Harrison Greenbaum's "Unleashing Your Superpowers" Podcast Interview
by Christian Painter and Roland Sarlot
What We'll Explore
Harrison has been doing a lecture for magicians called 'You are all Terrible' for years, so he's here to tell you what you might be doing wrong and how to fix it. As a comedian and magician, he recommends only performing your own material (yes, it'll hurt!), developing tricks in the right direction, the higher plains of audience reactions, being an original, developing your point of view, and oh yeah, DON'T do other magician's material!
Who is Harrison Greenbaum?
Harrison Greenbaum is a comedian, magician, and all around smarty-pants (Harvard, summa cum laude.) He's won numerous awards for his comedy including the 2010 "Andy Kaufman Award", 2011 "Magners Comic Stand-Off", 2010 "Comics to Watch" by Comedy Central, and one of the "Best of the Breakout Artists" by Carolines on Broadway and Punchline Magazine. In 2017 at the 80th Abbott's Magic Get-Together, Harrison received the "Clarke Crandall Award for Comedy". His television credits include the National Geographic Channel, NBC's Last Comic Standing, America's Got Talent, and Conan (and on and on...) His book for magicians is titled, "You Are All Terrible: The Book".
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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Christian Painter: On this amazing episode of the Magic Business Podcast...
Harrison Greenbaum: It's much harder to be an original but all the things that most magicians want: to be booked, to be liked, and all the people that are your heroes, they're your heroes because they do original stuff. If you're the only one that can do that thing, you're going to get booked more. You're no longer interchangeable. They have to go through you.
Christian Painter: Welcome to the Magic Business Podcast, where we share insightful and delightful inner secrets about the business of magic. This is where magic professionals present their real-life experiences and some of their most guarded secrets to help further your career in the magical arts. I'm your host, Christian Painter, in partnership with the MagicOracle.Club, where you can hear all of our Magic Business Podcasts.
Harrison Greenbaum is a comedian and magician based out of New York City. He has been on "America's Got Talent," "Last Comic Standing," and Comedy Central's "This Week at the Comedy Cellar." He was the host of "The Unbelievables: The World's Greatest Entertainers", which played 22 shows at the Sydney Opera House. He is one of the stars of The Illusionists. He works colleges, comedy clubs, corporate shows, and theaters. He works all over the world. Now, Harrison is very funny and he is known for his very strong views on comedy and originality. I think you're going to really like this. Welcome to the show, Harrison.
Harrison Greenbaum: Thanks for having me. I'm so excited.
Christian Painter: I'm excited to have you on. And we're going to start off with something… Just before the show, we were sharing some comments and ideas and one of the things I had said was that I've always believed banana bandana is one of those tricks that is like training wheels, put it in your show, but get rid of it as soon as you can, but you have a whole different attitude on that don't you?
Harrison Greenbaum: Yeah. I think the vanishing bandana, when I try to explain to comedians what's wrong with magic, that's a perfect example because I don't think they can even comprehend what's going on. When I say, "Hey, not only did the magicians you've seen do that trick not come up with it or write the script or any of the gags or jokes, the CD that they're playing, or cassette if they're older, is somebody else’s that they bought it for $30. So, not only did they not write it or come up with it, they're not even performing it, they're literally just robots. They're just, it couldn't be farther from what art is in my opinion. And I have a chapter in my book that's coming out which is called "You Are All Terrible:The book". And basically, some of the sidebars in the book came from comments and questions that I've gotten while I've given my lecture. And somebody had asked, can we use other people's acts as training wheels? Can I do other people's materials, get good at magic or comedy or whatever, and then eventually do my own material? And I would never yell at a child, like I teach at Magic Camp and if you're a 10-year-old kid and you're doing twisting the aces and you do it exactly the way you saw Michael Ammar do it on Easy to Master Card Magic, you're 10 years old, I'll give you a pass. But I think that you should not ever really use other people's acts as training wheels, whether it's vanishing bandana or anything else. You don't see a comedian ever try to make the argument that, it's okay to do Chris Rock material for three years, and then as soon as you "get good," you start writing your own jokes.
