Scott Wells – Tips From The "cos"

Scott Wells

I once saw Bill Cosby interviewed on a talk show, and what he had to say about comedians also pertains to magicians. The main two points that snapped my synapses were on audience responses and the use of “off color” material.

Gene Anderson suggests in his lecture that you audio tape your performances. There may be some good lines that were used by the audience or ad-libbed by you that may be lost and forgotten if it weren’t taped. Equally important is for your own sake. Specifically, you may think that during your performance that you were not getting the response that you should have gotten. Perhaps you may have been concentrating on your performance rather than paying close attention to the audience’s response to your routine. When you play back the tape of your show, you may be surprised to find out that the audience response was better than you thought at the time. Furthermore, you may learn what part of your routine caused your audience, in your opinion, to be rather non-responsive. Here is where Bill Cosby’s advice comes in. But before I make my point, let me digress once more.

Many, many years ago Walter “Zany” Blaney performed in Omaha before a group largely comprised of magicians. In Walter’s opinion, he bombed. There was little or no audience response. He was disappointed and discouraged to the point that he was concerned about his act and future and particularly about his act the next evening in Des Moines. Fortunately, he went on to his next engagement and presented the same show, word for word, for an audience where no magicians were present. He went over great! They loved him! His future (and self confidence) was secure. He just crossed off the unresponsiveness of the Omaha group and went on to success much the same way that a professional golfer must forget a bad shot and not let it get him down on the way to winning the tournament.

Bill Cosby said that there are no unresponsive audiences . . . only different levels of responsiveness. Some audiences will hoot, holler, clap and whistle while others may occasionally give you polite applause (or what I call a “golf clap”.) Neither of these responses nor any range in between is bad, just different, and appropriate for that audience at that time. Little to moderate response does not mean that they don’t like your show as you may be appealing to their intellectual level. Likewise you may not be the best thing that the hoot`n holler`n audience has ever seen as they may give the same response to a pig who can walk on his hind legs. Just as you have always heard it to be true for magic, so it is with audiences . . . timing. But an audience doesn’t have to respond enthusiastically to enjoy your show. As a matter of fact, I usually elicit the best compliments after my show from those audiences that were the most reserved. I have always wanted to say to them, “gee, I wish that you would have shown how much you liked the show DURING the show.” As “Cos” says, there are no unresponsive audiences, just different levels of responsiveness. I have heard it said that you know if the audience is from Minnesota because they cast a shadow. Another level of appreciation, I guess.

I see audiences as a mass of people who can respond like a mob. It only takes a few “leaders” in the group to get the mob moving in your direction. Many things contribute to their reaction that may have nothing to do with you act . . . the size of the group, whether they know one another, are they comfortable with one another, the time of day/night, the environment/venue, how much (if any) alcohol has been consumed, how they are dressed, the temperature, and many other factors. Any one or more combinations of these factors can be in play when determining how your audience will respond and the thing is that you cannot do anything about these outside influences! You can only do your act and try to entertain them so that they can forget the troubles of the day . . . at least for a while. That’s why it is so important to win over the audience from the moment that you start your act. You have to show them that you like them and that there is no place that you would rather be than entertaining them right then. You must first like them before they will like you. And if you can get a few people “rolling” with you early in the show, then you have a better chance of getting the rest of the audience to join in and respond enthusiastically. Even though the audience may be thoroughly enjoying the show, we as performers always seem to feed off of the audience’s reactions, and it’s hard to give them your top performance when they set on their hands and just stare (in amazement?). This is where professionalism really enters in when, just “Zany” Blaney did, you need to go beyond the moment and give your best show despite their reaction because you know from previous experiences that your show is solid.

As to Cosby’s second point, off color, dirty, or “blue” material has no place in magic. “Cos” pointed out that in the days of vaudeville when the comedian didn’t get the laughs from the audience that he thought he should get, then he dropped his pants and resorted to debased humor. Many of today’s comedians and some magicians use “blue” material or “potty” humor as the mainstay in their act. His point was that if they start with this kind of humor and it doesn’t work, then where do you have to go to get the audience to laugh, particularly if you have alienated most of them to the point of no retrieval? Their pants are already down so to speak and they have nowhere to go except to pull them up and go home.

Along this same line of thinking, once you have started working “dirty”, then it’s difficult to change your image as you mature. People will remember the joke or trick you did or line you used and ask you to repeat it. You may have moved on from there and no longer want to be associated with that kind of humor or reputation. But an image has already been created and you are stuck with it. So the best thing is not to use it at all and not resort to “dropping your pants.”

Magic itself is funny enough. People laugh or smile as a natural reaction to being fooled. You can only make it more enjoyable by weaving a web of joviality with “clean”, family, G-rated humor.

So be known as a “clean” entertainer that appeals to the widest variety of audiences regardless of their reactions. Take a tip from “Cos” because you can’t knock success.