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Mastering simplicity since 1981! Galumphing through life with an understanding wife since 1974! Making people laugh since birth (except for a humorless vice-principal in middle school who didn't think I was very funny at all.)

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I wrote this article specifically for this book because I thought the columns in this section needed an introductory piece. I also wanted it to be able to stand on its own for later publication so you will see elements of later articles contained in it. 

 

Demystifying Creativity                        Calliope Vol 17 #3              

I was driving from one party to another one Sunday and listening to a show on National Public Radio.  It featured an interview with Ray Manzarek, one of the founding members of the infamous rock band The Doors.  The conversation got around to the creation of their most famous song "Light My Fire."

It was quite interesting.  As originally written, "Light My Fire" had a pop beat, and Ray described it as a “Sonny and Cher” type of tune.  It obviously wasn't their kind of song, but they began working with it.

They didn't have a bass player so Ray filled in the bass notes on the synthesizer. He revealed that he copied the bass line directly from John Coltrane's famous jazz version of Rogers and Hammerstein's classic song "My Favorite Things."

One of the other members recommended a Latin beat instead of the straight ahead pop beat.  When they found they were blocked and needed a way to get out of the refrain and back to the verses, Ray said he went back to his classical training and added Bach-like musical phrasing.

There you have it, "Light My Fire" is a unique musical combination of Pop, Rock, Latin, Jazz and Bach.  The creativity was the fusion of these diverse parts.  Fortunately they had the tools and materials to be creative with.  Without jazz and classical training, the band would never have been able to create one of rock music's most enduring songs. Their resourcefulness in substituting instruments to overcome the lack of a normal resource (a bass player) helped create their trademark sound.  Necessity mothering another invention?

So what is the lesson here?  The lesson is a study in the nature of creativity.

People sometimes treat creativity as if it were something mystical or mysterious and, by the nature of its ephemeral existence, beyond their reach.  I can't tell you how many times I've heard someone say, "I'm just not creative," as if that was the final and absolute end of the discussion.

In truth, everyone is creative.  Creativity is simply a matter of using the resources you have at your command in a new way to handle situations or problems.  If you are married... or if you are a parent... or if you have parents... or if you have a job... or if you are a boss... or if you just are, you have at some time encountered a situation totally new to you that demanded a unique solution.  You used whatever was available to you to solve the problem.  More than likely, it involved remembering similar experiences and drawing connections between those similar experiences and the current problem to be solved.  Maybe what you did didn't work, but you were at least creative.

The level of your creativity may not be as extensive as someone else's, but that begs the question "What resources do you have, or have you given yourself to be creative with?"  Nothing is created from nothing.  You must have something with which to create something.  Most often becoming more creative is a matter of gathering resources, and using them.

What resources am I talking about?  It is a combination of tangible things, information, knowledge, and personal attributes.  We usually have no problem in collecting tangible things, just look at all the stuff gathering dust in our closets, attics and garages.

Thomas Edison, widely regarded as one of the most creative minds America has ever created, has a number of famous quotes that reveal something about himself and about his resources.  His quote, "genius is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration," reveals that one of his main creative resources was his work ethic.  He had a cot in his office he used as often as he did his bed at home. His quote about failure "I now know 10,000 things that won't work," reveals his tenacity and his forward-looking nature. Your work ethic, your attitude and your tenacity are matters within your hands and are resources to be used in cultivating your creativity.

New inventions are combinations and extensions of previously existing things.  It is generally acknowledged that the printing press was one of the most important inventions in all of history.  Did you know that the printing press was merely a combination of two previously existing technologies, the wine press and the coin punch? Guttenberg was the person who saw elements in both existing technologies that could be combined to create a new technology for printing words on paper.

How about using current things for another purpose.  Did you know that the main drug used to fight AIDS (commonly known as AZT) was invented many years before AIDS was even discovered?  Did you know that a current drug for helping people stop smoking started off as an anti-depressant?  Things like this happen often in the pharmaceutical industry. They, and the U.S. Patent office, consider this creativity and protectible under law.

So what are we talking about in terms of clowning? You knew I'd eventually get around to clowning didn't you. I always get back to clowning!

Lets start with what people consider most creative: improvisation and ad-libbing. I'll let you in on a little secret.  I can trace almost all my ad-libs and improvisations to their origins somewhere else, in a comic strip, a joke book, in a movie, etc.  There may be the need to change a word here or there to bend the original joke or punch line to fit the current situation.  Albert Einstein once said, "Creativity is a matter of hiding your sources."

Milton Berle said some of his best ad-libs took hours to write.  How can this be?  I do the same thing when I become aware of a common situation that happens enough that I am able to prepare something to say the next time the opportunity arises.  It gives the appearance of ad-libbing but it is far from it.

When you say you are not creative, it may really mean that you have neglected to build up the resources with which to create.  Prepare yourself by stocking up on joke books and reading, rereading, and rereading again.  Pretty soon there will be a ton of set ups and punch lines floating around somewhere in your brain just waiting to be used. Prepare yourself by reading widely.  Prepare yourself by studying comic structure. Prepare yourself by going to as many live theatrical performances as possible.  Prepare yourself by visualizing situations in which you would be able to use performance material.

