Doug Henning: The Unbearable Lightness of Unbearability

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Today is the birthday of Doug Henning (1953-2000).

I’ll be frank: when I was a kid, Henning was the absolute measure of awful, unwatchable, the thing one must never do, the thing one must never be. I’m not talking about how he was as a person; reportedly he was something close to a saint. And I’m not talking about his skill as a magician. He was admittedly tops in his field (he studied with Slydini and Dai Vernon), but magic on television (as opposed to live performance) is to me intrinsically unimpressive. There’s too much apparatus interposing between the audience and the magician. So we who are watching at home are left with Henning’s style and his manner, which of course was, and will eternally be, unbearable.

Sawing Barbara Walters in half, in a tv special from the early ’70s

Ironically, his look was thought by his handlers to be a revolutionary attempt to revitalize the image of magic in the public’s mind. “Old school” was in disfavor amongst baby boomers. The old fashioned magician in a top hat and tails with his wand, pulling a rabbit out of his hat, was thought of as the epitome of corny. By contrast, Henning attempted to cultivate a sort of swami image. A devotee of TM, he was always seen sitting Indian style, but his spacey patter and his silky rainbow jumpsuits were always far more evocative of a kind of post-hippie California vibe (though he was from Canada). When he first broke into our consciousness with a series of high profile tv specials in the mid 70s, I suppose we didn’t mind the hippie thing so much; it was novel. (Although his Mr. Rogers on cannabis personality was grating in the extreme. “Gentle as a lamb” is a selling point for a three year old baby, not a ten year old boy). But when he was still rocking the rainbow jumpsuits in the mid 80s, that’s when I REALLY couldn’t stand him. By then, there was Penn and Teller — in a couple of serious-ass business suits. To me, THAT’s what magic should look like. Henning was never a rock star; he was always the magic equivalent of that worst of fm formats: “easy listening”.

A superficial post today — it’s all about what somebody looked like. But this is show business. The visual impression is kind of what it’s all about.

To find out more about the variety arts past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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3 comments

  1. I know, right? He was like a renegade 7am infant-show host; the unreconstructed hippieness didn’t even register on me. But we are underestimating his most lasting influence, and your pic selection gives me the clue: That is absolutely the empty, triangular smile that Parker and Stone draw on South Park characters in general, and that is the face of Stan’s dad in particular. Once when I was explaining to Lynn how we Jews don’t have an afterlife and she asked “then where do Jews go,” I said, Florida!”, and it only makes sense that spacey Doug Henning would have gone to Colorado!

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