Seriously Silly by David Kaye
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii January, 2005)
You could fill a book with what I don't know about doing magic for children. As it happens, David Kaye, master of magic for the miniature set, has done just that and far more. He has written a terrific book full of eye-opening ideas about "how to entertain children with magic and comedy," as the book's subtitle plainly labels it. Quite possibly the smartest book ever written about performing magic for children, this is a must-have text for any practitioner of that form—be it hobbyist, part-timer, or full-time professional. But having read it I can assure you that there is no magician on the planet, no matter your specialty, who will not derive immeasurable if unexpected benefit from reading this book. Be you a trade-show worker, mentalist, illusionist or other specialist who may rarely if ever encounter children in your work, the day will certainly arrive—if it has not already done so—when a child will unexpectedly arrive in your audience or on your stage. Perhaps you will arrive to work for your top corporate client, only to find yourself suddenly called upon to do a single trick for the child of the CEO. Or maybe you'll be attending a family wedding or dinner party, where you are approached by a young niece or nephew or cousin who has long heard tales about the magician they are related to. What will you do now? What will you do?
I suggest you read Seriously Silly before that emergency arises to find out what to do, how to do it, and above all, why to do it. David Kaye has long been among the most successful (read: high priced) kid show performers in New York City, with a client list that reads like a Who's Who, and even a profile in The New Yorker. Now he has gone public with an extraordinary catalog of his signature material, as well a wealth of knowledge about what it takes not just to amuse kids with magic, but to thoroughly entertain the hell out of them—and their parents, too, while you're at it.
Part One of the book begins with the author's explanation of why he is proud to be a children's magician, and of his ability to meet the unique and difficult challenges of his work—which are often intimidating if not downright scary to otherwise experienced pros who nevertheless find the prospects of performing for children to be daunting indeed. Another chapter (which appeared in the September '04 issue of Genii). traces the fascinating if brief history of doing magic for children. And two additional chapters in this opening section recount the author's experiences working for two notable clients: The Sultan of Brunei, who is one of the richest men in the world, and actress Susan Sarandon. Later anecdotes address his experiences working for Madonna, David Letterman, and Bruce Springsteen, and Mr. Kaye's frank and unpretentious voice serves to eliminate any sense of self-aggrandizement in these stories, instead rendering them both entertaining reading and, at times, extremely useful lessons for the attentive reader. When you see his charming idea for bringing something extra to Susan Sarandon's children, you realize that this guy's success is no accident: he is both creative and energetic enough to go the extra step that makes a lasting impression.
Part Two addresses "The Psychology of Performing for Children" in five chapters (plus the Letterman anecdote). Every page of this section is filled with powerful insights that I found consistently compelling and entertaining. Like the old saw about art—I may not know much about it but I know what I like—I know very little about performing for children, and never even did kid shows in my own youth. But nothing that I have ever read about performing magic for children has ever come even remotely close to the degree of acumen and understanding which Mc Kaye brings to his subject. His deep knowledge of children is both revelatory and delightful, because he obviously enjoys his work, and his audience, as deeply as he under-stands both.
In the chapter, "Different Shows for Different Ages," the author succinctly breaks down young audiences into ages three to six; ages seven to nine; and ages ten to thirteen. I daresay there are few among us—not only magicians, but parents and teachers too—who would not benefit from his marvelous lessons about what makes children, and their sense of humor, tick. The best children's entertainers I've enjoyed in my life are the ones who appear to the children to simply be one of their own, albeit a slightly larger version, rather than a member of that foreign species they call "grownups." Mr. Kaye is a performer who does not hesitate to unabashedly invoke the kinds of things that children themselves find naturally funny, regardless of whether it risks invoking the disapproval of traditional bluenose notions about decorum. Thus the section on ages seven to nine is subtitled "Who Farted?" and includes this succinct and witty explanation of why kids this age "can't poop in their pants, but they can joke about it": "Another reason this is so funny is because, quite simply, you are not sup-posed to say things like this. These kids have been told not to say this kind of stuff for so long that, when an adult says it, it is shocking. And shocking can be funny. The children think, 'I'm not allowed to say that at home and he is saying that. Boy, he is so cool' They'll think you are James Dean."
In this same chapter the author provides three versions of a routine for "Vanishing A Silk," one for three to six-year-olds, the second for seven to nine-year-olds, and the third for ten to thirteen-year-olds. All the trick descriptions in the book are accompanied by extensive photographs, taken by Fredde Lieberman, of the author, in his performance guise of Silly Billy, actually performing the material with a young assistant. The little boy in the photos is clearly having the time of his life, and there are great lessons, along with great entertainment, to be found in these terrific photos, which serve as an unforgettable element of the book.
The three silk routines are followed by a chapter entitled "Maximizing a Child Volunteer," in which the author discusses in detail how to ask for a volunteer, how to choose the right volunteer, how to handle shy children, how to expand the volunteer's entertainment value by adding to their costume while on stage, how to empower the child (a subject to which the author will return—and always, I might add, in substantive form rather than merely contemporary buzzword cliché mode), and how to reward your on-stage assistant.
Part Three, "How to Routine Magical Effects for Children" begins with an explanation of why, when per-forming magic for children, "It's Not the Destination, it's the Ride." The author analyzes tricks by reducing them to their most basic elements of setup and effect, and then explains that the way to make it all entertaining is to fill up the most important part: the middle. (Hint: this is true of all entertaining magic.) By way of example he provides wonderful routines for the Change Bag (his presentation is called "The Bread Trick"), the "Crystal Silk Tube° (more traditionally known as Pavel's "Blow Tie"), the "Mis-Made Flag," the Milk Pitcher, and "The World's Best Coloring Book Routine," in which you will discover why Mc Kaye's nearby competitors often prefer to eliminate this ancient standard from their shows rather than try to compete before audiences that have previously seen his version. This section also includes ideas for how to entertain the adults in your audience, advice on ad-libbing, and even how to do an Ambitious Card routine for kids. The chapter also includes detailed charts that break down all the author's theories on how to build routines by including various entertaining elements, and then annotates two routines, associating the structure of the performance with items from the charts. This is not abstract, ivory tower navel-gazing. This is real work from the trenches of real-world experience. Doing the hard job of thinking about these ideas and actually incorporating them into your own performances has the potential, I believe, of transforming your work—and maybe your business, as a result—for the rest of your career.
Part Four of the book is about "Solving the Problems of Performing for Children," and if you read this at an age where you are still in the midst of making important career choices, you may well decide to make your life much easier and just go down and take the civil service test to be a prison guard. The systematic advice provided here for how to avoid common pitfalls could save you years of wasted energy and potential disasters.
The final section of the book includes a series of short essays, including more about empowering children, and a piece about the author's somewhat edgy style, entitled "Where is That Darn Line?" In this, the author offers that "I know that some parents don't like my edgy style of per-forming. I don't perform in a lovey-dovey-l-love-rainbows sort of way. Some parents don't like that, thinking children's entertainers must be sweet and gentle, not rough and tumble. And so I am comfortable knowing that a small minority of my audience isn't going to like my style." It's time magicians stopped repeating the nonsense that you should always try to please everyone and offend no one. Someone once said that while there's no surefire formula for success, a surefire formula for failure is trying to please everybody. David Kaye's earnest voice is a welcome and inspiring one. In return for the great demands he has made on himself and his work, he has been amply rewarded, and now while presenting you with the generosity of this book, he in turn makes those demands on you. Wisdom some-times comes in surprising packages; I found a bucket-load of it in Seriously Silly.