Thomas Edison had a quote hanging up in his office.  I used to have it hanging in my classroom when I was a teacher.  It may still be there, but I think I can remember it with 90% accuracy.  It said, “There is no recourse to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.”

There is no need to simply admire, envy, or begrudge someone else's creativity. Start the real labor of thinking about your own.

 

 

 

You may have noticed that I use a lot of musical anecdotes to make my points, even about non-musical topics. The reason I do this is because music is the touchstone of our society. It is the most common bond we share. Kids who have no clue about the history of the 60's are at least familiar with the music of the 60's. Literary analogies used to be the most effective, but nobody reads anymore (present company excepted.) There is a special very resilient section of the brain that holds music. I realized this when I was doing something for the patients in an Alzheimer’s wing. They had no idea who I was, even my own mother. Not one person has ever said the word "clown" or "Santa" when I visited in full costume. But they all knew the words and music to Hank Williams' classic Hey, Good Lookin'.

 

Rearranging                                  Laugh‑Makers vol. 15 #1

In September 1967, Motown Records, fresh off a string of successes by such groups as The Supremes, The Four Tops, and the Temptations, put out a record that was to eclipse the sales of any previous recording they had marketed. I Heard It Through The Grapevine shot up the Billboard charts and was only kept out of the number one spot in December 1967 by The Beatles with Hello Goodbye. By any standard it was a tremendous success.

Its reign as Motown's number one seller lasted all of one year. At that time a powerful juggernaut of a recording, destined to become a cultural icon, shattered Motown sales records and topped the Billboard charts for seven weeks. The name of this incredible new recording... I Heard It Trough The Grapevine.

The very successful 1967 recording was by Gladys Knight and the Pips. The 1968 record shattering version was the Marvin Gaye version that we all know and love. For those of you unfamiliar with the Gladys Knight version, it is almost the opposite of the Marvin Gaye version. It is an upbeat dance number and has none of the haunting heartbeat rhythm.

Paul Harvey would say at a time like this "and now you know... the rest.... of the story."

In the music world it is a very common thing for one artist to "cover" a song originally done by another artist. Most commonly the new version involves a different "arrangement" of the music that puts the new artist's mark on it.

Jose Feliciano made a living putting familiar rock tunes to a Latin beat. Joe Cocker did the same thing giving familiar songs a rough bluesy treatment. Pat Boone made a living making "whitebread" versions of more bluesy Fats Domino tunes.

There are country versions of what were originally pop-rock songs and vice versa (I Will Always Love You by Dolly Parton, then by Whitney Houston). Female versions of songs originally done by males and vice versa (Wind Beneath My Wings by Gary Morris, then by Bette Midler).

What has this got to do with us?

In our field we often draw from the same small well of bits and ideas. We have all done the magic coloring book, we have all done Busy Bee, we all make balloon doggies and swords, we all own thumbtips. As such we take the risk of becoming cookie cutter clowns, one indistinguishable from another.

One thing we in clown education almost universally teach is that you should take a trick, bit or routine and make it your own. Directly copying another's routine is not looked upon kindly. How do you change things around and make them yours? Answers to artistic problems in one field can sometimes be found by looking at other artistic fields to see how they handle or approach similar situations.

In the music industry the answer is in the hand of arranger. This is the person who takes the basic song and experiments with the tempo, the rhythmic pattern, the musical accompaniment, and just about every other aspect of the music to turn something old into something new.

It can result in spectacular success. If you've never heard the Ray Charles album Modern Sounds In Country Western you are missing a real treat. Ray Charles doing country western? Who would have imagined it? Fortunately, some arrangers like Marty Paich did. The latest rage in rock is the MTV Unplugged series. Rock using exclusively acoustic instruments? What a difference. Even Eric Clapton rearranged his big hit Layla into a slowed down re-hit. Of course, then again, there's elevator muzak so we're not talking about 100% success!

At the International Festival of Children's Magicians (an absolutely marvelous event) I was privileged to watch Emmy Award winning actor/magician Max Howard try to teach the concept of rearranging familiar material to aspiring magicians. He called upon a student to show how he performs the Stratospheric Balls. The student started a ho hum, seen it a hundred times routine. Max stopped him and had him start over again, this time with instructions to say nothing!  He had the audio technician turn up whatever music he had handy so nothing said could be heard.

The student appeared to be sweating bullets, but the new voiceless routine was remarkably better than the old tired way everybody does it. Removed from his comfortably safe, tried and true, no surprises structure, his intensity increased, his tempo increased, his facial expression and body language got more dynamic. It was a near revelation to anyone paying attention. The rearranged old Stratospheric Balls routine was now different enough to seem like a new trick.

Rearranging things can be fun and enlightening. Play around with bits, tricks and routines that you normally do just to see what happens. Whenever Calvin Klown and I do skits we switch roles occasionally simply to change the dynamics. We don't try to imitate or copy what the other person did in the role. We put our characters in the opposite situation and "let her go!"

