J C’s Note: This essay is adapted from a piece I wrote in 1999 entitled ‘Comedy Techniques for Magicians’, which was in turn produced into a short lecture for IBM Ring 115. It has been revised significantly with the illusionist in mind.
While not everyone performs a comedy illusion show such as Nathan Burton, Scott & Muriel or Rafael, any Illusionist can benefit from adding comedy to his/ her show.
Most illusionists choose a performance style that features illusions performed as high-impact, dramatic or straight magic pieces. To add texture to your show, you might considering adding a comedy illusion to your repertoire. Or, if you prefer to keep your illusions dramatic and flashy, you can design your supporting/ filler material to be comedy interactive pieces; and this is a popular choice with illusionists.
I consider comedy techniques an important subject that should be studied in depth by all magicians, regardless of your style, performing status and ability level.
Comedy is a great enhancement to any show. If you are doing a show for more than 10 minutes, comedy can definitely add variety and entertainment. Applying certain comedy techniques to a straight act can do wonders. It breaks the monotony of the show and allows the audience to catch their breath and let loose.
Comedy is not accidental or simply telling a joke. Just like slick illusion choreography, comedy has to be well thought out and designed before it is infused into your show. When comedy is not ‘played’ well, it can look really cheesy. You will see this at times in illusion performances. The illusionist ‘tickles’ a body part of his assistant and she laughs in a fake way.
So, What is comedy?
Ah, that is a philosophical question that is being debated till date. A man slipping on a banana skin can be funny, so can a person standing on stage and doing nothing. A raised eyebrow can crack up an audience and so on. The thing is, anything can be comedy depending on which way you are seeing it.
In this essay, I will try to suggest time tested techniques which can bring out comic situations and increase the comedy element in your illusion show. This article is by no means exhaustive, but should be enough to get you thinking. I offer a set of readings below.
First, it is useful to identify three different types of comedy
- Visual Comedy – This is a universal form of comedy that is communicated visually. Slapstick comedy ala Charlie Chaplin is a classic example of this type of comedy.
- Verbal Comedy – This type of comedy is primarily used by stand-up comics who utilize verbal jokes, anecdotes and one-liners to create humour.
- Situational Comedy – Creating a situation that is funny on stage is difficult but mastery of this type of comedy will be appreciated by the right audience. Slydini’s ‘Paper Balls Over Head’ is an example of this type of comedy. The ’tilting table’ that tilts and causes items on the magician’s table to fall to the floor creates a situation where the spectator on stage is blamed for the ‘accident’.
Here are specific techniques that you can use to create the different types of comedy as mentioned above. Let’s start with a common one:
The Call back or Running Gag
One technique often used is the “call back”; magicians know it more as the running gag. (No, it is not a joke during the 100m dash)
This is basically saying/ doing a gag at some point in your show and repeatedly ‘calling it’ back to it later in your show. It is the repetition which makes the whole thing funny.
Magicians have made reputations with running gags which run through their show. Mac King has one with his Fig Newton’s. Kohl & Co. have one with their Amazing Growing Plant (Botania). It does not grow throughout the act but eventually it does.
David Letterman is a master at this and is evident by the way he handles his guests. His team of writers are also fantastic! There was one running gag which ran through his show throughout the week. He explained at the beginning of each show that at some point of his show, a guy on fire will run out, scream and shout, run around the stage and run back to the wings again. This happened every night for a week. It was a very visual running gag. Furthermore, Letterman would tell the audience each time that it cost US$2000 each time for the guy on fire to run out.
The beauty and genius behind this gag was actually what they did the following week. Letterman explained the that it cost too much to get the guy on fire to run out, so this week, they would have the guy run around and scream but without being on fire. He added that it would cost only US$600 and thus help save US$1400 for the network each night! This running gag ‘killed’ every single day.
A practical example for a magician to use is with a Lota bowl and a novelty called the invisible dog leash. The leash is made of a bent wire clad with leather. By holding the end of the leash, due to the way the wire is bent, it would appear that an invisible dog is at the other end.
