Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Norman; an unfortunate truth

I was down in Dublin last week doing a wee gig at the Comedy Crunch. Went ok, thanks for asking until I tried to get home and had to wait 4 hours for a bus.  Showbusiness, eh?
It's a nice wee gig, intimate and suits my relaxed style. Nice to meet all the Dublin lads, too.
Anyhow was talking to Kevin McGahern, who has a great act with some beautifully written surreal set pieces, and he asked me about Norman.
Norman is my spring puppet known to most magicians as Rocky because that is what he is called on the box he comes in. He also comes with an instruction manual. Which brings me back to Kevin, who asked me what my inspiration was for my Norman routine.  I was a bit taken aback for a second, as the prop mainly inspired the routine so I thought he might be making a point (I don’t think he was, he’s nice fellow and was just making conversation) but I had to admit that a lot of that routine is “inspired” by the book of instructions that came with it.
In fact: look at this:

Now hold on a second with that pitchfork, stop nailing those planks together. I’m not doing Dave’s bit (many magicians do do Dave's act word for word and it's very amusing seeing a 13 year old youtuber claiming he was "having a corporate lunch at a restaurant the other day"...)
His routine is (in his words) “... basically the Magic Masters pitch with a sprinkling of original stuff on top”. I would say that describes a lot of my routine, too.
The Magic Masters are the manufacturers of this prop and these gags are used to sell it. Still though,  doing a gag from a book isn’t very artistically fulfilling is it? Norman is the least original thing I do.
Why am I doing this expose on myself? (I was originally going to call todays blog "Some clown who exposes himself" but thought better of it)
Well firstly, I can hardly take the moral highground and spout off about artistic integrity without pointing out my own flaws.
And secondly by being honest about what isn't very original I can also honestly point out that most of what I do is very original.
Now for those of you who have seen my Norman bit will know that I far from do the same act as Dave word for word. One of the main stipulations I had for this routine before I performed it on the comedy circuit was that the words would be mine even if the actions I performed might be old. So the gags were completely rewritten. The lamest example of this would be replacing "Madonna" with "Julia Roberts" less "rewriting" more googling "celebrity underarm hair". On the other end of the spectrum there are many completely original verbal and visual bits aswell. (The battery line, the tightrope walk, the weasely gag etc are all 100% original)

So after spouting off about hackyness, I thought I'd turn it on myself to find out what you guys think.

I would say my Norman bit is 60% original visually and 90% original verbally. Which is probably 60% and 90% more original than a lot of magicians out there and 40% and 10% less original than a lot of comedians out there...

The hack parts are from the sellers of the product, so no plagarism here but are there any victims? Is it just a shame for me that I can't claim this is 100% original or is it unfair for me to use something like this as other performers don't get props that come with jokes?

There's a poll at the bottom of this page.

Tell me what to do.


Monday, 14 February 2011

More on plagarism and some thoughts on children's entertainment

I've recieved a few comments on the Stewart Lee clip I included in the last post. It is a great riposte to his actions and you may be interested in Lee's original article too:

I also recieved a message from a respected UK comedy magician telling how Joe's Buckets of Doom was actually a routine Joe stole from them. The originator of the routine decided to be the bigger man and just let it go but it makes you wonder how much of Joe's stuff is his own. Maybe someday I'll start the behemoth of a task of sourcing all of his material just to see what's what.

It's also been mentioned that I'm quite self-deprecating and focus on what doesn't work. One of the followers of this blog is the wonderful Mr Danny Hustle. A Boston based magician who learnt his art/trade on the streets and runs the Buskers cafe forum. He often mentions that magicians suffer from "laughing ears" whereby they die on their hoop but for some reason think they've done marvelously. I think I have the opposite I hear the gaps and the mistakes and forget the laughs. I have done several gigs where I absolutely stormed it. People knee-slapping, crying and rolling around gigs. This immediately becomes my new benchmark and although everyone tells me I've stormed a gig I know I can do better. A touch of the laughing ears might actually help my stage confidence. I'm also a bit deaf...