Change your props around and see what happens. Add and subtract things. Bring in new unrelated props to a routine. Change your intent and see what happens. If you mean to be magical, change your intent and be just as surprised as everyone else. Or vice versa. Change the order of things. Change the pace of the show. Change the premise of the trick. Change the story that goes with the trick. Even if you decide the rearrangements don't work, you will have learned a whole lot about your bits and yourself you never knew before. Keep asking the question "I wonder what would happen if I ...."

 

 

 

I got a lot of positive feedback after the next article was published, and continue to get feedback many years later from people who tell me they still say to themselves at some point "Its time to use the Rainbow Force Method. "

The Rainbow Force Method          Laugh‑Makers vol. 11 #1

I guess its simply a natural result of the way I grew up, but I find it very hard to plan ahead. It goes far beyond remedies like setting aside time for tasks, making lists, or implementing other basic organization skills. I have tried many of these things and found out something interesting about myself. I work well under pressure, and I don't work well at all under no pressure. Years of not doing school projects until the last minute finally created a monster incapable of original thought without the adrenaline rush of a deadline.

It has become infuriatingly clear to me that my brain doesn't work until it absolutely has to. I have pretty much adjusted to this reality and learned to work with it. I guess I am the embodiment of necessity being the mother of invention. I can't invent until its absolutely necessary.

I am pouring my soul out to you for a reason. I know I am not alone in this regard. If you share this problem, I want to show you how it can work to your advantage in clowning.

As most of you have, I buy tricks that sometimes end up in the back closet, not because I can't do the trick technically, but because I haven't (yet) figured out a way for it to fit my act and my character. As much as I sit and think about it, nothing comes. Let me digress right here to say I almost never read the suggested patter and storylines that come with the tricks. I find them normally to be pretty bland and dull. Success doesn't come from doing other people's stuff.

The day does finally arrive, however, when I feel I have to do something about a particular trick or prop. I use the RF (Rainbow Force) Method. It has nothing to do with the magical trick of forcing choices or cards. It has a lot to do with forcing me to sink or swim.

In all simplicity, the RF Method consists of putting a trick or prop in my hands so that it is in full view when I enter a room full of kids or meet a child in a walkaround. It becomes sink or swim time for me. I now have to do something with it. That old, familiar on-the-spot feeling takes over and my brain automatically goes into high gear. Out of my mouth comes a storyline previously unknown even to me.

The resulting routine is not perfect by any means, but it is a jump start toward success. The more I work it, the more I am able to fill in the holes. Long walkarounds are especially good for this because of the repetitive presentations. Pretty soon I have a whole new routine that fits me like a finely tailored suit.

I owned, but did not use, the Crazy Arrow trick (the arrow keeps pointing in different directions) for over a year. I finally used the RF Method and walked into a party holding it and looking at it intently. Obviously, I had to explain it to the kids.

Everything kicked in. I found myself telling the kids it was a new kind of road map that you didn't have to fold up (where did that idea come from?). Each time you come to an intersection, all you have to do is turn the map over to see which way the arrow points. You can double check by turning it over as many times as you want to. If both sides say go that way (work both arrows to point the same way), then you know you're supposed to go that way (pointing my finger the way the arrow had been pointing but also flipping it again so the arrow pointed in the opposite direction). The kids noticed the direction discrepancy right away and had laughs at my expense. The RF Method was working!

As I kept forcing the trick on myself, the storyline expanded and got funnier with more complications. As I worked the trick more, I started working on the other props. Today, my Crazy Arrow routine is one of my favorites and it is good for at least five minutes at the beginning of a party or for a long, long time at a big walkaround.

I have done the same thing with my linking rings becoming elephant wedding rings, my spring skunk being mistaken for a magic wand, my Brainwave deck becoming part of a Vulcan Mind Meld experiment ("like I saw on Star Trek"), and with numerous other props and tricks. I have some others I don't feel technically comfortable with yet, but, once I've mastered the mechanisms, I'll force the issue on them as well. Thinking about it, haven't some of your own best lines started out as ad-libs that worked so well you kept them?

Sometimes I back into the RF Method when I flub a trick and have to recover. For example, I was doing a thumb tip routine for a 3d grade class. Several of the kids said' "We know this one! Our teacher showed us one of those fake thumbs magicians use!"

Crash! Boom! Those are the sounds of a clown being blown out of the water and in need of a quick recovery. I said, "Yeah, that's one way to do it but I have another way, watch this!"  In my pocket was a mouth coil I hadn't planned on using. I snuck it into my hand, proceeded to load the handkerchief into the thumb tip in my hand, and then said the magic words. I looked in my hand, said "Uh-oh! Didn't work!", and then pointed somewhere behind the kids as I exclaimed, "Oh my goodness, look at that!!!" Some of the kids looked and some didn't and I very openly put the coil in my mouth. I then said in a muffled voice, "All gone!"

The kids caught on quickly and yelled, "Its in your mouth, we saw you put it in there!" Sheepishly I admitted it, but when I pulled out the unexpected, bright colored mouth coil the kids went wild! The same kids who "knew" the trick said "How did you do that?" and I had a whole new routine.

