Zen and the Art of Stand-Up Comedy

by Jay Sankey

Reviewed by Anthony Owen

I suppose the nearest magic text comparable with Jay Sankey's 1998 general release paperback book Zen and the Art of Stand-up Comedy is Darwin Ortiz's Strong Magic. Although for those of you who are familiar with the "Psychology" shelf of your bookshop it's probably more telling to reveal that it's closer to the work of John Gray than the classic Robert Pirsig tome upon which the title is based. "Audiences are from Mars, Stand-up Comedians are from another Solar System entirely" perhaps?

This book doesn't deal directly with magic, in fact, as Sankey says in his introduction "it isn't about being funny either". He explains: "it's a book about the craft involved in the performance of a particular kind of comedy, namely stand-up" I guess the comparison with Strong Magic was because I'd always figured that Ortiz's much misunderstood book was essentially about the craft involved in performing close-up in particular situations. 

So if the book isn't about magic - or even about comedy material magicians could use - why am I reviewing it here? Firstly, because its author is a highly respected creative magician who was a big hit when he lectured at The Circle earlier this year and secondly - and more importantly - because I feel the topics discussed in the book's "attempt to outline and discuss some of the guiding principles and fundamental ideas behind the writing and performance of stand-up comedy" would benefit many performing magicians.

The nine chapters cover - Stand-up, Writing (and the entire process of developing ideas), Character, Delivery, Performance, Set Structure, Audiences, Professional Stand-up and Zen and the Art of Stand-up Comedy. Plus there are twenty tips very valid for any performer, a glossary and a bunch of Sankey's insane (and often hilarious) cartoons. 

I found Sankey's high level of honesty about his own work a great and refreshing change from the writings of most magicians. It's an honesty which throughout this book he encourages potential performers to share with their audiences. (In an essay he wrote for the June issue of Genii Sankey said "How the hell are we supposed to have both the moves and the script of a trick so well-memorised that we can do them in our sleep... but then not put our audiences to sleep with these same extremely familiar tricks? From our interaction with the audience... What does this really mean...? It means to risk. To let them in. To allow ourselves to be seen.")

This book would be invaluable to any patter performer aspiring to the comedy club market which continues to be, arguably, the UK's biggest and, still, fastest growing form of live entertainment (as opposed to the USA where stand-up "fell down" a few years ago), and should also be recommended reading for any other creative and/or performing magicians.


(Reprinted from The Magic Circular - the house magazine of The Magic Circle, with permission of the Editor, Anthony Owen.)


Anthony Owen July 2000