Getting Creative About Comedy

This blog post contains my five golden rules about invoking the creative mode for your comedy magic show. It started life as part of my notes for a rather wonderful seminar our company sponsored about customizing magic, The seminar featured two of my favorite magicians David Regal and Ray Anderson discussing the creative process. The three of us had a really great discussion that was a smash with our invited roster of international guest. I later released it as a download. 

To pick up the download CLICK HERE

Currently, there is a wave of hobbyist magicians who feel the need to create “amazement” and “wonder” by mixing magic and storytelling to illuminate and enrich their spectators. This is an exceedingly tough thing to pull off if you perform with your eye on the prize of cold cash. It isn’t impossible, but it is very tough. Not too many lay audiences are looking to improve their lives and study philosophy by watching the Linking Rings. On the other hand, most people are pretty happy to add a laugh or two into their day. Never forget how many more people prefer to be amused rather than fooled.

Over the years, I have developed a general formula for creativity that I want to share with you. The four stages of creativity are; preparation, incubation, sudden insight, and manifestation. I have also added a rather crucial bonus stage, as you will see. I have painstakingly formulated this list over time, and I now swear by it. Of course, these steps are not uniquely specific to creating comedy, and you will quickly observe how smoothly these concepts apply to other kinds of magic.

Five Stages of Creativity.

Stage 1  Preparation. Gather facts, information, and existing ideas about your topic and think, think, think. Talk with other performers, read books, and do your research. Churn your ideas, looking at them in every way that comes to your mind, giving your imagination free rein to go where it will. If you are working on an entirely new routine, then see if someone has done something similar in the past, not to borrow ideas, but to make sure you follow a different path. The better the preparation, almost inevitably, the better the outcome is going to be. Remember the words of Thomas Edison, “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” However, it is a little scary to think of someone this sweaty working so closely with electricity.

Stage 2  Incubation. Your goal is not going away, so while it’s percolating in your mind, you can play, sleep, and do things that relax you. You have planted the seeds, so now you need to wait for them to sprout. A little time is required for your unconscious mind to give you some input. Things have been set in motion, so now allow them a chance to roam around a little without trying to micromanage them. It is best if you allow all that preparation to settle into a definite plan of action. It can occur on its own; remove yourself from the equation, and don’t let your conscious mind interfere too much.  

Stage 3  Sudden Insight. “Eureka!” When you least expect it, illumination dawns. Historically you might be taking a bath or sitting under an apple tree, however, you won’t find the creative inspiration you were looking for; instead, it will find you. The surprise of this moment is a hallmark of discontinuity. At this point, it is imperative to write that insight down. Very often, when you get that first completed vision, it will come to you in a nicely packaged bundle. It may also disappear as quickly as it arrived, so write it down. I have often been amazed how that first incarnation of a joke or comedy routine hits your mind is the best one. Always trust the initial details you get, you can change or adapt them later if you want to, but if you don’t write them down, you will never have the means to refer back to them accurately. 

Stage 4  Manifestation. Verify, evaluate, and manifest what you’ve come up with. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.” In other words, make a product of your insight and then put it into application. Add it to your show and start to fine-tune your ideas to ensure they become fully developed. I have always found that the first time I add a new “hunk” into the show, it goes very well; I think there is a certain adrenaline rush that kicks in with that initial debut. Often the second, third, and fourth attempts bear a lot less fruit. Don’t give up; this is how the creative process works, and eventually, you will find that new material clicks into place just when you least expect it. Don’t be afraid to keep working on a “bit” even when it is starting to feel a little like a losing battle. Sometimes changing a single word or adding a “beat” can make all the difference. Of course, if the material doesn’t start to work within a reasonable length of time, you may need to let it go. The performer who keep stuff in their shows because “This one is just for me…” are definitely on the slippery slope to being disrespectful to their audiences.

Stage 5  Desperation. Desperation is the mother of invention. When you need to get something done, creativity can swoop in like a hawk and save the day. There is nothing like having your back to the wall to keep your feet moving forward. The nice thing about the raw gnaw of acute desperation is how it can speed up the previous four stages. Let me give you a personal example of exactly how this can work out.

One afternoon in about 1981, I was sitting in our Los Angeles apartment practicing my double lift, and the phone rang. When I picked up the receiver, I found I was talking to the talent coordinator for the popular TV talk show “The John Davidson Show.” The booker told me they were filming a show the next day that was a tribute to the popular television series “Hill Street Blues.” Did I have a piece of magic that I could perform that would fit the show’s theme?

 I said, “Absolutely,” and locked in the booking me on the spot. I was, of course, lying and had NO idea what the heck routine I was going to be filming in less than 24 hours. However, if someone offers you a TV shot, your first duty is to say, “Yes,” and then work out the minor details later.

I had about 23 hours to develop a new routine that was good enough to present on national TV. It was my Desperation stage. Rather than panic, I did what I usually did; I opened up the Bible and meditatively read a chapter. In my case, the Bible was my well-thumbed copy of “McComb’s Magic: 25 Years Wiser.”  There was a half-page hidden inside dedicated to combining two standard tricks to develop something entirely new. Billy sketched out an idea about combining the Thumb Tie with the Card In Wallet. I decided that it was an excellent idea and that I might implement something along these lines. I had just passed my Preparation stage. I went into the kitchen, made a cup of tea, and drank it. This was my Incubation stage. I suddenly remembered that I had a pair of unused thumb cuffs stashed somewhere in my magic cupboard and that they were a distinctly police-friendly style of prop. This memory constituted my Sudden Insight stage. I drank another cup of tea and started rehearsing it, the next day I filmed it live, and everyone loved it! That was my Manifestation stage; if only everything in my performing life had gone this smoothly.

It is worth noting that these five stages did not play out in the numerical sequence I outlined earlier. It never pays to expect things to run precisely in the order you anticipate them to do; life doesn’t seem to play out that way. Desperation was the number one item on my agenda. As in all things creative, the golden key to making things go smoothly is a healthy dash of adaptability, combined with plenty of nerve. Within those 23 hours, I had not only filmed a TV show but also created a powerful piece of material that I have used with great success for the last forty years. I hope that I have given you some constructive real world advice about improving your magic. 

This version of my creativity check list was published in Vanish Magic Magazine. I have since totally rewritten it for my upcoming book on comedy magic. I thought this article was still worth sharing though on my blog.

~ by Nick Lewin on July 16, 2021.

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