Forgive the title of this article. If applied to daily life and family, it certainly is bad advice. However, when used to point out an important concept relating to show business, it can be extremely helpful. Performers tend to have babies. This means they have a trick, joke, idea or routine that they bring into their performance with passion. They are excited about it. It is likely to be something that is original to them. They probably have invested in it by way of time, effort, and money. It is something they like very much. They might love it.
The problem is, it may not be something that is right for the show. Worse yet, although the performer views it as a wonderful thing, it may be flawed. Even great magicians do, on occasion, have bad ideas. When an idea is one’s “baby”, it is hard to recognize and accept the possibility that it is not worthwhile.
My wife loves babies (real ones). I do not believe she has ever seen a homely baby. I have. Actually, I have seen some babies that I thought looked totally unappealing. Mary has seen these same little ones and sincerely said, “Isn’t she beautiful!” Or, “Isn’t he cute?” (In such instances I have learned to keep my opinion to myself.) I do have a big place in my heart for babies and children, but I guess I see them differently than someone who has actually given birth.
The simple point in this is that some people are less likely to see imperfections than others. Typically the people who are least likely to see a fault or detriment are those who have the biggest emotional attachment to whatever is being viewed.
In applying this matter to show business, it is good to consider a statement attributed to Lance Burton, “More important than what you put into a show is what you take out of it”. He was saying that subtraction has more to do with enhancing a show than does addition.
I have faced this matter before. In putting together the preliminary script for our 2013 version of Grand Magic, a new illusion called “Funnels Of Mystery” was placed into the early part of the first half of the show. I worked hard to come up with a clever segue into the presentation of this effect and also figured out a neat way to follow it with the “Vanishing Ketchup Bottle” trick. In conjunction with the Ketchup Bottle, we came up with a line that seemed smart and funny. I would comment about needing to go backstage to “catch up” with my assistants and prepare for what would come next. (Ketchup - “catch up”)
I was absolutely sure this was a good thing and basically viewed it as a non-negotiable part of the script. The “Funnels Of Mystery” would definitely be in the first portion of the show. The “catch up” line would definitely be funny.
With the matter settled, I continued to work on the rest of the script. I eventually got it all lined out and on paper, it looked fine. However, in the back of my mind, there was a nagging feeling that something was out of place.
The nagging feeling was strong enough that I kept returning to the script to see if some kind of snag or error would appear. I listened to the show’s soundtrack again, even though I had already listened to it numerous times, thinking this might help me identify a weakness or error. No problem became evident. I decided the nagging feeling was to be ignored and I should go ahead with the script as planned.
Then I went out on our stage and tried to walk and talk through what I had in mind for the show. We played the music for every routine, and verbally worked through all transitions and speaking portions of the program. Even though, on the level of the individual parts of the show, everything seemed good, the overall show was coming out to be too long. In particular, the first part of the show was supposed to be fifty minutes in length. It was coming in at sixty. This confirmed that the script was not good enough. Something about it had to be changed and something in it had to be removed. Once again I analyzed the script and could not figure out what to do. It seems foolish now, but for a while I thought, “Maybe we should just go ahead and let the first part of the show be sixty minutes long. Everything seems so strong. I cannot see any problems.”
It took a long drive across the country (as part of a lecture tour), and listening to the soundtrack of the show yet again and again, to finally identify and accept the flaw. The “Funnels Of Mystery” did not belong in the first half of the show. The segue I had planned to introduce it was not necessary. Also, if the illusion were to be used in the second part of the show rather than the first, we could dispense with the “Vanishing Ketchup Bottle” trick and accompanying joke. By making these changes, the first segment of the show would be cut down to fifty minutes and the pacing of the overall program would be much improved. This adjustment was made and the result was amazing. Suddenly, when walking, talking, and thinking through the show, everything seemed perfect. Once we did something about my “baby”, the problem was solved.
In itself, there was nothing wrong with the “Funnels Of Mystery”. It is a wonderful illusion. There was also nothing wrong with the “Vanishing Ketchup Bottle” trick. It would have fooled the audience and garnered a laugh. The problem was with me. Like trying to pound a square peg into a round hole, I was forcing a good trick into a bad place. I was forcing another trick into the show that did not need to be there at all. Fortunately, my poor judgment became evident in time to make proper corrections. “The Vanishing Ketchup Bottle” and the “catch up” joke was not in the 2013 version of Grand Magic. The trick is great and I like the joke, but the show was better without them. The “Funnels Of Mystery” was in the show, but in the second half rather than the first, and with a different segue and transition than what we originally planned. This too made the show better.
I had to admit that my great idea was not as great as I had originally thought. I had to throw out “my baby”. This is not an easy thing for anyone to do. Nevertheless, there are times when it must be done and it hurts our careers if we do not do it.
Here are a couple of practical thoughts on the general matter.
1. The right trick at the wrong time is the wrong trick.
Many years ago I decided to join a community choral group that was planning to sing Handel’s Messiah for a Christmas concert. I have no formal musical training and cannot read music. However, I do have a pretty good ear. This meant, once I heard the notes of the songs, I could sing them on pitch, but since I could not understand the written score, I did not always know when the notes were supposed to be sung. On several occasions I sung out when it was not appropriate to do so. On one such occasion the music director kindly said, “Duane, the right note sung at the wrong time is the wrong note”. This meant I needed to learn the score. It was not enough to be able to make a good sound. It had to fit properly with everything else that was going on. The music director was not very impressed that I could sing on key. What she wanted was for me to blend and harmonize with the other singers.
