Stand-Up: A Professional Guide to Comedy Magic by Ian Keable
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii January, 2009)
As I pointed out in my September column, there is a difference between books about theory and books about craft, even if magicians often tend to lump the two together. Ian Keable, a veteran British pro, has now written a manual of craft that anyone embarking on a career in standup comedy magic or corporate platform magic will find immeasurably useful.
While the book is ostensibly a manual about developing a comedy magic act, its application and value is broader still. After all, few if any magicians who perform as speaking standup acts fail to do so without using at least some humor in their performances, even if they don't bill themselves explicitly as comic acts. And much of what Mr. Keable has to offer, despite his extensive exploration of comedy, is by no means limited to this style of performance.
Having never seen him perform, I actually have no idea if Mr. Keable's style of performance would appeal to me, or whether it would even strike me as funny but that is probably a good thing, as I am not biased one way or the other with regard to the artistic aspects of his work. This book is about craft, and very thoroughly so, and what is therefore perhaps most important about Mr. Keable's credentials is not whether or not you or I think he's funny, but rather, the extent of his professional experience. Any pro reading this book and even experienced pros may stand to learn a thing or 10 from its pages will recognize Mr. Keable's unarguable professional credentials, especially when they read the excruciating confessions of his five most disastrous on-stage "deaths." Eventually, when you've worked enough, you will have experienced as many such calamities, some in much the same way as his, along with others in your own uniquely catastrophic fashion. Such is the nature of the risky and sometimes heartbreaking work of show business, and as Billy McComb is quoted herein as having said, "You are not, in my estimation, a performer until you have been nearly booed off stage."
But Mr. Keable does not rely solely on his own long experience. Rather he draws on the experiences of a number of other comedy magic veterans, from the late Mr. McComb to contemporary American and British performers, including such stellar Yanks as Mac King, Michael Finney, Mike Caveney, and Levent, to experienced limeys like Wayne Dobson, John Archer, trans-Atlantic transplant John Lenahan, and of course, Paul Daniels.
In the first of 14 sections, the author discusses the twin significance of comedy and character in standup work, immediately drawing examples from the work of these and other pros as he elaborates on his principles. He follows this with a segment all about lines, addressing the differences between situational and character lines, along with jokes, stock lines, and ad-libs. This section discusses sources of material and provides examples as to how to build lines and add humor and script to every moment, emphasizing that in standup performance, as opposed to close-up, every bit of dead time must be ruthlessly excised. That said, close-up workers will also gain from this advice; Eugene Burger has said that presentation and performance is fundamentally about "the elimination of non-moments."
The third section offers four chapters about audience assistants how to choose them, how to handle them. Mr. Keable goes into great detail as to how one can, if you wish, engage in on-stage dialogue with a spectator What's your name? Where are you from? What do you do? while still retaining control of the situation. While this is more a staple of comedy clubs (and often a dreary staple at that in most hands) than of corporate shows, the discussion will be illuminating for many, and provide guidance for a host of situations that can arise on stage.
Part four moves on to actually constructing an act out of the elements of comedy and character and lines and assistants and, of course, tricks including which tricks to put in what order and why (this is by no means, however, a book of tricks).
The fifth and final section, addressing preparation, discusses pragmatic issues of staging, lighting, sound, introductions, running time, and even smoke alarms. A second chapter in this section (the 14th chapter, all told) concerns itself with business issues, including venues, money, promotional materials, agents, and venues.
That succinct inventory of the book's contents does little justice to the thoroughness and rationality of Mr. Keable's text. Unlike David Stone in The Real Secrets of Magic (reviewed in September 2008 Genii), Mr. Keable wastes no space in an attempt to regale you with humor; rather he gets down to business and then remains on track for 282 engaging and articulate pages. And unlike occasional diversions in Ken Weber's Maximum Entertainment (a similarly useful book which Mr. Keable endorses several times), this author is generally careful to prevent himself from straying into areas where issues of subjective artistic taste are presented as universal truisms of craft. Not only is there no filler in this book, but the author is frequently willing to sacrifice his own dignity on the alter of full disclosure and useful instruction, admitting as he does, for example, to a number of occasions in his youth when he overstepped ethical boundaries and lifted a line or even a routine, in the desperateness of inexperience a practice he by no means defends, and offers solely by way of shameful illustration.
That said, although Mr. Keable does state the ethical rules, I find myself concerned that some readers may take his frequent and helpful examples as a pick-and-choose menu of potential theft. Let me remind readers that the material published in these pages other than Mr. Keable's own routines perhaps are not included here for your use. If you lift a single line from this book that is not yours, you are a thief and will, one hopes, be caught and suitably censured, if not ostracized, for your miscreant ways. Not every working pro goes through a thieving stage.
As always with a book of this nature, one should be careful to avoid accepting the author's artistic choices as your own. While Mr. Keable certainly does not propose that you create an act by assembling every stock line you can get your hands on (an ever-popular technique that comprises the work of that special breed of artist universally known as the hack), nevertheless there are many who might take issue with the wisdom of finding virtually any use of stock lines artistically acceptable or even professionally wise. In the October, 1995 issue of Genii, as a sidebar to my review of a booklet of stolen comedy lines, I provided an interview with the veteran headline comic, actor, and film director Paul Provenza. Therein, he described the shock he experienced when, at the age of about 17, he discovered that in magic shops you could purchase the jokes with the tricks, whereas even in his then fledgling experience in comedy clubs, he knew he would be swiftly banished from the comedy scene if he did anything other than 100 percent of his own material. That is a model of artistic values that magic, as a whole, would greatly benefit from if more magicians embraced it.
These issues aside, I commend Ian Keable for the thoroughness, frankness, and cogency of the working manual he has produced. If you are thinking of embarking on a career as a standup magician, or even if you have been in such a career for as much as five to 10 years, I can't see that you will not get your money's worth for this reasonably priced volume that is stuffed with real-world experience and guidance.