeleton of the show. Simply pick a trick or two from each of the categories we’ve discussed, follow the suggested stand up show format and you've got a show. How much easier could it be? If you don’t have one or two of the type of tricks in your current repetoir’ then find them, and the best place to begin your search is the classics.
Start with the Classics There are some effects that are classics and should never be overlooked when putting together a show. These have stood the test of time and will continue to amaze and baffle audiences for years and years to come. What makes a classic a classic? First, classic tricks are simple and easy to follow. Secondly, the magic is just as strong if you didn’t say a word. They are in effect a blank canvas on which to paint your personality into the presentation Third, they are extremely deceptive and can be done virtually under any conditions. The top tricks that I feel fit this criteria are:
Classics Bill in Lemon Cups and Balls Misers Dream Egg Bag Linking Rings Cut and Restored Rope Just look at any great stand up performer and you will see some version of these effects in their shows. Jeff McBride, to Kozak, Johnny Thompson, to the Amazing Johnathan, Whit “Pop” Haydn, Jeff Hobson, Mac King, Paul Daniels, Johnny Tompson, Johnny Ace Palmer, Michael Ammar and the list goes on and on. All of these successful performers have incorporated the classics into their acts so why shouldn't you? Personally, I always thought the Egg Bag was a dumb trick. Who cares, an egg disappears and then reappears inside a bag!?! Why not just put the egg in your hand and make it disappear? Denny Haney convinced me to try the Egg Bag. I learned the Ken Brooke routine and went out on stage and, darn it, the audience ate it up! I then began digging up all sorts of info on the egg bag and adding little bits here and there, finding new lines through performance and it is still in my shows today and my act is the better for it. Don’t dismiss the classics by being a magic snob. We as magicians say to ourselves, “oh, its just the Rings or just the Egg Bag.” But there are millions and millions of people in the world who have never seen these things we take as merely commonplace, so why deprive them of the experience of seeing a real classic of magic? In addition, these routines are so solid and time tested that you can rely on the standard presentations of these effects you can learn in countless books and DVDs. Once you learn and start performing a basic routine, you can then start interjecting bits of your personality into them and really make them shine as your own. You can have confidence in knowing that as long as you practice them, they are bulletproof in terms of deception. If you use good technique and dedicate yourself to practicing them you can work them under any conditions. All of these classic effects have the benefit of being able to be done completely surrounded. This is a major plus for working one nighters where you may be asked to do a show in the middle
of a dance floor, or perhaps in a comedy club where you are three-quarter surrounded. And all of these tricks can even be done close up. So if you are not used to doing a stand up act, add them to your close up set and gradually work them into a routine you can perform on the stage. These are great gateway tricks to get you from performing for a handful of people in a close up setting to performing on a stage in front of hundreds of people. Grow your close up act into a stand up act, and grow your income. Dust off some classics and get to work.
Look to the Old Books A good friend of mine, Puck and I have been looking to classic effects to give them a re-boot and make them play for a modern audience, as well as streamlining the methods and making them more deceptive and amazing. We have been mining the old books looking for effects that have gone by the wayside today. In addition, we have begun taking tired tricks that have been overdone and giving them a new presentation or presentational twist. Our Needles is a streamlined and safe presentation of the classic Needle Swallowing Routine, Hanky Panky is a new approach to the classic 20th Century Silks. We have brought it into the 21st century and have given it a really killer ending. We took the method and made it practical. Then, there is our Shoe Business routine where we took the done-to-death Vanishing Bandanna trick and gave it a new premise with a modern twist. You too can do this. Just pick up any volume of Tarbell. There are thousands of tricks in there just waiting for someone to come along, snatch off the page and put it on the stage. Fielding West once said that 90% of the stand up magic in Lance Burton’s show at the Monte Carlo was right out of Tarbell! There is great stuff in old books. Here is a list of the books that should be on every magician’s shelf in my opinion. If you get these, and you should, make sure to actually read them and you will find so many hidden gems. This list is my secret weapon I reference first, when trying to come up with a new presentation or effect. The journey starts here.