I've also noticed I'm more conscious of when the adults aren't laughing at my kids show (getting the children laughing is no longer a worry) since I started stand up. I have to remind myself that I'm still doing a great job entertaining the kids and it doesn't really matter if the adults don't pick up on all my throwaway lines for them.

Which leads us nicely into my thoughts on Children's entertainment.

To entertain the adults or not is one of the many recurring arguments in "The Little Darlings" which is the childrens entertainer's section of the Magic Cafe website. I used to argue one should entertain the children and forget about the adults.(The opposite argument usually pertained to the fact that the adults are paying the fees to which I would point out that if you hired someone to decorate a nursery should they do the bedroom instead since the baby isn't paying. This is a weak argument there are many reasons you should entertain the adults but they are primarily paying you to entertain the children)

 I still believe that entertaining the children should be your premier goal and one shouldn't include adult stuff at the expense of the children or if it takes away from the entertainment value to the children of your routine. Here's why I think you should entertain the adults:
  • When the adults aren't entertained they will talk and make the show less entertaining for the children. Not only is it a distraction but as you are walking a fine line being silly/funny while also keeping the respect and authority to control the childers, adults talking shows the children that they don't have respect for what you are saying and therefore they lead by example. If you have a point in your show where you need silence to contrast the mayhem a child can ruin the timing and feeling of a routine by shouting out at the wrong time. They are much less likely to shout out when surrounded by a cloak of silence than when there is a buzz from the back of the room.
  • When I was a kid I used to watch "Only fools and horses" with my parents. I probably didn't get most of the jokes but being in the atmosphere of adults laughing made me happy and made me laugh aswell. Adults laughing gives the children confirmation of the fact that you are a funny guy and lets them know it is alright to laugh.
  • Why not? If you can entertain everyone in the room without taking away from the children's entertainment isn't that a better goal than just winning over half the room?

As I mentioned that is one of the classic arguments in "The little Darlings" an odd corner of the internet admittedly. I'm quite happy to admit I'm a big kid who plays with toys for a living but some folks there are desperate to confirm that their lifestyle choice is an a noble and intelligent one. I believe it is too but think some of the ways folks want to prove this sound pompous and desperate.

I think entertaining children is an artform but I know that most laypeople just think I'm a big, silly, funnyman and don't expect the public to realise that my sillyness is a highly crafted silliness and that I'm also doing a myriad of subtle and psychological things while performing to keep interest, control energy levels and subtely stamp on potential problems before they happen.

If stand ups can't convince the world that what they are doing is an artform, how are we clowns going to do it? Let it go and just know it in yourself that your work is not going to be fully understood or appreciated.

Another thing I find especially among some US entertainers is the desire to find the secret or the formula for entertaining kids. (I feel like I'm making a bit of a sweeping statement here about americans but interestingly my uncle who is a champion horseman went to the US to teach riding and mentioned to me that he found the same thing; people looking for the secrets and formulas for something that could only really be learned by getting on a horse and practising)

This of course can be done to some extent. Noo Yoik entertainer Silly Billy has done a great job, in his book, of taking the classic principles of children's entertainment and turning them into sound-chomping metaphors enabling children's entertainers to answer newbies questions while also sounding like a mysterious Zen Guru. Anyone who says "It's the journey, not the destination" has clearly never been to Larne.

These neat "rules" consist of stuff like
  • MIT (Magician in trouble): Do you think Tommy Cooper got his laughs by applying MIT theory to his tricks or do you think he just found it funny when his world started collapsing around him. Things going wrong is funny why label it?
  • LPM (Laughs per  minute): A ridiculous theory whereby you rate how successful your show is by dividing laughs by time, then presumably going home turning it into a graph which you can examine at will with a protractor and a compass and improve your act forwith. My suggestion of renaming it CPTITTBAE (Chuckles per time it takes to boil an egg) never really caught on.
  • Look don't see. The it's/he's behind you thing they do in pantomimes. Not sure why it's called "look, don't see".  The best way I know of not seeing something is by not looking...
It's basically stuff any old hand already knows but has now been given a snappy title. A way you can construct an act using formulas rather than going out there and finding out what makes you and the children laugh. Many may find them handy and I probably would've had a better show starting out being able to see these things clearly but I would've missed out on the wonderful learning process of finding these techniques out for myself and would've probably never created some great bits in my shows that fly in the face of all these ideas.