Comedians just bomb for a while, sometimes for years, and it's painful, and it's awful, but that's how you become good is by living or dying by your own material. That's the actual artistic process. So, using other people's as training wheels, you're never going to actually learn how to ride the bicycle if you never get on the bicycle. So, why even get on the tricycle? You know what I mean?
Christian Painter: Understood, yes.
Harrison Greenbaum: Yeah. I think just learn... And also one of the issues is if all you use is other people's material, you might kill because the audience doesn't know better. And that's like one of the things that I always kick my lecture off is the problem with magic is there's a lot of Beatles cover bands but everybody's acting like they are John Lennon. Just because everybody loves your rendition of "Imagine" doesn't mean you get credit for writing "Imagine." So, it's the same thing with that is like you might kill with other people's material, but I think that's going to make you less likely to stop doing it because you're gonna have to start from zero. So, you're better off starting from zero from the beginning so that by the time it matters, you're really, really good and the creative process that you have in place is one that has results in actual artistic creation.
Christian Painter: Okay. I will ride this bike with you.
Harrison Greenbaum: Only two wheels, that's the key.
Christian Painter: So, how will someone then… Let's say a young guy, maybe he's in his 20s, he wants to start doing this professionally, how is he going to go from, okay, I've learned all these routines from obviously other artists, how do I now transition? How do I get to doing them in front of, whatever my routines are and how do I turn into my routines?
Harrison Greenbaum: Well, I think, that's interesting the way you ask that question, right? So, my whole thesis of my lecture, the art part at least, is that magicians are doing it backwards. So, they start with a trick, and then they try to come up with an idea for presenting it. And my argument is that actually, that's backwards, that most artists come up with an idea and then they figure out how to turn it into art. The sort of version of that would be if you want to paint the sky, like, "Oh, you know what? I'm gonna make a painting of the sky," and then you go to the art supply store and you go, "Oh, I guess I need to buy blue and I think I'm gonna do it in acrylic." And you bring all the techniques that you know to bear in order to paint this beautiful picture of a sky, as opposed to the magician version, which is you show up at the magic store, someone's like, "Oh, you should see this blue. It's really good." And then you go, "Oh, all right, I'll connect it to the sky. I've seen the sky once before." So, you're not trying to take other people's routines and then adapt it to yourself. You sit down and you come up with just an idea which I think is really freeing and really liberating and I know all the people who use this process really enjoy it as hard as it is. You just sit down and you go, "What should I be doing on stage?" Like, "If I was a wizard, what would I do?" Like, "What would I do if I had actual powers?" And so, all of my tricks generally start from a joke or a script, and then I bring in the magic after that. I'm not starting with a trick in my hands and then saying, how do I jam it into my act? I think that actually ends up being a harder way to get a really creative product.
Christian Painter: Yes. I would have to agree with that. As we've all seen what I call the parade of trick show, which is the next trick.
Harrison Greenbaum: Yeah. Every magician is a collage, right? They're just taking a little bit of that and a little bit of that. It's just either a collage or montage. I mean, one of the jokes at "Magic Camp," when we're judging the competition is you see a lot of acts. I know you have a kid who's, 12 years old and he's like, "Well, I was on this business trip to China" and you're like, "None of that is true." There's no way any part of that is accurate.
Christian Painter: So, let's say you're working with a younger person and they're trying to come up with maybe their first piece, right? How do you help them create that?
