Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Novelty acts and Natural Selection

It is a tough world out there. Lots of competition. There are so many artists and not always enough jobs to go around. In this environment it is important to be able to adapt and to constantly be developing your acts to make sure they are fit to survive.

C R Darwin
P T Barnum
It is well worth making an analogy between our art of creating Acts and the theory of Evolution. With the fundamentals of Darwin’s theory in mind we greatly improve our understanding of the creative process and development of an act. 
Just as the Darwin's theory never aimed to explain the Origin of Life, this analogy does not deal with the Origin or Creation of Acts, only the development of them after their premiere performance. The process of Creation is different and subject of a future study.

To understand the benefits we must first take a look at the what the major parts of the evolutionary process in biology is. Evolution is the process by which organisms change over time as a result of changes in heritable physical or behavioral traits. Changes that allow an organism to better adapt to its environment will help it survive and have more offspring.

The fundamental element of biological evolution is a gene whilst Acts are cultural phenomena; its elements are not genes but meme’s,  (ideas, behaviours, skills).  These are subject to cultural evolution which by and large follows the same rules as biology: Copy - Transform - Combine.

Premiere as Birth of an Act
 After the creative development and rehearsal (pregnancy) of an Act, the first performance will be the birth. The Act happens and thus enters the world as an entity. No matter how great the preparation and how long the development, the first performance is like a newborn baby. It has arrived into the world but is far from ready to take on the harsh realities of competitive living and survival. This is why we do pre-views, or make sure we do our first performance in an underground cabaret, or generally, in an environment suitable for fragile infant acts. 
The act happens, but has little detail; broad strokes of simple gags, poses, and ideas are strung together like pearls on a string, still not flowing like a river. The Act has yet to learn to crawl, walk, talk and ultimately discover itself, to know who it is both in relation to others (the Crowd) and to itself.
Now begins the process of maturing and development from infant idea to full blown and realized Act.

Natural Selection on Acts

Strong acts are a cornerstone of any Showman's toolkit. Their improvement and development is paramount for rapidly turning them from a new idea to finished marketable product. By taking a closer look at natural selection I hope to illuminate a method for improving acts and a way for viewing mistakes in a more favorable light.

"Because art involves external forms, the testing mechanism operates also in the minds of other humans, in terms of their interest. Attention provides the selective mechanism of art. If a work of art fails to earn attention, it dies."

Natural selection is not a random process, it is guided by survival. On stage you live if the audience likes you and die if they don’t. Luckily stagecraft is more like a video game than real life. If you die it will be horrible and agonizingly embarrassing but if you're lucky you might get another chance. But in the end, if you keep dying on stage the job offers will dry up.

The copying in natural selection is not perfect, there will always be random elements. With each subsequent generation the offspring carries copying errors of different magnitude and importance. This is called mutation. 
Something very similar happens with acts. It doesn’t matter how well rehearsed your act is, how well scripted, as you take the stage unforeseen things will happen that will change your act from the idealized version in your mind. In acts we call this mistakes. The light blinds you, a heckler puts you off, a child walks onto stage or your skills temporarily elude you, the possibilities for error in the execution of your act are endless.
Some of these mistakes are big enough to loose your Crowd, ie. die but in amongst the bad mistakes there are serendipitous discoveries. Little changes which turns out to benefit the Act. A funny bit of improv, a line delivered in a strange way, a stumble that gets a laugh, funny moments, impressive moments, comments, groans from the crowd can all be discovered as you struggle for survival in your stage environment. 
After the show consider these. Write them down. By remembering and recreating these beneficial mutations you are making use of natural selection's heritability of favorable traits. 

Evolving novelty Acts
If you notice one extra laughter, one new positive response from the crowd with each performance, and manage to recreate it in your next show, you have a rapidly developing act. After 30 shows you have so many new moments there is little room for more new ones. Now a new selection process starts. The ante has just been upped for the survival of future mutations. Any new fortuitous discovery must not just be new, but better than the gag, groan, or wow it replaces. Because there is, of course, a time limit to how long an act could or should be. But remember to make note of any moments taken out, since you may want to add them back in later, use them in another act, or they might come in handy if you desire to turn an act into a full show.
By paying close attention to what each generation/performance offers, you can speed up the evolution of your act and thereby get more gigs/offspring. The stronger, more complex and perfectly formed your act is, the better it will survive. Adaptability has gotten humankind through many a bottleneck. The more generations/performances (or perhaps seasons) your act goes through the better equiped it will be be to deal with changing and challenging show environments.