Come out at the beginning of your show with your invisible dog. Due to your clumsiness, your dog escapes from your leash. Unable to find him, you start your show proper, but you place your dog’s urinal bowl (Lota bowl) at the corner of the stage, just in case. Throughout the show, you repeatedly empty the bowl to show that your dog has been around.
There are many other possibilities, just use your imagination.
The Magician in Trouble Plot
This plot is so common that I need not even describe it. The problem with this plot is that it has been overused. It is time to add some sophistication to this plot. Audiences are smarter and more ‘in-tune’ to this “magician in trouble” routine.
Image Credit: Captain Basilisx, U.S.A.
Acting and subtlety are the keys to making this plot successful and convincing. The audience must really believe that something has gone wrong and that you are reacting spontaneously. A few points to note: This plot, of course, cannot work in every routine you do, unless your character is the bungling magician who always messes up (e.g., Kohl & Co.) If you do so, it becomes expectant on the part of the audience. The best way to incorporate this plot into your act is to do a couple of straight successful routines then hit them with the ‘magician in trouble’ routine. This would be more credible and believable for the audience and they will have mixed feelings of anxiety, pity and probably glee.
There are two main ways of presenting the ‘magician in trouble?plot:
One, the magician knows that he is in trouble at the same time as everyone else. For example, like in a ‘Cut & Restored Rope’ routine, the ropes are suppose to restore but when you take them out of your magic bag, they are still in pieces. This is the more common of the two versions and is easier to make convincing.
The second version is a more sophisticated way to present the ‘magician in trouble plot’. It is to do with the ‘hidden element’ subtlety. Basically, the magician has no idea that he is in trouble but everyone else does. For e.g., the magician is supposed to make a silk vanish from a box but the silk ‘accidentally’ drops out from the bottom of the box without the magician knowing. (Please do not the mistake of giving exaggerated astonishment and ‘fear’ when you finally ‘discover’ that something went wrong. I have seen magicians who go, “Oh no! How could I be so careless?!?” Audiences can see through this false presentation and can telegraph that you are ‘faking it’ to get cheap laughs. They will not appreciate it. Remember, acting & subtlety!)
Usually, the magician has the last laugh as he ‘makes everything right’ eventually. This is known as a ‘Sucker effect’ which is also a common comedy magic plot.
Comedy Props and Sight Gags
These are one of the most common ways for magicians to obtain laughs. The classic Breakaway Wand & Fan, Wilting & Drooping Flower, Clatter Box and all examples of magicians’ sight gags.
Some performers have built routines around comedy props and sight gags. These include crazy inventions and visual puns. A visual pun is not a play on words but rather a direct translation of the word into a physical prop. For example, if you were to say: “I like to eat some peanuts.” And you bring out a can of metal nuts (nuts and bolts) with the letter ‘P’ written all over the can. This would be a visual comedy pun.
Novelty shops carries several of these type of visual puns from time to time. One notable item is a three karat ring which is actually a gold band with three orange carrots sticking out of it.
Other comedy gags can include the technique of exaggeration and understating. This simply means making something too big or too small. For example, giant props like toothbrushes, scissors, combs and wands are funny exaggerated props. Miniature dice, cards and coins are understated props.
You might like to invent your own comedy props. Karrell Fox’s books have a lot of comedy props. There is also a book at book stores called 99 More Useless Japanese Inventions. Some are really hilarious. Comedian, Carrot Top, made his career out of creating comedy props.
To get you started, here are a few props:
- A toothbrush with a wire and a plug attached to it. This is your ‘electric tooth brush’
- Break off the blades of a pair of scissors and call it your 100% safe scissors.
I will talk about comedy resources, in particular books. This can act as a guide to help you build up your comedy foundation and library.
There are thousands of books on humor on the market, but please, do not confuse joke books with comedy books. There are also books written by comics for light-reading but are not comedy books.
Joke books are plentiful but you must choose them wisely. Some are specially catered for children while others contain very long jokes which are unsuitable for performances. Your best bet is to look for books which are specifically one or two liners. These are jokes which has a set-up and punch-line all in one or two sentences.
An example of a one-liner is:
“If you can tell the difference between good advice and bad advice, you don’t need advice.”
