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How to Add a Running Gag to your Kids Show

By Danny Orleans

Using a Running Gag in your magic show can take your show to the
next level. It can make your show more memorable, unify your routines and
give you a professional air. Does that sound like something youd like to
achieve? Lets take a hard look at the Running Gag and how you can find
one and use it to maximize the impact of your kids show.

What is a Running Gag and how is it different than a Callback?

For magicians, a running gag is a verbal, visual, or magical moment in your show
that occurs repeatedly throughout your presentation. In the world of professional
comedy, which usually relies on verbal ability instead of props, it is referred to as
a callback. The humor results from an audience realizing that a comment about
one situation surprisingly applies to another as well.
This repetition strategy can be used very effectively in magic shows for
kids. After all, most magic shows dont have a plot. They are usually made up of
a string of magic routines. Using one or two Running Gags is a terrific way of
knitting the pieces of your act together. They can help define your character and
make you and your show memorable.

Three Categories of Running Gags

There are three categories of running gags to consider when building a show for
children and their families. Happily, within each category there are lots and lots of
Running Gags to choose from.
Verbal Running Gags do not use props. They rely on a phrase that is
repeated at different times during your show. The humor is evident because the
same phrase applies to different situations. A good example of a Verbal Running
Gag is one used by the late, great Paul Daniels who became famous for his
catchphrase, often used to introduce a magic routine: Youll like this not a lot.
But youll like it.
Another famous Verbal Running Gag within the magic community belongs
to Mac King, who introduces himself, Howdy, Im Mac King, to his audience,
and then repeats the phrase throughout his show in different situations.
Visual Running Gags involve a prop that makes a repeat appearance
during your show. It is usually combined with some verbal byplay, perhaps
implying that the magician will use the prop to achieve a goal. An example of this
might be the kids show magician holding a sign that says APPLAUSE. This could
be used when he walks out on stage to get the audience to clap for him, in an
overly obvious and therefore humorous way to get kids clapping. Later in the
show, he could hold the sign up again and release a flap which appears hanging
below the word APPLAUSE that says LOUDER. This concept could easily be
expanded as the words EVEN LOUDER, MORE, and STOP appear. You can
customize these flap signs to your own show and character, even using them to
cue applause for audience helpers as they come up to the stage.
Another example might involve a top hat that the magician approaches
every so often. He picks it up, looks inside, then looks at his watch and says,
Not yet, implying that he has to wait longer to make the bunny appear. This
repeated silliness, along with being humorous, could create an enormous amount
of anticipation among little tykes wanting to see a rabbit!
Magical Running Gags combine a physical prop with a moment of magic.
Usually this magical moment repeats itself, adding to the mystery. The first
Magical Running Gag I ever saw used in a magic show was a Lota Bowl. Four or
five times the magi would approach a copper vase on stage right. From it hed
pour out all the water. Then, later in the show, hed pour out more again and
again. Where did that water come from? I had no idea.
Many Break-away props could be used as Magical Running Gags if the
magician were to turn the comedy onto himself. Imagine that you pick up a
Breakaway Wand, only to have it collapse in your own hand. Children would find
this hilarious. But it could get even funnier if you were to do this several times in
your show.

How do you find a Running Gag thats right for you?

Finding the best running gag for your show should be based on who you are and
how the audience perceives you. It should fit your character. If youre a serious
conjurer, then perhaps the Running Gag that fits you best will be based on
creating anticipation rather than a slapstick-like bit. If youre doing a Reading
Show at a library, maybe your running gag will involve producing a series of
expanding props that pop out of a book. If youre a confused clown, then you
might find a collapsible prop will fit your ineptness and garner laughter from
young children.
I think of my character as the friendly neighborhood kindergarten teacher
who sometimes takes offense when kids find situational humor to be funny. I
think that the verbal running gag that Ive incorporated works well for me. I
generate an unscripted conversation with my audience after a prop mishap
occurs that makes them laugh. Situations that generate such laughter include
when my Breakaway Crayon or Fan falls apart while Im holding it; when I get my
fingers caught while closing a Genii Tube, or when a ball in a Strat-O-Sphere
presentation mistakenly and magically relocates itself. After the children laugh, I
look at them and say, Thats not funny, to which they all automatically respond,
Yes it is. Then I say, Well, maybe youre right. This back and forth
conversation between my audience and me occurs several times in my show and
is always as much fun for me as it is for the youngsters. The bottom line? Find a
Running Gag that fits who you are and the character youre trying to portray.
The Running Gag defines your Character
The gag or event that you choose to repeat can be used to define your
character. Running Gags often allow a performer to show his or her vulnerability
to an audience. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways.
1. You might repeat the same magical mistake.
2. You might show incompetence.
3. You could demonstrate inexplicable magical powers.
4. You could act confused.
5. The Running Gag could bring you closer to previously mentioned goal.
6. You could be a witness to the event, being amazed (along with your
audience) each time the magic happens.
So, as important as it is to choose a Running Gag that fits you, be aware that the
gag itself can begin to define who you are. Your final goal, of course, is to merge
your show with your Running Gags and your character into a successful,
consistent presentation.

