Arts Programs-What Works
Anderson the Music Man
Selecting Movies for Kids
Becoming a New Dad
Alice Hoffman Kids' Books
Kingsley on "Holland"
Monday Night Art Class
The Sisters Yankowitz
Istar on Harry Potter
PARENTS TALKS TO STEVE CHARNEY AND HARRY
Charney is a nationally known children's entertainer, magician, ventriloquist,
radio programmer, songwriter, children’s author, and recording artist.
Steve performs about 150 times a year. His comedy act of magic, music
and ventriloquism has taken him from Africa to California. His radio program
“Knock On Wood” has aired on various stations around the country
for 25 years. He’s been profiled in the New Yorker and has written
dozens of songs for Jim Henson’s “Bear in the Big Blue House”
a program that airs daily on the Disney Channel. His books have been published
by Crown, Troll, Metacom, Meadowbrook Press and Scholastic. Steve’s
latest book is “Kids’ Kookiest Riddles” by Sterling
Publishing, a division of Barnes and Noble.
Harry, Steve’s dummy, has been getting on people’s nerves
for over 25 years and yet, by his own estimation he’s only 8. His
ability to make kids and adults laugh is the only reason why Steve keeps
him around. His hobbies include questioning authority,
disorganized rebellion and whittling. He prefers to be called a wooden
How did you get started in your career?
It was a fluke. I had always fooled around with magic and music and a
friend said to me one day “Hey would you like to perform for my
nephew’s birthday party?” I said “Sure” since
it had to be better than the odd jobs I was doing for minimum wage at
Even though I had a college degree in art, I was still trying to "find
myself.” Unfortunately I kept finding myself at the bottom of a
ditch with a shovel in my hand.
And how do you describe what you do, anyway?
I wear many hats all under the umbrella of masquerading as a children’s
entertainer. I say this because the work I do inevitably appeals to grown-ups
as well. I only create things that I think are funny. And if I think they’re
funny, some other adult in arrested development will think so as well.
This genre has a long history. You find it in Bugs Bunny cartoons, Rocky
and Bullwinkle, Peewee Herman and Spongebob Squarepants. Something kids
can enjoy as well as the adults. And we baby boomers are very big on irony.
As a live performer you are really on the front lines. What have you discovered
that kids find funny?
Kids find irreverence funny. When adults act silly that’s always
funny for children. When sacred cows are made fun of, they love that.
For instance if I say “Knock, knock” and instead of “Who’s
there?” Harry says “Come in!” That’s going to
How are kids’ reactions different from adults’?
Kids are never polite. That’s what’s wonderful about them.
You always know exactly where you stand. If they tell me I did a great
job afterwards, you know they mean it. You can never trust adults, they
might feel sorry for you.
Aren’t kids a more difficult audience than adults?
Unlike many performers I find kids are easy to entertain. If you can find
a joke that makes one kid laugh, then every kid in the world will laugh
at that joke.
Adult audiences have moods. Sometimes they’re receptive, sometimes
downright hostile. They can be resistant, depressed or ready to have a
good time. A group of senior citizens brought up with Bob Hope and Jack
Benny is going to be a different crowd than college kids at a ski resort
brought up with Jim Carrey and Will Ferrell.
Do kids get all the jokes?
All day long kids are running into situations that are new to them. That’s
their job description; they’re sponges. When I was a kid I was heavily
into Allan Sherman. Especially “My Son the Folksinger” A huge
hit. I understood a third of it. Didn’t matter. I knew I was into
something cool and that was enough for me. As the years went on I got
more and more of it. And now I understand 80 percent of it.
What’s it like working with Harry?
Kids love Harry because he’s their spokesperson. Kids don’t
have power. They are told what to do all day long by their parents and
teachers. Here they see a figure that represents them sticking it to the
adult. How can that not be irresistible? Often, in the audience there
will be the kids who are acting up, the rapscallions, the ones who want
to be the center of attention. As soon as Harry comes out, they recognize
the master and shut up. They are literally sitting at the foot of the
great one. Harry teaches them how it’s done.
When did you meet Harry?
He was in a dummy orphanage back in 1980. No bigger than a toothpick.
I walked over to him and he politely said “Hello, won’t you
take me home with you?” And I thought “Very cool. I can be
a ventriloquist without having to learn to talk without moving my lips.