Recommended Magic Working Library:
My Cruise Ship Stand Up Act
-The Tarbell Course of Magic Volumes 1-8 -Our Magic - David Devant -Neo-Magic - Sam Sharpe or Neo Magic Artistry - Miracle Factory -Rice’s Encyclopedia of Silk Magic Volumes 1-4 -Abbotts Encyclopedia of Rope Tricks for Magicians - Stuart James -Classic Secrets of Magic - Bruce Elliott -Professional Presentations - Al Koran -Device and Illusion - Jim Steinmeyer -The Magic of Alan Wakening - Jim Steinmeyer -The Trick Brain/Showmanship for Magicians/Magic and Misdirection Dariel Fitzkee -Magic and Showmanship - Henning Nelms -Routined Manipulation1/2 and Finale - Lewis Ganson With these books in your arsenal, you will have a broad scope of many different styles and types of magic, even including some work on large scale illusions. This will give you a well rounded foundation in the art of magic that can only help to further propel you on your journey to having the perfect show.
Packing Flat / Playing Big When I started performing on cruise ships and in colleges, I was doing three illusions in my show. When doing illusions there is always shipping and loading in involved. Although you can get more money performing illusions, you will most likely get more work with a stand up show right off the bat. As I gained more experience in these markets, I began peeling away the big props AND asking for small increases in pay. Any entertainment buyer is 22
more willing to fly a good, solid act with a suitcase, rather than you and your 2000 pounds of freight! Over the last 10 years, I am now making what some illusion acts are making but doing it out of a briefcase, and not having to shlep a bunch of props, load in, set up, and do the myriad of other chores associated with an illusion show. Not to mention paying an assistant or two. If doing illusions is what you love, then by all means do them. If not, then maybe the “work less, make more” format will work for you like it did for me. I still do illusions, but only for the “big bucks.” A pack flat and play big show is in high demand at the moment with many markets. If you can get your show into your checked bag and simply fly with it to the gig, this is a bonus for entertainment buyers because they do not have to pay any excess baggage charges. You do, of course have to make sure that your show packs flat and really plays big. It can certainly pack flat but if it plays flat too, you won’t be getting repeat bookings. Let’s break down what I travel with in my case: -Vanishing and Apperaring Cane Bit! ! ! -Candle to Flower/Silk! ! ! ! ! ! -Hanky Panky! ! ! ! ! ! ! -Egg Bag/Shot Glass! ! ! ! ! ! -Invisible Deck! ! ! ! ! ! ! -Ring Flight/Ring in Envelope! ! ! ! -Cards Across! ! ! ! ! ! ! -Razorblades! ! ! ! ! ! ! -Nielsen Deck/Card Manip! ! ! ! ! -Chop Cup!! ! ! ! ! ! ! -Axtell Drawing Board! ! ! ! ! ! -Hypno Wheel/screwdriver! ! ! ! ! -Deck of Cards - Card in Mouth/Multiple Selection/ Cards to Pocket/Six Card Repeat! ! ! ! -Slashed! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! -Himber Ring! ! ! ! ! ! ! -Bill in Lemon - Knife,Crown Bag/Thumb Tip! !
! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! !
! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! !
3 mins 4 mins 6 mins 8 mins 4 mins 7 mins 12 mins 5 mins 5 mins 5 mins 3 mins 2 mins
! ! ! !
! ! ! !
30 mins 6 mins 8 mins 20 mins
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Total! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! 128 mins
Here is a possible series of sets broken down in terms needed set length: 30 Minute Set Canes Egg Bag Invisible Deck Ring Flight/Envelope Bill in Lemon Razorblades
10 Minute Set Candle to Flower Hanky Panky OR Cane Bit Ring Flight
Current Cruise Ship 45 Minute Set Canes Slashed Invisible Deck Ring Flight Card Manipulation Cards Across Himber Rings Razorblades Drawing Board
15 Minute Set Chop Cup Invisible Deck Ring Flight 20 Minute Set Cards Across Bill in Lemon
As you can see, this is more material than needed for most contracts. I can pull material to fit the crowd, the venue and the circumstances without ever having to repack my case. Each of these items can be segmented into 10 minute sets, 20 minute sets, and up to an hour long set by putting together chunks that include a good opener and closer and some strong magic in the middle. Try and have multiple openers and multiple closers. This way you have a strong beginning and ending for all your varying length shows. By doing this, I’m not locked into any one set list for every show. It allows me a bit of freedom to play. By having multiple openers like the Canes, Hanky Panky and The Candle to Flower, as well as multiple closers like the Razorblades, Drawing Board, and Bill in Lemon, I can push around the material in the middle by picking and choosing appropriate routines based on the audience and venue.
