Sunday, January 8, 2012

Guest Post: "Physical Comedy in Magic—A Sampler" by Tanya Solomon

Photo: Linus Gelber
[post 227]
When I knew that Ben Robinson and Julian Olf would be contributing their writing on magic as guest posts, I asked my friend Tanya Solomon to recommend some good comedy magic to me. I've always had some interest in magic, but never pursued it and basically know very little. Tanya on the other hand is a veteran New York variety performer who combines all sorts of clowning, dance, and magic in her performances — plus she even works part-time in a magic store! When she came back to me with a thorough list of recommended videos, I thought it would be great if she would expand it into another guest post for the blogopedia. Take it away, Tanya (but don't make it vanish).... —jt


Startling transformations. Hubris. Violations of logic and laws of nature. The basic elements of stage magic would seem to make it fertile soil for physical comedy.

And yet most "comedy magic" comes more from the standup comic tradition (Mac King, Harry Anderson, and David Williamson, to name a few funny ones). When physical comedy is used, it usually follows the narrative of the arrogant magician whose tricks fail and expose themselves. The classic act of this type is the late Carl Ballantine's:

Done well, by performers like Otto Wessely and Kohl & Co., this is great comedy. But when John gave me the chance to pick out some favorite funny magic, I decided to represent a less common type of act: one in which physical comedy is used and the magic (though not necessarily the magician!) is effective.

One of the greatest theatrical challenges in magic is getting around the "I can do something you can't" presentation. The mystery should be fun, not frustrating, for the audience. With that in mind, please note the variety of characters and situations of the magicians in these videos. Some (Voronin, Gartner) are powerful magi dealing with comeuppance. Buka is unable to predict or control his own magic. Tom Mullica is the victim of bizarre physical occurrences. And Tina Lenert's character isn't even a magician — which I find interesting, as she is the only woman in this lineup. (Women in magic are rare; women in comedy magic are almost non-existent.)  Her act is in the tradition of Cardini's — magical events befalling someone going about non-magical business. (See an analysis and video of Cardini in the previous post.)

And so, a sampler of physical comedy in magic:

 The hilariously diabolical Maestro Voronin will mesmerize matter what befalls him in the process. Yevgeniy Voronin, from Ukraine, is featured in
Teatro Zinzanni in San Francisco.

I don't know anything about this team, Roy Gartner & James, but I love their comedy relationship. And their magic.

Tom Mullica ran the Tom-Foolery, a magic bar in Atlanta, where he developed his famous acts. He had to quit smoking, but he kept the rubber face, and now performs a Red Skelton tribute in Branson.

The use of sound and rhythm by this fellow, Buka, is bizarre and unique, and his manipulations are impeccable. Funny stuff, but unfortunately an ethnic stereotype (Turkish?). Can't find any info on Buka except that he is Russian and lives in Romania...and that "buka" means "bogeyman" in Russian.

Tina Lenert takes a classic mime/clown bit and adds sleight of hand. This is her signature act, and probably the best-regarded use of mime technique in magic. (Raymond Crowe, the Australian "Unusualist", has an excellent DVD on the subject.)

Topper Martyn (1923-2004) had a long career as a comedy juggler and magician, including years in ice shows(!). The beginning of this video shows how he opened his "World's Third Worst Magician" act. In his book Topper's Mad Mad Magic — the best resource on comedy magic I've found so far — he lists the contents of his coat: "200 billiard balls, 1 cannonball, 10 wooden eggs, 8 folding dice, 2 giant rubber dice, 1 spring duck, 1 large spring snake, 6 small spring snakes, 300-500 playing cards, 1 string of flags, 50 coins, 1 rubber dove". Martyn commented, "Although I love to burlesque magic... there are no exposures in [my act]. The average audience is not interested in magic secrets; they love buffoonery, spectacle, action, and surprise."

Sylvester the Jester plays a "real live cartoon" character. His humor is a bit "nutty" for my taste, but he's incredibly inventive, and has created many effects.

Legend has it that Lou Jacobs himself told Charlie Frye to get out of Ringling's clown alley and hit the variety stage. Frye is a master juggler and magician, known for his "Eccentricks" instructional videos which teach skills with a physical comedy presentation. Here's a kinetic bit he does with linking rings and a floating bowling ball.

Because this is just a sampler, I'm going to skip over some better-known acts — the Banana Man, Steve Martin's Flydini, and Penn & Teller are among my favorites — and instead focus on a wonderful obscurity: "The Amazing Dr. Clutterhouse". No footage of this act is available, though tribute acts have been reported once in a while. My description comes from old magazines and a booklet published by Magic Inc.

In mid-20th century Chicago — then the capital of American magic — audiences were said to have wept and screamed at the antics of Dr. Clutterhouse, played by Elmer Gylleck, a hobbyist magician who created his original, ingenious props. Thunderous circus music played, and a bumbling gentleman in a walrus moustache and derby shuffled onstage. His wand escaped him, and ghosts and snakes flew from his briefcase, followed by revolver shots. Endless chaos ensued: an umbrella appeared in his pocket, an egg broke on him, a handkerchief refused to leave his hands. He tried to adjust his table, which collapsed further the more he tried to fix its rubbery legs. Clutterhouse shot the table dead. He couldn't control the massive amounts of paper and silk he pulled from his hat, and a rabbit's head kept popping out to mock his confusion. He put in a final colossal effort, was swallowed by a cloud of feathers, and pulled out a yard-long dead chicken. Finally, he produced two live rabbits, and exited, relieved. 

A final note: this selection is mostly limited to one branch of magic, manipulation (i.e. sleight of hand for stage), which just happens to be my favorite. Other categories, such as mentalism (mindreading) and closeup card tricks, don't lend themselves to physical comedy. But you might ask, why aren't large-scale illusions included? Well, it might be my taste (I don't like the Vegas style that goes with the big boxes by financial necessity).  Or, my perception that "comedy" in big illusion magic is limited to tired one-liners and sight gags might be correct.

At any rate, having scoured YouTube, these are the only illusion-scale performers who got my vote as being true physical comedy. Scott & Muriel, who call their work "slapstick magic," are currently performing in the Big Apple Circus.

But who knows...perhaps someone somewhere is hammering together a comedy illusion on the scale of the Hanlon Brothers. Maybe there's funding for it. Maybe there's even an audience! Vegas, anyone?


Dave Spathaky said...

Absolutely fantastic resource, thanks so much for the time and effort that must have gone into this. I've only skimmed the surface but I really look forward to watching all those videos at my leisure. Thanks also to John for curating this post in his great blog.

All the best Dave

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