I recently chatted with the guys at Ellusionist.com, a web site for magicians to talk about my ideas about the use of comedy in my magic.

You can hear the podcast HERE.

From Ellusionist.com:

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.

ellusionist.com Next Level

Thanks to Ellusionist.com for asking me to do the interview. Feel free to comment on the story!

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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.

And here it is, being performed in the wind quite poorly by a magician who is apparently afraid to look at his audience.  Notice that the audience still says “Wow.”

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:

And this is a quick edit of my performance of the Bottles:

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.

Here is a video of my spoof routine.

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.

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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.

Originally Posted on 4/15/08

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