Exercising The Comedy Muscle.

Learning to perform good magic requires that you master a great many different skills. Probably the old advice “Practice, practice, practice” is still as solid as a rock. You need to do plenty of planning and preparation to decide what you are going to do, but you are always going to need to rehearse the physical actions and verbal elements of your show until they are smooth as silk. However, if you want to be a strong comedy magician you can hit a bit of a road bump with the comedy part of that job description.

While ventriloquists and jugglers are first cousins to magicians, a dedicated comedian is a very different beast. You can’t rehearse a comedy monologue in front of a mirror with much success. You need a live audience to know whether a joke works, or even if it is funny. Last month I was talking with my Danish friend Christian Langballe on FaceTime and he had to curtail the call because, in his words, he had to go and perform a set at a comedy club in order to “exercise the comedy muscle.” I loved that phrase and asked his permission to write an article based around it. Thank you Christian, here is that article.

There are endless showbiz debates as to whether you can learn to be funny, or if funny is a quality that you are born with. Unless you are a very unique (make that very, very unique) person, I firmly believe that it is all but impossible to make someone funny if that seed is not sowed within them from a very young age. That person might be able to say funny things but that is not at all the same thing as being funny.  On the other hand, almost anyone can become a pretty proficient magician if they are prepared to put in the time to get their tricks down. Can that proficient magician become a funny comedy magician? This is an interesting and much more tricky proposition. Let’s take a closer look at what is involved in this dilemma.

Generally speaking, stand-up comedians are very scathing and obnoxiously verbal in their view of comedy magicians. If you doubt this then you haven’t spent enough time with your average stand up comic. Incidentally, I just brushed on a comedy trope in this last sentence that tends too upset many stand-up comedians, as historically they tend to differentiate between a comic as someone who says things in a funny way and a comedian who says funny things. Sometimes they get deeply insulted if you get it wrong, it gets complicated pretty quickly, doesn’t it!  However, let’s return to the reason why comedians tend to marginalize, and often actively dislike comedy magicians, jugglers, ventriloquists, and other variety acts. I suspect it is largely because they don’t like the fact that we have something other than comedy to fall back on; to them, it seems like cheating. They think we lack commitment or we are lazy, and sometimes they are right.

A comedy magician certainly is lucky that if their comedy isn’t working then they can switch the emphasis to their magic. Duh, this is a pretty neat professional insurance policy in my personal opinion, and most comedic magicians would agree. That same double threat magician has another advantage tucked up his sleeve that is worth considering. When you are combining comedy and magic the average audience gives you quite a healthy benefit of the doubt on the comedy that you include in your show. Unconsciously these audiences tend to accept older, cornier and less original material because “They are not really a comedian.” This is a fairly satisfactory state of affairs to most magicians as long as they don’t think about it too deeply, but to others, it becomes something that needs to be dealt with.

In the heyday of comedy clubs in America, there was a great living to be made. The magicians who didn’t mind being “openers” or “middles” didn’t have to deal with the issue of “real” comedy as opposed to comedy magic. However, if you wanted to close the show and make the bigger bucks you needed to address this matter head-on. As a performer who headlined the comedy circuit for eleven years, I can tell you that the overwhelming majority of us did it in the same way. We put on our “big boy comedy pants” realizing that we needed to be as funny as the comedians and moreover do so by using the same comedy rules. 

In a comedy club, if you were going to follow a couple of strong comedians you were not going to do it by dipping into that 30-year-old Robert Orben gag book. You were required to learn to write and deliver comedy like a professional comedian. Most of us who became bona fide headliners in the major comedy clubs just buckled down and wrote/learned a comedy monologue with which to open our shows. The good news is that this process is different, but not that much harder than learning that knuckle-busting new multiple shift by Ed Marlo.  

A stand-up comedian has a very different eco-system to a magician and it is worth looking at the way it differs. In magic, we are inundated with ways to acquire our material. There are books, magic shops, conventions, dealers, Internet groups, lectures, magic clubs, downloads, and many other resources. Usually, a comedian can only rely on what is in his mind, writes down in his notebook, and then perfects in front of a live audience. If a comedian wants to get a laugh in his show he doesn’t pick up a joke book. He looks for the right topic, he writes something, edits it to get the wording just right, and finally perfects it onstage. In other words, they exercise the comedy muscle. This is why comedians are much more rigorous about the ethics of stealing other performers’ material than many magicians. There is a much stronger shared material pool in the magic world, and this frequently results in ethical lines getting crossed that shouldn’t.

