Hocus Focus – Chipper Lowell talks Magic, Comedy, and Growing Up in a Circus Tent

March 2019

Twenty years ago, comedian and magician Chipper Lowell performed his first solo show. Since then, he’s brought his signature blend of edgy-but-clean comedy magic to fans around the world, and TV appearances including The Tonight show and CW’s Masters of Illusion.

Chipper returns to the Curtis Theatre stage April 6 and 7, for three performances of The Chipper Experience! – Where Comedy and Magic Collide! sure to entertain and amaze . Tickets are available at curtistheatre.com. 

In anticipation of his homecoming, Chipper took some time out of his busy tour schedule to answer some of our questions. 

CT: How did you first get interested in magic?

CL: Well, around age 12 or 13, I discovered one of my Dad’s discarded prop cases in the back of the garage It was filled to the brim with various magic apparatus and silks, even a fake spring rabbit.  I immediately claimed them all as my own, dragged the trunk into my bedroom, and practiced with them nonstop for a few months.  Some time later, I did my very first “Magic show” for the neighborhood kids and I charged them 35 cents each.  Made a little over $3 bucks, and I was hooked! 

CT: I understand you came from a family of performers. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

CL: Yes, my mother and father met when they were both working on Ringling Bros. Circus in the 50s and 60s.  My father is literally one of two remaining Ringling clowns who performed “Under canvas” (tent) before the show started touring arenas. My mother was a dancer and aerialist.  She performed “Iron Jaw” where she hung several stories up in the air, only by her teeth! They got married, and I was born in Massachusetts, and two weeks later we were all back on the road, performing with various circuses and stage shows, including Disney on Parade, which was a gigantic arena show which played all throughout the U.S. and even Australia and New Zealand.  My ‘backyard’ was quite literally the entire world, with a new town to explore every 2-3 days.  I loved it!

“The One. The Only. The Stupid.”
Chipper’s Solo show premiered at the Curtis Theatre 20 years ago.

CT: What impact do you think your family experience had on you as a performer?

CL: My parents followed their dreams, and growing up with them, watching them live out their own dreams and goals, I sort of thought that was what one was supposed to do.  I loved comedy, both live on stage and in the movies and TV.  I wanted to either be a performer or maybe a writer/director.  I’ve been lucky to do both, but performing is definitely my first love.

CT: You’re a veteran performer – your first show at the Curtis Theatre was 20 years ago, and you’ve since performed for audiences all over the world. What’s special about performing for a live audience?

CL: For me it’s all about being, as they say, “In the moment”.  Performing ‘LIVE’ you NEVER know what may happen or who you may get from the audience to help you onstage.  I love that each and every show is an adventure, in that even though you’re delivering a well-thought-out show, there are plenty of opportunities to ad lib and improvise along the way.  In my 20’s I was taking classes at the Groundlings Theatre, in the hope that I could create a sort of ‘comedy jazz’ when it came to performing my comedy magic shows… I wanted people to say that they not only enjoyed the show, but also say, “And the night WE saw it, THIS happened!…”  That each show is different in certain ways depending upon the fun we all have as an audience and the volunteers who step up to participate in the magic routines.  It’s a great rollercoaster ride, and people love it, as I do performing it.

CT: You’ve also have an impressive list of TV and film credits, including performances on The Tonight Show, Discovery’s Don’t Blink, and you regularly appear on the CW’s Masters of Illusion. Are there any differences between performing magic for an audience versus performing for the screen?

CL: Oh, definitely.  The magic I’ve created for television has to look good for the camera even though you’re still performing for a studio audience.  You have to be aware of what the camera sees with every step and turn and blocking of each routine.  And cameras can really close in tight, and in hi-def, so you have to be on your toes to make sure it doesn’t pick up on something it shouldn’t see and spoil the surprise or reveal the trick.  I’m grateful to be involved with Masters Of Illusion for all six seasons now, and every year I rack my brain to come up with new and visual magic pieces to present on the show.  It’s a challenge, but a very fun one!