Harrison Greenbaum: It's actually, I think, easier to work with kids because they're not so stubborn in their ways yet. They're still learning and they're open to trying different things. So, with a kid, I always say I want you to just imagine your dream show. If you could just have your dream show right now, there's no constraints of ability or budget or anything, what would it be? And usually, almost inevitably, they come up with something that is achievable. If they say, "I want to make an elephant appear," the odds are I don't think they can afford the upkeep on an elephant so we might have to tone down that idea but if they're like, "Yeah, I want my arm to disappear." Somebody had this at an SYM lecture and some kid said, "I want to make my arm disappear and then do one handed magic." And I was like, "That's doable. We can actually come up with a method that you can do that. We'll make it seem like your arm has disappeared." And then there's lots of really cool tricks you can do with just one arm. So, that was a very achievable idea and really cool. And you could tell that once he realized that he had this idea that nobody maybe had had before, or that at least his approach would be something unique, I think he was really, really excited. I think kids particularly are like, "Wait a second. There's no restrictions here? I can create literally anything?" And I think it should be really freeing.
Christian Painter: Okay. All right. So, now let's go in a different direction. Probably one of the most popular tricks currently is three fly, where three coins disappear from one hand and appear in the other. Would you just tell someone, "Don't even look at that, just step away," or would you allow them to look at that trick and then grow from it or try to expand from it?
Harrison Greenbaum: No, you can learn tricks. My whole thing is...
Christian Painter: No, I mean, if they wanted to put it in their show, let's say they looked at that trick, "Oh, I would love to put that in my show."
Harrison Greenbaum: Yeah. You're learning three fly and you're understanding how it works, why it works. You get really good at performing it. And then eventually, the hope is that you have an idea that comes along that it makes sense for three fly to be the thing that illustrates it, or that it makes sense to use that trick to express the idea that you came up with. So, you should learn all the tricks and learn as much as humanly possible. But yeah, in general, it's not like you learn three fly and then you go, "How can I come up with a story?" that Houdini problem, right? Everybody learns a trick and they figure if I just pretend that the coin is Houdini and the other two coins are his brother and his wife, now I have an art piece. And you're like, that's not how it works.
Christian Painter: Understood. Okay. And that's what I'm trying to do, especially for our listeners, to make sure they understand that you're not saying you have to come up with whole new methods.
Harrison Greenbaum: No, I mean, you can. I mean, the beauty of coming up with the idea first is sometimes a method doesn't exist. So, you have to adapt and change. Like a painter doesn't have to invent paint every time, but they might have to mix their own shade of blue. There might not be a shade of blue that is exactly the right one. So, you have to learn all the technique and method and learn as much as possible and have a group of friends that expands your sort of resource base and have a library that expands the amount of knowledge that you have. It's more about coming up with an idea and then making sure that the tricks that you're using and the methods that you're using are helping express that idea as opposed to the other way around.
Christian Painter: Okay. I think you expressed that very well.
Harrison Greenbaum: Oh, thank you.
Christian Painter: Now, let's go to the next pain point, which is comedy.
Harrison Greenbaum: Oh, what a pain point it is, huh?
Christian Painter: So, how are you seeing comedy in the magic world right now?
Harrison Greenbaum: You know what, we have this mentality and I call it the magic store mentality. People go to the magic store and they buy tricks. So, they have the same feeling about jokes as they do about tricks, which is they think that they can see other people do it and so now it's theirs. Or they can buy a trick and just do the jokes that are on the DVD. And that's just not… I mean, as a comedian, that's not how comedy works. If you wonder why comedians hate magicians, it's because of that. It's because comedians spend their entire lives working on jokes, and magicians don't, and then still perform at the same comedy clubs. So, you can understand why comedians are furious.
Christian Painter: Absolutely.
Harrison Greenbaum: The first time they see vanishing bandana, they go, "Wow, that's a really cool thing that this guy came up with" and then when they see the second guy do the exact same trick, they're like, "Oh, they bought this. This was $30." So, you have to write your own jokes.
Christian Painter: So, what are you going to tell because I'm just gonna… I know you've already had this question, but I want the listeners to hear. What are you going to tell the magician that says, "Yeah, but when I say, stand over here on the trap door, I get a laugh every time"?