There are many excellent magicians who just don’t get the stage time to fully perfect their show. They get the mirror time but not the stage time. In fact, an entire category of “semi-pro” performers have the luxury of taking an occasional paid gig to augment their “real” job. This scenario doesn’t exist in the comedy world where you need to move from “office cut-up” to struggling comedian via the uneasy path of open microphone nights. Open mic nights tend to separate the comedic sheep from the goats in double-quick time. Comedians learn to be much more protective of that big laugh in their show that they wrote because that joke might be a key element in taking them to the next level. If another performer lifts that joke from his act then he is not going to take it well. In the magic world, there is a curious tendency to think that borrowing another performer’s line is acceptable. In fact, if enough people appropriate a joke then it becomes a “stock line” and then it is totally OK to use it. However, most “stock lines” began their lives as original lines in someone’s act. Probably the most common complaint about magicians is that we all use the same jokes, and sometimes this is hard to argue. Given the fact we are often dealing with the same situations and props, this isn’t totally amazing. Generally speaking, though originality is rather a gray area, and when this really gets troubling is when performers use the same words, and even worse the same timing to tell the same joke. 

I have had many magicians come up to me and comment on how well some of my jokes work or don’t work in their acts. Sometimes they even seem to expect me to be pleased with the “honor” they are bestowing on me. Try that with a comedian and you might well end up with a thick lip! Now, of course, this doesn’t mean that performers don’t sometimes let other performers use one of their jokes. Of course, they do. Pros swap ideas, bits, and ideas all the time but it is an actual process, and just because you see a magician on YouTube or TV doing a joke that would work in your show, it does NOT mean you can use it. If you like a joke or “a bit” what you can do is “exercise your comedy muscle,” and write something original that covers the same territory. You are selling yourself short if you don’t do this.

There is one specific area that I feel I should cover here; suppose you buy a trick from a professional and it includes the jokes that he uses onstage? Now that I have pretty much retired, I am marketing my routines, and I do so very thoroughly, and this includes most of the jokes I have developed for that routine over the years. I certainly expect anyone who pays me for my routine to feel free to use the jokes I include. Very often I include them in the video tutorial in order to show how they have a very special role in the way the comedy misdirects and compliments the magic. I think it is usually a good thing for someone working on one of my routines to initially use my template to learn how to correctly time their actions. When they have mastered the routine and don’t change the dialogue and contents of my routines then something has gone wrong. If they are still mimicking my comedy at this point then they are failing to master what they have learned. It is probably time to exercise the comedy muscle, personalize things a little, and make things fit their own performing personality.

Let’s look at a couple more ways that the average magician can exercise that comedy muscle. Like any other exercise, this process gets easier the more you do it, and that muscle starts to develop. Give this a shot, next time you watch a late-night comedy show make careful note of what topics the host makes jokes about. No, don’t purloin his jokes, just observe what topics his writers have decided are most relevant /commercial, and then see if you can come up with some original jokes on these same topics. The joy of a topical joke is that if you put it somewhere upfront in your show you will get bonus points just because of the topicality. People laugh harder at a topical joke merely because they know it is something that is fresh and newly minted.

For many years I have made it a rule to include one new joke in every show. It is good for the mind, body, and soul. Try it, and slip the joke in amongst some of your most surefire material; then make a note after the show on what that new joke was and if it worked. You can re-tool it, tighten it up and you may find you have a joke that will be using for a long time. This may or may not be a good thing. One huge difference between a comedian and a variety act is that by the time many comedians really perfect a line they are about ready to drop it; when a variety performer perfects a line it will probably be around the rest of his life. I am definitely a variety performer!

~ by Nick Lewin on May 7, 2020.

One Response to “Exercising The Comedy Muscle.”

  1. Love it.

    I started in comedy club when Yuk-Yuks was a new thing.

    Your advice is steller.

    Thank you, Best Regards,

    Michael Ross

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