Some reflections back on the David Blaine phenomena.

•May 20, 2017 • 1 Comment

Here are a few thoughts on David Blaine on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of his initial television special. This summer I am looking forward to catching David live at the Moody Theater here in Austin.

I was very skeptical about the potential merits of David Blaine when his first television special was being promoted. The fact that Spike Lee was being brought in to edit the promo did nothing to impress me. I did video tape the special though.In point of fact there wasn’t too much in his special that did impress me. However, after a few moments though I arrived at the conclusion that I wasn’t the intended demographic for the show. Not only was I the wrong age but even worse than that I was a magician. Ah, there is the rub. One thing I did realize instantly was that the special was a very cool concept and a definite breakthrough in television magic. It was a hip extension of what was then a relatively new concept ‘reality programming.’ A form of television I have resolutely hated since it appeared on the scene.

The lack of excitement I felt about the magic Blaine performed didn’t stop me from being highly intrigued by his persona and curiously low key approach to doing sensational things. It was like a correction in the market. I felt instinctively (and still do) that he had come up with something innovative and fresh that would do nothing but good for the image of magic. The impact that Blaine’s special had on his actual intended demographic audience was astounding though. It was what every non-magician wanted to talk about. He instantly became a topic of conversation across the country. While this didn’t totally surprise me I was amazed at how quickly he made his mark.

What did surprise me, however, was the way that the magic world not only failed to embrace him but moved in such a unified manner to denounce and express their disapproval of him. Maybe they just didn’t get the fact that his demographic didn’t include them. Maybe it was because he made many magicians, even some very prominent ones, look old fashioned and irrelevant. Even Billy McComb who seldom had an unkind word to say about anyone who performed magic used to describe Blaine as some sort of stunt man who had bought a copy of ‘The Royal Road To Card Magic.’

Possibly the major factor in the division between the magic world and Blaine’s true demographic was the fact that he dared to hint at something truly mysterious and possibly unexplainable in his feats and stunts. For a community that still finds it acceptable to use a magic wand when they need to conceal items during the ‘Cups and Balls’ I find this rather strange. What is our goal as magicians? It isn’t just to fool but to supply a sense of mystery. I know the standard enlightened response is to say; “We are supposed to entertain.” However there is a heck of a lot of magic being performed that not only doesn’t entertain but which only just manages to fool. No, I think there is truly a need to allow a little mystery into our art and we can’t leave it all to Jeff and Eugene.

If you don’t want to do it yourself then step aside and watch as someone else does. What we shouldn’t do is stand on the sidelines with a knowing smirk and say; “Of course, he’s a fake.” We are ALL fakes: that is the nature of what we do. Worst of all let’s not descend to dismissing something new because it excites the imagination of the non-magicianMagic can’t move forward by standing still. Let’s be happy when someone finds a way to create something new under the magical sun. All of the close up performers who now feature ‘Street Magic’ are moving into new territory due to David Blaine. Rather than look for negatives we should be trying to analyze the things he did that were right.

Five MORE Things That Will Improve Your Show….

•May 1, 2017 • Leave a Comment

This is the seventh and final part of this particular series of posts.

1       Always remember the magic mantra “If they can’t see it or hear it they won’t enjoy it.” Your first duty as a performer is to be seen and heard. Billy McComb had a wonderful philosophy in this regard, “Tell them what you are going to do, tell them what is happening as you do it, and then tell them exactly what happened after you have done it.” There is a wealth of real world wisdom in Billy’s words.

2       When you are giving an assistant instructions about what to do during a trick make sure you do so in a very clear and concise manner. Let him know exactly what to do and how to do it. This shows respect for them and also makes it much more likely that things will go smoothly in the effect. Many onstage assistants are a little surprised or dazed when they find they are under the spotlight, so take the time to show them exactly what you expect them to do.

3      Always have back ups available of every prop you use onstage that may break or get lost. You should also have suitable outs available for any occasion that might need them during your show. If you are doing any kind of card trick then an Invisible Deck in a sealed envelope on your table can extract you from a great many problems. Hope for the very best but be prepared for the very worst. Have that round the neck microphone holder ready in case your headset gives up the ghost or starts to pick up the local taxi company!

