The Politics of Patter.

Patter is an integral word in the magician’s lexicon. Generally speaking, it is considered rather inconsequential

 compared with the visuals that are taking place. The very word itself tends to suggest something rather trivial. If you substitute a word like dialogue, the dictionary gives you something with a little more gravitas. 

 1: A discussion between two or more people or groups, especially one directed toward exploration of a particular subject.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary has this to say on the word patter when used as a noun.

1: a specialized lingo

, especially: the jargon of criminals (such as thieves.)

2: the spiel of a street hawker or a circus barker.

3: empty chattering talk.

Used as a verb, my MacBook tells me that to patter is to talk at length without saying anything significant: she pattered on incessantly. None of this sounds too good.

It would be my observation that the difference between pattering to your audience and having a dialogue with them is often the difference in talking at an audience and talking with them. In the magic world, often we are presented with patter that is written and delivered to us in pre-planned ready to go scripts or books. Because magicians are lucky enough to have an almost unlimited repertoire of routines available for our performance, we get somewhat spoiled. When I release an effect to the magic community, I often get negative comments if an entire performance script does not accompany that routine. I usually do supply that script, but not to save the purchaser the job of writing original dialogue. There is another quite substantial reason for my doing so.

A comedy magician or mentalist who creates a commercial and powerful routine has usually thought very carefully about what he will say during its performance. The juxtaposition of words to actions may be an integral part of the inherent misdirection necessary for success. I always recommend when someone is trying to learn one of my routines, that they initially memorize the script I supply. Once you have studied the dialogue for a while, and then they can start to discern precisely why I say certain things at specific times. Once someone grasps the creative structure, then they can begin to change those words and make the routine their own, without losing the rhythms that made it work in the first place.

If you are a comedy magician, it sometimes seems like a good idea “cherry-pick” jokes from a variety of other magicians to improve your show. This performance crutch is understandable when you are starting as an act. However, it is something that will eventually handicap a performer a great deal more than he realizes. Stealing someone else joke is a very different proposition to creating a line that adds to your performing persona, and produces an original laugh. If one continues on the borrowed “cut and paste” comedy path, you begin to lose the mental ability to create fresh and relevant material. You begin to sell yourself short, and that is a shame. You owe it to yourself to be yourself.

If you want to say something funny, or say something worth hearing, during your show; a performer must fully grasp the simultaneously important of what he is doing and saying. They are the dual sides of the same coin, and need to be synergistically harnessed to achieve maximum success. I have seen exceptional magicians whose actions display endless hours of rehearsal, only to be sabotaged by what they say. Although we all speak throughout the day, this in no way prepares us for scripting/presenting our show spontaneously. NO, you can’t “umm” or “errr,” you mustn’t make your dialogue a recitation of the actions that your audience can observe you doing. A statement like “I am going to take this regular deck of cards and place it on the table,” has two inherent flaws in it. 

If a magician wants to add comedy to his show, he must resist the temptation to reach for a book of jokes or comedy lines. He/she needs to analyze what is taking place, and what is in his audience’s mind as it happens. He/she must consider the props that are utilized and especially what makes that moment unique. If the performer can come up with a statement that covers the moment, or better still spots an incongruency within it, then he has the opportunity to polish the moment into something unique and personalized. Often the exact right line comes out spontaneously during a performance. When this happens all the performer has to do is remember to write it down to work on later.

When I talk about “working on” or “refining” a line, let me make an informed analysis on what fundamentally needs to be done to achieve a professional polish. If you write a joke for your show, you should immediately run it through a two-part testing program. Job number one is to make sure the words convey your exact meaning and are that they are words your audience will understand. The next step is to eliminate every single word that is not needed to make your meaning clear. You are going to have to put your potential line into written form to do either of these procedures properly. It is much easier to edit the written word than loose words echoing in your mind.

Having spent eleven years headlining in the comedy club market, I have worked with both good and bad stand up comedians. Let me make it clear—the good ones are those who know how to edit. Comics would sit backstage for endless hours editing their monologues down to a minimum. After honing a “hunk” to the bare bones, it is then possible to make sure that any additional words/ideas are adding something tangible and meaningful. A tiny percentage of gifted comedians can do this in their minds; the vast majority do it in written form. The written joke is the building block of a comedian’s work in much the same way that a magic prop is to the average magician. Comedians are often needlessly scathing in their opinion of the way magicians use physical props to facilitate their work. A great many magicians are just as incorrect in failing to appreciate the importance of correct authorship where a one-liner is concerned.

