Made In China: An Irish Comedian’s Journey Performing Stand-up in China

Imagine you are an Irish kid from Queens, New York thrown out of school in your teens for alcohol. Your parents, who evidently have no sense of irony, send you away to Ireland to punish you for your drinking. You subsequently grow up to become a comedian and a celebrity in Ireland, and you are looking for new venues to conquer. Then it hits you: If you perform in China you’ll have a potential audience of billions. Only two problems: one, you want to perform in Mandarin, but you don’t know the language at all; and two, you want to perform stand-up comedy, but the Chinese don’t know what stand-up is.

Well then you would be Des Bishop, who did exactly that. He went to China, learned Mandarin, and performed a stand-up comedy act for Chinese audiences. What’s more he went on the Chinese equivalent of The Dating Game and conversed with his potential dates in fluent Chinese.

Des tells the story of his Chinese encounters, and his love of the country in his very funny new one man show called Made in China. I interviewed him for the Arts Express program on radio station WBAI 99.5 FM NYC. You can hear the fascinating show by clicking on the gray triangle above.

I Scorn to Change My State With Kings

Part of the pleasure when I participated in the Central Park Shakespeare Sonnet Slam last year was listening to the other actors. I remember really liking the performance of the actor who went four sonnets before me, doing Sonnet 29–“When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes.” I had no idea who he was.

Last night I happily came upon a YouTube video of that actor performing the sonnet at the Sonnet Slam; I know it was the same actor, because I could see myself in the video, sitting on stage, waiting to go to the mic. The actor’s name is Ben Crystal. You can see the video above.

But it also turns out that Ben Crystal is a brilliant scholar of Shakespeare’s verse and an excellent teacher. Below, you can hear him give an extraordinary lecture on the acting and dissection of Shakespearean verse.  You will come away from it equipped with more tools for understanding and acting Shakespeare. If you don’t have the time to view the whole lecture, at least listen to his reading of the sonnet. It’s very, very well done.

Let’s Squish Our Fruits Together

The pranksters at Improv Everywhere are at it again, and they need you!

Improv Everywhere is the group of geniuses who created the No Pants Subway prank. They specialize in seemingly spontaneous musical break outs in public places. In the above video you can see one of my favorite of their pranks (or “missions,” as they call them), a real life musical in a grocery store celebrating the mingling of fruits (don’t ask, the video explains all)!

And now you, too, can participate in their next prank in mid-April. If you live in NYC and have one or more of the following skills: ballet, gymnastics, or ballroom dancing, then get in contact with them at the following urls:

Ballet Project

Gymnastics Project

Ballroom Dancing Project

Knights of The Magic Castle

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The Magic Castle is a legendary magic club in Los Angeles where magicians hang out and perform for the general public. Magician Steve Spill, who I interviewed for WBAI radio, has a new book out called I Lie for Money. In it, among other things,  he talks about his time as a a young teen performing and raising hell with the greats at the Castle. In the interview, Spill spoke with me about his experiences at the Castle, but in the editing of the piece for general audiences, some of the most interesting parts for magicians necessarily got cut out. You can listen to some of those missing outtakes by clicking on the grey triangle above.  WBAI should be running the rest of the interview in a couple of weeks from now, and I’ll post it up on the blog after its broadcast.

They Shoot Black People, Don’t They: Cartoonist Keith Knight

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For radio station WBAI 99-5 FM NYC, I recently interviewed cartoonist Keith Knight, writer and illustrator of the daily comic strip The K Chronicles, a strange and hilariously twisted view of the world through the eyes and pen of your average, African-American male. He recently has been touring with a slide show called They Shoot Black People Don’t They: A Cartoonist’s look at Police Brutality.  You can listen to Keith talking about his strips and the life of a cartoonist by clicking on the grey triangle above.

Script for a One Coin Routine

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The best magicians have long told us that the method is not the heart of a trick. Magic, after all, is a branch of the theatrical arts, not a species of brain twister, puzzle, or mathematics lesson. The premise and effect are what the audience sees. The rest is for backstage discussion.

To that end, when a magician is planning a routine, a script is very helpful. Here’s a sample script involving a very simple one coin routine. Interestingly, there’s no outward dialogue in this script! But by working a script, a performer can take a mundane set of tricks and create a more compelling performance piece, as follows.

The following effect is what Gerry Deutsch might call “‘perverse magic.”

Effect: a confused, but lovable old man or woman gets very lucky. S/he is not sure if this good luck is a hallucination or not.

Character: A Chaplinesque poor tramp who can’t believe his or her eyes. Older than Chaplin though, not drunk, but the eyeglasses are not always reliable. Time isn’t what it was.  Was it ever?

This is all performed silently. The dialogue in the script you’re reading is the performer’s silent script. Nothing is spoken out loud. Method is not important right now. The script, as per Pete McCabe’s advice in Scripting Magic is from the audience point of view.