The Psychological Benefits of the Running Gag

You may not realize it, but including a Running Gag in your show has
psychological benefits for your audience. Children, especially those aged
between 3 and 6 years old, love repetition. The repetition of the gag becomes
predictable and that predictability empowers kids and gives them a sense of
security because they know whats going to happen next. This is why repetition is
such a successful literary device and used throughout childrens literature as well
as cartoons and movies written for young audiences.
For example, lets say your character is one that is frightened by yellow
fruit. You establish this early in your show with a statement such as, Todays
magic show is going to be great. Itll be filled with magic wands, magic hats, and
magic scarves. Youre going to have a lot of fun watching and helping and Im
going to have a lot of fun performing as long as I dont see a yellow lemon. Im
a little scared of lemons. Whenever I see a lemon, my knees shake and I make
funny sounds cause Im scared like this. (You demonstrate and kids laugh).
Sorry, I cant help it. But dont worry as long as no one has any yellow lemons,
itll be a great show.
Now, whenever a lemon appears, you have a predictable reaction.
Children will laugh because of the absurdness of the phobia and look forward to
the next appearance of the lemon. Where will it come from? When will one
appear? Thats part of the fun and surprise, but the predictability of your reaction
which should be consistent throughout your show -- is what children find
entertaining because they know what youre going to do and say when you see a
Its a wonderful thing to know that your audience will feel stronger and
more confident about watching your show if you employ a Running Gag.
The Running Event
The running gag is, by its very definition, funny. But you can certainly create a
repeating event that is more magical and wondrous than it is funny. A classic
example is the aforementioned Lota Bowl from which you repeatedly pour water,
emptying it each time, at different points of your show. Another version of this
created by Gaetan Bloom is the Inexhaustible Sponge from which you can
repeatedly wring out a lot of water.
Any type of container that you can show empty and then produce an
object could be used to create a Running Event. For example if you used a
Square Circle to intermittently produce silks throughout your show, you could use
the collection of silks at the end of your show in a Blendo Effect.

Who does the Running Gag Fool?

Another question for you to consider as you design your Running Gag, is Who is
going to be fooled? Is the bit going to fool or surprise you, or your audience, or
both? The character you portray should influence the decision you make. If your
character is exceedingly foolish, then perhaps your Running Gag fools or
surprises you, but your audience knows when it will happen and how it works.
Perhaps the gag fools you and your audience together allowing you to share the
experience with them. Finally, you can select a repeating moment that is
mysterious. The fact that you repeat it makes the magical impossibility even
more so.

Pick a Gag, any Gag.

To start you off on your search to find a Running Gag for your kids show, Ive
compiled a list of Visual and Magical Running Gags to start your thought
process. This is just a beginning. The fact is, with a little forethought, rewriting
and creativity, you can convert many magic routines into a Running Gag.

List of Visual and Magical Running Gags for Kids Audiences:

1. Breakaway Wand: We usually think of this prop as something that we

hand to an onstage volunteer; then it falls apart in their hands. Try having
it fall apart in your hands, over and over again at strategic points during
your show.
2. Wilting Flower: Like the above Breakaway Wand, you could pick up a
Wilting Flower intermittently during your show, ostensibly to wave it over
another prop to make magic. But of course it collapses, losing its power.
Another idea is to claim, Im going to make this flower grow, only to have
it wilt. Toward the end of the show, the gimmicked prop could magically
change into a bigger flower or a bouquet.
3. Breakaway Fan: Use the same approach described in #1, Breakaway
4. Stiff Rope: Tell your audience that your goal for the show is to make the
rope stiff as a board and straight as an arrow for ten seconds. Each time
you attempt the trick, you are able to achieve better results before the
rope collapses. Perhaps at the end of the show the rope straightens for
ten seconds an applause cue, for sure, if youve prepared your audience
5. Juggling Balls. One of the three balls doesnt stay in the pattern.
6. Bounce/No Bounce Balls: A ball sits on one of your tables. Each time
you go over the ball, you pick it up and command it to bounce. You drop it
and it doesnt bounce. The children will laugh. Immediately after your
penultimate attempt of it failing to bounce, you switch the ball for the
Bounce Ball as you put it back on your table. Then, later, when you
command it to bounce, it will and your audience will never see the
7. Bigger and Bigger: Any object, such as a silk, a rope, or a flower could
be shown, then put in a container in which most of the object is hidden.
Every so often during your show, you could sprinkle something on it such
as salt, invisible woofle dust, or glitter from a watering can. Then when you
remove the object from its container, it would be longer or bigger.
8. Mispronunciation of the Magic Word: If your character is a bit silly, you
could repeatedly attempt to say a magic word out loud, forgetting the
exact pronunciation as you say, Abra-banana, Abra-California, Abra-ca-
daisy or Abra-spaghetti.
9. The Reappearing Object: Make an object appear from different places
over and over again, at different times during your show. Wouldnt it be
funny if you kept finding chocolate chip cookies, or a banana or a small
squeaking toy in your pockets, your table or from different tubes, boxes
and bags? Whats the right object? To answer that question, examine your
character. It should be an object that fits; something to which your
character would naturally react emotionally. Here is a short list of some
ideas to give you a springboard for inspiration. Most of the perishable
items are made of rubber or foam, but look realistic. These can also
squash or fold to make a magical appearance from a place that is too big
to hold them. Some can be purchased from magic shops or websites.
a. Banana
b. Egg
c. Orange
d. Lemon
e. Pencil
f. Chocolate Chip Cookie
g. Baby Pacifier
h. Toothbrush
i. Squeak Toy
j. Baby Rattle
k. Sponge Ball
l. Candy Cane
m. Chocolate Bar
n. Small Purple Silk
o. Pickle
p. Heart

Experiment with different approaches to the Running Gag until you find
one that works for you and your audiences. Be patient with the discovery
process. Itll be worth the wait.