Comedian Jerry Seinfeld recently made headlines with his statements about how college campuses are too “PC” for comedy due to college students’ lack of understanding about sensitive topics like racism or sexism.
“I hear that all the time,” Seinfeld said. “I don’t play colleges, but I hear a lot of people tell me, ‘Don’t go near colleges. They’re so PC.’ I’ll give you an example: My daughter’s 14. My wife says to her, ‘Well, you know, in the next couple years, I think maybe you’re going to want to be hanging around the city more on the weekends, so you can see boys.’ You know what my daughter says? She says, ‘That’s sexist.’ They just want to use these words: ‘That’s racist'; ‘That’s sexist'; ‘That’s prejudice.’ They don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Well I may not be a stand up comedian, but I’m a comedian and magician who has performed at over 500 college campuses in the last decade and I can say that I wholeheartedly disagree with Seinfeld’s comments.
1. Jerry Seinfeld doesn’t work college campuses. While he may perform at an occasional college campus with a ton of money, or give a commencement speech here and there, Jerry Seinfeld admits in his statement that he doesn’t work colleges. He doesn’t have his finger on the pulse of what college students are like. He’s basing his opinion on a thing that college comedians love to complain about. “Colleges are too PC.” I suspect that comedians who complain about this use it as an excuse for a joke that goes over with a comedy club crowd and falls flat with college students. Or maybe they think they’re not getting repeat bookings with colleges and blaming it on the college being “too PC.” I can’t speak for them. But I do know that there are MANY comedians who make a decent living from performing at colleges and they have no problems with this issue. They know the audience and they know the gig (see number 4).
2. This isn’t just a “college campus issue.”
Are college students politically correct and sometimes a little too quick to claim that they’re offended? Yes. Guess who else is? F***ing everyone. College students are intelligent, quick, and connected. They GET IT. They know pop culture more than anyone else in the world and while some of them may still have naive or underdeveloped views about socio-political issues, they know right from wrong. If we’re going to have a discussion about college students getting “too PC” to take a joke, we need to be having it about everyone. College students aren’t any more politically correct than a diverse television viewing audience. There are some great debates out there about whether political correctness is killing comedy. I can see both sides of that argument. But that’s not what I’m here to write about.
First of all, the example Seinfeld gave about his 14 year old daughter is somewhat irrelevant. That’s not the type of misunderstanding of sexism that would keep a joke from being funny in a college. So what would keep a joke from being accepted as funny in a college?
3. Jokes that disparage groups of people just aren’t funny.
In my experience, college students don’t want to hear jokes that disparage groups of people. It’s not only because it’s not politically correct; it’s because gay jokes, fat jokes, sexist jokes are easy, unintelligent and lack creativity. They’re not funny because there’s not that much effort involved in writing them. I have watched nationally-known comedians bomb with college students by trying to do entire sets based on homophobic material. The crowd goes silent, the tweets and Yik Yaks start flying. I’ve personally witnessed it on multiple occasions.
This reminds me of a joke from one of my favorite comedians, Mike Birbiglia: “I wasn’t like the class clown in school growing up. I think the class clown was always the mean guy who walks in the room and was like, ‘You’re fat! You’re gay! I’m outta here!’ You know? I was always a little fat, a little gay; I never got along with that guy.”
The stuff that goes over in colleges is comedy that is relatable. Today’s audiences want the person onstage to be someone they feel like they could hang out with. There’s a reason people love Jimmy Fallon. Gone are the days of the comedian being the guy in the room who is cooler than everyone and has to prove it by making fun of everyone he can. Now before you say it, YES, I do often call a guy a “dick” in my shows. But I’m very adamant about doing it in a way that makes it feel the same way it would feel if that guy were one of my best friends.
4. These are learning institutions, not comedy clubs.
I’ll stress again that I’m not a stand-up comedian. What I do is a different game. But I see entertainers go into the college market expecting that THIS is the place they can really let go. Of all places, colleges are supposed to fulfill that Animal House stereotype of anything-goes reckless abandon. It’s like they forget that they’re performing in a student union ballroom next to an academic advisor’s office. If a joke works in a comedy club but falls flat in a college, there are many situational factors that could be blamed. Political correctness may be one of them. But there are other issues to think about. In a comedy club, people are usually there with a small group of close friends. Those people usually know each other very well and the rest of the room is full of strangers. In a college, a student is aware of the impression he or she is making on everyone around them. There isn’t the amount of anonymity in a college audience that you find in a comedy club. It’s not as easy to laugh at sensitive topics when you think the people around you might hold you responsible for your views. Everyone can be a little bit of an asshole when they’re anonymous.