1) (An old man or woman with glasses enters. Looks up to the right, then the left, then back to the right, puzzled.) “A coin in the air? No, can’t be. Coins in the air! I’m seeing things. (Takes off glasses and rubs them against shirt.) There they are again! Maybe it’s a spot against my eyeglasses stuck. (Rubs finger from inside to outside–no glass!) Huh? That’s weird, how did my finger…? (Looks at finger) Hey I got an idea–this is strange, I hope nobody is watching this–I’m going to grab one. (Reaches out, there it is!) What the–OMG–This is like when I–let me look at this–Wow.”

2) (Spinning coin in between both hands) “This is so beautiful–from up there! (Holds up in LH) This is so precious. (Puts in RH, closes hand tight. ) Wait is someone there? (Look around for anyone.) The coin is still there, yes! (Checks the coin, close hand again) I’m so happy I found this.”

3) “Wait a second, something funny is happening with that coin, it’s jumping in my hand it’s weird it’s trying to get away!  Omigosh, I think it’s gone. I can’t bear to think that it is. Is it? (Slowly open hand) It’s gone!”

4) (Looking around) “Where did it go, is it back where I got it from? No, did I drop it, no. Did I–wait–what’s that weird twitching under my right arm? It’s omigosh, it’s my coin (Kissing it). So glad. You bad boy. (Deliberately put it back into RH. Shake tight. Wags finger at it:  ‘Bad boy’. Kisses it.) Wait a second, something funny is happening again with that coin, it’s jumping in my hand, it’s pulling my hand away. It’s gone!  Wait something strange happening now with my left armpit (grab the coin from under the L armpit with RH, transfer to LH in order to adjust glasses to see it better.) Oh you crazy coin.”

5) “And it’s real silver! (Bites it, nods his head to confirm, yes it’s real. Bites it again, swallows it. Look of panic.) I swallowed this thing! I’ve got to get it up! (Coughs and eventually a whole slew of coins comes up which he catches in his hat.) Where did all those come from? That’s really strange. (Looks up at audience for a moment, then back at hat. S/he is startled. Turns the hat upside down) The coins are all gone! what’s going on here?”

6) (Stands motionless for a few moments) “Gone. They’re  nowhere. I screwed up. Maybe it wasn’t even real. (Walk towards Stage Right, looks behind him Stage Left, where he first saw the coin. Walk back slowly to that spot and looks again) I just–I know I –how can I –I’m just a loser. What–what’s that? an echo…a shadow…” (S/he reaches gently into the air again with the RH. S/he has something now. S/he rubs the fingers of the right hand together and a slow, long, pour of silver glitter flutters to the floor. S/he looks up, shaken, thankful, at the magic portal that was open for a brief time. See Chaplin photo above. S/he backs away slowly from the remains of the glitter on the floor until s/he is offstage.)

Ophthalmology Lesson: Jackson Browne

Monday’s doctor appointment gets him out of bed. Doctor, my eyes.

Like Paul Simon, Jackson Browne is a master of using ambiguity in a song lyric to create multiple meanings. This is the first Jackson Browne song I ever heard, and it’s still one of my favorites. I don’t think anyone before or since has tackled the subject in quite this way.

And did you catch that there are two letter “h”s  in ophthalmology?

No One Asked Me

No One Asked Me is a new play about recently arrived undocumented immigrants in NYC. I interviewed the director, actors and writer about the play for radio station WBAI 99.5 FM NYC. The play is not an agitprop presentation of noble golden children, but about real flawed teenagers trying to make their way through life. In the interview we talk about the play, the lives of undocumented immigrant teens, and the process of putting together a piece like this in the tough environment of New York City. You can listen to the interview by clicking on the grey triangle below.

Out of This Attractive Tree-Lined Street

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About a decade ago, I came up with the following variation of Paul Curry’s classic card trick. I call it “Out of This Very Attractive Tree-Lined Street.” My version allows spectator shuffling, no reverse in the middle, and a painless switch.  It was inspired by Hideo Kato’s “Out of This Village.”  Jeff Pierce independently came up with a similar version.

Effect:  Magician and two spectators shuffle the deck.  Each spectator takes his or her half of the deck and deals it into two piles, face down based on their intuition about the color.  When the spectators’ piles are turned over, they are all seen to be separate colors.

Method: Set up as for OOTW, black on top for the purposes of following the description. There will be no leader cards, so don’t bother setting up for that.  Make an upward crimp in the 26th card.

Spectator #1 and Spectator #2 are sitting side by side on one side of the table. Magician is sitting across from them. #1 is on the magician’s right, #2 on magician’s left.

Overhand shuffle, making sure to run the middle cards one by one.  The crimped card is now 27th.  Cut the cards leaving the crimped card on top; hand the top half to #1, bottom half to #2.

Magician mimes overhand shuffle, asks both spectators to briefly shuffle.

