Choosing And Developing A Comedic Persona

per·so·na | ˌpərˈsōnə |

noun (plural personas or personae | -ˈsōnē | )

The aspect of someone’s character that is presented to or perceived by others. A role or character adopted by an author, actor, etc. 

Magicians tend to prefer the fancier word persona when discussing their work; the comedy world seems happy to settle for the somewhat more down-to-earth word character. Comedians spend a lot of time working on their character. Which, trust me, has nothing to do with improving any of their ungentlemanly or lady-like traits. They are making sure they don’t sacrifice their performing persona just for a fast laugh. Consistency counts in comedy, and comedy is only real, then, when you are.  Once the audience thinks they know where you are coming from and who you are, the comedy takes on an extra dimension.

The first thing to do when exploring a potential persona, comedic or otherwise, for your act is to take a good look in the mirror. Try to intuit what an audience physically sees when they look at you; imagine you are seeing yourself for the first time. The persona you choose must work with what is, rather than what you would like to be the case. Do you look smooth and sophisticated or wild and zany? There are many steps and stages between these extremes. The more accurately you can analyze your physical attributes, the more precisely you can calibrate what new persona you can effectively embrace. 

You must zero in on one primary choice when deciding how to re-invent yourself as a comedy magician. Let’s take a look at this initial dividing of the stream.

1 Are you creating an entirely different performing persona for yourself, one who lives and performs by his own rules? You can create an exotic performer to highlight your material. In this area, one thinks of Ali Bongo and his frantic “Shriek of Araby” character stalking around the stage in a fez and curly slippers. Bongo, the performer, couldn’t be more different from his creator if he tried. The crazy antics of a Tommy Cooper or Amazing Johnathan or the mock pomposity of Johnny Thompson’s Warsaw Wizard are other examples of almost cartoon creations that amplify the laughs with their style. Please take a moment now to identify a few other performers who have created a theatrical persona to sell their work to the public.

2 The other way to address who will be in the driving seat performing your show is to take your own personality and then shape it and amend it a little. This method is very common and initially perhaps a slightly more straightforward technique. Comedy magicians who have taken their natural persona and amplified it to “showbiz” level include Billy McComb, Michael Finney, Mike Caveney, Fielding West, and many others. For most performers, this is possibly the straightforward path to follow.

It is pretty easy to divide comedians into these two basic modes with Andy Kaufman, Emo Philips, Bobcat Goldthwait, and Judy Tenuta heading up the performers on the number 1 option. Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Jim Gaffigan, and almost everyone else on the number 2 option. Of course, nothing in life is quite that easy to categorize, so let’s take a look at the all-important middle ground where the best answers are so often to found.

Some of the very best comedy magicians are a composite of both of these performing styles. They are onstage personalities who present a character close to their own but whose persona is much more easily identifiable to an audience. It is often quite tricky to spot where the actual person turns into the performing persona. Everyone who has spent any time with Mac King knows that his plaid suit and slightly hayseed character is a million miles from the guy who wears the suit. However, Mac has crafted a splendid blend between truth and fiction and, in this way, created a perfect vehicle for his performance. Mac took his Kentucky roots and used them to inform and illuminate his performing persona. 

Harry Anderson was doing great comedy magic long before “Harry The Hat” arrived on the scene. However, it is “Harry the Hat” who is primarily remembered by fans of his comedy magic show. When Harry first made a splash in LA as a performer, he dressed in a Steve Martin style white suit. Once he stopped borrowing his wardrobe from Steve, he was well on his way to developing and creating the look and style that would make him a unique performer. The result was one of magic’s slickest personas.

I reference Mac and Harry here very specifically because they are a perfect example of how a particular wardrobe style can establish their persona even before they say a single word. Think about Michael Finney’s larger than life brightly colored costumes or Jeff Hobson’s just this side of Liberace sartorial extravagance. If you can establish your performing persona simply by walking on stage, you are way ahead of the game. Penn & Teller created their own very specific “eccentrics in business suits” branding very early in their career and have never varied from that look since. 

Of course, there is a great deal more to creating a compelling performing persona than the clothes on your back. The important part of these examples is how they immediately demonstrate a powerful visual insight into the performer’s chosen onstage character. Creating the words and actions that flesh out all the important details that turn your character sketch into a full-scale portrait is a more complex process. The carefully chosen “Howdy” that prefaces Mac King’s act is a one-word salutation that reinforces his onstage persona so perfectly that it has almost become a catchphrase. On tiny details like this the construction of a modified persona is made organic and successful.

Let’s discuss how the average magician can create a persona that will move them forward and upward in their career. The keyword in that last sentence is create. There is no excuse for a performer to “borrow” another magician’s persona; to do so is lazy, dishonest, and extremely unlikely to succeed. It is bad enough to steal someone’s material, but there is no defense for stealing a performer’s carefully constructed stage persona.

Looking in the rearview mirror, I can recall quite a few highly innovative magicians who inspired an entire industry of “tribute acts.” Let’s kick off this list of originals with Siegfried & Roy, David Copperfield, Lance Burton, David Blaine, and Derren Brown. All these performers created something artistically and stylistically different, resulting in each of them inspiring magicians worldwide. Sadly, they also stimulated more than their fair share of bad “roadshows.” How can it be someone’s persona if they took it from somebody else?  Whoever first opined that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” was either sadly denuded or had a very dark sense of humor. 

I always enjoy comedy performers who have exotic alter egos, with Barry Humphries’ Sir Les Patterson and Martin Short’s Jiminy Glick at the very top of the list.  During the 70s and 80s, I created a whole series of magical alter egos and thoroughly enjoyed the freedom and learning experience it furnished me. There was my Punk Magician Nick Costello with his leopard-skin jacket and radically punk haircut. Nick Cosmos, the white lab coat wearing “Quantum Magician” from the future was fun too. Then there was my reggae magic show that featured me with my backup singers, the Conjurettes. While none of these radical reinterpretations of my fairly conventional performing persona were wildly successful commercially, they served a useful and ultimately rewarding purpose. By giving myself the freedom to explore such diverse personas, I discovered much about what I could and could not do on stage.

By the start of the 90s, I focused on my own personality and persona exclusively for my shows. However, I had added many different elements that I had discovered during my more experimental work. Each of my previous magical incarnations had particular energy, but since they had all emanated from me, each could be applied consciously to my “Nick Lewin” persona. This technique allowed me to sculpt a much more textured and dynamic performance; I was just being myself but even more so. I realize that my pathway in this was not necessarily one that would appeal to everyone, but I wanted to share it with my readers. I suspect I could have achieved much the same results just by meticulous observation and attention to detail, but then again, I thoroughly enjoyed discovering Nick Costello and his cohorts. 

~ by Nick Lewin on September 11, 2021.

2 Responses to “Choosing And Developing A Comedic Persona”

  1. What great advice, eloquently and intelligently communicated. For those in the LA area looking for a deeper examination of what others see (and think) when they look at you, I highly recommend the Sam Christiansen personal brand workshop. http://www.samchristiansen.com. Sam was a top Hollywood Casting Director and the program can help you pinpoint your “type” and how to best capitalize on it. Thanks again for your great writing Nick.

  2. Thank you Mark! That sounds like a great workshop.

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