Putting more funny and entertainment in your act

Robert Baxt
When you think about it, magic tricks and jokes share a very similar style. In a joke, a comedian sets up in words a story or scenario that unexpectedly changes at the last minute creating laughs. In magic, the magician shows or explains how something is impossible and can’t be done and then unexpectedly defies reality to do it; resulting in applause.

Sadly, you must be warned before you read any further that discussing comedy is not funny. In the same way that dissecting a frog to show the biological process kills Kermit, talking about comedy is the very opposite of funny.

But I think important lessons and guidelines can be learned, so let’s continue:

Here’s an old joke for an example:
“An elderly couple walk into a hotel to check in. The guy is lugging a huge, ancient, beat up suitcase. The clerk checks them in and then says: ‘What about the old bag? Should I call a bellman?’ And the man answers “Nah, my wife can walk’.

The humor comes from the mistaken assumption that the “old bag” referred to is the suitcase. When it’s revealed that “the old bag” mentioned by the clerk is the wife, it gets a laugh.

In a magic trick, the performer might show the inside of cloth bag, leading the audience to mistakenly assume that it’s empty, but when a dove is produced, the magic occurs and the audience applauds.

So let us magicians take some lessons from comedians. When it comes to LPMs (or as it might more accurately be referred to in magic situations; EPMs), comedians often have us beat.

By LPMs, I mean “laughs per minute”, a guide to how funny a TV show, or comedian’s routine may be. By EPM’s I mean, effects per minute, a guide to how many magical effects take place during the length of the magi’s routine.

You don’t really hear professional comedians tell “joke-jokes” anymore. That’s the type of joke that’s a long story that begins “A rabbi, a priest, a bear, and a nun walk into a bar…” While in decades past that might have been the style, today those types of jokes are perceived as not being personalized and taking too long to get to the punch line.

Today, comedians for the most part use shorter set-ups and then quickly go for the jokes. Here’s one of my lines: “My mother’s neurotic about washing things; she cleans on the sub-atomic level. She was watching TV when they announced scientists discovered a new particle in between the proton and the neutron. She yelled out “That’s dust! I can clean that!”

But too often magicians have long set-ups with a lot of time passing before they get to the actual effect and the part where the audience applauds.

You know the tricks I’m talking: A deck of cards is examined, one is chosen, it’s signed, the cards are cut into piles, they’re divided by the month you were born, and it seems like half an hour later until the card is revealed. Many mentalism effects are also like this. So much time is spent showing that the performer is blindfolded, has no confederates, couldn’t possibly see anything, has no electronic gimmickry, couldn’t possibly have memorized every page in a stack of randomly chosen books, etc.; that by the time the word is revealed five or six minutes later it has become boring instead of great.

People’s attention spans have shortened over the years. “Cut to the chase” are words to live by.

In twelve minutes, if performer “A” does twenty-two effects, but performer “B” does three; then even if those three effects are really great ones, at some point a lay audience will like performer “A” better because his twelve minutes was so much more dense with effects than magician “B’s”.

“But Robert” you say, “if I don’t make it absolutely clear that what I’m going to do is impossible, how can they appreciate that I did a miracle? If I don’t take all the time necessary to set up that it’s impossible, how will they appreciate it?”

And Robert says: At least give them some entertainment on the way to the entertainment! Put in some jokes and lines and bits along the way to the climax and then speed it up as much as you cam. Remember that entertainment is your goal, not strictly magic. Magic for the sake of magic by itself can sometimes be little more than a puzzle. A guitar player does not come out and pluck the strings of his instrument and say to the crowd “The A note, the B note, the C note, the G note. Now worship me!” What he does is take the skills he’s learned in music to put the notes together into a song, and most often the song is about things the audience can relate to. Have you ever noticed there are lots of songs about love and heart break, but few songs written about the cut and restored rope or the linking rings?

Sometimes a magician does seem to be going “See the coin, now it’s here, now it’s gone, now it’s there, now it’s gone again, now it’s back. Worship me!” That’s the same as the example of the guitar player above. It doesn’t fly for the musician, why should it be okay for the magician?
So the two pronged attack to make your routines more entertaining is to do more tricks quicker, eliminating as much of the set up as possible; and when the set up has to be there, to make the steps along the way as amusing and quick as possible.