Harrison Greenbaum: I mean, first of all, I would question that. Like most of that material is so old and stale that, like, what, did you get that at a magic convention where everybody laughs because the line is also in their act so if they don't laugh, they're admitting that they have terrible jokes? It's two things. One, if you're using stock lines, the odds that it directly applies to you or is really appropriate for that moment is much lower than a line that you write for yourself. And you're honestly kind of robbing yourself of the opportunity to come up with a material that is uniquely you. And I bet you if you come up with stuff that is actually yours and actually related to who you are on stage, it's going to kill much harder. I know that in my comedy journey as a standup, you would write all these jokes...because Chris Rock always said, "You only get as far as your jokes will take you." So, if you're not far enough, if you're not where you want to be, you need to write new jokes because the jokes will take you as far as they can and not much further.
Christian Painter: That is great. And you could say that's the same with your magic tricks, right?
Harrison Greenbaum: A hundred percent. And the thing that I noticed with comedy, in particular, because it's so easy to see it, or really to hear it, which is you go on stage and you're killing and you go, "Wow, these jokes are killing as hard as...I'm killing as hard as a comedian possibly can." And then you write a joke that's a level above that and you go, "Oh, shit. Every joke that I have is not killing as hard as I could be." So, then you throw them all out or you fix every joke and now you're killing at this next level and then you write another joke and you go, "Oh my God, it could be even more." Or sometimes I remember seeing Bill Burr at Carolines right before he was selling out so much that he had to move to theaters. Carolines was not big enough to accommodate his audience. And he was killing to like a physically hurting level, that people were crying. They couldn't breathe. They were in physical pain from how much laughter he was constantly causing them. And I was like, "Oh, you can kill real hard." And so, every time I thought I was killing as hard as I could, I realized there was another level, and it's great because you throw out every joke that you have and you write the next level, and then the next level, and the next level. And so, I would say that probably even if you think you're killing, even if you're getting pretty good laughs, you see with magicians and comedians when they walk off stage and they're like, "I killed." And I'm, "No, no. I've seen killing. I don't know if you're aware of the level of what killing can really sound like."
Christian Painter: Well, what they meant was that was one of their better sets.
Harrison Greenbaum: Right. But if all your sets are terrible and then you have one that's not so terrible, then is that the goal?
Christian Painter: Then you killed in your mind.
Harrison Greenbaum: I mean, the way you figure out a good magician and a bad magician or a good comedian and a bad magician, the comedians that I love and the magicians that I love will kill, but one person is upset or not laughing and that's all they can focus on. And they walk off stage and you go, "You killed." And they go, "That one guy wasn't laughing enough." And the bad magicians are the ones who are bombing but one guy is laughing really hard. So, they walk off stage and they point to that guy and they're like, "I killed." So, you want to be that guy who focuses on the one person who's not laughing. It's also why we're so depressed, right? By that definition, the best comics are the ones who are killing, but don't even know it. So, yeah, you're setting yourself up for a life of depression. I don't have to tell you.
Christian Painter: Well but that's the struggle of an artist, right?
Harrison Greenbaum: Exactly.
Christian Painter: You're trying to push the limits. And I think, I don't know if you said it, but I know you've said it before we were, maybe before we got on the air, but the difference between a creative magician and the cover band magicians, and talk about that a little bit, how you see that.