In the magic community, we are blessed to have an enormous quantity of books, DVDs, lectures, and downloads to help improve our knowledge and skills as magicians. There is probably no other hobby/art form that has more words and ideas available to its rank and file. There are very few books available for professional comedians, there are certainly joke books, but these are intended for the amateur “water cooler comedian.” No professional comedian sits around reading a ten dollar book entitled “1000 Blockbuster Jokes,” to add one to his show. Actual original and commercial jokes change hands at a high price in the comedy world. Maybe this is the reason that comedians are much more aggressive in their reaction to the theft of comedy material.

Magicians who think nothing of spending thousands of dollars a year on props rarely think of spending a few hundred dollars on a one-liner. It is easier to find a joke in another performs act that they like and then appropriate it—perhaps changing a word or two along the way. After enough performers have stolen a joke, it is then considered “stock material” and is re-classified as being available to everyone. This practice highlights an uncomfortable disconnect in a community that has become obsessively committed to crediting creators and originators. One of the most common refrains from comedians (and bookers) is that magicians all tell the same jokes, and it is hard to disagree.

In magic, there is often more than a hint of “patter” being used to fill in time by stating the obvious, a gigantic flaw in goals. A good performer is not on stage to fill up time but rather to make time fly by effortlessly. We have to get beyond the desperately flawed magician’s concept, “How long I can get out of a trick….”   Instead, we need to be thinking how much time can I remove from a trick without impacting the effectiveness. If a performer can cut four minutes of unnecessary dialogue in his show, he might be able to add one or two more applause getting effects. Lay audiences view most of their variety entertainment on America’s Got Talent, and are used to magic presented in 90-second hunks. Unless a live performer keeps this reality in mind, he runs the risk of seeming old hat.

Even a short article like this would be glaringly remiss if it didn’t touch upon the endlessly debated and protested area of political correctness. Magicians tend to have a colossal identification with the past; it seems built into our DNA. We love those old fashioned illusions and Victorian props. Heck, we still use school slates, walking canes, top hats, thimbles, milk pitchers, birdcages, and handkerchiefs. To a certain extent, audiences expect (and in some cases dread) these anomalies, it is a good idea to keep your dialogue more attuned to this century! It is much wiser to eliminate vocal anachronisms from your script. If you say something that you think might be sexist or racist, it almost definitely is! In spite of any personal bias against politically correct jargon, it is an excellent idea to guard against it entering into your show. You are not here to make a brave beacon of an anti-PC statement, and are just going to look old fashioned and out of touch. Keep your dialogue and script contemporary, and it will sound less like old fashioned dated patter. Reading online magic forums, it is apparent that some magicians think they can make the PC culture disappear by closing their eyes to it. They are wrong. 

One of the most overused cliches in magic is that old Robert-Houdin quote, “ A magician is an actor playing the part of a magician.” I frequently vent about the ways this concept is used to cover indulgent and precious behavior. In this instance, let me agree with it in theory, however never forget that a true actor has a carefully written script that informs the role he is playing. He doesn’t go onstage and patter to his audience, he uses his dialogues and monologues to amuse, inform, and entertainment. It is time to intellectually throw away those wonderfully nostalgic Robert Orben books and enter the post-patter era.

~ by Nick Lewin on October 17, 2019.

8 Responses to “The Politics of Patter.”

  1. Nick, Great article, but is everything ok? What set you off? Mike

    Mike Duseberg PO Box 1726 Stuart, FL 34995 Tel: 561.596.3877

    • What set me off? It was a very dispassionate article! I guess I have rather definite views on patter, I have heard a LOT of very poor patter from darn good magicians and it always seems a shame…..

  2. Great stuff (as always) Nick.

  3. Great job Nick. Well put a and to the point. I appreciate your work and knowledge as well as your pointed advice. Thanks. – Bro. Paul West

    • I have definite thoughts on patter and it was good to share them. Maybe eleven years headlining in the comedy circuit affected my views as a magician. I hope so! Thank you for your comment!

  4. Very pertinent piece. Magicians are notorious for trying to busk it. Would be great to use this in our society magazine/newsletter if that’s okay.

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