Big Laughs for Little People - Excerpt 1
The following is an excerpt from BIG LAUGHS FOR LITTLE PEOPLE.
A classic textbook of kid-show comedy! Completely revised with new illustrations and the latest jokes, handling, and advice from Samuel Patrick Smith!
Winning Them Over
How do you keep children interested in your show? This is an important question, because children who lose interest in your show quickly begin an act of their own!
I believe there are two ways to win and maintain the interest of children: variety and involvement. By variety, I mean that you have to vary the type of effects you present, as well as the length of your routines. Tricks involving volunteers from the audience usually run longer than “solo” effects. So, it’s a good idea to use brief, one-man tricks to space the lengthier routines. That puts you in better control. Keep the children emotionally involved, but let their attention be focused on you.
Some performers are afraid to do this. They think they have to get audience-helpers on stage for practically every effect, in order to keep the kids interested. They find themselves saying, ridiculously, at the start of every effect, “Now, I need someone from the audience.” After six consecutive “audience participation” tricks, that remark is followed by the deafening roar of “Me! Me! I never get a turn! I didn’t get to help! Me!” This leaves the performer feeling defeated by the end of the show, and 95% of the children disappointed that they “didn’t get to help.” This is where the second key comes in: involvement. “Audience participation” shouldn’t be limited to those times when a child comes on stage. Your entire show should involve the audience. From the first word you speak to the last break-a-way prop you use, building rapport with your audience should be the Number One priority. Every child should feel that he has been intimately involved with the success of the show.
This is why I ask the children to “take a handful of woofle dust” or say the magic words. This is why every effect in this book has gag lines which respond to the reaction of the audience. You have to let them know that you are performing for them. (You’ve seen your act before, right?) As the saying goes, “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” So constantly communicate their importance to you by acknowledging them throughout the show.
This is not only good manners, it’s good showmanship. If you are able to establish a positive relationship with your audience and make each child feel involved and special, your tricks with or without volunteers will be equally effective. You will also have fewer problems with disappointed children who don’t get to come up on stage, because most of the kids will already have a feeling that they are noticed and important.
Working with Audience Helpers
Routines involving assistants taken from the audience are a valid way to add variety and involvement to your show. But working with children on stage is a delicate skill. We want the children to have a good time without going berserk, and we need to maintain control without being a bully. How many times have you seen a performer treat a child badly on stage, barking orders at him and expressing obvious dislike? Such poor manners indicate one of two things. </P>
<P>First, the performer is ignorant. Otherwise, he would realize that he is encouraging the entire audience to gang up against him. He is making it impossible to do his job of entertaining the audience, because the spectators are developing a healthy dislike for him.</P>
<P>Let’s consider the second possibility: The performer feels very insecure and expresses this insecurity through the brusque treatment of his “helper.” The trouble with this is, by treating a volunteer badly, the audience responds badly, making the performer feel even more insecure.</P>
<P>I was amazed last year to watch a performer completely alienate his audience. Near the beginning of his show, he barked at some giggling children, “Shut up!” People laughed nervously when he blurted out this rude remark, and he could have made restitution with a humorous comment. “Gosh, I’ve got to quit drinking so much coffee!” Or, he could have smiled disarmingly, winked at the audience, and said, “It works every time!” But what did the clever performer do? When people laughed weakly in disbelief, he called out angrily, “I’m not kidding!” It was rough riding for him the rest of the night.</P>
<P>We all have days when we aren’t feeling well and things get on our nerves more easily than at other times. And I regret that when I first started my career, I didn’t know much about that fine line between embarrassing a spectator and having a good laugh with him. I hope that subsequent years in the business have given me a greater ability to make volunteers feel welcome and comfortable on stage, sending them back to the audience as heroes.</P>
<P>This doesn’t mean that you can’t joke with a child. It is possible to feign disgust in such a way that the audience and volunteer know that you aren’t really mad. Sometimes, it’s a wonderful bit of comedy to have a child do something behind your back, to your complete dismay. But the important distinction is that the child is not being laughed at or put down. Rather, the child has created the comedy, and you have reacted to it.</P>
<P>So, respect is the key. It begins in the selection of the helpers, and carries on through the entire routine. You can avoid many problems by finding a good helper from the start. But occasionally, a child who is seated quietly, raising his hand, smiling angelically, looking like the perfect helper, undergoes a major transformation in front of the audience. He may throw your props on the floor and refuse to cooperate, trying to steal the show, but actually killing it instead. What to do then? If this happens early in the routine, send him back to his seat. “Timmy, I want to thank you for coming up on stage to help me, but I’m going to have to find someone who can hold on to this magic wand a little better. Let’s give Timmy a hand as he goes back to his seat.” Then avert further problems by saying, “Now, it so happens that to be a helper in this show, you have to use very good manners. That means standing fairly still and cooperating with me so we can get the magic to work. If you think you can do this, please raise your hand quietly, and I will find one person to join me on stage.”</P>
<P>These kinds of problems don’t happen every day. At least, they shouldn’t be happening every day! Most children are pleased to be on stage with the magician. They want to look good in front of their friends, and if they think they will get to make a good impression as part of the regular program, they usually won’t try to write new material for you! </P>