Backstage with the Legends of Comedy Magic.


                                                                           Photo by Michael Messing

I was very excited when Michael Finney told me that he was going to serve as President of the International Brotherhood of Magicians. I have enormous respect for Michael and a friendship that dates back decades. Very few magicians are more no-nonsense, dedicated professionals than Finney and I was immediately excited, not just for Michael but for the breath of fresh air he would deliver to this venerable organization. Sometimes long-established groups need to get a bit of a shakeup to get them back on contemporary paths. With a love of magic, backed up with a heart the size of a mountain, I have no doubts that Finney is the right man to achieve great things in his year as President.

It was with pleasure that several months later I received a late night call from Finney asking me if I would participate in his July 2018 inaugural convention in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Michael wanted to feature an opening night gala called “The Legends of Comedy Magic,” and the proposed cast was Finney, Pop Haydn, Larry Wilson, Jeff Hobson and myself. Would I participate in this bill? You bet! Not only were these four performers people I deeply respected, they also happened to be good friends. One of the sad truths about being a comedy magician is how seldom you get to perform with your direct contemporaries.

Generally speaking in a magic or variety show the logical decision has been to emphasize the variety of the acts being presented. A typical magic gala features a smorgasbord of magic acts with the guy who has the biggest props closing the bill. There is generally one comedic magician and he gets to slice up his show into MC sized segments. This format works fairly well but seldom allows the comedy magician the chance to showcase his talent to maximum effect. I have fulfilled this function in magic shows ranging from “It’s Magic” to local conventions and know pretty much the way it goes. On hearing Michael’s plan I was immediately intrigued to see how an all-comedy gala show would work out. I really couldn’t have anticipated what a smooth and successful experience it would prove to b

The bare bones and details of our show were resolved within a couple of emails and a minimum of fuss. Michael was to host the show and chose to highlight his formidable stand up skills in this role and leave the magical spotlight on his guests. The rest of us “Legends” were each going to perform a 20-minute set. Everyone quickly and cheerfully chose material that did not duplicate or even overlap with anyone else’s choices. The lack of ego and matter of fact professionalism with which this was accomplished boded well for the upcoming show.  In fact, it proved to be the keynote of the entire event.

Now let’s flash forward to July 5th, the day of the show. The five of us performers gathered outside the Amway Grand Plaza to take a shuttle to the Grand Rapids Civic Theater for our rehearsal. It was fun to observe the minimal amount of props that were being transported to the 750-seat theater for our evening’s performance. A briefcase, a couple of paper sacks, and a few hanging clothes were about the sum total of our accumulated props. I have often stated if only to irritate my illusionist friends, that in magic you either have props or talent. Looking around at the meager items that comprised our collective props I had to grin. I have seen many a 12-minute manipulative act travel with four times this amount of props to entertain their audiences. I have always been a proud proponent of the “less is more” school of magic. Of course, you don’t carry personality in prop bags and I was fully aware of where the strengths of our specific cast lay.

The rehearsal was an object lesson in knowing what you needed and being prepared in advance so you could quickly and easily achieve it. The sound check and lighting the show was fast easy and painless: the IBM/theatre team was efficient and for a magic convention very organized. In about a third of the allotted time, we were all on a shuttle back to the hotel for a short pre-show rest. The nice part of working with such pros was that nobody was at that rehearsal to rehearse their actual performance; everyone understood that it was all about making sure everyone involved was on the same page. The very best rehearsals have no surprises and no drama. I have never subscribed to the “good rehearsal—bad show/bad rehearsal —good show” cliché.

I hope I don’t need to issue a spoiler alert before progressing with this story if I tell you that the show was a smash hit. Instead, I think it might be more useful to try and tell you why things went so smoothly and achieved such a strong reaction from the capacity audience. The show featured a strong team spirit coupled with an easy-going professionalism that turned getting things right into fun. One of the biggest problems facing a professional performer is acquiring the experience that is needed to make things run smoothly without losing that “fun” element. That night the atmosphere backstage was as friendly and relaxed as you could ever hope to find and all thoughts were about the overall show and not the individual performers. In the green room, everyone enjoyed discussing and sharing stories about various other comedy magicians and friends we all knew could just as well have been classified as “Legends.”

Michael had assembled a cast that was composed of very different individual personas onstage. Not only was there no duplication of magical effects onstage, but there were five performers who each had such a clear-cut personality that their contribution was strictly unique. Everyone there was comfortable in his own skin both on and offstage. It was interesting to observe that as everyone donned their rather distinctive stage costume they didn’t seem to change into “someone else” for the show but rather to become a more fully realized version of their own offstage personalities.