From Chris Ede's exhibition Freakshow

Monday, 27 February 2012

Max Wall: Funny Man

Max Wall, born Maxwell George Lorimer (12th March 1908 - 21st May 1990), was an English comedian and actor, whose performing career covered music hall, theatre, films and television. He is best remembered for his ludicrously attired and hilariously strutting Professor Wallofski. This creation notably influenced John Cleese, who has acknowledged Max Wall's influence on the creation of his own Ministry of Silly Walks sketch for Monty Python.
After appearing in many musicals and stage comedies in the 1930s, Wall's career went into decline, and he was reduced to working in obscure nightclubs. He then joined the Royal Air Force during World War II and served for three years until he was invalided out in 1943. Wall re-emerged during the 1950s when producers and directors rediscovered his comic talents, along with the expressive power of his tragic clown face and the distinctive sad falling cadences of his voice.
He secured television appearances and, having attracted Samuel Beckett's attention, he won parts in Waiting for Godot and Krapp's Last Tape.
On the afternoon of 20th May 1990, Wall fell at Simpson's Restaurant in central London, fracturing his skull. He never regained consciousness, and died early the next morning at Westminster Hospital. He was 82.

A ten minute biography from channel 4's (UK) Heroes of Comedy.

Max Wall attempts Rachmaninoff. From the 1975 film Max Wall: Funny Man.

A fine selection (edited with some repetitions to a ska track...) of Max's superb comedic physicality.
Facial Contortions of an older Funny Man

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Carnytube 12

Bob Williams and his Dog Louie. A great dog act where the dog does little to nothing with a stone face that would put even Buster to shame.

Arthur Worsley which one is the Dummy? Including his famous Bottle of Beer bit. (that being a frasze thought impossible to pronounce for ventriloquists.

The Toto Brothers. A "balancing and iron jaw novelty act" from 1918.

Kruger and Ward the tall and short of it. A strongman dwarf and a floppy contortionist rubberman also from 1918 it must have been a good year for Vaudeville.

Borrah Minevitch & His Harmonica Rascals

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Johnny Puleo's Harmonica Slapstick

 JOHNNY PULEO and his Harmonica Gang was a hard hitting kicking harmonica slapstick troupe.
 Apparently they were one of George Carl's sources of inspiration.
(Thanks to Ira Seidenstein for this anecdote.)

Wikipedia on Puleo:
Johnny Puleo (October 7, 1907 - May 3, 1983) was an American musician and actor, who specialized in playing the harmonica.
 As an actor he appeared perhaps most notably in the film Trapeze. But acting schmacting - the man was a fantastic slapstick Showman and a virtuouso on the harmonica.

I have included three clips, for those just browsing you'll see what you need in the first one or two, but for the arduous students of slapstick to see the permutations of the gags and the changes and additions to the act is very interesting.

Here is in all his angry Italian dwarf glory. Not pulling any punches. Funny as all that, from Hollywood Palace, 1965.

Hollywood Palace, 1966.

the Moulin Rouge in 1954.

Monday, 20 February 2012


Trapeze is a 1956 circus film directed by Carol Reed and starring Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis and Gina Lollobrigida, making her debut in American films. (and Johnny Puleo.)
A crippled circus acrobat is torn emotionally between two ambitious young trapeze artists, one a talented young American and a less-gifted but beautiful Italian.

Filmed at the beautiful Cirque d'hiver, permanent circus building in Paris.

Johnny Puleo to the right.

Here it is in all its glory.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Carnytube - 11


Markus the Strongman Juggler. Real Old School.

Short, sweet, creative, and strangely fulfilling - by Greg Kennedy

Kris Kremo with his classic hat juggling routine. (1984)

Hat, cane and hatstand by Grant Goldie.

The Martial Juggling Arts of Get the Shoe.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012


“Originality is nothing but judicious imitation. The most original writers borrowed one from another. The instruction we find in books is like fire. We fetch it from our neighbor's, kindle it at home, communicate it to others, and it becomes the property of all.”

A while back a friend told me he really liked one of my ideas in an act I perform. It was a particular apparatus I had been developing over a three year period starting in early 2002. I thanked him. Then he told me he was going to make one for his own show. I said nothing. He asked me if it was OK. I said I didn’t feel good about it, but didn’t know what I could do to stop him. Now it is part of the finale in his show.

I collect and read circus books. The main part of the act my friend liked, the main skill, not the apparatus I perform the skill on came from a book. The book was a celebration of Robert Ripley, the man behind the world famous Ripley’s Believe it Not. The picture was of a man who could sit on a whiskey glass, with his legs behind his head. I later saw the same trick on a postcard where a man, calling himself Uncle Sam, sat on a little perch in the same posture. A man in almost the same posture, though not actually balancing but holding on, featured on the cover of a book called Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. Let alone that the feat has been "performed" within the Yoga tradition for who knows how long.
B K S Lyengar.
So in the end I had also “borrowed” something to create that act, even if I had specifically “dreamt” up the apparatus I performed it on. Does this mean there are no original acts?
Perhaps not.
But still people who see me get the feeling I am presenting something new and original, yet steeped in the Showman's Tradition.
I do think my act is original, but to understand this we might have to look a little closer at what that actually means.
In my presentation of the act: the music, specially created for the act by a fellow artist and dear friend Mikelangelo, gives form and structure to the flow of the act; a sequence of tricks mastered over the years;
my physicality; my visual gags; my running gag of confetti throwing;
and the final Dream Schpiel I deliver upon reaching the summit of the can stack - this symphony of elements united makes my act original. Not because the elements each sprouted into existence in a vacuum, but in their novel recombination and in my unique execution of it all.

