“I used to stand on stage every night getting laughs, at the end of my act people would applaud and my reputation was starting to build as a good act. Everything was going well and I was happy with the career I was making my way in.”
Then, I got booked for a magic convention.
The reaction I received was lukewarm. Nothing compared to what I was used to. When I look back on it now, I realise that my mistake was in failing to have original material. At the magic convention, the audience knew where every line was going, because they’d heard it before. So, let me rewrite that opening paragraph again but with the benefit of hindsight.
“I used to stand on stage every night getting laughs from jokes and tricks that didn’t belong to me, at the end of my act people who didn’t know any better would applaud and my reputation was starting to build as an unoriginal but good act. I thought everything was going well and I was naively happy with the career I was expectedly slowly making my way in.”
This second version might sound fine to some of you, maybe even desirable, provided you have no aspirations of real success.
I realised a few years later that in magic and comedy, every single opportunity worth having has a filter on it. That filter, is usually an experienced magician or comedian. They may themselves be the booker, or an advisor to the booker. These people will see your act and immediately recognise that the material isn’t yours. They may even know the person you stole it from and tell them. Then you have a whole heap of new problems.
Back at the magic convention I still remember my set. Vanishing Bottle, 6 Card Repeat, Snowstorm. The thought of it now makes me feel a little sick.
I later heard that a well known performer had made a joke at my expense among some of my friends. My name had come up and one of the group was going to see my show. The performer in question quipped ‘You’re seeing Mark James? I wonder who’s act he’ll be doing tonight?’
When I heard this story I was hurt and angry. I made a mental note that I would never be friends with that person who didn’t know what the hell they were talking about and who they hell did they think they were anyway?
I now know they were absolutely right. Now the only thing I’m angry about is how stupid I was. I wasted time honing the delivery of material that I’d ultimately be forced to leave behind.
Almost ten years later I’ve done everything I can to squeeze those things from my show. It’s a lot more work and a lot less sure fire performing with material that doesn’t already come with a seal of approval attached but it’s worth it. Taking material from other performers is not cool and it’ll only do you harm in the end.
There are of course famous exceptions to this rule, but that’s all they are, exceptions. Times have changed and the internet can make or break you. The second you post your best new routine online and someone recognises your jokes as stolen, the game is up and your aspirations are dead.
Recently my friend Thom Peterson had a piece of material ripped off. The gag was something he’d bought from the originator and was using in his act. He saw the gag in another performers promo video and called him out on it.
The other performer stated that ‘as it wasn’t protected before being placed into the public domain’ he felt it was fair game to use.
THAT IS BULLSHIT OF THE HIGHEST ORDER.
Under those rules I could walk out tonight and perform almost any other comedian or magicians act in full and they’d have no recourse.
The biggest shame is that this performer feels like he’s getting away with something, when in fact he’s only knee capping his own chances at any real success. By the time he learns that lesson, 10 more people will have stolen the bit (because they saw two people doing it and assumed it was ‘just a thing everyone was doing’) and the originality in my friends act will be dead.
If you’re a magician/comedian reading, please just remember this…
“You’ll never perform alongside your heroes if you have their material in your show”.
This means that if you have real aspirations about being in ‘The Illusionists’ or on at magic conventions, it’s time to stop doing ‘the bowling ball’ and all the material you learned from Jeff Hobson, Mel Mellers and Michael Finney’s acts.
Or don’t bother but know that you’re making the decision to limit your potential success.
The rungs of the right ladder are further apart, but it goes WAY higher.
Stay well friends.