One of the hardest things to do is get something started. After that, its easy to revise and improve. I'm not saying this jump-start method will work for everyone but, if you're the type that can keep cool under pressure, this just might be one more tool that helps unlock your creative juices.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While the next article is in the Creativity section of this book, because it deals with the subject of originality, there is an article in the Character Development section called "Influences" that seems to naturally follow this one. So why doesn't it? On its own it fits better into the discussion of character development. The segments involved in clowning education are overlapping segments. Sometime read this one first and then "Influences. " Or don't. Hey, it’s your book, so do what you want.

Originality, Imitation, And Ethics      Laugh•Makers vol.l2 #5

Milton Berle tells a story about a luncheon he attended at the Friar's Club with, among others, George M. Cohan and Eddie Cantor.  Cohan cracked a joke.  Cantor said it was a good joke, but that it was his joke.  Berle butted in saying "you're both crazy, I stole that joke from Ed Wynn."

In developing as a clown I was pretty much by myself.  I didn't know any other clowns, had no idea what an alley was and I didn't even know about Clowns of America (WCA hadn't been founded yet).  I started clowning solely as a vehicle to do balloons.  It soon became apparent that was not enough, I needed an act.

I turned to generally accepted humor techniques I had learned from independent study and my theatrical background and soon developed a killer routine that got me into the balloons with a huge laugh. I was rather proud of this routine.

Eventually I learned that I was not alone in the family clowning world. There were even conventions for people like me. I finally went to one. At the evening show, out came a clown with a bag of balloons who proceeded to do my entire routine! I was stunned! How was this possible? Had they seen me and copied me? (What an incredibly egotistical reaction.)

I thought about how I came up with my routine. I had identified a few standard comedic structures upon which to base my act and went on from there. It became apparent to me that anyone basing a balloon routine on these same comedic structures will probably come up with the same basic routine. I have since tested this theory in teaching clown classes and, sure enough, novices to the art come up with pretty much the same routine.

The idea of originality and ownership of ideas and routines is a very sticky one to tackle. Does duplication naturally occur? Yes. I have seen quite a number of balloons I have independently created at home in my living room appear in the pages of Clowning Around in Captain Visual's column.

What do I now conclude? It is obvious that Gerry Giovinco and I think along similar thought patterns when we sit down to create things with balloons. There are other master balloonists out there who create stuff I would never have even thought to try. They obviously think along different tracks.

Similarly, Bruce Johnson and I have identical opinions on many items and often (sometimes eerily) independently write columns at about the same time on the same subject expressing similar thoughts. We rarely talk and have met only twice, but obviously we share similar philosophies.

I don't mean to deny that there are instances of unconscionable theft going on out there. Certainly this happens, but what actually constitutes the crime isn't really clear. The practice of appropriating aspects of another's success is as old as show business itself. Joey Grimaldi is called the father of modern day clowning, not because of his greatness, but because of the number of imitators his success spawned and the number of imitators his own imitators spawned through their success.

Think about the totality of the entertainment field today.

When I watch TV sitcoms it seems as if I had seen it all before, and I have. The Cosby Show spawned a tremendous number of imitators of format, style and substance. In music, Michael Bolton is spawning a tremendous number of screaming balladeers just as Frank Sinatra spawned a generation of romantic crooners (or is Bolton simply a reworked Rod Stewart?).

Is imitation the sincerest form of flatteryor was that saying created by an entertainment counterfeiter to cover his tracks?

The ethic of this culture of artistic appropriation is a very difficult subject. Specific guidelines are hard to come by because ethics are very personal and everyone draws their ethical boundaries in different places. Here are two examples to consider from my own experience.

One performer at a comedy club hit the end of his prepared material before his time was up and, stalling for time, talked about Bill Cosby and how much he was influenced by Bill Cosby growing up and launched into a Bill Cosby impression doing a famous early Bill Cosby routine. It was plain to the audience that this guy was not insinuating the material was his own. The material obviously belonged to Bill Cosby. His imitation was his own. The crowd laughed. Theft? Possibly, but generally accepted as partand parcel of show business. This didn't bother me at all. I wonder, however, how Bill Cosby may have felt if he were there.

The other performer was a non-clown emcee at a clown convention who did a word-fo-word, nuance-for-nuance, totally unattributed recital of George Carlin's "Stuff" routine. The crowd laughed. I didn't. The routine was great. The brazenness of the theft bothered me. To me, this was totally out of bounds. There is a fine line between these two cases, but they are an example of where I draw my ethical lines.

The bottom line of ethics, of course, is legality but keep in mind legality is the lowest common denominator of ethics. We often try to hold ourselves to a higher standard than mere legality. It is not against the law to reveal the secret of a magic trick. It is a generally accepted professional ethic not to do so. Generally accepted, but not universally accepted as fans and detractors of Penn and Teller will admit.

Even with the law on your side, things are not easy. Pursuing those who do violate trademark and copyrighted material is costly and there is no assurance that a successful litigation will result in sufficient monetary reward.