4      Sorry but the Politically Correct movement does exist and is ignored at your peril. Every single comedian will tell you the same thing; we hate the PC police and political correctness is death to comedy. However, it behoves a comedy magician to be very careful about who he potentially offends when performing his show. Magic is considered a family friendly entertainment and that should include the “20 somethings” who tend to be the most sensitive to politically incorrect statements, jokes and actions.  I am not going to put up much of a defense for the PC movement—hey I’m an older, white, alpha male, and we are the biggest area of complaints! I will point out that the age range most upset by politically incorrect actions are the most sought after demographic in the television audience. One of the biggest problems is that if we don’t consider this matter sufficiently we run the risk of looking out of touch and irrelevant—a really bad state of affairs. If it is just a matter of a few jokes or effects that are the problem it is usually easier just to cut, change or replace them. The deathwatch beetle in this matter is if you find you are saying, “I have always said that…” Times change and with them acceptable statements, you are not making some grand statement by insisting on continuing using a line that is now considered questionable; all you are doing is creating a potential barrier with an important demographic in your audience.

5    Make every part of the routine you are performing as entertaining as possible. There are many effects that spend a great deal of time building up to a very fast finale/reveal. Keep the entertainment value going for the four minutes that it might take to build up to that 15-second finale, or your viewers might not come along for the journey with you. Add booster laughs and effects scattered throughout the trip. The average attention span of an audience is a lot shorter today than it was a decade ago so it pays to be careful in avoiding dead time.

If you have stuck with me for the last seven blog posts in this series, THANK YOU! Here is a little Easter Egg for you. It is the Pre-show video that I put together for my one-man show Comedy Maxim at the Maxim Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. There are clips and photos from my very earliest years plus tips of the hats to my mentors and heroes.

Five Things That Will Improve Your Show….

•April 25, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Nick

1       Do your time. To be a good and commercial act you need to know how long your performance is scheduled for and stick to the time. No saying; “The show is killing, I will just keep going,” or “This crowd sucks, I’m outa’ here!” Be a professional and do your agreed upon performance time. The average performer has no idea what other factors may be affected if he is cavalier in his timing. I know of quite a few bookers who are hesitant about hiring magicians because they are erratic in their timing. Keep an extra trick in reserve in case the show is running short and also have a trick towards the end of your act that can be jettisoned if you are running overtime.

2       Don’t take material from another performer’s act. Ever. If someone is doing something in his or her shows exactly as performed on a tutorial DVD and you have bought that video (or product) then you may perform the marketed version as supplied with the purchase. What you may not do is take the extra jokes, bits and timing that any other performer has added. This rule includes anything you see on YouTube— because it has been posted on social media does not mean it is fair game to steal.

3       Avoid the trap of seeing “how much time you can get out of a trick.” A better policy is to see how little time it takes you to get the maximum impact out of a routine. There are plenty of tricks in magic; don’t be afraid of tightening everything up and adding an extra effect in the space you have created. Always be on the lookout for a way to add an extra double punch ending to any trick, assuming it strengthens the effect and doesn’t weaken what came before. Comedians use a term “going beyond the punch line” for moments when you should have stopped a joke but buried the laugh by saying something extra that wasn’t needed.

4       Do not equate how much money you spent on a trick with how long it should play in your act. The same approach also applies to how much time you spent when perfecting a trick. Keep it lean and mean and cut out all the fat. It doesn’t follow that a thousand dollar chair suspension in your kids’ show will get any more reaction than a couple of balloons or a breakaway wand. Adjust the degree you focus on a prop with the interest and energy it creates rather than the impact it had on your wallet.

 5       Make sure the audience realize that you are having fun performing your act. Even if you are bored to tears–don’t let it show. Enjoy yourself and let it show. This is the status quo your audiences want to believe in, so keep the illusion going, even if you are exhausted or have a 102-degree fever. Nothing is more contagious than a big smile and looking like you are having fun.

Crafting Comedy That Packs A Punch…

•April 21, 2017 • Leave a Comment

This is great old clip of Patton Oswalt discussing a magic act he worked with having a road melt down! Patton is such a fine example of a wordsmith comedian!

In the spirit of this blog’s message, I will make this brief!

Eliminate any extra words in your dialogue. Know what you are going to say and then write it down in the form of a script. Next go through that script and then carefully discard all unnecessary words. See how many words can be edited out of your jokes without it affecting the laugh and then ruthlessly cut them out. It requires hard work and discipline to write a really tight joke but it pays big dividends. Be particularly careful to make sure that your joke finishes on the punch line. Burying the punch line is a cardinal sin in the comedy world; make sure you don’t reduce your laughs by running on to long and cannibalizing your own material. Less words almost always results in more laughs.