5. This is a business. Show business people often forget about the second word. This is a business. The discussion about the commerciality of art and “selling out” will go on forever in coffee shops and art studios around the world. Are we creating our art for them or for us? At a certain point, we must realize that if we are being paid to do our art, we have to accept that we’re living by the rules of the person who pays us. If they don’t like what we do, they won’t rebook us. Many times it’s not the students who are the barometer of what is acceptable in a college, but the administrator or director of student activities. They will clearly tell you if you shouldn’t drop “F-bombs.” And I hear about it when a comedian disregards these rules. I hear about it when a director or administrator says “Oh, _____ won’t be invited back here. We asked them to keep it kind of clean, but they were way too dirty.” So is that the fault of the audience? Why paint college students with the broad brush of “they’re too PC” when it’s the comedian who made a bad business decision? I know. It’s not sexy to talk about comedy or any art as a business. But we kind of have to, right? Did Seinfeld complain when the FCC censored scripts on his show? Probably not, because he was getting a million dollars an episode.
So I ask the question: What jokes do Jerry Seinfeld and others want to do in colleges that they feel like they can’t? Do they wish they could do more gay jokes? Racist jokes? I honestly would love an example of a joke that works in other venues, but not colleges. I would be willing to bet that if it doesn’t play in a college, it also doesn’t play on television. Seinfeld has always prided himself on working clean. He’s a clean comedian, so what material is he afraid won’t hit hard in colleges? As far as the college market goes, Jerry doesn’t have a dog in the fight. He can say what he wants. Most colleges don’t have “Jerry Seinfeld” money anyway. They can book one of the MANY comedians making a living on working college campuses. I’ve been asked by a lot of people about my opinion on this matter. Are people too PC these days? Maybe. But as someone who visits 80-100 college campuses a year, I can tell you that college audiences are some of the best and they love to laugh just like every one else.
I would love to hear your opinion on this matter. If you’re a stand up comedian, or a comedian who works in colleges, what are your views?
I’ve come a long way in my career and I am still learning every day. Along the road, there have been a lot of ups and downs that are natural with a career in the entertainment industry. I’ve put together a list of things that maybe would have relieved a little stress and anxiety had I known them beforehand. It’s my hope that this list is useful not just to magicians or to people in show business, but to all entrepreneurs.
1. Your audience will never be aware of 80% of the work you do in this business. But they would know instantly if you didn’t do it.
I recently spent 2 hours editing some bumper music so that it fit my show perfectly. The result? About 15 seconds of music that plays in my show under applause and my talking. The audience never really hears it. But I wanted it to be perfect. And though they don’t recognize it, it contributes to the feeling I’m trying to create in the room. If I didn’t put in that work, the result wouldn’t be the same. The audience might not know exactly what it was, but they’d realize something wasn’t right. It’s about details. The same can be said for spending an hour shining the chrome on one of my props. They will never know I spent that time. But they would probably notice if I didn’t.
On a tour, 80% (or more) of the “work” is the travel and preparation. In show business, there’s an old saying that “We don’t get paid for the show. We get paid for all the work leading up to the show. The show is the reward.” Keeping this in mind, I never mind spending those extra hours working on the most minute of projects as long as they will contribute to a better show. NOTE: This includes education. Those months and years we spend reading the texts on our art are invaluable. Some of the knowledge we gain will not be directly useful to our art immediately. Some will never be directly useful. But until we study what has been done before us, we will never know if what we are doing is great.