Unfortunately, there will always be those who out and out steal what really doesn't belong to them. This is a societal problem that extends far beyond our tiny realm of family entertainment. There have always been outrageous breaches of ethics. In vaudeville days, there was a west coast comedian who was very successful with his theft. Whenever any of the great comics premiered a new act in New York, his agent would transcribe the act and wire it in its entirety to him. It would immediately become his new act. The communications and travel systems of the time let him get away with it.

In show business lore, these types of situations were often handled in a rough and tumble physical fashion. Sometimes this included late night visits to offenders by the crooked nose set. I certainly don't recommend that!

I've got a great idea. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. Who among us has not lifted a bit or a routine from someone else? Think carefully before you answer. How about that great bit from Abbott and Costello? That line of the genie in Aladdin? That thing you saw somebody do at a convention?

If you teach and lecture at conventions, what did you think was going to happen when you did that great bit and, in the audience, the pencils hit the papers furiously scribbling. Of course, the talented people will rework things to fit their own style. But get serious, how many really talented people have you met at conventions?

Most of the attendees are in the beginning stages of their education. In most art education, duplication of form, style and substance is an essential beginning. It is something to learn and evolve from. A lot of people never get past that stage. Don't worry about them copying your past performance. Worry about your new performance.

Prayer may help you through. "God grant me the ability to change those things I can, the strength to bear those things I cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference."

As for protection of your performance, here is some key advice I heard from comedy magician Karrell Fox many years ago. Build your act around the one thing they can never steal, your personality.

 

 

 

 

Hmmm.... two articles in a row that start out with Milton Berle anecdotes. Yep! Heck, almost any article in this book could start out with an Uncle Miltie story. This is another column that generated a lot of response. Some people told me that it changed the whole way they watch TV and movies. Yikes!!!!!

 

Learning From Old Comedy Material       L‑Makers vol. 12 #4

An old story about Milton Berle has Uncle Miltie hearing another comedian tell a great joke and saying "Gee, I wish I'd said that." The other comedian responded "Don't worry, you will!"

I bring this up to say something about comic creativity. It isn't necessary to constantly reinvent the wheel. As I've pointed out before, Balki and Larry in the TV show Perfect Strangers were updated versions of Laverne and Shirley who were updated versions of Lucy and Ethel who were updated versions of…you get my point.

Steve Rancatore used to emphasize in his Laugh-Makers articles and lectures that to be humorous, you need to surround yourself with humor, take the time to study humor, and learn from the best. I couldn't agree more, and have encouraged just that in my own lectures and articles on how to use the comic pages, books, television, movies and the world of theater to your own comic benefit. I think it is a simple matter of putting yourself in the position and mind-set to learn, especially when you know what to look for. Let me follow with an example of how I work at digging up material. You'll see that it is more tedious than genius (that rhymes if you look at it cross-eyed).

I recently saw in TV Guide that the Marx Brothers movie Animal Crackers was playing at 3:00 a.m. I set the VCR and went to bed. A few days later I had a morning free, so I gathered paper and pencil and watched the movie. I had seen it before, but this time I was looking not for enjoyment (though I was enjoying myself), but for ideas, inspiration and education. Every time I saw something I thought was finny, I made a note. My notes at the end of the movie included extended skits, sight gags, puns, lines, dance steps and more.

The next step was to look over the list and give greater thought to each note: Why was it funny? Could I use it in my act without any changes? How could I set up a similar situation in my act? How would individual lines sound coming out of my character's mouth?

You may feel squeamish about taking someone else's material. I agree if the intent is to completely and exactly copy another's act and call it your own. Not only is that wrong, but you will find that another person's act is patterned around their own character, style and sense of timing and, therefore, may very well fall flat presented by you. Further, people who recognize the routine as being copied verbatim lose respect for your ability and talent (not to mention legal judgment). You would also lose esteem in the professional community.

The point is not to copy but to learn from, adapt, and expand. That is in the highest traditions of comedy. If you don't believe me pick up an old, old joke book. You may well find that the joke that made you laugh the other night on TV made your father laugh on radio and your grandfather laugh in the Vaudeville houses.

I loved Avner the Eccentric's stage show a few years back. It was full of some of the oldest routines and tricks I had seen before. They were revised, reworked, restructured and in the process, revitalized and now displayed the very distinctive trademarks of Avner's style.

Back to the Animal Crackers notes. I now had in front of me a rather long list of things that made me laugh. Here is the list unedited:

-   Captain Spaulding dance ‑

-   Quick shift to insurance sales pitch

-   Proposals of marriage

-   Your picture doesn't look like you

-   Bouncing check

-   Emanuel Ravelli and orchestra "no play" gag (whole skit a good clown skit)

-   I'm ...you're? Have you got a program so I can see who I am.

-   You go Uruguay and I'll go mine

-   Card playing skit (clown skit)

-   3 cheers (chairs)

-   Need a flash (light), fish, flute (all f words)

-   Dance 1234, 1234, 123456789

-   Music: Sugar in the Morning that won't quit

-   Spinning piano seat gag

-   play percussion with body

-   Irish chiropodist "my fate is in your hands"

-   I get paid by the pound (defer questions until proper time)

-   Show you a thing or 2 or 3 or 4.

