The Comedy Magician Mike Williams Reveals How His Grind Is Every Artist’s Grind (Just, Y’know, With Cool Illusions).
Welcome to Humor Us, our column in which Dallas comedian Alex Gaskin interviews other area comedians about the ol’ funny business in order to help introduce DFW at large to the burgeoning comedy scene blooming right under its nose.
There are so many to choose from, but if I had to pick my favorite way to doubt myself, I’d go with the looming question, “What makes me stand out as a comic, or as a writer?” Convincing people they want to see me, and not just any stand-up comic, or getting them to be more interested in an article when they see my name attached to it, is a daunting task. It takes considerable time, effort and insight just to become competent at a craft; coming across as unique or irreplaceable can feel almost impossible.
I wasn’t surprised to hear “Magic” Mike Williams address that same sort of concern during our interview, and I was impressed by the succinctness with which he was able to define the matter.
Williams isn’t just trying to stand out in his chosen medium – as a comedy magician, he practically is his medium in Dallas. Magic is further from most people’s entertainment radars than live comedy, or music (or a movie, or a night in on the couch, and so on), but he’s thrived as a performer here. He enjoys steady work, including a weekly show at the Addison Improv, and he’s appeared on Good Morning Texas.
As a comedy magician, Williams stands apart from what conventional comics are doing, but there is an observable tradition that informs what he does – it’s no surprise that he references Steve Martin’s act as an inspiration for how he’s developed as a performer. Williams uses charm and one-liners to get laughs, but he likes to produce humor by drawing out the tension audiences can feel while waiting for him to execute his tricks.
It takes a wealth of charisma, discipline and moxie to put together any act, but Williams’ hybrid performances call for a formidable degree of mental and physical dexterousness. Keeping the attention of a crowd full of people who can – and will – check their phones if they lose interest is tough. Williams is making those people laugh, dazzling them with his tricks, and doing it with the occasional added chaos of raucous kids on the stage.
I spoke with Williams about how he got traction as a performer, how comedy informs his work, and what it’s like to be a performer in DFW. You can see him at his weekly all-ages show, held Sunday afternoons at the Addison Improv.
Your act is a hybrid of comedy and magic – so which came first, the comedy, or the magic?
Well, that’s hard to say. I guess my love of comedy came first, because growing up, my mom – we’d drive around in her car, and she’d play Richard Pryor cassette tapes, and Eddie Murphy cassette tapes. She took me to see Eddie Murphy: Raw in theaters when it came out. I laughed so much. I don’t think I knew what I was laughing at, but I think that came first. My family’s big on laughing and having a good time. And then came the magic. But blending them? Together? I wanted to be a serious magician when I first got interested in it as a kid. I wanted to be the guy who did magic to music. Doing card fans, and stuff, birds. And then I saw Steve Martin. I heard his record first, heard all the stuff he did in his stand-up, which was all visual, but it translated through the audio very well. But then I found, at Blockbuster, a recording of his stand-up show at a Los Angeles amphitheater – I forget the name of it – and I got to see him do the magic in his act. He made a candle disappear, then he juggled, he did balloon animals. That’s when I really thought, “OK, I can do magic and make it funny, too.” That’s kind of where I got started with the idea of combining the two. But I would say the magic has always come first, because I don’t do the comedy like a comedian does. It’s not like a setup and a punchline, and an act-out, or something like that. It’s more situational. The comedy comes from what happens with the magic. There are one-liners and stuff that I use throughout, and then there’s the crowd work. Most comedians do it with the crowd sitting out there, but for magic, it’s when you have someone on stage with you that you can get a lot of funny situations, because you never know what they’re gonna do, or how they’re going to react to something. Seeing someone’s face during a magic trick onstage, that really makes the audience laugh, and it makes it totally different than if you’re doing it while they’re out there in the crowd.
They get to share the experience with someone up there onstage.
And if it’s their friend up there it’s even more so, they get to say, “I’m glad I’m not the one up there.”
You have a weekly show at the Addison Improv on Sundays, can we talk about that?
