I was excited to finally sit down and chat with magician and comedian Mike Bent. Ever since the introduction of the comedy studies major at Emerson College, I wanted to know what goes into creating the first-ever such program. Who are the students that take it? What does it take to teach kids how to be funny? Also, as you’ll read, Bent has had an interesting background in comedy and magic. He started during the comedy boom of the late ’70s and managed to carve out a successful career for more than 30 years, inspiring hundreds of performers along to way. He even managed to get the approval of quite a few comedy legends as well.
When someone finds out you’re a magician and a comedian, how do you answer the question, “So, where do you usually perform?”
It’s funny, I liked the fact that we do the show, the Mystery Lounge, every Monday at the Comedy Studio. I can always easily direct people there.
I’m very bad explaining what I do. Like my barber, I just hope the question never comes up. “Are you off today?” I’m like, “Yes,” and I’ll just change the subject. I do a lot of different kinds of shows, and they can’t come to see me because I’m in a school or a library or something, and I’m not going to tell somebody, “Come see me with 800 kids.” It’s sort of awkward.
What specifically makes for a good kids’ comedy show as opposed to adults’?
Really not that much difference. You don’t treat them like they’re stupid. When I see other people, that’s kind of what they do. Hello, boys and girls. It’s just like all artificial and phony. Kids really know if you’re not sincere, they’re literally programmed to, it’s like a defense thing. They know if you’re not having a good time, they know if you’re not having fun. There isn’t anything in there that doesn’t work for everybody.
I have a Shining reference in the kid show. I make all the kids say, “Red Rum.” It works. They don’t know what I’m talking about, but the adults do. It’s gotta be fun for them. I do what I think is funny and it just happens to work. I always say a good kid show is like a shark—it has to keep swimming or it dies. You can’t carefully put away props. I just ditch and move on to the next trick. It’s just way more faster paced. I’m more leisurely in my stand-up and way more fast pace when it comes to kid shows.
You’ve performed at the White House Easter Egg Roll in past years, right?
Yeah. I did it 10 times. I did it two times for President Bush and all eight years of Obama’s time. Actually, I’ve opened for Obama and the first lady, which is amazing. I warmed up the kids, got them ready, and then go, “Here’s the president!”
When I did it under George Bush, it was about 3,000 people over the course of the day. The Obamas opened it up to 35,000 people over the course of the day. When I did it originally, it seemed kind of privileged, people who were like friends of friends. And then just regular people, which made it a lot more fun and easier. And I know that they’ve scaled the numbers back. So I had a good run, I’m happy with it.
When you’re performing magic, do you see the spark of inspiration from a kid in the audience? Do you think, Oh, he’s going to be me in 30 years?
It’s the best hobby you can push on a kid. I was a very, very, very, very shy kid. Very, very introverted. It’s the only hobby that forces you [to] have to do it for someone. So it’s the thing that actually kind of forced me to interact with other kids.
How old you were when you started?
I got a magic set when I was six and I never stopped. Every year I got a magic set and magic books and I lived at the library. I grew up in Somerville, and the Somerville Library had great books. I have them all memorized. I know them by heart. It’s definitely the thing that forced me to be a performer because you just can’t do this by itself.
When did you start as a performer?
The first show that I remember doing was in middle school. I had a friend there who said, “Hey, my church group wants to hire you to do a show.” So I’m like, “All right, great!” I was getting 10 bucks or something, and I did 20 minutes and it was all magic kit stuff, just real basic stuff. When I finished, the guy who was in charge of their youth group talked about how evil I was for about an hour and that I was league with the devil. What I was doing was real, I was harnessing the dark arts. I thought, I must have been really good if I fooled them that much that they really thought I was using Satan to make a handkerchief disappear.
I think that would’ve scared most people off, but I was like, “Wow, that was kinda cool actually.” I liked the fact that I kind of annoyed the guy. The first regular thing was in a restaurant doing table magic. I was probably about 16. My first stand-up thing ever was at the Ding Ho. Lenny Clarke was the emcee. He liked having me on because he could use this intro he had for me: “He’s like the kind of magician that pulls a rabbit out a hat, but then he cuts them in half with a chainsaw.” I think he just put me on because you could do the joke because it killed. Barry Crimmins at that time was sort of running the Ding Ho, and he was very, very critical about what I was doing, cause I was doing all old gags. That’s the problem with magic is you can buy an act, you can just pick up all this stuff. I didn’t know any better. It kind of put the fear of God in me really quick. So basically over the course of six months, I dropped everything and then picked up doing my own thing, and it worked out pretty well.
