Billy McComb: Thanks to the Godfather of Comedy Magic

I ultimately planned on becoming a comedy magician just after I decided not to follow in my father’s footsteps as a chartered accountant. It really wasn’t too tough a decision. I loved magic, and when it came to numbers I could make one and one add up to three quicker than a quantum physicist.

Growing up in post war England made being a comedy magician seem like a logical choice. With logic like that maybe I should have been a quantum physicist! Now, being an entertainer is my life but I have no real way of proving it.

One of the best parts about being a young magical devotee in London were all the great comedy magicians you could watch, absorb and learn from. As you are probably beginning to realize nearly everything I learned about comedy magic came from two people: Ken Brooke and Billy McComb. I don’t think you could find two better or more different teachers.

I want to take this opportunity to share some of the insights I learned from Billy McComb. They have shaped me into the performer that I finally became, after I realized I could never become Billy.

You have never seen a comedy magician take his comedy as seriously as Billy did, he gave the comedy in his act the same meticulous attention he gave his magic. Billy’s timing and delivery of a comedy monologue was that of a comedian, not just a magician with time to kill. His casual asides and offhand delivery were as precise as a Johnny Thompson dove steal.

There is no question in my mind that, but for his love of magic, Billy could have been one of England’s top comedians.  Billy has noted Jay Marshall as one of his inspirational mentor so maybe it‘s no coincidence that this same statement applies to Jay in the United States.

Before we talk about the McCombical approach to comedy, let me give you some of my ideas on comedy as it applies to magic. Having made a comfortable living for over thirty-five years performing comedy magic I’ll state one thing upfront: the comedy is tougher than the magic. It can take years to perfect a trick, but you might never learn to be funny.

There are no books that teach you the ABCs of being funny and it makes no difference how long you practice in front of a mirror. Only by performing to a live audience can you improve your laugh ratio and even with copious experience this doesn’t happen automatically. Along the way you need to take a lot of notes and then you have to put the notes into application.

If you want to save time and effort and be funny, it is much easier to be a humorous magician than to perform stand-up comedy. A humorous magician is someone who lets the situation create the comedy and then comments upon what happens.

Monologue comedy is a much more exacting mistress. A stand-up comedian chooses and uses his words with the same care a surgeon utilizes in choosing where and what he cuts.  Cut being the operative word. After fifteen years headlining in comedy clubs I can assure you the way comedian’s improve their acts is by cutting out unnecessary words.

The great Henny Youngman demonstrated this to perfection when he said: “Take my wife, please.”  He packaged a set up and punch line into just four words and ended up with a trademark joke that will live forever. Brevity is truly the source of all humor.

One thing I learned very quickly in the comedy circuit is how little respect the average magician and juggler receive from comedians. By the time I had started to learn the ropes I had begun to understand why this was the case.

Comics, generally speaking, think that magicians utilize stock lines and get away with stale material only because they have the magic to save their rear ends. It is certainly true that people tend to laugh during a magic show simply because they realize they are supposed too.I call this the “Patter Syndrome.”  Just what the heck is this thing called patter that pops up so often in magic literature? The dictionary defines it as: ‘Meaningless empty chatter: to speak rapidly and glibly or to repeat something quickly in a mechanical way. When a comedy magician wants to give a stand-up comedian a run for his money, he must throw away his ‘patter’ and in its place use words that are well chosen and conscious, and don’t even get me started on heckler stoppers!

Comedians spend a lot of time working on their character, which (believe me!) has nothing to do with improving any ungentlemanly or lady like traits. What they are doing is making sure they don’t sacrifice their performing persona just for a fast laugh. Comedy is only real, then, when you are.  Once the audience thinks that they know where you are coming from and who you are, then the comedy takes on an extra dimension.

I could go on telling you my thoughts on comedy, but I have a better idea. I want to continue by sharing some tips Billy McComb taught me over the years about performing comedy magic.  Billy had a secret prop and it is one you can’t buy in a limited edition, sterling silver version from the Joe’s Porper or Stevens.

McComb used a small digital tape recorder that fitted into his top pocket and he audiotaped almost every one of his performances. After each show he would listen carefully to the recording and make note of what worked and also how to make it work even better.

While listening to the recording Billy applied the Bob Hope rule. If there isn’t a laugh every thirty seconds then there should be.  This is one of the reasons that Billy worked well into his eighth decade and was able to open shows for Amazing Jonathan in Las Vegas into his eighties winning an audiences of crazed A.J. fanatics.  These were the kind of audiences were would give short shrift to most contemporary performers, let alone someone who looks like their grandfather.

In the age of videotape it is easy to forget how effective it is to concentrate just on your words and the audience reaction to those words.  In McComb’s case it was astounding how little you really needed the visuals while listening to his show. Billy had a simple rule, he told the audience what he was going to do, he described it as he did it and then he told them what he had done after he had done it.

Sometimes when people are laughing they don’t pay as much attention to the tricks as they might desire. This is such a simple technique that it’s almost impossible to grasp how effective it is until you try it for yourself.

One other practice that I’ve learned from Billy is keeping your jokes in a particular sequence and attaching them to specific tricks. This is a great way to keep your comedy fluent and yet consistent. It is tempting to think you can shift hunks of comedy around in your act, moving them from trick to trick. However it isn’t nearly as easy as it seems. It is much more effective to keep those comedy building blocks separate and solid.

When you get a sequence right, keep it that way. Many of Billy’s props had a list of punch lines written on them. Just knowing the list is there allowed him to relax and concentrate on his real job, which was telling jokes.  It enables you to relax and make things look effortless.

A reporter once asked movie star Gary Cooper about his technique as an actor. Cooper replied: “ Acting is great, just never get caught doing it.” It’s the same with comedy, make ‘em laugh but just don’t get caught doing it. The funniest jokes are the ones that seem to happen on their own. This is comedy 101.

Thank you, Billy. You were the Godfather of Comedy Magic. Without you I wouldn’t be the comedy magician I am today: in fact I might even have ended up as a chartered accountant, and that would have been no joke.

~ by Nick Lewin on March 16, 2010.

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