Harrison Greenbaum: Yeah. I mean, in music... And again, it's not me denigrating cover bands. I have… one of my dad's very good friends is in a Journey cover band and he kills it. Like he goes on world tours, he loves it. But at no point does he ever tell somebody he's actually in Journey. At no point is he like, "This is my band songs." Just because most magic audiences don't know that you didn't invent those tricks, don't fool yourself into thinking that you did. And I think it's one of those weird things where yes, the... It's just that matter of the audience's education, right? Like, the audience knows that Journey wrote the song. So, when you do a cover of it, they think, "Wow, that's a really good cover of Journey." When you do a cover of a magic trick, just because they don't know that you didn't–just because they think you–when you see a standup comedian, I always connect it to comedy because I have a foot in both worlds. When you see a standup comedian, you just assume that a standup comedian wrote it. You assume that what you're seeing on stage is something that that comedian created. Right. And if you found out ... Or to put it the other way, if you found out that what you saw in a Netflix Special was actually written by a team of people, you'd be really disappointed. Like, "Wait a second. That guy didn't write that stuff? That he's just an actor, essentially reading somebody else's lines?" You'd be really sad. And I really do think that's how most people approach a magic show. They approach a magic show assuming that all the stuff they're seeing is stuff that that guy or girl created. And the reason I think they believe that is that pieces of art, where they're created by a team or created by other people, hand out playbills, or have credits at the end of the TV show, or they have liner notes in their CD that says who wrote it, who mixed it, who else played on the track. Magicians don't do that. And so, I think the audience assumes that the reason they're not handing out a playbill is because the playbill would just list their name over and over again.
Christian Painter: Good point. And I'm going to ask you this question, which I think you are the perfect person to ask, is I think a lot of magicians, let's call them the cover band magicians, if they just stay in their town so to speak, it probably won't ever matter. But if they're the ones who are trying to like get to that next level, that next level, and you have been booked all over the world and I'm sure you have at least one or multiple agents who book you, agents know when an act is original or not, correct?
Harrison Greenbaum: Well, yeah. I mean, a lot of those industry people just care if they can make money, but if you're an original, I say this in the book and I've said this in my lecture, yes, it's much harder to come up with original material. It's much harder to be an original than to be a cover band. But all the things that most magicians want, to be booked, to be liked, to be... And all the people that are your heroes, your Penn & Teller's, your Mac King's, your Copperfield's, they're your heroes because they do original stuff. And when it comes to getting booked, if you're the only one that can do that thing, you're going to get booked more. Like if you're doing the same shit that everybody else is doing, then, of course, they could book somebody else because you're doing the same. You're interchangeable. If you're doing your own unique stuff, you're no longer interchangeable. They have to go through you. If you want to get Penn & Teller, you have to book Penn & Teller. And if you book somebody who's a Penn & Teller knockoff, the whole world knows that you booked the knockoff.
Christian Painter: Right. Yes. So, if you want to be original, you probably shouldn't be starting with the bowling ball sketch pad. Is that what you're telling me?
Harrison Greenbaum: Right, unless you're Kevin James. Right? If you invented the trick, great. Once in a while, when I was at a magic convention, I would do a version of the bowling ball where I would draw the ball, just a circle, and then I write "ball." And then you draw the three little circles to make it a bowling ball, but then I would draw a frowny face. And then I would put Xs through the eyes and I'd turn the ball into a baby, a lowercase B and a Y. So, then I write "dead baby" and I would... A baby doll would drop out of it and I would punch it off stage and it would kill. And I would look at the audience because it's all magicians and I'd be like, the only reason this kills is because all of you know this trick so well because you've seen it so many times from so many people that I was able to parody it, and maybe that's a problem.
Christian Painter: Yeah. That could be, yes. So, we're at that time of the show that I'm going to ask you the tough question because right now you're the Oracle.
Harrison Greenbaum: Oh, God.
Christian Painter: Yeah, you are. You're the Oracle.
Harrison Greenbaum: But weren't most of the Oracles high? Wasn't that the whole thing, that they were just sniffing these fumes from a vent?
Christian Painter: That's why we have to grab you and trick you into getting on here and then, "Oh, I'm the Oracle. I didn't know that." And that is when people come up to you and ask you about, "I want to be original," or, "I want to be originally funny," "I wanna have original stuff," or, "I want to, have those original jokes," what's the one thing they never ask you but they should be asking you?