For the weekly show, I’m guessing this is our seventh year doing that. Been doing magic at the Addison Improv, I’m going to say going on nine years. The first two years, we were doing an adult show during the week, at night. That turned into… The owner of the Improv saw how successful it was being, and he wanted to start doing a weekly one, but for families. It was all-ages. So we started doing that on Sundays. That started a monthly Sunday show, but the [Improv] in Houston started doing one every week, and I found out about that, and I was like, “Well, we should do it every week.” And it started to become a weekly thing. That’s not – a lot of people might think it’s a kids’ show, for young kids, but really it’s just a clean comedy show. That’s the cool thing about most magic, most magicians work pretty clean, so it’s perfect for family audiences. You’re going to see stuff that’s appropriate for kids, but it’s not kiddie magic. It’s good for the whole family, whether you’re old or young, you’re gonna have a good time. But yeah, we’re on our seventh year. It’s been great. It has its ups and downs – when the Cowboys are playing, it’s hard to know what kind of crowd we’re going to have. They tried it on Saturdays, but they had to work around their defensive driving schedule, and they also used to do comedy classes on Saturdays. We stuck with Sundays. It’s been good, and a lot of fun. It’s nice to have a weekly public performance space. It’s always different magicians – if I am there, I try to invite another magician to be with me, but if I’m not there, we get other magicians to take over. We have jugglers, too – variety acts, really. We’ve had a guy that comes out with snakes. You don’t see a lot of that type of entertainment outside of just the comedians, there’s not a lot of variety entertainment, or even venues for variety entertainment around. It’s not like in Vegas, where you can see variety shows all over the place.
What’s it like cultivating and maintaining a relationship for that long?
I’ve had experience doing that, when I was in college, and first trying to do magic full time, I did a lot of restaurant magic, which is you would walk around a restaurant, table to table, on a certain night of the week, and you’d do magic at the tables. We were talking about keeping people in a bar if you’re in a comedy show, keep them buying stuff, this is you wanting to keep people coming back week after week. Doing good in front of management. Doing that taught me how important it was to do something different, and get those regulars coming back, so they would see something different, to keep my job at that restaurant for a long period of time. It was high turnover for some magicians, they would be there for a few months, and management would say, “OK, this isn’t working out.” I had restaurants that would last years, and that was great. I guess with this, it’s mainly the support of the venue. The Improv has been super supportive of us doing magic there. They see the numbers, they understand sometimes, with the Cowboys playing on a Sunday, they know, “OK, wasn’t a great show,” but they look at the rest of the shows and see that there’s a lot of people coming in. As long you’re still getting the crowds in, they’re gonna still want you there. But they’ve been supportive in letting us do different types of shows there, not just the family show on Sundays. We used to do a comedy circus, which was a variety of acts, not just magic. We had comedians, jugglers, magicians, music comedians, which there aren’t a whole lot of here. I guess it mainly comes from the support of the club. We can only do so much in what we bring to the show, there’s only a certain number of magicians I would want up on the stage. There are a lot of amateur magicians, but not necessarily someone I would want to do a 90-minute show. The management’s been really, really supportive of the magic, and I think it’s because they’re the only ones offering something different like that, and they know how well it works out, because they’ve been doing it for so long. It’s the support of the club, and showing them that we can give them a different show every time. We get a lot of repeat customers into the club. It’s about the food and drink, too. Believe it or not, at these family shows, and I can understand it, but the family comes in, and dad’s ordering a beer, mom’s ordering a margarita, the kids are ordering off the kids’ menu, they’re ordering food. They’re making money off the food and off the tickets.
Did you start performing in Dallas?
No. Well, Amarillo’s where I grew up, I went to high school there. I moved to Denton for school – for college, North Texas – I started working at a magic shop that I used to go to as a kid when I’d visit Dallas. Through college I worked at the shop, and I was working birthday parties, and restaurant gigs, and stuff like that. Most of my performance experience starting out was in Dallas, but I did some shows in Amarillo, not as many as I did once I moved here. But I was also in my learning stage in magic.
In these interviews, I’ll talk to comics at different stages of their growth – it’s interesting to see how people start getting that traction. What’s it like to build a career in something like magic, where it’s maybe not as…you don’t have music venues, comedy clubs – there’s not an equivalent to those for magic.