Now, Where to I Perform? So... what good is a fantastic stand up act, if there is no where to perform it. Nowadays, because of television, a magician is imagined being dressed in torn jeans walking around the streets annoying people with card tricks. This is just the trend that is in fashion at the moment because society mirrors what we see in the media. This type of stuff wont work on a stage and is not generally funny or entertaining to watch. However, I think that not to far in the distant future, there is going to be a blowback. People will want to laugh and be entertained on television like in the days of the old Ed Sullivan show. America’s Got Talent is starting to break ground in this area. We just have to wait for the TV execs to cycle back around to this way of thinking. And the funny thing is that a lot of magicians complain that there is no where to do stand up magic. But the truth is that there are still civic organizations, meetings, parties and all kinds of venues that need some kind of entertainment. People can only sit in their homes and watch TV and surf the internet for so long. People will begin to crave live theater because they will be bored with TV and the Internet and being cooped up in their houses. Human beings need personal connections with other human beings...it’s hardwired in our DNA. Eventually couch potatoes are going to need to go out and see something live and have this personal interaction. We may even see a resurgence of some new hybrid of the old nightclubs. Instead of just dancing in clubs like we have now, some may think its a great new idea to have LIVE entertainment other than a band. What a concept! But the gigs are not just going to fall in your lap, and NBC isn’t going to call and offer you your weekly variety magic show, so you do have to go out and find the gigs. They are all hiding there for the taking, if you just put in a little hustle on the internet and cold calling on the phone time to market yourself. That, however, is a whole other ball of wax. Let’s just get a good solid show together and you can worry about selling it later. Even though people don’t see much stand up magic on TV, like we used to, there is still a market for it. Everything in entertainment moves in cycles. I remember marketing by direct mail 20 years ago. Then with the advent of 25
emails, that snail mail approach fell out of fashion. I think that direct mail now would be a wonderful marketing approach again. Can you imagine how many emails and electronic press kits agents are getting every day? Imagine what would happen if now, instead of getting an email pitch, they actually got something tangible arriving on their desk. It would be novel again, and would garner more attention than an email that is deleted by a single keystroke. At least with a press kit coming in the mail, they would have to make and effort to walk over to the trash can to get rid of it.
Afterthoughts I hope this gives you some insight in to what has helped me to get closer to a great stand up act. The point is, that you never get a perfect act. There is always something you can tweak or improve. If you work really hard and get all your ducks in a row and then say, “Wow, I now have a perfect act” you’re dead in the water. If you stop coming up with new things to make your act better, you will stagnate. The real pros are always looking for a new line, a new bit, or a new subtle way to make their act just a little better. Guys like Mike Finney, Mark Kornhouser, Johnny Thompson, Mike Caveny, Denny Haney, Hobson, Amazing Jonathan, Kozak, Steve Spill, Mac King, Farrell Dillon Paul Daniels, and so on are always finding something new to put in. It may be just a look, or a slight twist of a phrase, but they are always... always trying to improve. They use the same script and structure they have laid out over the years, but because they have the confidence in the material, and have rehearsed it exhaustively, and have suited the pieces of the show to their character, all this groundwork allows them the freedom to throw in new bits and not have the show suffer for it. If a bit tanks, they have more good stuff coming along to pull them out of a possible comedy hole. This confidence comes years before success. It comes from the down and dirty hard work the audience doesn’t see. It comes from thinking really hard about what you do and why you are doing it. This is how you build a stand up act. Hopefully by following the formula outlined in these pages, you are helped on your journey, a journey I myself am still on. It is a long road that should really never end, Hopefully these thoughts will help to guide you a little further down that path to being a great stand up guy with a great stand up act. 26