Harrison Greenbaum: Maybe it's, "Am I ready for your help?" I think that's the question they never ask. "Are you even useful for me at this stage?" Because I get a lot of inquiries from people who are saying, "Oh, I booked this thing," or, "I'm going to be on TV," or, "Hey, I'm doing this thing, I really need you to come in and, make it funny. Can you write all these lines for me?" And and if it's a friend, I try my… I try to help as many people as I can. But there is another chapter in the book where people, when I talk about, "You have to write your own original material," will say, "But what about actors?" Actors are artists and they don't write any of the things that they say, you know. A Shakespearean actor is performing Shakespeare. Shakespeare is the genius. But you still say, "Wow, what a brilliant actor. He did 'Hamlet' so well." But there are a lot of arguments for why the actor thing doesn't apply, and I've touched upon them already. One of them is that they assume that you've written your own stuff the way people assume a comedian has. But also, it's really hard to write for somebody that doesn't have a point of view already. Like, you can only bring in a team to help you write… you can only bring in a team to help you fulfill your vision if you already have a vision.
Christian Painter: So, let me… And by all means, please comment, but you're saying a lot of people come to you, they don't have a point of view yet, they don't really have a character yet, and now, they're saying, "Okay, I want to be more funny," or, "I want to be more original," and you're telling them, "You're not even ready for that yet."
Harrison Greenbaum: Yeah, sometimes. I mean, if you think about it, people will say, "Oh, you have comedians and they have to write their own stuff, but what about Letterman?" And yeah, or somebody more current, Colbert or Fallon, absolutely, they have a team of writers. And a lot of it is due to the fact that they have to come up with new material every single day, and that's an inhuman ask. One person can't write that much material every single day, five days a week. But the reason they can even bring writers in is because each one of them has a very distinct and unique voice. So, it's very easy to write for these guys because you know how they sound, you know? Mac King has a very defined style, so if I was brought in to write for Mac King, I could write for him because I know what his voice is, and he has such a distinct point of view. Some people, when they ask me to help them write, I say, "Hey, well, what is your point of view? What is your tone? What is your character?" If you don't have any of those things, I can't really help as much because I'm just throwing things against...I'm just trying to get things to stick. Because if you can't even tell me, are you snarky, are you super nice, are you mean, are you cutting, are you...? What are you, you know? And sometimes you get brought in to write for somebody and they don't even know their basic character. And if you don't know their basic character, how are you supposed to write for them? I'm sure I'm talking myself out of a job because there are... If you have lots of money and you want me to write jokes for you, I'm probably available whether you have a character or not.
But I think the point really just is that you want to develop your own unique point of view and your own character and persona, and it's only at that point that you really can bring in people to help you. And so I think that's why I encourage people so much to come up with their own material and to not use the training wheels. And it's all because if you develop a really strong, unique character and persona, the sky's the limit. And so, I really hope people do that. And honestly, it all comes from a place of me hoping that everybody gets to be the best version of themselves on stage because the book is called "You Are All Terrible: The Book," but the whole hope is to make everybody a little bit less terrible because I do love magic and that's why I do it.
Christian Painter: Harrison, if anybody wants to know more about you or follow you, what can they do?
Harrison Greenbaum: Yeah. You could just go to @harrisoncomedy on Twitter and Instagram, or just check me out on my website, harrisongreenbaum.com, that has all the info.
Christian Painter: We had a blast. I'm going to look forward to seeing your book, getting your book when it comes out.
Harrison Greenbaum: Yeah. "You Are All Terrible: The Book", it's going to be available through Vanishing Inc. sometime this year, 2021. So, I'm very excited.
Christian Painter: Harrison, thank you so much for being on the show.
Harrison Greenbaum: Oh, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Christian Painter: Thank you for listening to our Magic Business Podcast. Please visit the MagicOracle.Club where you can hear all of our Magic Business Podcasts and enjoy a vast array of additional magical knowledge.
I'd like to leave you with this quote from David Copperfield, "From the very beginning, I studied acting, directing, writing, dance, and movement, I didn't rely on just the magic to take place. It's a shame that a lot of magicians just rely on the trick itself and they have no other abilities. They get away with the wonder factor, and I don't think that's enough. It's great, but it's not enough."
As always, we at the Magic Oracle wish you continued success on your path in the magical arts.
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