-   Take a letter skit

-   All the jokes can't be good, you've got to expect that! 

-   who do you love ...a horse?

‑ What did you say ...You just said that

‑ Who stole the painting skit (make it a tooth)

If you haven't seen the movie you don't know what the heck these notes refer to! It is beyond the scope of this article to go into an explanation but, as you can see, I ended up with a good list of potential comic material.

Now it's time to sit and think. As you can see from the list, I jotted down some immediate thoughts about material I was noting that may or may not work out for me and my character. I see several whole skits that could work almost unedited. They may need a new intro, maybe not. The "Orchestra no play" routine may work when I do my next gig with the Durham Symphony, or it could be a good "interrupter" (the clown interrupts the MC of an event to give time for the stage hands to get things set backstage for the next act).

I loved the card playing routine! I don't know exactly how or when I'll use it, but you can bet your bottom dollar one of these days I will find a way. It would be a great break from the Busy Bee/Banana Bandanna rut. The "Take a Letter " routine is very famous and could be presented as a golden oldie or could possibly be reworked or updated. "Who Stole The Painting" is too plot specific, but could be adapted to a missing tooth. I may be way off base here, but it's worth a shot.

With some of this "thinking things through" accomplished, the next step is the tedious work of writing out the script and stage directions so you can study things even more completely. Knowing a show's history is also a plus. For example, Animal Crackers was originally a stage show. Even for their later films, the Marx Brothers used to try out specific extended skits in front of live audiences to work out wording sequence and timing before they put them in their films. Knowing this may give you the confidence that what went on film is also very workable live, and that these skits are indeed capable of standing on their own.

Meanwhile, back at the "thinking things through" phase, there were some quick periods of total madness that fit in well with my Mr. Rainbow character. The quick insurance sales pitch out of nowhere, the zany breathless proposals of marriage to two women at the same time, the "have you got a program" line, and the "need a flash" routine all fit into the morass of misconception that Mr. Rainbow tries to create around himself.

Sight gags I liked include the funny Captain Spaulding dance (which I have seen Alan Alda do on MASH). Also on the dance front is the counting that got out of control. Usually during picnics and walkarounds there is some kind of music, so I will have plenty of opportunity to work this one in somewhere. I get paid mostly by check so I am definitely going to work the bouncing check gag into the act to catch the parents with one last zinger when they least expect it. I can't believe I didn't think of this one before, it is so obvious. I even have one of those dollar bill snatchers that I've never used. I will now. This bit alone may be worth the time and energy I put into this whole Animal Crackers study project.

The puns are beautifully executed and easy to work in. The thing with puns is not to wait around to have them appreciated. They will be, though, such is the nature of puns. One pun from the movie didn't make it to my list because I already use it when making balloon elephants. I almost always put tusks on them and explain that in North Carolina it is important to put the tusks in very tightly, but things are different elsewhere. For example, in Alabama the Tuskaloosa! If you don't get it, don't try it. It usually gets a good solid groan from the adults, yet still entertains the children with a pretty silly story.

I have not exhausted the entire list but you can readily see what I am doing and where I am going with this study process. I really am "mining for gold." You may wish to check out Animal Crackers and go over my list. Better yet, make your own list. Get into the habit of doing this process with other movies and TV shows. Give it a try! You will find your repertoire expanding steadily and your own interest in what you are doing increasing. Your biggest problem may be convincing your spouse that when you are doing this you are truly working!

 

If life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Maybe its better than what you've been drinking. Maybe you'll switch to lemonade forever!

 

OOPS, I Got Better                        Unpublished as of 8/01/99

At an intersection near my home is a piece of public art. It is a stone sculptural representation of an oracle's prediction of the danger of the Trojan Horse, the discounting of the oracle's warning and the resulting destruction of Troy when the Horse was allowed inside. At least that's what the plaque beside it says.

I didn't like it. I approve of the concept of public art but the nature of art means that it either strikes an emotional chord in you or it doesn't. It just didn't for me.

The sculpture sits off the road in a spot where there is no place to safely pull over and look at the detail. Up close you can see the tragic and contorted faces symbolizing the horrors of war. From the road all you really see is the shape of its largest design.

One night a car lost control, went far off the road, and crashed into the sculpture. It knocked part of the sculpture off the base and it partially collapsed. Now, I love it! It now visually shows, even from a distance, the destruction of war. It looks war damaged.

The artist took a look at the result of the accident and decided to keep it in its new form. Fate took over and changed his design. Thankfully he had the ability to see that it was now a better, more visually meaningful piece of art.

Over the years I've gotten tremendously positive response for many of my routines and bits. Much as I would like to take credit for comic genius in the design of my best bits, the truth is that many of them developed like the sculpture on the corner. I had one intent when fate stepped in forcing another direction. A new, better creation rose out of the ashes. One of the routines I do at convention shows when I really want to make a good impression, is the result of two of these fateful "car crashes."

It started out as a serviceable but relatively normal routine. The first crash occurred when I was performing in front of a fifthgrade class. Their teacher, I later found out, had pulled out a magic book earlier in the year and showed the class how many magic tricks work, including the one I was doing. I started my routine and soon got blown out of the water by taunting fifthgraders (isn't that a redundancy). They knew what was coming.