2. If You Try to Be All Things to All People, You End Up Being Nothing to Everybody.
This applies both to show marketing AND to performance. What do you want to accomplish with your show? This was a question that took me years and years to answer. A more appropriate question for many young entertainers is “Who do you want to entertain?” Many inexperienced entertainers just want to perform so badly that they will accept any gig they can get their hands on. The results can be detrimental to business, reputation and to the ability to grow as a performer. This includes taking gigs that may be biting off more than you can chew, gigs for which your act is not a good fit and gigs that aren’t in a pay rate that matches your act (both above and below). If you’re kicking butt as a kids’ magician and have been for years, you may not be the best fit working at a corporate trade show where you may be out of your element. You may have developed a skill set that works for entertaining a specific set of individuals and those skills may not translate to other audiences.
As far as marketing goes, your target buyer must be able to envision you at their event. If I’m looking for a kids show entertainer and all of your promo has you wearing clothing with skulls, it’s probably not a good fit (and you might want to rethink your style decisions). Likewise, if I’m looking for a street entertainer and all of your promo videos show you performing in ballrooms for suited business people, I’ll probably go for the kid with the skulls. You can’t be all things to all people.
3. Find Your Unique Voice
Knowing who you are onstage is key. And sadly, there’s no way to really know this until you have performed hundreds (literally hundreds) of shows. Another old saying is “Why be a second-rate version of someone else when you can be a first-rate version of YOU?” Consider this: If you perform a show that is truly YOU, no one will ever be able to duplicate that and you’ll be one-of-a-kind. For some people, performing as yourself isn’t an option. Some people are performing as a character onstage. I urge you to put yourself into that character. Make it an extension of you. Live through it. Then it will truly be unique, only because it will be you. With the hundreds of mannerisms, non-verbals, inflections and other nuances that make up our personality, an audience can tell if we are not being genuine.
I once had dinner with a comedy friend who passed some advice to me that he had received from Don Rickles. Rickles said, “The second you step foot onstage, the audience knows exactly who you are – sometimes even better than you do. And if what you say and do doesn’t match that, they’re not going to like you.” I still think this is great advice. I don’t take this advice to mean “change what you say and do to match the audience’s expectations” as much as I understand it to mean “make sure that you’re portraying an accurate picture of yourself onstage.” In everything you do, from the quickest phone call to the biggest project, be unapologetically YOU.
4. The beginning is probably going to suck.
Being self-employed, especially in the entertainment industry, is a job that requires a certain amount of ego. There’s a certain amount already there when we decided to make the leap into employing ourselves. Sometimes it prevents us from being okay with our failures. The tendency in the beginning is to react in one of two ways. We either get discouraged, or we put on blinders and ignore our mistakes. The second option here, which is the earnest beginning to delusions of grandeur, is a common phenomenon especially among magicians learning a new move in the mirror. During the part of the move that we’re not the best at, we tend to blink. Literally – many learning blink their eyes so that they experience the trick or the move the way the audience is intended to see it. This way we can imagine the way it’s supposed to look rather than see the reality of our suckiness. This is a truth as well as a nice metaphor. It’s really difficult, if not impossible to know how much we suck if there aren’t other people telling us. But we have to learn that failure is okay. Once we’re not afraid of failure, we can grow as artists. Stand-up comedians will be the first to tell you this truth. In order to be a good stand-up, a person has to be okay with going onstage and having a room full of people hate you. It’s going to happen. It’s the dharma of comedy – there’s no avoiding it. The difference between the good comedians and the ones who quit is that the good comedians learned from it and weren’t scared by how much they sucked. Ira Glass recently did a video talking about how even through we may not be that good in the beginning, there’s an underlying goodness to our work that has more to do with our taste and instinct. Check it out:
If we learn to keep a beginner’s mind about our work, we will always improve. It frustrates me to no end whenever I produce a new demo video. After the weeks it takes to get the video made, I look back at it and I’m never 100% happy. Mostly because since the video was shot, I’ve changed things in the show – improved things. And I always wish that I had the new, improved version in the video. But by the time I do the next video, there will just be more things that I’ve improved and it becomes an endless cycle. This cycle is a good thing. Sometimes I look back at the show I used to do and I can’t believe how bad it was. At the time, people loved it. But I know that it is so much better now. And in the future, I’ll look at the work I’m doing now the same way. I recently gave the following advice to a friend starting a business in a short amount of time. “You’ve got the rest of your life to make it perfect; now is the time to make it work.”