Yeah, and that’s why you’ve gotta find…most people probably don’t know there’s a scene of restaurant magicians, even in Dallas you can go to a restaurant and you’re gonna see a magician sometimes. But when I really decided to get serious about it, I was working at the magic shop. I knew it was time – I was out of college, I knew I needed…first, to learn how a business works, but then I needed to really focus on performing. I got rid of the magic shop job, got a real job – but one that was flexible, so I could have nights off if I needed to for open mics, or I could go someplace to perform. I did that for about four years. That’s when I was really focused on performing. I would go to open mics here in Dallas, or I would drive to Oklahoma and do open mics. Basically anywhere there was an open mic I would try to go.
Were you going to comedy open mics, all purpose open mics?
Yeah. A lot of the bar open mics, a lot of those. Every once in a while I’d go to Backdoor [Comedy Club], but you’ve probably noticed on their open mic night, there’s so many comedians. If you’re not there all the time, you’re really low on the list, sometimes there’s not a crowd left when it’s your turn to go up. But the bar open mics are where I’d go a lot. There was a place in Denton, because I was still living in Denton at the time, a guy had opened a club called Hole in the Head Comedy Club at Golden Triangle Mall. It used to be a country western dance club, so the stage was still blocked off from the audience with wooden posts. You were barricaded, the audience was separated from you by those posts. [Laughs.] They sat in the dancing area. Since I was so close, that was a good place. I met a lot of guys there. Gary Seinz was one of the first local guys who was really good that I met there. He did a bunch of open mics with Gary Hood, and so he let me know of those open mics. I would learn about the ones in Dallas, and I would drive to those. But that Hole in the Head Comedy Club, I think I told you this once, I did a show there once and there were only two people in the audience. A lot of the shows there were like that. I don’t think that place ever sold out or anything. It didn’t last long, I think a couple of years, maybe a year and a half. But it was a performance space, so I didn’t care. A lot of the guys doing it then were the same way, they just wanted to work on material. You don’t have a lot of time at these open mics. Being a magician, it’s really hard to work on something like a magic trick, when you only have three minutes to do it. That’s a lot of jokes, you can get a lot of jokes in that time, but for magic, because the routines are usually spread out over at least five minutes, it was hard to get them down to that time. So I was doing real quick stuff, and trying to work the comedy out with that. I would try to open up with some jokes and then get into that magic, but that never really worked for me, because I didn’t have time. So I started throwing the jokes in with the magic, as I was going. Doing those three minute magic spots, for auditions, has been really helpful. Now, if you had to go in and audition in three minutes, most magicians wouldn’t be able to do it, because they’re so used to having a routine that lasts longer. But I’ve got a lot of quick stuff.
I wanted to ask how comedy informs your act – it sounds like it’s changed the way you think about how you can present what you’re doing.
Like I said, it’s very situational now, where I let the situation create the comedy, even though I do some one-liners here and there, most of it comes from the situation I create. That’s only because I’ve gotten to the point where I have more time to play with these magic tricks, and the people onstage. But for the opening stuff, where – even with comedy, to present yourself to the audience and let them know about you in the first couple of minutes – that’s really helpful. That’s where I do that fast stuff. I’ll do a couple of quick things really fast early on when I’m onstage. Now they have an idea of who I am and what they’re going to see, and it all happened within three minutes of me coming up. I guess that’s where it’s been beneficial.
It’s one thing to develop comedy – there’s a lot of sitting, and thinking, and writing – but what’s it like when you’re trying to develop humor, but also try and develop these sleights of hand, and different things you have to do. What’s it like developing new material for you?