In the flaming wreckage of my routine I realized that I had to do something different! I quickly and frantically searched my pockets for something, anything, with which to end the routine differently. Thankfully, and with much inner turmoil (including a few choice unspoken words for the teacher) I came up with something and ended the routine with a surprise ending that caught everybody off guard.

In reviewing what happened I realized that because of the crash I had accidentally come up with a more surprising routine that got a better response then my normal routine So I kept it!

The second accident happened when I "flaked" and forgot to put some essential items in my pocket before a party. I started my routine and came to the point where I steal something from my pocket. It wasn't there! I checked other pockets. It wasn't anywhere! Screech ...crash!

I frantically, and with the afore-mentioned inner turmoil (this time with a few choice unspoken words for myself), searched for anything that would get me out of the routine with a semblance of a satisfactory ending. I found something. It worked great and I again realized that the wreckage had resulted in an improved routine.

I can assure you that without these accidents I wouldn't have come up with the improvements. I wish I were a genius, but unfortunately I'm not. I try to make up for it by being analytical with an eye for improvement. I don't really care where improvement comes from. I merely try to recognize it and be truly appreciative when it decides to reveal itself to me.

I'm shocked by the number of people who are not analytical about what they do and about what happens to them and around them. Many times I've coached clowns in skits and routines and observed mistakes that improved the routines. I encounter surprising resistance when I advise people to keep the mistake. Since it was not planned and executed as planned it must be wrong!

Type A people have a hard time with the concept of using and incorporating mistakes, errors and accidents. Accidents, errors, and mistakes are things to be corrected! Life, however, is full of happy accidents and unintentional opportunities. You should take full advantage of them. The only way to do that is to be aware of the positive possibilities whenever an accident occurs. I admit its hard to do when you are sweating bullets as your careful plan goes awry.

There is a caution in this approach. Sometimes a mistake will occur that gets your attention simply because it is different and you are bored. It may not be an improvement to the act. You may not know right away.

I've been in many theatrical plays in which a mistake occurred during rehearsal that cracked up everyone. We kept the mistake in for a couple of days to see if it kept its humor and found out that it detracted from the larger, more important direction of the scene, so we cut it out. Its nice to amuse yourself if you can but that is not what you are in the entertainment business to do.

I'm reminded of the old story about the man standing on top of his roof as flood waters rose. He refused all the attempts at rescue saying "God will save me." He eventually drowned. In heaven he asked God why He didn't save him. God replied " Who do you think sent all those people to rescue you?" Maybe mistakes and accidents are meant to turn you in another direction. At least be open to the possibility.

 

 

 

 

You never know what you're going to learn if you are inquisitive enough and nosy enough and are always looking to learn something.

 

Clown Jazz                                   Funny Paper Fall-Sept. 2000

I have no idea what possessed me to pick up this strange book in a close out store. It was a selection of writings by the former San Francisco Chronicle performance arts critic John Wasserman. Wasserman died in a car crash over 20 years ago.

I flipped to a random page and started reading. The writing was crisp and vivid and mesmerizing. I love taut writing. I try to do it and I love to read it. Maybe I could pick up a hint or two about column writing. Anyway, it was only 99 cents. Geez, how cheap does one have to be to not take a $1.05 chance (taxes you know).

When I got back to the car, I flipped to another page and read a short piece that made the purchase invaluable. It involved an insight about comic entertainment that I had never been able to adequately verbalize before. I'd tried but failed. It was all there, short and very, very sweet to finally find.

Wasserman's March 6, 1978 column was entitled "Comedy as Jazz" and reviewed a show by Bill Cosby. I'll quote from the column. "Cosby began his hour and IS minute monologue with certain themes in mind .... But within those melodies he improvised at such length and with such seamless digressions that I'm not sure (one) story was not itself entirely ad‑libbed "

"Was it ad‑libbed? Probably not .... Was it all a set routine? Certainly not .... What it was, was improvisation. No musician plays a solo the ingredients of which he has never played before. What he does, and what Cosby does, is assemble the notes, the component parts, in a way unique to that moment. As a study in the art of comedy and performing, it was awesome. As laughs, it was side‑splitting and tears-to-eyes. The man is a master. "

Cosby is quoted in the article describing what he does. "The forms I'm working with are very much like those of a jazz musician. I take a theme, I know the chords, I know the changes, so now it's a matter of how I play the solo. "

I'm very tempted to end this column right now. What more can be said? I certainly can't say it any better than that. It is the essence of everything I have hoped and tried to do with my clowning performances. It is undeniably why I keep getting asked back again and again by people who have seen literally every piece of comedy or magic or balloon I have to offer. As one woman put it after the eighth party I had done for the family "it always seems different."

I'll just emphasize a couple of points in case you don't see what I see.

