The politics of being booked as a comedy magician.

One of the very first things you learn when booking any comedy or variety multi-act gig is that as you start off in the opening slot. This is good and as it should be; you need to scope out the lay of the land, learn what to do, and have a place to make some mistakes where they won’t capsize the show. Since the death of vaudeville, the vast majority of variety bills have settled into being three-act formats. Just like any theatrical venture, three acts work very well just as it does in a play or movie. As you move into that middle spot a new dynamic enters the scene and we need to discuss it in some detail.

Comedy Club and other show bookers are very comfortable putting a comedy magician, or indeed any “variety” act, into that middle slot. Why not! This is a very natural way of splitting up the two comedians on a comedy club bill and creating a little variety, heck this is why we are called variety acts. However, once you accept that paradigm of magician as middle act, you have created a glass ceiling that can be tough to shatter. Bookers love to slot magicians into that easy safe slot. Once I felt comfortable and confident with the way my act was building on the comedy circuit, I refused to middle and only accepted headliner gigs. For me this was the smartest thing I could have done; let me tell you why.

What are the reasons for wanting to headline on a comedy club gig? Primarily you earn more money, sometimes a lot more money, get to perform a longer set, get the best room in the condo (the one with your own bathroom), receive better perks, and get a whole lot more respect. In the ‘80s if you were headlining in a club you were still working on your career, if you weren’t, then you were just marking time. Let me be clear about one thing, getting to middle in a show is probably the easiest gig in the world because you have way fewer pressures and a lot less responsibility. If you are working an “equal nations” gig and all the performers are receiving the same salary and performing equivalent sets with contemporaries, then you will find that any pro worth his salt will be fighting to see how early in the bill he can perform. Only the insecure or ego-dominated performer will want to close that bill, and the smart pro will be delighted to oblige them.

Of course, back in the wild west comedy club circuit in the 1980s, there were quite a few ground rules for a comedy magician to learn if he was going to assume the position of headliner and naturally assume that two comedians were going to open for him and let him swoop into the closing role. Primarily you had to prove that even without the magic you could be just as funny, or funnier, than your opening acts. One thing you could be fairly sure about when you were onstage closing a bill in a comedy club was that the other comedians were sitting in the greenroom bitching about the fact that a magician was heading in a comedy club. 

The heart of most club comedians’ beef with comedy magicians is that they can always jettison some of their comedy if the crowd were not responding and re-focus on the magic, and vice versa if the conditions made it more favorable. They look at this as akin to a form of cheating, I have always looked on it as a good career choice! In that decade plus that I headlined on the comedy circuit, I always began my show with a very fast magical sight gag designed to make fun of the traditional magician’s image. I then performed a faultless ten-minute comedy monologue that established that I could meet the opening acts head own in their own field. Only then would I launch into my comedy magic act. My show also built up to an actual highly effective finale that got a big applause based reaction. Comedians frequently just ended their set by looking at their watches and saying, “That’s my time,” and walking off stage. I wanted to get a reaction that the club owner would really hear back in his office where he was probably hitting on a cocktail waitress.

I was lucky enough to work in almost every geographical zone that had a comedy club. I never wanted to be a regional act, and that is another choice the performer can make for themself. I could work in Manhattan or Biloxi, Fairbanks, or Chicago. As long as you paid the right money, I was there! My most direct contemporaries in the comedy circuit were Paul Kozak, John Ferrentino, and the king of the genre, Amazing Johnathan. One thing that we all shared was a very universal appeal in our shows, and that isn’t something that happens, but something you need to work at day-by-day and show-by-show. I learned a great deal about what is funny by comparing audience reactions in different locations and then choosing material that worked everywhere. These were lessons that also yielded a great dividend in my corporate bookings.

Let’s get back to a more detailed look at my specific journey into the comedy club market when it was really flourishing in the ‘80s. Prior to that time I had been performing primarily on cruise ships, magic venues, and old-fashioned nightclubs such as The Playboy Club. Most of these gigs involved about 20-minutes sets, which were starting to seem a little too short to me, but on a ship at least you needed two different 20-minute sets. I had also appeared in an excellent review show in Lake Tahoe for Fredric Apcar, a top-notch Las Vegas producer. Apcar loved my show and repeatedly asked me to be a specialty act in one his shows, but the length of the set required was just 12-minutes which was way too little time for my taste. I also had a restless nature and really no desire to step into a long-term contract. I filled in for Fredric several times when his regular acts needed vacations; this was my first real casino work. However, to me, the concept of performing the same 12-minutes, twice a night for a year contract was the closest thing to living death that I could imagine. I always loved Billy McComb’s answer when someone asked him if he could do a ten-minute show. “Absolutely I can,” He would say, “now, in ten minutes I can either have a card selected and not find it, or find a card that no one selected. Which would you prefer?”

The comedy circuit offered me the perfect way to develop a 60-minute one-man show, which came in very useful as my corporate work began to arrive. Cruise bookings later began to change and rather than being a 20-minute part of a variety show they began to feature solo Headliner Shows where the entertainer performed his own 50-minute set. I will never regret my decision to work towards the long form with my show. In 1995 I began a five-year run in Las Vegas with my own one-man 65-minute show, I still had very serious reservations about a long run, but I was more than excited about taking a break from the road and spending more time with my wife and daughters. 

 

~ by Nick Lewin on November 10, 2021.

One Response to “The politics of being booked as a comedy magician.”

  1. Great advice! I really enjoyed the read! Such an amazing insight to information we all need to have! Thank you Nick!

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