New Rules for Magicians 2021

Back in what Billy McComb used to refer to as “Nineteen hundred and frozen to death,” one of my favorite places to work on new material was ‘The Horn’ in Santa Monica. This club was a gloriously eclectic little Californian nightclub boasting a house band and a widely divergent group of entertainers. If you managed to score one of the highly sought after performing slots, you never knew whether you’d be following an opera singer, a jazz musician, or a comedian. It was a splendid place to hone your craft.

Amongst the comedians who performed regularly at The Horn was David Letterman, who would walk to the club with his large sheepdog. The dog would remain tethered at the club’s door while David dashed in and performed a short set. Another comedian who graced the boards in this cradle of creativity was Bill Maher. The first time I met Bill was on an evening that I was acting as MC. I was in the green room discussing the running order with the club’s booker when I spotted an unfamiliar name. I asked the booker in I hoped a suitably quizzical manner, “What exactly is a Bill Maher?” At that moment, a short and somewhat crumpled chap walked through the door and, with a big smile, said, “I am, you %?@#$.” I have been a big fan of Bill ever since.

One of the features of Maher’s current late-night HBO series Real Time with Bill Maher is his ‘New Rules’ segment, during which he details new rules that should be mandatory for improving our quality of life in these changing times. So with my tongue firmly in my cheek in some cases but in deadly earnest in others, I  would like to present my list of New Rules For Magicians.  

New Rule #1  Realize that not everyone is fascinated by Houdini.

This may be the most controversial of my new rules, but I have to throw it into the mix. It has long been an article of faith that just by invoking the ‘Sainted” name of Harry Houdini, the interest of the non-magical world will be ignited like a Californian forest by an illegal campfire. This assumption has run its course and must now be replaced with a big MAYBE! Trust me, doing the Siberian Chain Escape and attempting to beat Houdini’s fastest time will not automatically result in the press beating a path to your door. 



New Rule #2.  Don’t treat your audience like idiots.

Your job is to deceive and the spectator’s job is to be deceived. There is no need to assume that an audience is comprised of morons just because they fulfill their half of the mutual bargain. Be grateful they know the rules. Let’s be honest, you might not want them to tell you how deceptive that deceptive base really is after they have seen four or five of them in the course of your show. Sometimes an audience is just being kind, so don’t ever get cocky about how smart you think you are.  Audiences are not idiots, so don’t ever treat them that way just because you have a few tricks up your sleeve. 

New Rule #3.  There is NO such thing as a semi-professional magician. 

I know many people are reading this thinking, “That is ridiculous, I am delighted with my semi-professional doctor,” and “That semi-pro airline pilot did a great job on my last flight.” However, there is no such thing as a semi-pro in magic. I am not saying that there aren’t some performers who only occasionally get paid for a show but are still very good at what they do. However, a professional magician makes his living performing or creating magic, and by doing so, he enters a different world governed by different laws. And no, working the Magic Castle once a year isn’t a real gig. Sorry.

New Rule #4. The amount of money you spent on a prop should not affect its running time in your show.

The audience doesn’t care if the new prop you just purchased cost you a king’s ransom; they are just interested in how much it intrigues and entertains them. Be ruthless in pruning your running time and never let cost be a factor in your consideration. If you spend a grand on a prop that achieves an effect in just 30 seconds, then don’t feel a need to make it play for 35 seconds unless you have added to the impact with those five seconds. The following rule is something of a companion piece to this one.

New Rule #5. Never “See how much time you can get out of a trick.” Instead, see how much you can get out of a routine in the least possible time.

Again and again, I hear performers use expressions such as, “I can get 15 minutes out of the egg bag.” Pardon me while I scream. The true goal of a strong entertainer is to tighten his performance and get every bit of impact from a routine in the least possible time. You can eventually say with pride,  “I’ve finally got my egg bag routine down to ten minutes,” if every one of those minutes is solid and vital entertainment. Look for the padding and then surgically remove it from your show; you will be a much better and more commercial performer.

New Rule #6  Try to remember what century in which you are living.

When you look at the design and nature of magic props, it isn’t difficult to guess when they were designed. The Victorian era is so clearly stamped on some props that they look like they were airlifted from the Egyptian Hall in one of those new-fangled H.G. Welles time machines. If you really must use outdated looking props, at the very least arrive at your gig in a classic model T Ford.

New Rule #7. If you aren’t Jeff McBride, there is no need to dress like Jeff McBride.

McBride is an outstanding performer and teacher of magic. Jeff has a truly unique approach, not only to his magic but also in his singular choices in costume and character. With his Kabuki style make-up, funky top hat, and eccentric sense of style, Jeff looks equal parts magical troubadour, steampunk visionary, exotic magician, and Asian warrior. It is a look that is all his own and is as unique as the man himself. I frequently bump into magicians who have learned much from Jeff’s invaluable lessons at his celebrated “Mystery School,” but quite a few of them seem to have borrowed liberally from his sartorial style as well. Sorry guys, but for the most part, you have to be Jeff to make it work. Learn Jeff’s lessons and then make them your own, beginning with developing your own personalized fashion style.

New Rule #8. Be original in your publicity material, or any seasoned booker will assume your show is just as unoriginal.

There is a tendency for magicians to see photos and publicity material that other performers are using on sites like Facebook. I’m sure there was a first person to stage an 8X10 with a fire wallet, but now it is pure cliché. The current trend is the photo revealing a hidden ace in his sleeve. This picture is another cute idea that has become another instant cliché. These pieces of press material are the first items a buyer usually sees of an act. He is also probably looking at many other performers’ publicity materials, so why not use something more original. Why would he think you are going to be different and unique if your photo isn’t? Even a good picture of the performer himself is unique and unsullied by overexposure.

~ by Nick Lewin on November 17, 2021.

6 Responses to “New Rules for Magicians 2021”

  1. YES! YES! YES to rule #4 – “The amount of money you spent on a prop should not affect its running time in your show.” And Baxt’s Corollary to Rule #4: Just because you spent a lot of money on the trick or prop doesn’t mean you should leave it in your show. Too many floating tables and snow blowers and other expensive items are in people’s shows because after spending that much money on it, they refuse to see it’s not a good fit for them. 🙂

  2. Nick, well said! I think the Houdini name and history does still have some attraction but only when used to inform and educate an audience through some great storytelling that is integral to a good magical routine that relates to Houdini. Otherwise why would Houdini even come up…

  3. Thank you Nick. Yes, yes, and yes!

  4. Brilliant advice entertainingly presented. You are a gem sir!

  5. Hey Nick, I did a show for a younger audience and was throughly surprised at the blank faces when I started talking about Harry Houdini. Apparently, these kids have never heard of him… sign of the times?

    • Well, why would they! Houdini must seem pretty tame and abstract to kids who have grown up with cartoons, TV, and superheroes.Most kids these days can’t tell one card from another or name the 4 suits or tell you what a J is.

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