"No musician plays a solo the ingredients of which he has never played before. "

Become familiar with as many aspects of comic entertainment as you can and do them all! You may want to specialize in one or the other, but learn and do them all. Magic, stagework, dance, music, skit, juggling, puppetry, slapstick, monologue recitation, craftwork (balloons, facepainting, origami, etc.) These are the ingredients. The more ingredients you have, the more possibilities you get to choose from, the more unique the creation. I guess it's on the off-chance that I will find little bits of useful ingredients that causes me to pick up and read odd books and magazines in the first place.

"...assemble the notes, the component parts, in a way unique to that moment."

Just what composes "the moment"? It is a combination of just about everything, including the age and composition of the group, relationships among the audience, personal information you can pick up by listening, what you just did, what reaction it just got, what somebody else just said or did, the weather, what is on the news, the popular songs on the radio, peoples' names, peoples' clothing, etc. The more you make of "the moment", the more unique your act becomes.

As a matter of fact, the more experience you get, the more you will realize that "moments" are repetitive and not always so unique. Sometimes, you can manipulate matters to your advantage. For example, once you find out that a particular set up almost always gets the same response, you can build a bit that takes advantage of it. Much like Wasserman's reaction to one of Cosby's bits, the audience won't know if you totally ad-libbed or not because it was so much a part of the moment. And that is a sweet feeling!

Loosen up, listen to your audience and become aware of "the moment." Know your themes, know your ingredients and have fun playing around with the infinite possible combinations. Jazz clowning. Yeah!

 

 

 

People often lament that they could be better if they only had this or that or even a little more of this or a little more of that. Actually, you might be better ifyou had a little less of a lot of things so that you could (or would be forced to) really explore what you have.

 

The Power Of Limits                       Laugh‑Makers vol. 15 #3

I recently read a book on creativity called Free Play: The Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts by Steven Nachmanovitch. It is not an easy read, but as I was going through it I ended up marking it up like a text book . Clowning is not addressed in the book but artistry is, and I could relate many of it's principles directly to my humble situation. It turns out that over the years I have unknowingly taken advantage of many of the principles of the book to help me create new things for me to do as a clown. Now that I know what I did and why it worked, I can intentionally guide myself toward more creativity.

One of the many instructive chapters is entitled "The Power Of Limits." The essence of this concept can be distilled down to the old cliche "necessity is the mother of invention." It takes it one step further by suggesting that one way to innovate and be creative is to create necessity through self-imposed limitations.

Huh? Let me run that by you one more time. If necessity is the mother of invention, then one way to make yourself more creative and inventive is to create an atmosphere of necessity by denying yourself easy and obvious options. One of the book's examples is that of Pablo Picassso deciding at one point that he would work for a certain period exclusively with variations of the color blue. By denying himself access to any other color, he made artistic discoveries that profoundly affected the world of art and the way artists in the future would work with colors.

An interesting thing happens when we are limited by either natural or self-imposed constraints. We end up focusing more intensely on whatever options remain open to us. For example, blind people don't have better hearing, they listen better. Poets and lyricists voluntarily restrict themselves to strict structural constraints and, through increased focus on language, work to put the exact right words in the exact sequence and rhythm to express a specific complex idea. When they get it right, it transcends the ages.

Limits can force you to keep on task. Limits can give you a compass for progress. Limits can give you a sense of morality. Limits can give you a professional identity. Limits can cause you to examine available options more closely and you discover things you never saw before. Limits can be very good!

In my own case, when I write columns I have a self-imposed limit on length. I do this to keep me from wandering off on too many tangents and not muddle up my intended points. Whenever a first draft comes in over my limit, I scour the articles for redundancies, irrelevancies, and side arguments. Even my detractors who tell me I'm wrong admit that my articles are usually tight and focused. The funny thing is people who know my writing are sometimes in for a shock when they find out what a scatterbrain I really am. That in itself is an argument for positive creative limits.

Limits have helped my ballooning creativity. Years ago I decided that I would use only the 260 size balloons. If I can't make it with 260s then I just won't make it. That limitation has led me to many creations I would never have done if I allowed myself the use of other sizes.

I've heard it said that the measure of a good entertainer is the amount of material he or she rejects. This is indicative of self-imposed limits. For example, a clown using magic should do a great deal of editing. Just because you can do a trick does not mean that you should do a trick. I can actually do dozens of magic tricks, I only actually perform a handful in public. I feel that they have to get a certain specific audience reaction befitting a clown before they get a spot in my act.

The lack of guiding limitations can be disastrous. At my first national clown convention, I remember watching incredulously as a silent tramp (a presenter, not an attendee) did the Harry Anderson needle through the arm trick with children as assistants! It is a truly gross trick that even Harry presents lightly with the constant reminder throughout the routine that "its not real ...its only an illusion ...its red syrup." This silent "clown" presented it as a needle really through his arm. My reaction was first, this guy is sick. My second thought was" what moron hired him?" He obviously had no professional limits to keep himself within the confines of propriety.

As clowns, we do limit ourselves to a certain extent. We commit ourselves to comedy first and foremost. Yes, that boxes us in when it comes to things like magic and balloons but it is a professional limitation that ultimately defines us. We can, however, use those limits to get more focused and intense about what options are open to us as we face paint, do our balloons, and especially do magic. We can use our professional limitations to increase our focus and guide us toward creating some great things.

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