Here’s an example from my strolling and close-up work: I do a ringflite routine with so many gags and bits of business along the way, that if we never get to the ending: the ring being found in the key case; the audience still had such a great time, they don’t care or know what they missed! This often happens in real life situations: The meal is served just as you’re reaching your magical climax, the event emcee announces that the first dance is going to take place, the person’s favorite Aunt Hilda walks over in the middle of your trick, or the D.J. plays the couple’s favorite song and now everyone is asked to dance. The audience for the magic trick that you’ve spent five minutes building up to goes away.

By having lots of comedy shtick and byplay along the way, I don’t care. I know that the crowd had a good time and will go over to the event host or party planner and say how good magic boy was even if they never saw the ring in the key case!

Here’s just some of my gags along the way for a ringflite routine:

  • I have a dozen or so other rings pinned inside my jacket. When asking about the ring I want to borrow, I flash the rings inside my jacket and ask “Can I interest you in a trade-in?”
  • I carry around a jeweler’s eye loupe. When looking at the ring, it’s funny just when I pull the eye loupe out to examine it, but then I make all sorts of jokes along the lines of the fine quality of merchandise the Home Shopping Network is selling these days.
  • Of the rings in my jacket, there are many joke rings. There’s a “three carrot” ring, an actual ring with three tiny carrots on it; there’s a “bathtub ring”, a tiny bathtub from a doll’s house that’s got a line of dirt around the inside; there a “diamond” ring, a ring with a U.S. dime coin attached to it; and lots of other joke rings like this.
  • With the jeweler’s eye loupe, I do a number of “cup and ball” like moves, loading the ring under the loupe and making it vanish and appear at unexpected times.
  • I vanish the borrowed ring inside a square of flash paper. When it ignites there’s always “oohs” and “ahhs” at the small burst of flame.
  • Plus, I always start the routine by pattering about what a special day this is for whatever reason it is that I’ve been hired to perform at this event; and I start off my search for a ring to borrow mentioning how rings often commemorate special days and memories.
  • Sometimes, if after asking for a ring but not being able to get anyone to lend me theirs, I will still do all these gags and lines and tricks with my own ring and no one even knows that they’re missing out on the actual ringflite trick!

By making this routine so dense with bits and tricks along the way to the ring inside the keycase climax, it’s never boring; there’s always laughs and “oohs” on the journey; and by asking first what the meaning or special memory of this ring is for the volunteer, I’m always bonding with my audience on an emotional level that a trick with the cups and balls or an okito coin box often can not do.

For stage performance, I have done a silent comedy manipulation act where the effects came fast and furiously, but never became aimless manipulation. We’ve all seen floating Zombie ball routines where every move that was in the book was performed, but didn’t have to be. The performer knows that he spent 17 months alone in his room mastering every billiard ball move, but that doesn’t mean the audience appreciates it. Since the art in magic is concealing the art, do magicians have to show off every sleight they know? At some point this can become what I like to politely term “magical masturbation”, where the performer gets off showing all his moves and the audience just watches. I like to think what should go on is a love affair between the performer and the audience, where both get off from the performance. A mutual climax if you will.

It was famous old time magician Al Flosso who put it to me this way when I was a child: He said “Only magicians care about magic tricks kid, real people just want to be entertained.” So when it comes to patter tricks, and choice of material, I always try to remember the fact that the audience is not as interested in magic as I am. One of the ways I try to get them to care just a little more about my performance is by using props and items that they can relate to. There are very few red and gold asian dragon boxes with metallic paint in the real world, so I tend not to use any. And does anyone really care deeply about the three of clubs? Not unless they’re gambling and hoping to pull a straight flush. So I tend to do very few card tricks.

Thinking about this in advance of your next show can help you to be a better performer. Each of us in an artist, and what I feel is right for me, isn’t necessarily right for you. But movies where an average guy hero who achieves despite being knocked down are often the basis for a good story. This story works because the audience relates to the average guy hero and feels for him. The problem for the magician is that the very act of performing magic takes you out of the “average everyman” category. Having these secrets that you can’t tell makes the performer a little off putting and geeky to begin with. By working hard to fight against this very nature of our art we can achieve our goal to entertain. Film makers do not often make successful films about how difficult it is to make a film for the film maker. The film maker’s struggle, experience, and vocabulary is so different than the general audience’s that to focus on those things would be like us focusing on our zombie ball moves. But make a magic act or film that regular people can like and empathize with and you will be a better entertainer.

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