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:

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