Putting some magic back into comedy

Catia Cronin on the variety revival

I am Joe Bloggs. I like all the things other people like, I get annoyed at most of the things that annoy most other people (trains, weather, pull along mini-cases), I buy the same phones, fashions, food as everyone else, then insist that I am an individual. Just like everyone else. I like comedy, nay, I LOVE comedy, but a few years back, I lost my sense of humour, and I believe I wasn’t alone.

Around 2005, I started to feel as if stand-up comedy had lost its way and stopped talking to its audience. It lacked freshness and had become boring, in much the same way that variety entertainment in the late Seventies and early Eighties became passé; dull, mass entertainment that occupied the centre ground, was deeply unchallenging and gave no voice to anyone that actually had anything to say. At that time, alternative comedy came along to shake things up, and as a part of the old variety scene that it displaced, magic and magicians became deeply unfashionable, redolent of cheesy blokes in tuxedos with spangly assistants.

I don’t think magic ever really went away, it simply stopped being relevant to the comedy scene for a while. It was still there on telly though, in the early shows of David Blaine, which were innovative until he got too clever and tried to convince us all that dangling in a box over the Thames was worthy of an audience. David, do we look that dumb?

I was a comedy promoter for a long time and I used to watch audiences as intently. I remember their slightly under-energised disappointment as they left after watching four comics and a microphone, not really saying much, and probably wondering if self-harm would have been more entertaining.

Back to the present day and the relationship between magic and comedy has come full circle with the rebirth of edgy cabaret and magic, which has given the stand-up circuit a much-needed injection of caffeine. At first, the comedy scene was wary that their audiences were being stolen by the upstart cabaret scene (as a very worried, prominent agent observed to me in 2007). Then, comedy promoters started to embrace the changing tide and incorporated the new magic and variety acts into the stand up world.

And comedy audiences have welcomed them with open arms, with magicians such as Pete Firman, Ali Cook, Piff The Magic Dragon and Barry and Stuart among the best examples of the magicians making in-roads into the comedy scene. It’s no accident that many larger comedy nights are starting to use the word variety in their publicity materials and the variety they invariably book is a magician.

But this is no one-way street. Magicians have benefited enormously from the excellent performance skills they’ve needed to learn to survive on the stand-up circuit. When I first started Magic Night five years ago, it was a struggle to find magicians that actually had the audience skills to deal with people who had come to watch the show.

Many of these audience members were defectors from the comedy sector and they knew their performance onions. For some magicians it was a baptism of fire – these weren’t corporate audiences who hadn’t paid for a show and so couldn’t give a flying monkey’s what was onstage. These people had put their hard earned money down and wanted entertaining and entertaining good.

Some tricksters came a cropper with these audiences and in the early days of Magic Night there were times I watched from the stage through the bars of my fingers as I tried and failed to block out some deeply cheesy performances, unable to walk away as my toes had curled so much.

Most magicians though, did brilliantly and continue to blaze a trail across the comedy scene. I think the stand-up circuit has been re-invigorated by the resurgence of magic and variety. This month Magic Night celebrates itss fifth birthday, but I have been careful to keep the comedy content high, after all, I am Joe Bloggs and I like what I like!

Magic Night takes place fortnightly at Madame JoJos in London; the next one is on March 4.

Published: 25 Feb 2011

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