They also get overused. There are many parts in my show that work because the children see something I don't or because something has gone wrong but it's also usually working on another level too. I've constructed a set of circumstances whereby something happens that I don't know about or I've come up with a funny visual gag that enhances the trouble I'm getting into.These theories are too often just taken and used at their base level with entertainers dropping things on the floor for no other reason than getting the children to scream or idiotically misnaming something to be corrected for no real purpose.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Originality and Magicians

The title of this blog is playing on the fact that clown is often a derogatory term. "Some clown who thinks he's funny" could easily be a simple review of a crummy act by a Belfast punter.
And of course, I'm also a clown. Well sort of, I use it in its more classical sense of a funny physical performer. To me the best clowns were Charlie Chaplin, Harpo Marx, Buster Keaton and George Carl (not Carlin) rather than those eejits who think they can paint their face, learn to make a balloon dog and bingo bongo they're an entertainer.
There are quite a few visual gags that have been passed from clown to clown for 100s of years that I update or put a fresh spin on and use in my stand up act. Am I keeping a tradition alive or am I just a bit hack? Got me thinking about originality.

Purists will say you can get a comedy act from 2 sources write it yourself or be a hack and don't.

For stand ups the general rule of thumb is to write it all yourself.
For magicians the general rule of thumb is to beg, buy, borrow or steal all your material.

Of course this is a generalisation and there are stand ups out there churning out old and stolen gags and magicians who are unique and original. This view of acts is compounded by a youtube search. As a stand up wouldn't put a video of themselves performing unoriginal material on the net as they would likely be called on it and a magician is unlikely to put an original act on youtube because they know it'll be stolen.

The trouble with being a magician is you buy an effect and it tells you how to do it and also what to say. Many people just follow the instructions to the letter. This brings about a blasé attitude toward material and means most think anything funny is fair game.

 In children's entertainment you often get acts doing routines they've learned from dvds and books word for word. I don't think there is anything morally wrong with it as they've paid for the dvd and children don't know it was written by someone else. Your main job is to keep the little urchins entertained. However, I would find this unsatisfying and also rather boring. Getting them laughing at a silly gag or joke you made up is a lot more satisfying than getting a chuckle from something you heard someone else say. I tend to use kids DVDs to spark my own creativity but on the other hand I have used the odd paid for line that's suited my style (in kids shows not in comedy clubs)

To go a bit further there are a few sources for material:
Write it yourself
Steal them
Use "stock" lines
Buy them
Swapping/sharing lines.

Write it yourself:
Morally and artistically sound. And hard work. I was recently reading Steve Martin's excellent book "Born Standing Up". He started as a magician and there's a lovely moment in it when he realises he should use all his own material and discovers he now only has a fairly weak 10 minute act. I suppose he could've ignored this and made a handsome living entertaining students and at local events. Fortunately he decided to go the artistic route and became Steve Martin.

Steal them:
Just about the worst thing a stand up can do. I also think it's the worst thing a magician can do. Magicians do this a lot more though. I think it's just the mind set I described earlier, I wouldn't want to suggest that comedians have better morals than magicians.

But they do.

Heh, maybe not. The stand up scene is also a lot more self-regulating and comedians will make a stand against stealing. If you smashed a tortoise with a sledgehammer onstage comedians would be less worried about the tortoise than the fact you've kind of ripped off Gallagher.

Use Stock lines:
"Stock lines" is an expression that means lines that are in the public domain.
Well somebody wrote them, didn't they? Isn't it just a form of stealing that you can justify to yourself? Maybe they were published once or written by someone and given to the world graciously. It's impossible to find out and more likely than not it's just a line stolen a long time ago. It's not as bad as lifting a line that has been written and is still in use by another performer. It's just morally unsound rather than being a complete ****. (That was a very rude word but I've only one follower and I wouldn't want to lose them this early in the game).
Another rather weird thing is, in magicianland, a lot of the stock lines are incredibly weak. How lazy is that? Using someone else's line even though it's not that funny!