5. This is rare. Enjoy it.
Getting to make a living, or even supplement a living with something you’re passionate is rare. Not many people actually get to live their dream. There have been many 8 hour drives, 3 hour flight delays, insufficient sound systems, difficult promoters, and other headaches that have sometimes made me forget that. Those long hours practicing, learning, and editing a 15 second clip of music sometimes can drive me crazy. But I have to remember how amazing it is that I’m creating my own future doing something I love. It would be kind of nice to have some of those stress and anxiety-filled times back so I could enjoy the moment. And although this list is “Things I Wish I Would Have Known in the Beginning,” this is something that I constantly have to remind myself. This is rare. This is something special. And whenever you hear me complaining about it, you have permission to kick my ass.
I’m excited to announce that my original popped and restored balloon effect, repAIR, is now available for purchase worldwide, making it my first ever release to the magic community. repAIR is an effect in which a balloon is inflated, tied in a knot, popped, and then repAIRed and inflated once again. Your hands can be shown empty both before and after the trick.
repAIR is available exclusively through Theory11.com :: The Wire, and was one of the few tricks to be chosen to be launched along with the revolutionary new magic marketplace. From Theory11’s website:
Imagine it: You walk up to a group of people. After asking for one of the girls’ numbers and being rejected, you pull out a balloon from your pocket and begin to inflate it. You remove a pencil from your pocket and pop the balloon, scaring the crap out of the girl (whom you are probably too good for anyway) and she begins to cry. Let’s face it: there’s nothing worse than a crying girl. You immediately start to massage the broken balloon pieces until they fuse together, allowing you to blow the balloon up once again. She gives you her number, but you don’t call because she’s been with all your friends. You instead make a fart noise with the balloon and put it back into your pocket – she doesn’t deserve it.
repAIR happens right in front of their faces and you’re able to show both hands completely empty before and after the effect. There’s no need to load, ditch or swallow anything. It’s super practical, extremely baffling, and looks like real magic.
“Hi, I’m a Magician.” I said this last night more than I have in a long time. It was part of a social experiment.
Ever since I was young, I’ve had an issue with saying “I’m a Magician.” When I was young and first studying magic, it was difficult to determine at what point I WAS a Magician. After I had mastered one trick? Three tricks? One show? One year of performing? Later, the issue became whether or not I wanted OTHER people to call me a Magician. I always thought being a Magician made me look nerdy, and I wasn’t okay with that. So I did what many other Magicians did. I used other terms. At first, it was “I’m an Illusionist.” Then I realized how ridiculously pretentious that is unless you’re doing large-scale illusions (in magic jargon, the terms “illusion” and “illusionist” are generally reserved for large-scale tricks involving people, large stage props, big animals, cars, etc.). Then I was a “Magical Entertainer” because that’s what my boss at the time told me to tell people.
As my act developed into a comedy act, I would learn to tell people I was a “Comedy Magician,” but no one knew exactly what that was. So I started saying “Comic and Magician” or “Comedian and Magician” which is easier for people to understand. There are common social situations in which people commonly ask what you do. One of them is when you’re getting your haircut. This has been a time for me to play with different ways of explaining what I do and giving my little elevator speech. Sometimes I’ll simply say “I’m a comedian” because that way I know they won’t ask to see a trick. Another fear is if I say “I’m a Magician,” the next words out of their mouths are “Aww, my 6 year old daughter would LOVE that!”
Last night I attended a Speed Networking event for the local Chamber of Commerce. For those of you who don’t know what that is, Speed Networking works the same way as Speed Dating. There are several small tables set up and you rotate every three minutes to meet someone new and briefly explain who you are and what you do, exchange business cards, then it’s off to the next table. Just enough time to tell someone what I do – not enough time to do a trick. It was the perfect opportunity to try an experiment. I wanted to tell every table there very plainly and very openly nothing but the words “I am a Magician” and see how they react.
It may not seem like a big deal, but it actually was for me. It’s been a really long time since I’ve simply introduced myself as a Magician without adding some sort of other word to help distinguish me from what my insecurities told me was already going on in his or her head. In my head, they’re asking questions like “when are you going to grow up and get a real job?” “you can make a living out of that?” or “Aww, my 6 year old daughter would LOVE that!” So I added things like “I am a Magician for adults,” or “I am a Magician who makes fun of magic while also doing magic.” These are fairly accurate descriptions and they set me apart from the other Magicians. But part of what I’ve realized is that most of the people I meet have never met another Magician. And some might not ever meet another Magician. So instead of trying to distinguish myself from the other Magicians with words – why not just tell them “I’m a Magician,” and see where their imagination takes them?