Were you ever doing just stand-up? Or was it always a mix of magic and comedy?
It’s always been a mix of magic and comedy. I never wanted to do just regular stand-up. I’ve always thought of myself as a magician first who does stand-up. I always liked doing the weird stuff. I would do a bit where I would say this is a jack-in-the-box inspired by the movie Alien. It would be this black biomechanical jack-in-the-box, and it plays Pop Goes the Weasel, and it wouldn’t work. Steven Wright, one time, said, “You’re doing what I do, but you’re proving it. You’re living in this weird, surreal world, but you actually prove it.”
When I started you had to work extra hard to get comedians to like what I was doing. Stephen and Jonathan Katz were the two people that really went to other people, You should see this guy, just forget all that stuff. Look at what he’s doing. And they were like my big cheerleaders and they really helped me an awful lot.
At what point do you go from being a road magician and comedian to teaching at Emerson?
This fall was my 31st year working at Emerson. I’ve been there a long time. When I got the gig, legendary Boston comic Ron Lynch recommended me for it, and I was floored because I will do whatever he says I should do because I really respect him.
When I started it was just a general writing class. Over the years I changed it. I added a sketch comedy class where the class is a comedy troupe and write the sketches and do the sketches at the end of the semester. Then I added the stand-up class where, again, people do their thing and all that.
Emerson is the only college in the world where you can major in comedy studies. I’m on the committee, I’m one of the people that oversees the major and helps develop it. It’s very popular. We had to like double the program the first year, which was insane. The last couple of years I’ve been really busy because I’ve been taking on more courses and it’s just a tough schedule.
What is the basic syllabus for a class specifically about comedy writing?
It’s more how can you come up with ideas. The first month is just brainstorming. I came up with these little techniques over the years that let you come up with really great original premises pretty quickly. I just show them that you can’t sit around and wait for an idea to come to you, you can make the idea happen. I run every class like a writers’ room. And the stand-up one is a little bit different because they’re not working in a group thing. I always say, In comedy your weaknesses are your strengths. What are your phobias? What are your anxieties? It’s more getting them to come out of a safety zone.
Comedy can offend some people; how do you handle that in class?
It’s pretty open. They still have to follow the rules that are in the the school at large, but they’re encouraged to really push the envelope. We have it upfront that if something really bothers you, you should speak up, and if you don’t feel comfortable speaking up, talk to me about it and I will speak up for you. I can usually kind of pull out the things that I think are going to be problematic, and I usually will bring it up first, but I don’t go with a laundry list saying, “You don’t do this, you can’t do that.” I have to make sure everybody feels like they can go up with their stuff, and if they’re going to feel marginalized, I don’t want to have that environment.
Have you noticed the demographic of the class shifting?
Yeah. When I first started there would be maybe one or two women in the class. Now it’s probably 50/50, if not more women than men. The major is pretty much split down the middle. And that’s honestly just based on who applies and who gets in.
When I started, if there was a student who was gay, they wouldn’t really want to talk about it. Now it’s become so commonplace that it’s kind of like, Do you want to be defined by this necessarily? You should talk about it, but it shouldn’t be your whole thing. Where do you want to work? Do you want to work mainstream clubs? Do you want to work gay clubs? Both are great, but you need to start making decisions now about where you’re going to go. So all that stuff that people didn’t want to talk about, now they’re talking about it, which is great. It just makes it way more interesting, way more fun, and they’re just more honest.
GET BENT’S BOOK, THE EVERYTHING GUIDE TO COMEDY WRITING: FROM STAND-UP TO SKETCH – ALL YOU NEED TO SUCCEED IN THE WORLD OF COMEDY, ON AMAZON OR WHERE BOOKS ARE SOLD. CHECK OUT THE FULL UNEDITED CONVERSATION AT DEADAIRDENNIS.COM/PODCAST.