Buy them:
Morally sound.

Almost. Depends where you buy them from. There are books available for magicians that are made up mostly of stock and stolen lines. So basically you're just paying someone else to harvest others material for you. This is just wrong in every way (Mr Colombini).

Buying them properly means paying a writer a proper amount to write original material. I  have no problem with this. There are folks out there who are great performers but can't write for toffee and vica versa. Why can't they team up and maximise their talents?
I can see it being annoying to some comedians as they work hard to come up with a set and another just throws money at it. Artistically unfulfilling to some (including me) but I don't think it's objectional on moral grounds and it's a completely different thing to stealing material.
Also when I've got my weekly national TV show, I'll be relying on a huge team of writers (this probably won't happen until June at least...)

Swapping/sharing lines

Morally sound. I hope. Because I do a lot of this!
Swapping and sharing original material between performers can be a wonderful thing. Now I'm not talking about asking to use a line used in performance by a chum. Don't do that. If they're using it in performance then that line is needed.
I'm talking about coming up with a great joke that doesn't suit your style and passing graciously to a friend. Or coming up with a new slant on someone elses material.

Adam Laughlin (a very funny comedian and great friend) and I often come up with bits for each others acts. It would be a great shame if either of  us let our pride get in the way (I'm only using what I came up with and nothing else) and didn't use each others ideas. In both our current acts we have a great line added into our own original material that gets a big laugh. It's win win as one of us is onstage getting a laugh and the other will be sitting in the crowd all smug, going "Heh, I wrote that".

Non-performing friends will also give you some fresh ideas and lines to work with. Careful of your mates down the pub though, they're probably not using their own jokes...

Well those are my views on the spoken word. I suppose the trouble I have is with the physical stuff.
If you're a magician and you own a box for sawing a lady in half. You're going to have to saw a lady in half. It's not thought of as someone else's bit.
My original rule of thumb was all spoken word should be original ,effects and moves can be studied and performed. However, it's entirely possible to come up with original physical gags or indeed original (or altered beyond recognition) magic.
So...should I stop stretching my thumb with my teeth?
Dunno, it's a grey area and by worrying about it I'm probably doing more than most.

Well, I can't think of a more appropriate way to end my muddled and overthought out opinions on the matter with some precise and neat ones:

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Clown v Comedian

So, I linked up my blog for peoples to read then didn't bother to write anything for a week. Good work, George.
I have a follower too (Hi Carly!). Just the one, I expected it to be one of my comedian chums but it wasn't. Although some of them said they did read some of it.

So that's nice.

Had a couple of stand up gigs since I last blogged. Tried a weird new opener with a monkey mask. Didn't I decide you couldn't open with anything surreal about a week ago? Well, I did. I forgot the rule about there being no rules. It has a couple of nice kickers in it so at least it's got some punch. It might be too awkward for a keeper though. Something to bust out for special occasions.

Also wrote a new gag about the film Black Swan that's a keeper. Adam Laughlin provided the coup de grace tagline.

Have done a little magic onstage. A woefully unprepared Chinese Sticks. (Although I did come up with one line for them which I'll be keeping). And tried out the ole turning a balloon into a bottle of buckfast trick again. Am working on a card effect based on an idea by Bill Abbott for the next pavilion.

Next week is chockful of performances with lots of children's shows and a few stand up gigs to boot.. Including a gig in Dublin and one as part of the Belfast Community Circus cabaret. I still haven't worked out exactly what I'll be doing for either but will probably stick to some old favourites to be on the safe side.

Matthew Collins (comedian and internet nerd on "Great unanswered questions", which is on next week with Johnny Vegas, looking forward to that) always tells me that my act is essentially children's entertainment for adults. Or maybe he tells me that it should be.

He's right to some degree. A lot of stuff that works for the kids show works for adults.