I used the Speed Networking event to do just that. I sat down at the first table and said “Hi, I’m Michael Kent. I’m a Magician.” I said it with bright eyes and it was kind of fun to say. Every set of eyes I said it to lit up. It was a different reaction than “I’m a Magician, but…” or “I’m a Magician who…” It wasn’t confusing. It was straight forward and direct. I am a Magician. I am. That’s what I do. I would let my personality, my appearance and my rapport with them tell the rest of the story. Maybe THEY would go home and say “I met a Magician, but he wasn’t like other Magicians.” I don’t need to tell them that. If I’m a Magician who’s also funny, I would tell them “I’m a Magician” and simply BE funny. Otherwise I’m not telling them the truth. Don’t call yourself an Illusionist if you don’t do Illusions. Don’t call yourself a Mentalist if you read minds for 10 minutes of a 60 minute magic show. I’m a Magician. All of the other things will come out socially and naturally. But the core of what I do – the most marketable aspect of what I do is just that – magic. The experiment was a success. I received so many interesting reactions last night that from now on, I believe I’ll be thinking differently about how I introduce myself to people.
Michael Kent is a master at getting laughs. His smartass personality gives his magic an edge that keeps fans engaged, impressed and energized. He is the life of the party during his shows, and that’s no accident. He figures out exactly what kind of reactions he wants, then sets his performance accordingly.
Thanks to Ellusionist.com for asking me to do the interview. Feel free to comment on the story!
While I like to make fun of magic, I really am a lifelong student and fan of the art. There were MANY tricks/routines/illusions that could have made this list, but here are ten.
10. Zig Zag Lady Illusion This is a classic illusion that many people envision when they think of an illusionist. It’s one of those illusions that, even though it has been exposed many times in print and television, it is still baffling to watch. The basic idea is that a girl enters a box standing up, is cut into three pieces and the middle part of her body is slid away from the rest. I’ve never owned this illusion, but always wanted to – if nothing else, just for the classic magic cliche appearance of the thing. It would be a neat thing to have in my house. Here’s the illusion’s inventor, Robert Harbin, presenting it as it was intended – as a talking routine.
9. Self-Levitation (as performed on Television by David Blaine) I learned this levitation when on an old dubbed video I watched when I worked in a magic shop in 1995. Eleven years later, David Blaine performed it on television and stunned a world-wide audience. The trick itself is not that amazing when you see it live. Did Blaine use the camera to his advantage? Yes. You can’t perform it like he did there. But the reason it made this list is simple. This one trick took the magic-world by STORM. I was working doing magic 4 nights a week in restaurants in 1996 when this aired and every night I would get asked at least 3 times “Can you float like David Blaine?” No other single magic trick has had that much of an impact in my lifetime in a social situation. Taking magic to the “street” made it more accessible to non-magicians and this one trick is the perfect mascot for the “street magic” movement. In reality, it is difficult if not impossible to perform for strangers on the street without a film crew there to make you a desirable person to be approaching strangers. I still get asked “Can you make the Statue of Liberty disappear?” referring to a trick that Copperfield did in 1983 which speaks to the power of one trick, but anyone under the age of 30 has replaced that question with “Can you float like David Blaine.” Blaine is solely responsible for making magic exciting again for young people in the late 90s and into the new millennium.
8. Tom Mullica’s Cigarette Routine Wow. I remember watching this routine on “World’s Greatest Magic” and just thinking “There’s no way!” Years later, Mullica put out some DVDs explaining how to do the act. Even after that, no one could do it.