Professional comedians spend endless hours refining what they say and how they say it to get the biggest response. It isn’t uncommon to see a magician who has spent endless hours perfecting their magic be sloppy or overindulgent in their dialogue. Know what to say and the most effective way to say it. To this end it is very useful to tape record your act and then edit, edit, edit. While videotaping a magic show gives you an excellent handle on the visual aspect of your show, the use of a tape recorder can be a much more useful tool in discovering where your patter needs to be pruned. Be precise.

A great run down on how to book your act into a comedy room.

•April 19, 2017 • 2 Comments

The following is an open letter on Facebook written by my friend Don Barnhart. I thought it really contained some dynamite advice and with Don’s permission I am sharing it here. It is a lengthy read but VERY well worth reading. Don is a successful comedian, hypnotist and booker—-he knows what he is talking about!
Open letter to the comedy community on bookings, paid work and more… (please feel free to share)
I would like to share my opinion on how professional comedians go about getting work as so many of the newer comics don’t seem to understand the right way to go about it.
It’s so basic and simple that it might confuse you. You have to ask for work! That’s it. Nobody is going door-to-door looking for the next great comic so that’s why you need a website, current video and an updated bio/resume with a valid email address with contact info. You also need to promote yourself and send your information out to the bookers, agents, clubs and managers.
About every 4 – 6 weeks, you need to send out this info with your current list of avails to the places you are seeking to get work from. Almost every working comic out there does this and the big name acts and celebrities usually have an agent or manager to do that for them but it still gets done. On the average, I get about 10 emails a week from the major agencies and about 300-500 a week from regular working class comics and I only book one club and a handful of military and corporate shows so you can imagine how many emails and phone calls a franchise club like the Improv gets on a daily basis.
It’s out of sight and out of mind so you need to be persistent without being a pest. Most clubs have a small window when they do book and they might book out the whole year in one sitting. If you’re not on their mind at the time, they can fill the entire calendar within a couple hours and you missed out. Keep in mind, the bookers and clubs have their favorites of tried and true acts so even if you did get on the roster it doesn’t mean you’ll be first pick for dates so you have to be patient…really patient. Now if you’re famous or a draw then a club or booker might seek out your talents for a special event but that’s for the performers that actually put paid butts in the seats.
A word to the wise: Bookers really do pay close attention to your social media and most like to hire acts that promote their shows, are easy to work with and don’t create drama and bad mouth other acts, clubs, bookers, club policy, etc. And they really don’t like it when you trash the acts they do book. If your opinion is so important, go open your own club and book whoever you want to but until then, don’t be an asshole. It makes you sound bitter and if you’re really that great, they would be booking you too.
I hear all the time from comics that it’s the club’s responsibility to promote and that’s true. It is. However, keep in mind if there are 10 equally funny comedians, a club will tend to pick the act that goes above and beyond to help promote and bring more people into the club. The competition is stiff out there so you really have to be honest and ask yourself what are you doing to separate yourself from the rest of the heard? Are you a utility player that’s interchangeable and just taking the work, filling the time, draining the bar, insulting the audiences and/or trying to impregnate the wait staff? Are you pleasant to be around or are you a nasty person with a bad attitude that creates a toxic environment that nobody wants to deal with?
Take a really close look at your calendar. If you don’t have the work you want, it’s time to ask yourself what can you do to get it? Are you sitting at home bitching about how funny you are and wondering why the clubs are calling you? When’s the last time you dropped into the club to say hi. Are you doing the same old material or writing coming up with fresh ideas? Is your deliver boring? Are you learning how to perform better? Are you improving in every way that you can? Are you taking acting, writing or improv classes to improve your stage presence? Are you taking a meditation or yoga class or going to a therapist to at least improve your outlook on life? Are you toxic to be around? Is it your act, your attitude or a combination of both?
I find it sadly hysterical when I hear local acts complain that they we’re not “invited” or “they’re not going to beg for work” and this is not just the Vegas scene but it’s happening in every city across the country. You actually have to go out there and ask for work and put your info out there. There are far too many talented acts with solid credits, experience and references that are emailing clubs with their avails so how in fact are you better than them? If you’re not being “asked” to perform maybe it’s time you sent the booker a new video or ask to do a live showcase and show them how much better you’ve gotten since the last time they saw you instead of sitting around complaining or bad mouthing them about not calling you and seeking out your talents. Maybe you just didn’t impress them the last time they saw you. But that’s only a temporary condition if you really are good.
Bookers love to see comedians that are constantly working on their acts and growing and know that everyone starts at the bottom. If you really are that good they’ll WANT to hire you. We all want the best show possible. Anyone telling you different or that your too good or the headliner doesn’t want to follow you is blowing smoke up your ass trying to justify why they and you aren’t getting booked. It’s just another excuse to blame everyone else but themselves. Do you have any idea how stupid it would be to say, “Oh, yeah. You’re so good we don’t want to book you. We would rather have lame acts”. This is a business so great acts keep audiences coming back. Bad acts with even worse attitudes get cut as nobody wants to work in a toxic environment. The audience is listening and so are the bookers and we can tell when an act is just walking through their material and just phoning it in.