I would say now, I can think about it, and I kind of have an idea if a joke is going to work in the context of the trick, I can be kind of confident knowing, “Oh, that’s going to be funny because of the situation it’s going to create.” Like, this guy thinks I’ve destroyed his hundred dollar bill, or something, that’s going to be funny to the people – not the guy, but it’s going to be funny to the people watching. [Laughs.] But coming up…a lot of the magic is standard stuff, but I have to practice that, and work on the script of it, where you would add the comedy. Every magician does certain tricks, because there’s only a certain amount of tricks, really. You’ve seen the linking rings, where the magician links the rings, or you’ve seen the guy make the bird appear, or make something disappear. But that all came early on for me, I learned those tricks when I was younger. When I got serious about performing, after college, I was able to really concentrate on the presentation and scripting, and the jokes I wanted to throw in. So I look at the trick that I’m gonna do, and I try and create some sort of tension with it, because that tension is where the comedy is going to come from. Or if I have someone onstage, just talking to that person, getting to know them, you can kind of ad-lib stuff, or do crowd work stuff, but onstage with them. Which isn’t always the same. But when I’m thinking about a trick, and I’m trying to think of an example I can give you. I mean, maybe one where I destroy a guy’s money, or destroy his belt. I have him actually cut his belt up, telling him it’s going to restore itself, which is based on an old rope trick, where you would cut a rope and it would restored it. But this is more personal, because you have the guy’s belt, and it’s cut in half, and everybody thinks the trick’s gone horribly wrong. So there’s all sorts of things you can get from that. Like, how would I react if this actually happened to me, if I actually destroyed a guy’s $100 bill. What would I say? Or what would I do in that case? Asking questions like that, I can come up with plenty of responses when that happens. I can use those and try different ones out. Sometimes they come straight from the audience. Somebody will say something in the audience, and I’ll be like, “That’s the perfect response,” and then use it next time. Which happens with comedians sometimes, too.
We deal with our share of hecklers. Do you have the equivalent of that?
Sometimes, yeah. I would say it’s similar, depending on the show. I would say it’s similar to comedians, where you’ve got people drinking, and you’ve got a chance of getting heckled. With the family show it’s weird, because sometimes, the kids have no filters, and they’ve got no problem yelling something out stuff in the middle of your show. Adults are polite, unless they’ve been drinking a lot or something, or it’s that one dude who’s always going to heckle. But kids, even if they haven’t been drinking, they have no problem yelling stuff out. [Laughs.]
That’s gotta be a struggle…you see those “comedian destroys heckler” videos, but you’re not gonna win over an audience if you destroy a child.
Exactly. Just going along with it, or just a look at them, can almost always get a laugh out of the audience. Or just saying something. You can say something, just as long as you say it in a way where the audience knows you’re joking. What’s that old heckler comeback, “I don’t come to your job and something something”? I’ll use that with kids, “I don’t come to your school and knock the crayons out of your hand.” The kids don’t know what that means, but the parents know I’m joking, so they’ll laugh. You can treat those younger audience members as an adult and get some strong laughs, but I would never really come down hard on a kid. But sometimes, with them saying something out loud, or just saying nothing, like you’re pissed, can get a really strong response. I actually welcome the kids to do that, because you can always get a laugh from it, no matter what they say. Whether it’s a simple comeback, or silence, like you’re mad at them. I don’t discourage it. Sometimes when they’re onstage I actually encourage them to be rowdy, and make it look chaotic. I do a couple things at that family show where I get the kids onstage, and I’m encouraging them to kind of misbehave up there.
That is more control than I’d be willing to give up onstage.
That’s the thing with magicians, just about every trick that I do has an audience member onstage. If it’s an adult show, there’s someone up there, a woman or a man, because magic is participatory. There are some magicians that just do it to music, and they never get anyone onstage. The great comedy magicians get people onstage, because they know the reaction of the audience is going to be better, because they watch the person that’s up there with them. That actually makes it easier in some cases, having someone up there onstage, to find the comedy in a trick, because you’re reacting to what they’re doing. Or they’re reacting to what’s going on. It’s totally different – you never see a comedian come up and say, “Come up here onstage, I’m gonna do some comedy for you.”
What would you say is a struggle, or just something you have to deal with as a magician, that you feel like is most applicable to every performer? What’s the most universal thing you deal with as a magician?