7. Multiplying Bottles (Ken Brooke Routine) This is a classic. It just LOOKS like magic to me. I perform it in almost every show. My routine is similar to the routine that most magicians perform, mainly because we’re all studied the same manuscript from the legendary British Magician, Ken Brooke. I’ve developed several other original routines for the bottles over the years, but none of them get the impact that Brooke’s routine gets. Here’s a great performance of the Ken Brooke Routine by Nick Lewin:
6. Steve Martin’s “Flydini” This routine is the blacksheep of the list, in that it is the only thing listed here that is solely a comedy act rather than a trick/illusion. Famous Comedian/Actor/Writer/Director Steve Martin started his career doing magic, and this act still makes me laugh every time I see it. True inspiration:
5. Floating Ball (Teller)
It’s probably safe to say that Penn & Teller’s show one of my favorite magical acts of all time. Right now, Teller is doing a trick with a red ball that almost made me cry. It certainly made me rethink the idea of beauty in magic. The classic “Don Wayne” Floating Ball has been performed by many of the best, including David Copperfield & Lance Burton (who changed the concept by floating a bird cage). But I had the chance to see Teller’s version in November and it was far beyond incredible. By the end of the bit, you actually believed that the ball had a life of its own. The entire audience sat in complete silence through the routine in utter AWE. All you need to know about Teller’s performance is in this interview with Teller, A man, a ball, a hoop, a bench (and an alleged thread)… TELLER!
4. Sponge Balls/Sponge Bunnies Yes. I know. The very mention of “sponge balls” sounds lame beyond compare to the average hipster magician or magic-fan. Everyone wants to be doing magic with real-everyday-items. I certainly understand the argument. That said, I also have performed sponge balls thousands upon thousands of times for everyday audiences and it is one of the most memorable things that an audience member can experience. This is proven to me on a weekly basis when I see an old friend from college who asks me “Hey, do you have the balls with you?” You can imagine the multitude of responses I have come up with over time. I, myself have the ability to suspend my disbelief when a magician performs sponge balls for me and I can actually make myself believe that the magic is happening even though I know how the trick is done. Brian Gillis has a really great sponge ball routine. Here’s a video of yours truly performing the sponge balls for United States Army Soldiers in Seoul, South Korea. This video was taken when I didn’t know the cameras were rolling.
3. Sam the Bellhop by Bill Malone
Story tricks can be long and boring. But Bill has taken the old idea of a story trick and turned it into something that is enjoyable throughout, and can definitely be described as “cute.” It’s one of those routines that, if you do it (Malone has released the rights to the routine available for magicians to purchase and perform), people will always ask you to perform it for them again. I once developed a story replacing the characters and places in the story with those in Columbus, OH (my hometown). One day I will re-examine it and make a video for you. Here’s Bill’s version:
2. Cups and Balls (Ricky Jay/Penn & Teller)
Many magicians would be surprised to know that I’ve never once performed a Cups and Balls routine. Often referred to as the oldest conjuring trick in magic’s history, I LOVE a good Cups and Balls routine. Sadly, most Cups and Balls routines are predictable and boring. Here are two of my favorite: a historical look at Cups and Balls by Ricky Jay and a transparent version with Penn & Teller (where, even though they’re showing you how it’s done – you’re still impressed).
1. David Copperfield’s “Snow”
In my show, I end the performance with a satirical story about my father and the stars. It’s basically a spoof on the “Snowstorm” routine that many magicians perform. It is a fact that when 80% of magicians are performing this effect, they are (knowingly or unknowingly) attempting to channel David Copperfield’s “Snow.” Yes, it is mellowdramatic. Yes, it may be a little cheesy. But I’ve seen it several times, both live and on television, and it’s very powerful. Art is designed to elicit an emotional response from the audience. This one does a pretty damn good job.
Magicians like to accuse each other of stealing their ideas. I’ve seen it in other industries as well. Comedians do it too, but a comedian telling someone else’s joke is never as funny than a comedian telling their own joke. So there’s kind of a built in originality police there. Magicians perform each other’s tricks without permission all the time. Then they claim it’s original because they added their own personality to it. Professional Speakers do it too. I’ve seen 4 professional speakers all tell the same personal story about something that happened to them in their life.
I’ve personally had my original ideas ripped off. Some people tell me I should be flattered. But when you spend months writing and refining a script and find out someone else has done it verbatim without your permission, it’s irritating to say the least.
The “Stars” is a pet routine of mine that I enjoyed writing with the help of Michael Hitchcock and I’ve been told other entertainers have stolen.