You want work? Bug your local club and ask for guest sets so you can work out and get better until they want to hire you. Make yourself invaluable to the club until you get your shot. Offer to help seat the room, clean up after a show. Do anything you possibly can so that you’re there every night in case there’s a fall out or if someone’s running late. (That doesn’t mean go to the club, hang out and drink the green room dry) If someone doesn’t show, you might get a chance to fill in and save the day. Oh, is all of that beneath you? Then go ahead and sit at home and wait for the phone to ring.
Now, if you’re not getting the work you want it’s usually one or two things. Your act isn’t as good as you think it is or your personality and offstage behavior is not what others want to be around. In some occasions it’s a combination of the two. When you tell people how great you are or that you’re a seasoned headliner but you have no work to back it up perhaps it’s time to reevaluate your place in the comedy community and go get better, not bitter.
Most comedy clubs book 3-6 months in advance some even book out as far as a year so that way the comedians can route their travel. As for myself and most bookers out there, a reference can go a long way to get your foot in the door and your info to the top of the pile but they still want to see your resume and a link to a video so they know they’re getting a professional comedian and not an amateur, a glorified open mic-er or a guy that can get you really good weed. Asking to do a guest set or showcase at your local club is even better and most comedy clubs are open to that or run an open mic or showcase night. Vegas being the exception as most of the comedy clubs have a limited amount of time so they rarely do showcases.
This is one of the reasons I started the Monday Madness Showcase at Jokesters. It’s a chance to showcase acts that I may not be familiar with or haven’t seen for a long time. It’s a chance for them to be considered for future paid work, give them quality stage time at a professional club, to help them grow and to get a better demo so they can go out and get even more paid work from other clubs. It’s not an open mic so if you want to do a set, send me an email with your avails, any new info, where you’re working, references and link to a recent video.
Even when you email a booker your avails, they may not get back to you right away as they’re booked out and don’t have time to reply to everyone seeking work. That’s why it’s important to follow up and send your avails out every 4-8 weeks or sooner if your schedule changes. Don’t get mad and bash the club, booker or venue if they don’t get back to you right away just keep them posted on what you’re doing, where you are working or any new credits you may have. Give them a reason to want to book you. For some clubs, it may even take a few years to get you into their rotation, as there are a ton of talented and seasoned comics that kill every night so they may not be ready to take a chance on someone with less experience or a bad attitude. Can you deliver the goods each and every night in spite of the size or demographics of the audience? I’ve seen far too many acts that do 1 decent show out of a full week and then wonder or blame the club as to why they’re not getting booked back.
Bashing the talent a club does choose to book doesn’t go a long way to move you up the ladder. It just makes you look bitter. Other bookers may take notice and might not want to hire you either. If you think comics talk, bookers talk even more and want to protect themselves from hiring a potential nightmare act or someone who is going to turn on them if they don’t get what they want. You might be funny but they don’t want the headache, as there are far too many great acts that are easy to work with. Besides, if you’re opinion is so valid, go open up your own club and then you can hire whomever you want to but until then, you have to play nice.
Are you scared someone might say no and crush your dreams or overinflated sense of comedy genius? Welcome to the club. Get over it and send your info anyway. If a club doesn’t hire you, you can always ask why but you better be prepared to hear the truth. I see too many comics that don’t ask why they’re not getting book and choose to blame the club or booker and even worse I’ve seen other comics go ballistic when told the truth. Maybe you’re just not really as good as you think you are. Maybe you’re not the right fit for the club or the club was already booked up. If you don’t get booked right away, wait a bit and send in new stuff. Rinse and repeat and keep doing it again and again and again. Get better and resend your stuff. Set up another showcase. Don’t go off in a huff, get all pouty and trash the club or booker because the comedy world didn’t open up and say, “Come on in, you’re the one we’ve been waiting for.” We all have to pay our dues but if you’re doing the same act and not getting better or booked, maybe it’s time to change it up.
There is no club, booker, agent or manager in the country that wants to book a bad act and we all want the best talent we can afford. I am flooded with emails from professional comics that work 30-40 weeks a year that want to come to Vegas but I’ve only heard from a few Vegas acts actually asking for work and I read a bunch more about how they’re overlooked. Nobody goes to McDonald’s looking for a steak. You, the talent have to actually go to where you want to work and seek employment, it’s doesn’t work the other way around. A local guy I hadn’t seen in awhile recently emailed me and asked to do a set to show me what he’s doing. He came in, did great and got booked. It’s that simple and that’s how the business works. If you’re funny and not an asshole there’s a good chance you’ll get hired.
Don’t complain about the acts that are getting booked and paid. Maybe it’s time you should go out and watch them and see why they’re getting hired and you’re not. Model your behavior after successful people and ask them for help, advice or what it is that you can do to get better. Network and learn from each other.A great case in point is The Ice House. On their comedian submission page they put it bluntly. “We will only reply and contact you if we have work available for you.” That’s it. No reason just if they have work available. Took them a few years to get back to me and then they did, they finally gave me headline weeks. I didn’t trash talk and bash them in the mean time, I just got better so I was even more prepared.
Now, if you’re interested in being on our Monday Showcase, I encourage you to send me your info at bookings@donbarnhart.com
If I don’t get back to you right away, follow up in a few weeks. I wish you all success in your journey.
Don Barnhart