The application of this to magicians is to understand, in terms of a program, that it is possible to make a mistake in positioning a trick. To rephrase what the music director told me, “the right trick at the wrong time is the wrong trick“. The pacing of a show is of tremendous importance. If a trick does not properly fit the energy and mood required at the point in the program where it is used, the trick will be ineffective. Even an awesome trick may have its impact reduced or entirely lost.
It should also be kept in mind that, not only can a good trick be in a wrong place, there are times when a good trick does not belong in a show at all. A show is an entity created by a series of individual tricks and routines that work together. The better the individual pieces of a show fit with one-another, the better a show will be. It isn’t great tricks that make a great show, it is the making of great choices about great tricks that makes a great show. There are occasions when a great choice means a “baby” must be tossed out. We must not let our love for a trick cause us to put it into a place where it does not belong.
2. Do not let the cost of a prop determine its placement in a program.
Especially when a prop has come our way at a high price, it is hard to admit to ourselves that it should be left out of a show. This is another thing I had to deal with in developing my show. I decided I could save myself money, rather than having a professional builder do it for me, by building an illusion on my own. After a trip to the local building supplies store, and the investment of hundreds of dollars, I went to work on the project. It took a lot of time and labor. When finished, the illusion did not operate as it should. It looked fine and most of it was functional, but a couple of things were wrong and I did not have the ability to fix them. It took me a month to be able to say, “I have to toss it out. It is wasted effort”. Tossing it out meant a loss. It was essentially “money down the drain”. However, if I had refused to toss it out, the quality of the show would have been compromised.
A willingness to turn away from where money has been spent (hopefully not too much), and moving on from that, can be a benefit to a show. The expense of an item can make it a “baby” and thereby lead us to giving it unmerited prominence. It is wise to allow ourselves to forget about price tags and focus instead on the degree of entertainment mystery we are able to create. If something stays in the show, it should be because it makes the show better, not because it cost a lot. If something needs to be removed from a show, in spite of the investment it represents, it should be removed.
3. Do not let the degree of difficulty determine the placement of a routine in a program.
Another daunting challenge for most magicians is being willing to recognize and accept it when, after practicing long and hard to learn something difficult, audiences do not care to see what we have learned.
This seems to most commonly be true about card manipulations. Because a performer has put tremendous effort into mastering back-palming, and other card moves, he wants to spend a significant part of his performance doing these things for his audience. The truth is, more than two or three minutes of card productions, fans, etc., is almost always a mistake.
Beyond the matter of working with cards, I think nearly all magicians who take time to learn sleight of hand maneuvers want to use them extensively. They assume that, because the moves are technically advanced, they must also provide advanced entertainment. Such is rarely the case. If one magician does a coin trick with gimmicks that do most of the work for him, while another magician creates the same effect by pure sleight of hand, most audiences will not know the difference. Methods are not what matter. Effects and entertainment value are what matter.
If we work hard to create an effect, so hard that the effect becomes one of our “babies,“ then discover that the effect is met with mediocre or weak response, we need to take the effect out of the show. We must not let the fact that we have diligently gone down the wrong path cause us to remain on that path.
4. Remember that when good material goes out of date, it is no longer good.
I recently heard a magician say, “And I give the bag two taps, one hot and one cold”. There was a time when this might have been a clever line. This would have been in days when people referred to the sources of water in their homes as taps rather than faucets. The magician’s audience consisted mainly of young families. Very few people in the crowd understood the reference to “taps” and no one laughed about it. It was obvious that he had been using the line for many years. Unfortunately, he did not understand that the line no longer had value.
About twenty-five years ago I worked a line into my show about the entertainer Michael Jackson. It was not a “put-down” or joke at his expense. It was a funny take on his stardom at the time and it got a big laugh. This comedy line was my “baby“. I always looked forward to the place in the show where I would say it.
As time went by, positive response to the joke diminished. The big laugh was no longer there because Michael Jackson was not in the news like he once had been. I realized this and had to let my “baby” go. The line was removed from the show. (I confess that I probably told the joke a few more times than I should have. I really disliked giving up on it!)
There are not many jokes or funny expressions that are timeless. Patter is something that needs to be constantly assessed and updated. A good performer understands that what works this year may not work next year. It may not even work in coming months. When jokes and funny lines get diminishing returns, they should be retired.
5. If something does not seem right about the show, do not assume that your favorite routine is not the problem.
Church groups are familiar with the expression “sacred cows”. This means there are certain subjects that are not open for discussion. Minds have been made up about these things long ago and there is nothing to re-examine. The problem with “sacred cows” is that sometimes there is something wrong with them. The fact that people refuse to look at them again means needed corrections cannot be made.
A magician must not have any “sacred cows”. He should be willing to change any aspect of his show that might need to be changed. It should not matter that “This is how I have always done it”, or “When I did it like this in the past everyone loved it“. If a time comes when there is a better way, we should pursue the better way. Even if we think, Everyone expects me to do this, or I am known for this particular routine, if moving into new and different territory means making improvements, we should be willing to go the new direction.
I am not suggesting that our favorite or signature routines should be viewed as the first things we need to change. It may be that such things will never need to be changed. I am saying that we must not allow them to be untouchable. In terms of show business, we can’t fall in love with “our babies”. As long as we conduct ourselves ethically and stay true to our core values, we should be willing and open to making any adjustments that our performances require.
The greatness of a show is more important than the greatness of individual tricks, routines, and jokes. Decisions about parts and pieces of a show must be guided by how smaller things affect the big picture.