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Paul Daniels and the Chop Cup, Part I

stand upDuring these posts I have commented that in my view Paul Daniels' Chop Cup was the best cabaret trick I had ever seen.  When I wrote my book Stand-Up: A Professional Guide to Comedy Magic, back in 2008 I tried to justify this assertion by doing a full analysis of the trick - with reference to various techniques that I mention in the book.  However, on sending it for approval to Paul, he very reasonably didn't want it included: as he intended at some point to talk about, or write up, the trick in depth himself.  I therefore with-held it.

However I thought it might be of interest, so am now reproducing what I sent to Paul over the course of a couple of posts.  Even if you don't have a copy of my book to refer to, I hope it will make sense.

If I had to choose only one trick by one performer as being the perfect stand-up routine, then I would select one that uses an assistant sitting in the audience.  It is Paul Daniels’ Chop Cup.  It is worth analysing in detail, not just for Daniels’ brilliant use of the assistant; but also for the manner in which he uses many of the principles that have been discussed in previous chapters.

don alanThe Chop Cup is a single cup variation on the Cups and Balls and was invented by Al Wheatley.  It was first popularised by Don Alan and quickly became, and still is, a classic close-up trick.  As far as I am aware it was Paul Daniels who first performed it with success to larger audiences: and if he was not, he has certainly stamped an indelible mark on it.  The Chop Cup is certainly not a trick that instantly suggests itself as a stand-up item.  You require a table; the props themselves are relatively small; and the angles, particularly on the final loads, can be tough.

Daniels begins by engaging somebody’s attention in the audience and asking for their name and where they are from (“Richard from Hastings”).  He then takes out his Chop Cup and places it on his table.  He asks Richard if he knows what it is?  Richard replies “a beaker”.  Paul responds with: “A beaker it may well be in Hastings; but from where we come it’s an aluminium cup, lad”.  This is an absolutely brilliant line that just on its own deserves further scrutiny.

  • You will notice that prior to this, Daniels has asked his assistant two out of the three basic questions: his name and where he is from.  He discovers that Richard is from Hastings, which is a town in the South of England.  Paul Daniels comes from the North, as big a contrast as you are likely to get in terms of culture and geographical location.  Straightway he incorporates where Richard lives to make the line even funnier.

  • Asking his assistant what is the Chop Cup is a classic standard response question.  Although Daniels does not know exactly how he is going to reply – Richard could say bowl, goblet, chalice, beaker or even cup - he can be virtually certain that he will not respond with “aluminium cup”.  And even if he does say this, Daniels will still be covered: the way Daniels pronounces ‘cup’ (more like ‘coup’) is very different to how a Southerner would say it.

  • It is a perfect character-situation line, telling us so much about Daniels.  It demonstrates that he is quick witted and therefore always likely to get one over his assistant; he is from the North and proud of his roots (seen by his pronunciation of the word ‘cup’ and the use of the word ‘lad’); and, above all, he is funny without causing any possible offence.  All in all it would be virtually impossible to imagine any other magician getting anything like the mileage that Daniels extracts from this single line. 

cupDaniels then introduces the Chop Cup ball and tells Richard to “follow the antics of this, a little white ball.”  Having done a few quick moves he leaves the ball on top of the inverted cup: the line that is to follow is another example of a standard response question.  “Richard, where is the ball?”  Richard replies: “On top of the aluminium cup”.  In this performance this is even more of a perfect answer for Daniels than the usual “on top of the cup”. 

Richard thinks he has now got one over Daniels by stressing the word “aluminium”. This, though, is mere verbal misdirection on Daniels’s part – he has moved on from what  type of cup it is.  Back comes Daniels with: “Wrong – it’s on the bottom: the cup is upside down.”  Having got a mega laugh with that line, he then follows it up with a perfect topping gag: “Perhaps my speed is baffling you”.  As Daniels is doing absolutely nothing at that point, this makes the line doubly funny.

[To be continued]

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