Take Two #46: Billy McComb
And here we go again. No, I don’t mean just another Take Two. Mostly I look forward to writing these, because it’s an excuse to pore over extensive video archives and revisit great performances and, sometimes, great friends and mentors. But at times the daunting part of the job, as I mentioned in Take Two #43 about Jay Marshall, is being faced with the impossible task of trying to capture outsized characters and legendary performers in a mere handful of words and video. At times, as I wrote then about Jay, “I just have to accept the fact that I simply cannot succeed. There’s just no way.” And so: here we go again.
Billy McComb was born in Belfast, Ireland in 1922. The son of a celebrated physician, at his father’s urging Billy attended and completed medical school in 1949, whereupon he promptly set out to pursue a career in show business. A longtime amateur magician, his turn to professional performing was awarded with commercial success, first in Ireland, and then in the nightclubs of London’s West End. McComb was an accomplished magician and an equally adept comic, and his shows were a blend of standup comedy, strong magic, and a charming and distinctive character. He became one of the most successful British magicians of the 1950s and ‘60s, including performances at the Palladium and before Queen Elizabeth II.
McComb then went on to establish himself as a successful cruise ship performer, which took him around the world. One of those stops included the United States, and in the 1970s he resettled in Hollywood, California, where he would reside until his death in 2006. On emigrating to the U.S. his career continued apace, and he would make hundreds of appearances in television and movies, and perform as an opening act for top stars, including Bob Hope among others.
Meanwhile Billy became a resident maestro at the Magic Castle, where he would serve on the Board of Directors for a time, and more importantly as one of its most influential resident mentors. In many ways, what Dai Vernon was to close-up magic, McComb—as an encyclopedic and historical resource—was to platform and stage magic. In Take Two #43 I mentioned getting a phone call question from Teller, who I recommended calling on “the triumvirate” of Jay Marshall, Billy McComb, and Johnny Thompson, our stateside living Library at Alexandria. Billy’s books, teachings and advice, along with his prodigious memory and historical expertise, influenced countless working pros, and his performance material is still out there on stages today in the hands of many successful working pros. Billy was book smart, theory smart, skilled and knowledgeable, but perhaps above all, experienced; when you asked Billy about a trick or routine, he didn’t just know about it in theory, but almost invariably in practice. In a long and successful career, he had performed countless classic routines in front of paying audiences, invariably adding his own improvements and ideas, and this experience was reflected in his priceless counsel. Kind and generous to a fault, he would go to remarkable ends in order to help out his acolytes, chasing down props and mailing materials or references in order to complete the lesson.
Some years ago at the 31 Faces North gathering in Toronto, hosted by Magicana’s Allan Slaight and David Ben, Billy McComb, as Guest of Honor, was interviewed by his longtime friend, Max Maven, who at one point asked the assemblage who among them had at one time or another performed a routine of Billy’s. Literally every pro in the room raised our hands. To say that Billy McComb was a beloved figure is a failure of language and imagination. Throughout the world of magic, on multiple continents, he was adored.
He was also hilarious. When I conceived of my second essay collection, Devious Standards, my vision of the book was fired by my desire to conclude the volume with a reprint of my memorial piece about Billy that ran at the time of his death in Genii (Vol. 69, No. 8, August 2006), and the inclusion of the photo of Billy and me that appears below. That piece was entitled “The Hippest Guy in the Room,” because invariably Billy was exactly that. There was no joke he wouldn’t get, no joke that could offend him, and no joke from which he wasn’t likely to come back with a sharp off-the-cuff gem. He was uniquely funny both on stage and off, and his shows routinely began with a substantial hunk of original standup material, before the magic began.
In Billy’s seventies, at an age when show business makes it increasingly difficult to find work for even the best veteran performers, The Amazing Jonathan, the comedy magic and Las Vegas headliner, booked Billy to open for him. This generous act of faith and respect turned out to be a wondrous lesson for many, not the least of which being Jonathan’s young and raunch-ready audiences, who would initially gaze at the old mumbling codger in skeptical puzzlement as he made his entrance onto the stage. But it never took long for them to be taken by surprise by a performer who was “edgy” decades before the term was in routine use. Invariably they would fall in love with him, and those audiences, along with Billy’s friends and colleagues, and above all Billy himself, were and remain grateful to Jonathan for giving Billy that recognition and opportunity.
I encourage you to track down my memorial piece about Billy, because of all such difficult writing I’ve done, that’s the one where I think I came closest to capturing some deep truths about my subject, and my feelings about him. I recount a number of personal recollections there, of lessons he taught me, of gifts of kindness and care, of laughs long and loud. And I recount how late one night, when he was thinking about his own mortality, I sat at the foot of Billy’s bed as he said to me, “If I don’t get up in he morning, lad, tell some nice lies about me.” I told him I wouldn’t have to tell any lies, because the truth would suffice. The truth was that besides being a beloved friend and mentor, Billy McComb was a fabulous artist, one of the finest performers I ever knew. It was my privilege to call him a friend, and it is my pleasure to present some of his work to you here.
As is invariably my challenge, the available video resources are slender at best. So I’m not going to provide a lot of quantity here, but focus on just two quality performances and routines. Please do put aside the smart phone and watch uninterrupted—expand the browser—turn up the sound—and enjoy!
Here is Billy in his prime, from an instructional video produced by Stevens Magic, performing one of his signature routines.
This is apparently Billy’s last television appearance, on Keith Barry Live With Friends in Ireland in 2005. Billy does a few minutes of standup material, and then performs one of his most famous routines, which throughout his later years served as the closer to his act.
Billy was a clever originator, and as mentioned above, his material is in use by countless working professionals. Two of his most famous inventions became, and remain, best selling commercial items, for which Billy sometimes received credit, sometimes not, and basically never made a dime off of, because countless producers manufactured and marketed these items without ever gaining authorization from Billy, much less paying him any sort of royalty. The two most widespread of those creations are the “Fire Book,” a utility prop that is widely available and typically lacks any mention of Billy’s name.
The other is a comedy card routine that is so innately commercial you don’t have to have much talent to put it to effective use, which is why it’s so popular, but it’s also used by many top artists as well, the ones who find creative ways to put their personal stamp on it. Fortunately, for posterity at least, this item is generally identified by a title that incorporates Billy’s name (but not always, and a pox on those who would alter it to conceal its origins).
One of those creative originals who has used this routine is none other than David Williamson, who was featured in Take Two #40. Since I can’t find any performance video of Billy doing his own trick in this case, I’ll share with you this wonderful take by Williamson—yet another of today’s top working pros whose work has been shaped by the inimitable Billy McComb.
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