The Magic Secret! Adding Texture and Dynamics To Your Show.

•April 14, 2017 • Leave a Comment

One common fault when watching comedy magicians, who haven’t had a chance to perform enough to perfect their craft, is that the pacing and general tone of their act does not vary enough. It is not uncommon to see a performer find a pitch and pacing for an effect and then repeat it for every trick in their show. It is just as common to see a show where every trick runs about the same length. This kind of thing certainly achieves a kind of consistency but really can make for an uneventful show lacking in true theatrical impact. While consistency in your performing persona is a sign of assurance it is just plain boring to be repetitive in what you do with your material. I have seen performers present several routines in a row that require bringing assistants onstage–this becomes a crutch. A little re-thinking and adjusting the running order might make the show a lot more interesting and less formulaic. Maybe for one of those effects that requires bringing assistants onstage the performer could go into the audience and perform a trick front of house. Breaking the fourth wall in this manner would be a surefire way to add texture and variety to the show.

In a well-balanced show you need to add texture and dynamics to paint a truly vibrant picture. Some effects need to be longer and some shorter in order to keep the mix interesting. Not every effect can be “killer;” you need to manipulate your running order to maximize the effect of each item. In a fancy dinner they often serve a sorbet between main courses to cleanse and refresh the taste buds and you can do the same in your show. Variety is the spice of life, and this applies especially well to a variety act! Look at the tone and approach of each effect and make sure you are not falling into the trap of being repetitive in tone or content. Shaking things up visually, verbally and mentally quite simply make you a better and stronger performer. If you talk a great deal in your show it could benefit you greatly to perform an effect that is silent or backed just by music. If you perform wacky comedy then perhaps one more serious effect can create a contrast that will heighten the impact of the lighter material.

This concept of texture and dynamics is a somewhat more abstract idea than is generally discussed in articles on comedy magic, however, in my opinion it is a vital one to consider. There is a great deal of emphasis placed in magical theory on Robert-Houdin’s quote, “A magician is an actor playing the part of a magician.” While valid on a certain level I feel this statement needs very careful re-examining. I think it has lost something in the translation, and often seems to lead to an element of self-importance and preciousness entering into a performance. It is more important to be a good magician with a strong act than a half assed actor. Let’s balance Robert-Houdin’s quote with a little Shakespeare; “The play is the thing!” It is no good working at being an actor unless you have a worthwhile vehicle to act in. Focusing on texture and dynamics is a splendid way to turn an act into a genuine performance and before you know it you end up with an arc and a subtle storyline to improve your show.

 

An old video promo from the ’90s!

•April 11, 2017 • Leave a Comment

People seem to be enjoying some of my old videos on the blog — so here is an old video teaser from the ’90s. Don’t expect to see me doing any of these illusions nowadays! Oh, and the residuals from the TV shows are down to about 16 cents a piece, they were great income for a a long time though….

 
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