At my first ever stand-up gig I did no magic what-so-ever.
It was a pretty woeful set that tried to be cleverer than I am. I think I wanted to be Stewart Lee or Richard Herring. I'm not. Hosting an open mic night I see many people making the same mistake. Most people start stand up trying to write a set based on what they think a stand up act should be. One should forget about that and just write what you thinks funny. When you get good you can start making clever points or mess with the genre. You have to be great before you can get away with being purposely bad.

Anyhow, my point is, it's when I begun taking what I'd learned (or in some cases just lifting material as is) from my children's act my adult act started to slot into place.

When I started stand up it did feel like a whole new thing but the more I do it the more similarities I find between stand up and kids shows;

Technique, stage presence, timing, crowd control, sight gags, physical comedy, ad-libbing, audience interaction.

I should have had a huge headstart when I first performed at a comedy club but I felt just like everyone else;

Bloody scared and completely clueless.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

An old fresh twenty

I went to see Joe Lycett, AFKATBF Adam Laughlin and Steve Hughes at Queens last night. All were brilliant.
Fantastic night. Though, it's always a little depressing when you see such polished brilliant acts and rerealise for the umpteenth time you've such a long way to go.

I've been putting together a 20 minute spot for my next couple of gig gigs (rather than MC gigs) The first of which will be in the Menagerie this Sunday: http://www.facebook.com/#!/event.php?eid=119736144767050
Thanks to Lorcan, Marcus and Ruaidhri for having me on. I was delighted to be invited. This gig should be belter, get yourself down

And after that McHughs: http://www.facebook.com/#!/event.php?eid=142012719193568
And thanks again to Ruaidhri for that.

Anyhow, it seems to be coming along nicely. It's an old fresh twenty because I have a ton of material from MCing that has been tested once or twice but got a good response. I try to do new stuff when MCing which can backfire quite often but you also uncover a few gems (almost) every time and these build up. I save them as word documents in a filing system that is based on vague notions. I'm trying to transfer them all to evernote and into a searchable database. It'll never happen.

So I'm digging out the gems, polishing them up a bit and trying to link them all together into a logical order to form a valid 20 minute act. I'm doing more magic in it than usual.

I'll keep about 7-10 minutes of the old set in there two to keep it safe for starters.

I'm going to be doing more magic this year in my act, I think. People do love the magic. I used to think it was a bit of a cop out and although I'm glad I tried a lot of straight stand up to prove to myself that I don't need a prop in my hand to hold a crowd I think I should realise that prop work is my forte. Once a clown...

Also I'm pretty certain it's quite a niche. There are a few comedy magicians about but I haven't seen any with a particularily similair style to mine.
We don't have a modern day Tommy Cooper do we? Joe Pasquale? C'mon!

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Learning stuff you already know.

I haven't told anyone I'm writing this blog. I haven't decided whether it's interesting enough to start linking up to yet. Just wanted to get into the swing of writing it first. Maybe this will be the one. Who knows? Exciting

Stand Up:
My opener didn't go down well at my last gig.  I knew it was a bad opener as soon as I did it.
Good openers work miracles. The gig before I made a bottle of Buckfast appear out of a balloon.
That’s a good opener, peoples can see you’re not messing about and get onboard.
My bad opener was some surreal nonsense about the song “ Dub be good to me” using  a pot of Robinson’s Jam and an electric thermometer. I kind of had a punchline (I found out how hot Jam hot actually is (it’s not that hot)) but it was in the middle of the piece and anyone under 30 must’ve just thought I’d lost it.
I shouldn’t open with surrealism. For me it’s best to slip a bit in after I’ve definitely won them over. 
I’m sure I knew that anyhow. I must’ve forgotten.
I’ve more jokes to write for Monday. I’ve 3 done. I need 15

Magic George:
He's on form he's got some new colourful trousers and some braces and thinks he can get some comedy from getting tangled in them etc.
I already get about 10 minutes with just my hat. I'll soon be able to do the whole show with just what I'm wearing.
Not really, where would I keep my monkey? Be fun to design a show like that though.

 And also:
Check out Morgan Hearst's new podcasts: http://failedhuman.com/