There’s a lot of things that are popping into my head. I guess maybe one thing, as far as every type of entertainer, whether a musician, or a comedian, or a magician, it’s being taken seriously. That this is something you can do to make a living with. It’s not a hobby, it’s not something I just do for free. When people find out you’re a magician, that’s what you do for a living, you’re a comedian, that’s how you make a living, you’re a musician, that’s what pays the bills, they’re surprised normally. Most people don’t think of entertainment like that. I think that’s probably true with every performing job. Even though there’s lots of great people who have real jobs, they’re not doing it full time, and they’re great at it. But something in the back of their head is saying, “I would love to do this,” because they enjoy it so much. “I would love for this to be my real job.” People don’t see that as a possibility, when you ask just a normal everyday person. “Oh really, you do that full time? You make a living at that?” I get that all the time. For me, as a magician, they think that it’s mainly kids’ stuff. I’m doing birthday magic. Adults don’t really see magic as an adult entertainment thing. Well, some of them do, but most of them when they hear I’m a magician, are like, “Oh, you should come and do my kid’s birthday,” or, “I wish my kid was here, they’d love to see magic.” So that’s a hard obstacle to get over as a magician. But being taken seriously as a performer in any branch of the arts is hard. That’s what everyone is struggling to overcome, to be taken seriously, and to get enough opportunities because people take you seriously, and that this is a viable job. There’s not as many magicians as there are comedians in Dallas, I’d say it’s harder for comedians, probably, to get work, but even more so for musicians, because there’s so many musicians. How in the world are those guys making it? You know they’re struggling.
It’s that question of how do you stand out in a crowded field.
I guess that’s the main thing. You’ve got to stand out. That’s what comedy’s about, having your own original take on things. That’s what makes people stand out in comedy, their originality. Whereas magicians, every magician does the same trick, or a lot of them do, or variations of them. You’ve got to stand out in a different way. You’ve gotta be the comedy guy, or the guy who does illusions with hot chicks, or something. That’s true of everything, having to stand out in some way.
I tend to ask people in these interviews what they think of the Dallas comedy scene, but that’s not totally applicable here, so I’ll ask this – what do you think of Dallas as a city for performers?
I think it’s getting better. I think. Deep Ellum’s had a resurgence recently. It’s actually a big resurgence. Lots of music venues again. Back in 2000-2001, or late ’90s, all those places shut down. Now they’re opening newer and newer spots. But it’s all music. You’ve got a lot of music stuff. You’ve got the Dallas Comedy House, which I don’t think they had back then. It was the Improv, and Backdoor Comedy Club. For non-musicians, those were the places you could perform at. I think it’s getting better, but I also think people are finding different ways to find performance spots. People are doing pop-up shows now, they’re just going and renting a space for a night and doing their own show. Or finding these restaurants or bars that will host a comedy night, it’s something that’s become really popular and successful over the past five or six years. I’ve seen more of those pop up. I guess it’s good, but it’s not great. It’s not like a Vegas, where there’s a lot of places where you could go and perform. But even Vegas, it’s hard. But I think people are getting creative with ways of performing. Like Denton – they’ve got a lot of places where people are getting really creative with how they’re doing it. There’s a guy doing shows at his house, or was, doing shows out of his house. Finding the bars I guess is the big thing. There’s a lot of those open mics around now, or those comedy spots, where you can [perform] at a restaurant or a bar. That seems like a good idea. Finding a venue that, instead of having a band, they can have a comedy show, or they can have a magician. It’s different. Everybody’s got a band coming in, not many people have a comedy show. Maybe it’s for the variety arts, or our type of performance – non-music – it’s not that great, but people are finding different ways to make spaces. I like the way people are creating different venues for performance. I know there are a lot of theater companies that are renting out warehouses, they’re producing their own shows. You don’t need a theater now to rent out. You go rent a space, and you produce it yourself. Decorate your space for whatever show you’re doing. Like the Shakespeare in a Bar performances. It’s just outside on the patio in the summer, they’ll put on a Shakespeare production. What a great idea. It’s different, it’s easy, there’s no overhead of renting a theater, and paying a union crew to run lights and stuff. The generation after my generation has gotten really creative, I think they’ve had to out of necessity, but they’ve gotten really creative with their performance venues, which I like. I want to do more of that for magic. But we are lucky we’ve had a place like the Improv, a legit theater, for magic.