I’ve been working hard lately to try to remove all the stock material from my act (stock material is a term that usually refers to jokes/gags that are so old they have no clear point of origin and are generally considered “fair game” for use. The result is that everyone uses them!). The difficult part of this, and the ultimate dilemma is that stock lines work! Some of them get an awesome reaction, and that’s why they became stock lines in the first place! Here’s one that I don’t personally use, but I’ve heard MANY magicians use:
Magician: Where are you from?
Magician: I’m sorry?
Magician: No, I heard you, I’m just sorry.
Now that’s a particularly shitty and insulting version of a stock line and they’re not all that bad. But that one makes me cringe. Another is a moment that happens in most straight jacket escapes in which the performer is being put into the straight jacket and creates a joke out of the fact that the middle strap has to be pulled tightly across the crotch. Usually this is accompanied by a stock line like “You sure you’ve never done this before?” or the performer subsequently talking with a high-pitched voice. I don’t mean to be condescending – I still have stock lines in my act.
So one of the things I’ve been trying hard to do is to replace any and all stock material in my act with material that I’ve written for myself. Not only does this make me feel better about the act and myself, but it usually results in better material! There is no better material than that which is created specifically for you.
At times, there’s a place for using others’ material with permission. This is common in magic. Many times a magician will sell the “performance rights” to a particular idea. In this instance, sure – its ethically fine to use the material. But many times, this “store bought” material isn’t nearly as powerful as it could be if you find a way to really make it “you.” This is difficult sometimes. Take the Multiplying Bottles routine that I perform. The routine that I regularly perform is very very close to the original Ken Brooke routine from 50 years ago. I have written at least two other routines and performed them, but neither has gotten the reaction from the audience as the original Ken Brooke routine. It seems to simply be the perfect application for that particular prop. I someday hope to write a routine that is more original, but until then, I plan to continue to use the performance as it is.
To use another example from my own act, let’s talk about “The Yellow Trick.” This is a comedy gag I had used in my act since I was a teenager. At some point, I put it together and it got a laugh, so I used it all the time. Here’s the premise:
I display an envelope. As I ask for an audience member to think of a color – any color (“and don’t let me influence which color you’re thinking of”), I remove a bright yellow sign from the envelope. I turn over the envelope which says “The Yellow Trick.” “Now don’t YELL-OWT the color until I ask,” I would say. They name the color. “Red,” they say. Then I turn over the sign and it says “Red” in bold letters. As I take my applause and turn to put it away, a flap falls down where the word “Red” was written and the audience sees a dozen other colors written behind the word “Red.”
A photo of me performing “The Yellow Trick”
It was a goofy gag, got a huge laugh and if you ever saw David Copperfield in the early 90’s, it may seem familiar. I didn’t realize until later that I had ripped off Chris Kenner’s “Texas Trick.” A hilarious comedy gag with the same premise. Kenner used to do the intermission show for David Copperfield and now acts as the Main Man Behind the Scenes (official title) for Copperfield. Kenner’s trick as I remember it, was as follows:
Chris displays an envelope. He asks for an audience member to think of a state – any state (“and don’t let me influence which state you’re thinking of”), he removes a Texas-shaped sign from the envelope. He turns over the envelope which says “The Texas Trick.” After talking for a bit in a thick Texas accent, he asks them to name the state. “Alabama,” they say. Then he turns over the sign and it says “Alabama” in bold letters. As he takes his applause and turns to put it away, a flap falls down where the word “Alabama” was written and the audience sees a dozen other states written behind the word “Alabama.”
Yep. Same damn trick. I was a thief. Why did I steal the gag and think I hadn’t? Well, as a young magician learning the ropes, I probably didn’t realize the value of original material. And by changing it to a color instead of a state, I probably thought I had made it mine.
I did the right thing. I spent a few hours locked in my office determined to write a better opener. The result became what is now my favorite part of the show. I won’t get into what it is exactly, but it’s much better because it’s me. And it’s not the intellectual property of someone else!
A photo of the routine that replaced “The Yellow Trick”
Striving for originality is a fun adventure for me, and in a profession with so many copy-cats, it makes me feel genuinely proud to replace something in my show with something that’s original. The entire hour-long show isn’t 100% original yet – there’s still some hard-to-let-go stock material here and there – but it will be. And there’s no better feeling than having people enjoy a creation that came from your experiences and your imagination.