On Originality and Performance

June 30, 2008

Originally Posted on 5/5/08

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.

ONU_0104
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?

Volunteer: Texas.

Magician: I’m sorry?

Volunteer: Tex-

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.”

Don't let me influence which color you're thinking of!
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!

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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.

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