CT: In addition to your magic experience, you have some serious comedy credentials – you’re a Groundlings Theatre-trained improviser, you worked the comedy club circuit full time for nearly a decade, and shared a stage with people like Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling, and Sarah Silverman.
Are there any parallels between Comedy and Magic?

CL: Ooh, interesting question!  —  I believe there actually is, in that with both magic and a joke, you’re leading your audience down a path but then surpriseing them with an alternate ending/switch, or punch-line.   In magic we are trying to catch our audiences off-guard, and in comedy we are derailing the ‘joke train’ and suddenly switching to another parallel track that seems funny but yet makes perfect sense.  Both arts require a beginning, middle and an end.  I think of magic needing a basic through-line or storyline and the same goes for long form jokes and comedy routines.

CT: Magic is often presented in a way that seems incredibly choreographed and deliberate. Watching some of your material, I was struck by how quick and playful you are on stage – whether it was riffing bits with volunteers, tossing cards carelessly over your shoulder, or shredding props and littering the stage with confetti. Who or what inspired this carefree style?

CL: Awe, thanks!  I agree with you that some magic and magicians out there can come off as rather stiff, deliberate and, to be honest, no sense of real awe or surprise.  My goal has always been to keep my performances as off-the-cuff and chaotic as possible.  I want the audience to be wondering, “where is he going next??”  I want surprise and astonishment.  Don’t get me wrong – It takes a lot of practice to make it look like you’re, well, as I said before, “in the moment” rather than overly staged.   If you’re laughing hard, you ARE going to be surprised when the magic happens, and if you’re studying me really hard, you won’t realize you’re being set up for a joke or a gag.   I’m always striving for a sense of spontaneity and ‘anything goes’.

Chipper takes a "hands off:" approach to magic.

My goal has always been to keep my performances as off-the-cuff and chaotic as possible.

Chipper Lowell

CT: Do you have any lucky charms or pre-show rituals you always do before going on stage?

CL: I tend to warm up like I’m a dancer or a bad 80s aerobics instructor…Lots of stretches and jumping around, shaking my arms to loosen up.  And I often recite Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” at the top of my lungs as if it’s Shakespeare just to get my voice ready.  Anything for me to become unfiltered and open and ready for whatever may be in store when I hit the stage.

CT: What do you hope an audience will walk away from the show feeling?

CL: It’s my job for them to have a very fun and memorable evening.  For the people to laugh loudly and often, together with their friends and loved one, and to really connect with each other and the audience as a whole.  And after the laughs have subsided and they’re leaving the theatre, I want them to think back and say, “Hey, wait a minute….How the heck DID he do THOSE tricks?!?”

CT: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

CL: I get very nostalgic looking back 20 years ago, at the first performance of my solo show, and that it started right here, at the Curtis Theatre.  Sincere thanks to Christian Wolf, who ran the venue back then, and trusted me to put on a quality show.  The last two decades since then have been a whirlwind, with dozens of television appearances, some awards and honors, and opportunities to tour in theatres and performing arts centers ranging from 600 to 3,000 seats.  I’ve even had the privilege of entertaining arena crowds of 7-9,000 people 20 to 30 times now.  So much fun!  This return to the Curtis is a bit of a welcome home for me, as I also live here in Orange County, and also deep gratitude of where it all began.  And the main reason for coming back is that this wonderful theatre continues to be run by people who really care about the arts and what it brings to the community.  It will always spark joy and creativity, and bring people closer together, and that’s a great, great thing to me.

It’s great to us too, Chipper.

Thank you to Chipper Lowell for taking the time to answer some questions.

You can read more about Chipper on his website: www.chipper.tv

To purchase tickets to his April 6 & 7 shows at the Curtis Theatre, visit www.curtistheatre.com

See you at the show!