An example of a two-liner would be:
“I nearly got killed today. I went into an antique shop and said: “What’s new?””
This might be new to you, but jokes have very specific formulas, just like mathematical equations. The basic structure is the set-up and the punch-line, but these can also be structured with reversals, ironies, paradoxes etc. Books on stand-up comedy in particular focus on these areas.
I recommend books by Gene Perret and Harry Allen as a start. The books by Robert Orben were considered a standard text but are very dated now. Currently, there are at least a dozen good books on the subject. Magic book catalogues should also carry several books on comedy magic.
Here are some books I recommend. I have divided them in two sections:
Stand-up Comedy in General (must read)
- The Comedy Magic Textbook – David Roper
- Zen & the Art of Stand-up Comedy – Jay Sankey
- Successful Stand-up Comedy
- Stand-up Comedy –The Book – Judy Carter
- Sleight of Mouth – Harry Allen
- How to be a working Comic – Dave Schwensen
Comedy Writing Techniques (formulation of jokes etc.)
- The Comic Toolbox – John Vorhans
- Funny Business – Sol Saks
- Comedy Writing Secrets -Melvin Helitzer
- Comedy Writing Step by Step – Gene Perret
- Comedy Techniques for Entertainers – Bruce Johnson
- Steve Strotts Comedy Course
Problem? – In context
Most are probably wondering what this means. It has nothing got to do with mistakes one make’s doing comedy but it is specifically discussing certain ‘perception?problems when one does magic and comedy. If you include only a little comedy in your otherwise straight show, there is no problem. However, if comedy is combined with your magic content runs throughout your show, this is the basic problem:
Because of two elements, magic and comedy, there is a high possibility of one element overshadowing the other. It is extremely hard to have both equally strong although it is very easy to have both equally weak. That is where the second part of the title comes in ‘in context’ This problem will only be a persisting one if you do not have a certain ‘image’ identity or clear performing character. Another possibility is that you do, but your magic is not translating this point of view.
If you bill yourself as a magician or illusionist, your magic must be stronger and the more dominating element in your act. Likewise, if you are a comedian, vice-versa.
Even if you are a magic comedian or a comedy magic, your second title usually points out your specialty or base trade. Thus, the stronger element must be in-line with your base trade. If you are a comedy juggler, the impression created to your audience should be of a funny juggler and not of a comedian who can juggle. It is important for you to make this distinction clear to yourself in order to progress in the art of magic and to be a better performer.
Let me relate some personal experiences regarding this problem. When I first wrote this article about six years ago, I was working very hard to develop my corporate stage show. I had already developed several strong routines and it was a matter of scripting the whole show and bringing all the acts together. I did succeed (or so I thought) to come up with an entertaining and magical show. All along, I had worked hard at being a technically sound magician and it had only been in the last year or two (at that time) that I seriously studied various comedy techniques and applied it to my act.
Here came the problem, after presenting this particular show at a number of functions, feedback was very positive but not what I wanted to hear. Positive in the sense that, comments ranged from “very entertaining”, “funny” and “like a comedy show” etc. This would be okay if I viewed myself as a comedian doing magic, but I’m not! I am a magician. Strangely enough, I never had any problem when I performed close-up or parlor. This strongly suggested my lack of competence on stage.
After, evaluating all these shows, I realized the problem. I had too many “comedy items” more specifically, 50% of the show was made up of sucker/ gag type routines. That strongly diminished the impact of my intended strong routines. The impression I created was of a comedian doing magic. So people viewed my intended strong effects as clever puzzles or ‘tricks’ This forced me to modify some of my routines, add more straight and visual pieces of magic and cut down heavily on the sucker effects.
This proved to be a good choice as the balance of straight magic to comedy in the show is a healthy 75% magic, 25% comedy – most of my comedy is situational and verbal. This is ideal for my performing style and clientele.
However, just like magic, comedy is very personal. What works for one may not work for another magician. The only way one can improve is by performing and trying it. I suggest adding new lines and jokes to your act little by little. In this way, you can see if the joke falls flat or plays well.
Good Luck and be Funny!