Magician says “As an experiment in intuition, you’re each going to deal the cards face down into two piles.”  Looking at #1 he says “if you think the card is red, put  it here, on your left.  If you think the card is black, put it here on your right.”  Magician turns to #2 and gives the same directions: “I want you to do the same.  If you think the card is red, put it here on your left, if black on your right.”

Spectators deal out all their cards.  The situation now of the four piles is this: from magician’s right to left, the actual piles are red, red, black, black.  From the spectator’s point of view, the two end piles are correctly sorted, the two inner piles need to be switched.  Here is one handling:

Magician says: “You’ve dealt the cards into four separate piles. One, (picks up second pile from right in the right hand, puts it into the left hand), Two (picks up second pile from left with right hand) Three (gestures with right hand holding cards towards the leftmost pile) and Four (gesturing with right hand and cards towards the right hand pile). Now, you did a lot of shuffling here, and so I don’t expect you to be perfect, but if each of you gets more than half, that would certainly be impressive. I did this last week with a couple and they got almost 60% correct. Let’s see how you did. (Spreads cards in right hand in front of #1) Wow, very nice! (To spectator #1:) Would you please turn over your other pile? Oh my goodness, perfect! Let’s see how #2 did. (Spreads out cards in left hand with the left hand in front of #2).  This is getting scary!  And #2 could you turn over your other pile?  Truly amazing!  Thank you, both!”

To make the switch effective, you need the time delay after you pick up the two piles of cards and gesture, so don’t omit the dialogue there. The other thing that will sell the switch is that when you spread each pile in front of each spectator, turn the cards over and place them in the spot where the spectator’s previous pile was located. Then spread downward toward yourself.

I Lie For Money

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He had me at ten-foot nose hair.

But let me back up  a moment. Steve Spill is a magician. Probably a lot smarter, harder working, and more creative than your average magician. And he’s written a ridiculously entertaining book about his life and adventures as a journeyman magician trying to make a living from his art. As it turns out, he’s been pretty successful at it for over forty years, and in the process he has built his own magic theater, Magicopolis, in Santa Monica, where he and wife, Bozena, star.

Now when I say successful, I don’t mean David Copperfield successful or David Blaine successful, but successful in that every night he gets to go out and entertain people with his art. Every day he gets to think about crazy ideas that he can add into his show. And lucky for us, magic fans and general readers will soon be able to read Spill’s account of his creative life, due out in May, called I Lie for Money: Candid Outrageous Stories from a Magician’s Misadventures.

The book is a trip through the mind and life of Spill, a man who has met everybody. Well, that is, if your idea of everybody is Dai Vernon, Charlie Miller and, Francis Carlyle. It’s certainly my idea of everybody. Reading Spill’s book is like sitting at a bar hearing entertaining stories told by a really good raconteur, and the more you want to hear, the more he tells. You know you should be getting on home, but you can’t resist one more drink and one more story. Though the book is about 250 pages, I read it all in one night. It’s very quick reading, and you’ll chuckle throughout. The book is well-written and well-edited. But above all, Spill knows how to tell a good story. Though I’ve never seen Spill in person, you can tell that he must please his audiences greatly with his quick wit and well thought out magic.

Back to the ten-foot nose hair. Spill has a chapter on his failed ideas. I really like this chapter because as Spill says, “Part of the reason I wrote this book was to share with those who wish to craft a self-directed creative life—be it an actor, painter, writer, comedian, magician, or whatever—and describe how one can survive in rarely profitable but rewarding professions.” That’s why this book is for the general public as well as magic aficionados. He talks about the relentless drive to create and improve, and that drive necessarily entails failing.

One of these (brilliant!) failed ideas was to put a tiny reel in his nostril and then pull out a ten-foot length of thread from it. As he pulls on the thread he complains that his damned nose hair is growing too fast again.

How could you not love the guy after that? He actually built a prototype of the reel and tried it out before audiences. They, unfortunately, were not as enthusiastic about the idea as Spill was. Philistines.

Other chapters in the book include “Out of Africa,” a chapter about his encounter with an African medicine man (spoiler: the medicine man steals Spill’s Bill in Lemon method for his own purposes), and in a final romantic valentine to his wife Bozena, he has a chapter touchingly titled “How Joan Rivers Got Me Laid.”

Spill drops more names than a Metro PCS phone drops phone calls, but it’s all in good fun, and hey, he’s entitled to it. Bob Dylan, Penn and Teller, Sting, and many more get mentioned. He writes, “I’ve tried to beat down my vanity, but anyone who writes about himself is apt to fall into the magician’s habit of peeking at the deck to find out where the aces lie. This tome is my fist full of aces.”

If you have any interest at all in any of the creative arts, or if you are just looking for some good gossipy fun, then I recommend you cut to the aces and pick up Spill’s book as soon as it comes out. Click on the above photo for details.

P.S. You can hear me interviewing Steve for radio station WBAI 99.5 FM NYC here and here