David Kaye’s philosophy on performing magic for children

David Kaye’s philosophy on performing magic for children

This originally appeared in the book, Seriously Silly

I am going to teach you how to think differently about your kid show routines. After you learn these techniques you will be able to take any trick you have in the closet or any trick you ever buy and write a brand new routine that will completely engage your audience.

Other authors feed you their routines. But maybe their routines aren’t right for your character. Here you will learn how to build a routine from the ground up.

Let’s go to the comedy club.

The speed of a car is measured in miles per hour, Its gas use is measured in miles per gallon. The speed of a computer printer is measured in pages per minute and its print quality is measured in dots per inch. Comedians judge how good they are by their number of laughs per minute. A good comedian can get four to six laughs per minute. Great comedians like Jerry Seinfeld can get ten laughs per minute. That’s a laugh every five seconds. I have done stand up comedy and the best I could do was three laughs per minute or a laugh every 20 seconds.

We can use a gauge like this to quantify our success at our kid shows. Instead of counting the laughs per minute, count the interactions per minute. Because we want the children in the audience to participate in many ways with the performer, we include many kinds of interactions. Besides laughter, we want the children to point, scream, yell out “turn it around,” answer a question, wiggle their fingers to make the magic happen, and say the magic words. In my kids show I get four interactions per minute. That’s one interaction (laugh, call out, wiggle fingers) every 15 seconds. For a forty-five-minute magic show I think that’s pretty good.

Increased interaction with the show increases the involvement and increases the active participation. The children are not passively watching in silence. They are actively participating with all their attention.

Do interactions increase enjoyment? Yes. To prove it we now have to go to an NBA basketball game. Let’s say the game is progressing and your team just scored as huge shot. Now the visiting team has the ball. They are dribbling and moving the ball slowly down court. Lots of passing to slow down your team’s momentum. The game gets sluggish. What does the organist do? He starts playing a chant on the keyboard. And the crowd joins in, “De-Fense! De-Fense! De-fense!” Everyone yells “Charge!” The organist felt a lull in the game and to keep people interested he started them chanting. He increased the interaction to keep the crowd actively participating. The interactions from our seats make the experience of being at this event more fun.

It is now customary to wave white inflated 260 balloons at basketball games to distract the opposing team trying to shoot a free throw. Waving balloons from your seat makes the experience of watching the game more fun.

Have you been to a rap music or hip hop concert? Have you seen this on television? If you have you know that rappers also get their audiences actively involved in the music. Rappers tell their audience to, “Say ho!” and the audience yells “Ho.” “Say hey!” and the audience yells “Hey.” Rappers yell out to the audience phrases like, “Is Brooklyn in the house?” and the audience cheers. Rappers tell their audiences to, ”Put your hands in the air like you just don’t care.” And the audience does, waving their hands from side to side. Rappers even go so far as explicitly telling their audience, “Everybody scream!” and the audience does.

The adults at the rap concert and the basketball game are treated the same way we treat the children in our audiences. Before our audience of children gets a chance to lose their focus we bring their attention right back – getting them to chant, “Turn it around! Turn it around!” The interactions from their seats make the experience of being at our shows more fun.

If you increase the number of interactions during your show the audience will have more fun at your show. But how can you increase the number of interactions? By changing the way we think about the structure of the routine.

It’s not the destination, it’s the ride

The best kid show magicians know that in the presentation of any magic trick, it’s not the magical moment that matters most to children, it’s the fun stuff that happens on the way to that magical moment. The “ride” is the part that is most important, not the “destination.” (By the way this is true for magic shows for adults as well.)

You magic purists out there are probably cringing thinking about it. But it’s true. And I think that the reason so many (“adult”) magicians hate doing kid shows is because they don’t understand this concept. These magicians perform miracles for an audience of children, yet they get absolutely no reaction. Or they get shouts of explanations like, “It was there the whole time.” These magicians must learn that “fooling” the audience (especially three to six-year olds) is not the goal. As important, and possibly more important, than fooling the audience is having fun before the magic happens.

What do I mean by having fun? I mean making the kids laugh – either through physical comedy, verbal comedy, or both. Acting silly (e.g. Silly Billy), goofing around, hamming it up, or all of the above. In other words, increasing those interactions per minute. These are the things that an audience of children loves and will enjoy the most. To put another way, the emphasis in my kids show is not on the magic but on the entertainment. This isn’t to say that the magic isn’t important. But with an audience of children, I go for the laugh, not the “Oooo, how did he do that?”

But why should we put in a long middle?

The theory “It’s not the destination it’s the ride” is true for all children but for different reasons depending on their age. For children three- to six-years old the middle is most important because they are young and not really sure of what is and is not possible in the natural world. They aren’t sure what qualifies as magic and what does not. Doing miracles for this age group does not impress them too much. They would much rather laugh and have fun. Therefore, emphasize the fun stuff on the way to the climax.

For these children, three- to six-years old, I try to make the effect as fun as possible. In fact, after I finish a routine, the kids often shout, “Let’s play that again.” (Not “Show me that again.”) They see the routines as fun games that we play together. When they see me again at another friend’s birthday party they request tricks they want to see.

For example, let’s put a silly middle into a simple routine. The routine is – make a silk vanish from a change bag. The beginning is “here is a silk.” The end is, “It’s gone.” If I want to add a middle, I may “accidentally” miss the bag and drop the silk on the floor. I may even do this a few times. And the more times I do it, the funnier it gets. Of course I eventually realize my error and continue with the trick. I tell you, though; the kids enjoy “the part when the handkerchief kept dropping on the floor,” more than the fact that I made a silk handkerchief disappear.

You see, the world is full of incredible magic to a young child. A child can lift a plastic handle to his ear and hear grandma, mommy, or daddy coming from it. Or he can push a button on a box and see hundreds of different programs. Therefore, making a silk disappear seems like no big deal to a kid. But having fun and making them laugh, is.

This principle: “It’s not the destination, it’s the ride” applies to older children as well, but for a different reason. Children seven- to thirteen-years old do know what is possible in the natural world. All they want to do is catch you. They want to bust you on your methods. They come up with an explanation of the method and insist their method is accurate whether it is or not.

If you emphasize the middle, the ride, rather than fooling these kids, the routine is not only more fun, but it overcomes several problems of performing magic for this age group.

For these older groups I believe you must fool them and fool them bad. But take the emphasis away from the final effect by spending several minutes having a fun routine getting there. On the way to fooling them, if you have fun and make them laugh, you will diffuse their need to expose the method. This way, even if they think they know the secret, it is such a small part of the overall routine that it becomes insignificant. You diffuse their need to catch you and you suck the wind out of their desire to expose you. If you emphasize the fun stuff, you minimize the method. If you build up the fun parts then the act doesn’t depend solely on fooling them.

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