Finney very wisely limited his participation during the show to be the perfect host. Michael kept the show moving at a brisk pace with comedy material that got big laughs and went right on getting them as the evening progressed. His introductions of the performers were a perfect mix of the personal and professional: never a word too many or a moment too long. Finney was the glue that made the show so outstanding. In a show where each of the participants could have delivered a one-hour-plus of headliner material, everybody involved stuck to their time like clockwork. The mark of true professionals is their ability to keep to their time in a show like this. Five extra minutes of self-indulgence can throw off the careful mechanism that turns a good show into a great one. Michael sat in the wings throughout the show with his cell phone set to timer mode ready to adjust his contribution as needed.

I kicked off the show with twenty solid minutes of stand-up material that managed to incorporate the Spot Card, Burnt and Restored Bill and Slow Motion Newspaper routines without ever slowing down the laugh per minute ratio. The evening was to feature many more classic magical effects and it showed that in the right hands there is a good reason for these effects longevity. I was delighted with the reaction I received and it got the show off to a great start. After fifty years of performing, I am now managing to achieve my long-term goal of letting everything happen with no apparent effort on my part.

Larry Wilson, wearing his trademark white tail suit followed with a set that was as polished as it was effective. He performed a Vanish Glass, Tossed Deck and “Famous Magician’s School” mindreading effect and received a big ovation for his outstanding combination of strong magic and visual comedy. Larry has a lively intelligence that shines through during his show and the twinkle in his eyes and his wordsmith use of dialogue make him an outstanding performer. Since I arrived in America in 1974 I never remember a time when Larry wasn’t working a great gig somewhere. When you watch Larry work you understand why.

Pop Haydn followed Larry with a really strong four trick set that put on display his outstanding skills as a magician. With Pop, it was the situational comedy and careful wordplay that added big laughs to his classic quartet of 6 Card Repeat, Color Changing Scarf, Mongolian Knot and Linking Ring Routine. Watching Pop onstage with a youthful volunteer as they combine forces on Pop’s masterful Ring routine should convince any skeptical magician that this particular classic has plenty of prime performing years still ahead of it. Pop’s attention to magical detail makes him a distinctive and popular addition to any magical event, he has thought out every detail and it shows.

Bringing the show to its close was the hilarious antics of Jeff Hobson. Hobson has created one of the most inspired onstage personas in the magic world. With just a raised eyebrow or by pursing his lips, Jeff can deliver big laughs. Hobson has the audience nestled in the palm of his hand before he has completed his opening words. Never to be underestimated is the strength of magic that Jeff brings to the table in his shows. On this occasion, Hobson performed his unique and hilarious egg bag routine, a thumb tie routine and a very distinctive Gypsy Thread accompanied by an extremely clever storyline. Jeff was the perfect conclusion to a beautifully balanced and calibrated evening of comedy magic and he had the audience in stitches for his entire set.

I look back on this show with a great deal of satisfaction. I often get the feeling that comedy magic is somewhat misunderstood and underrated in the magic community. To be a commercially successful comedy magician takes a great deal of skill and a level of performing awareness that equals any branch of magic. There was a great deal of technical skill on display throughout the show presented that evening, but it was usually layered under the filter of a contemporary comedic performance. Not one move or word during the evening just “happened” it was as meticulously planned as an award-winning manipulative performance. The topical and “convention” jokes were as carefully written, rehearsed and executed as any piece of “finger flinging” by a FISM winner, they were merely designed to look casual.

To keep a theatre full of people laughing uproariously for 100 minutes is quite an achievement and between us, we demonstrated that when strong magic and strong comedy go hand in hand it is the audience that is the winner. I could not have been more proud to be working with this bunch of world-class performers.  The show went like clockwork and throughout all the laughter that was created during the show, there were NO political references, NO off-color humor, and nothing racist or sexist present in the dialogue or actions. It was nice to be part of a team that worked exclusively to be inclusive of the audience rather than allows divisive elements to undermine or define the laughter that was created.

Thank you, Mr. Finney, for creating this quietly unique opportunity to so effectively showcase our particular genre of magic. I had never considered myself a “Legend of Comedy Magic” —heck it makes me feel kinda’ old even thinking about it! However if this is what it feels like, then count me in anytime.


 

 

~ by Nick Lewin on August 7, 2018.

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