For a long time I have been saying that if someone claims to have created something genuinely new, they just haven't studied history enough. This does not mean that there are no new or original acts created, on the contrary new and novel combinations and evolutions appear all the time, but what is seen as new by crowds are sweet remixes of the great showmen of the past - whether the creator knows it or not.

(Pic from Brain Pickings via Everything is a Remix.)

(There are more episodes of this excellent exploration of originality and creativity over at Kirby Ferguson's blog Everything is a Remix and they are all worth checking out.) 

On a whole, Crowds ("common man") have problems with that which is totally new. People like the idea of newness and novelty, but they do seem to prefer it if the "new" is firmly placed within some recognizable framework. But within a framework or tradition the very thing that makes it a tradition is the shared evolution of the idea or art form. Each new creator is borrowing from the same language and the same ideas. So to think of something brand new within a tradition is a contradiction.
Further, there are two sides to originality: 
- One, favored by the Crowds, is newness within a tradition: original, cutting edge, fresh. 
- The second is absurd or irrational newness: mad, freaky, aberration, kooky.

At the end of the second half of the last century I traveled as a street performer and one of my main obstacles was the inherent freakishness of my contortions and dislocations. As I bent and twisted, parents covered their children's eyes or simply walked away. Of course the children never had a problem with it. To them I was just like a character from any one of their favorite cartoons. I worked hard on my performance style and presentation and slowly but surely I found a slapstick, happy go lucky attitude which made the crowds tolerate my freakishness. Inspired by Keaton, Chaplin, and Arbuckle, what had been freaky fell within the framework of a tradition which crowds seemed to enjoy enough to stay for, and as I used to say in my street show: A show worth staying for is worth paying for. 
(Of course Freakishness is a tradition in itself. Freakshows and Sideshows was where I found my feet as a performer fresh out of my Magician Fathers wings, but that is a different story.)
 “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery - celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from - it’s where you take them to.” 
Jim Jarmusch.
If originality is 'merely' clever recombinations of old ideas, emotions and techniques what then is it that makes certain art and artists feel so new and 'original?' I think the answer lies in the artist's ability to make his material ring true in the hearts of Crowds.
Great art resonates with people. It stirs emotions and connects the beholder with ideas sublimely expressed by the artist in a way that feels new, illuminating and most importantly truthful. Truth is not something that is, but something that happens, an individual experience in the beholder.
Truth is only expressed through art  when it speaks to a Crowd. If it works it becomes truthful, undeniable and beautiful. A truth of this nature creates some sort of change in the viewer. A change in the way they perceive the world, or simply bringing forth a very specific or sublime emotion. The better the artist is at communicating with the Crowd, the more original the Crowd's experience becomes, and hence the more original the artist is perceived to be.

By reading circus books and studying the history of Showmen past and present, I am hoping to become the Showman of the future, the New Old School. 
"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."
Isaac Newton (from his days as an acrobat in the Sideshow.)

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Carnytube - 10

Funambulist Marriage or Wedding on a tightrope, that's Circus love. (thanks Hey Rube circus)

An armless golfer divulges some secret limbless golfing tips.

A no arm no legs commedian. There is about a minute of american hyperbole before Brett Eastburn jumps onto stage. (here is a snippet of his "stand up" comedy.)

New Wheels on the Block, Norwegian band.

The Incomparable Mat Fraser as Sealo the Sealboy.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

The Alchemy of Comedy

Here are some very fascinating thoughts on comedy as a delivery system of truth, and vehicle for Real Change. Chris Bliss divulges some important insight about the transformative power. Worth watching and contemplating.

"I want to talk [about] the unique power the best comedy and satire has in circumventing our engrained perspectives — comedy as the philosopher’s stone that takes the base metal of our conventional wisdom and transforms it, through ridicule, into a different way of seeing, and ultimately being, in the world… It is about communication that doesn’t just produce greater understanding within the individual, but leads to real change… communication that manages to speak to and expand our concept of self-interest.”

"What gives comedy its edge in reaching around peoples walls is the way that it uses deliberate misdirection. A great piece of comedy is a verbal magic trick. When you think its going over here and then all of a sudden you are over there and there is this mental delight followed by a physical response of laughter which not coincidentally releases endorphins in the brain. Just like that you have been seduced into a different way of looking at something. Because the endorphins have brought down your defenses."

This last quote is a apposite description of the mechanism which is the core of our Crafts power to change the world. Although comedy is the specific subject of this talk I believe other aspects of the Showman's craft like beatboxing, acrobatics or magic can be used to trigger the necessary emotional response in a Crowd that will lower their fences and listen in the correct way.

The goal for an Illuminated Showman is to gain the power to create change with his Art. A key to this is to make the Crowd listen in the right way. You have to get their attention, win their trust, make them like you enough to want to follow you.
Make them move beyond listening with their mind to listening with their heart. For as the Great Moldavio of Blacksea Gentlemen fame so aptly put it:
"(You can) perceive with your heart what your mind can not know."