Steve- What's the best thing about working with Harry?
The best part is that he drives me to shows and helps me unload my gear
and I don’t have to pay him. But I also like the fact that he gets
to say stuff that I can’t get away with. Harry represents the rascal
in all of us that questions authority. And of course Harry is that aspect
of myself. I’ve always hated people who use their power to lord
it over me. In our act, I represent that parental figure, the principal,
the boss. Harry is always sticking it to the man. I find that endlessly
amusing and very satisfying.
Harry- What's the best thing about working with Steve?
Before I answer that, I’d like to address a question to Steve. What
do you mean you don’t pay me? You always told me that we do this
work for free. We need to talk.
But to answer your question, the best part of working with Steve is I
get to hang out with the greatest, sweetest most wonderful guy in the
whole world. A lot of people would never say that about him and I wouldn’t
either. But he just made me.
Steve- What's the worst thing about working with Harry?
I hate it when he rummages around in my phonebook and makes prank calls
to my friends.
Harry- What's the worst thing about working with Steve?
I hate it when he rummages around in my phonebook and makes prank calls
to my friends.
Steve- What have been your inspirations or influences?
This is a partial list of people I love, who have influenced my work and
are my heroes;
Monty Python, Jean Shepherd, Homer and Jethro, Spike Jones, Bill Cosby,
Danny Kaye, Fats Waller, about half of Stiller and Meara’s routines,
Betty Walker, Don Rickles, The Marx Brothers, Early Three Stooges, Phyllis
Diller when she was in the zone, Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Steven
Wright, Emo Philips, Jerry Lewis, Bob Newhart, Chuck Jones, Max Fleischer,
Myron Cohen, Rodney Dangerfield, Eddie Lawrence, Steve Martin, Jackie
Mason, Tom Lehrer,
Allan Sherman, Nichols and May, The Smothers’ Brothers, Firesign
Theater, Soupy Sales,
Edgar Bergen, Jonathan Winters, Robin Williams, Ray Stevens, Shel Silverstein,
Jack Paar, The guys at Mad Magazine, Weird Al Yankovic, Dave Van Ronk,
Stan Freberg, Robert Klein, Rolf Harris, Benny Hill, The Goons, Burns
and Allen, and Jack Benny.
Harry -- what are your inspirations and influences?
Charlie McCarthy and Lambchop.
Were your parents supportive of your unusual career? Why do you think
they didn't try to get you to do something more traditional -- like be
I came from an artistic family. My father used to drag the family down
to Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village on Sundays with his guitar
and play folk music. He eventually became an accomplished flamenco guitarist.
He’s also a 7th degree blackbelt, a ranking table tennis champion,
a gymnast, he was an art director for 50 years, a published author..and
a funny guy. My mother has always been an art collector and an artist
herself..and also funny. A lawyer? You must be joking. With parents like
that I could have decided to drive turtles across Montana and they would
have been perfectly happy as long as I was happy..and didn’t ask
them for money.
How do you think not being a parent yourself has influenced your career?
How do parents tend to think about things differently?
I once heard that the best children’s authors and entertainers never
had children. My theory is, once you become a parent, you become more
protective. You become concerned that if they hear a word like “poopy”
it might influence them unduly and so you limit what they hear and see.
Adults who never had children don’t worry about that because they
don’t know any better. Also, stepping into a parent role you finally
grow up and create that barrier between adults and children. I’m
speaking very generally now, of course we all know adults who have children
and are still goofballs, bless them.
Steve and Harry, if you had advice for someone who wanted to follow in
your footsteps, what would it be?
" Hocus Jokus..How To Be a Funny Magician” is the manifesto
I wrote that was published by Meadowbrook Press, and says everything you
need to know to be exactly like me. Then whatever you do, do it a lot
for a long time. Luck is important, but there’s no substitute for
If you want to follow in my footsteps you might have some difficulty.
The only thing that moves is my head.
Okay, now for a James Lipton moment-- If you hadn't followed this path,
what do you think you would have wanted to do?
I love science. I would have loved to be a physicist. Everything fascinates
me. I stand in awe of the universe. The details of how birth happens,
the DNA molecule, quantum physics , relativity -- the scale of atoms and
the size of the universe. The universe is 15 billion years old already
and is estimated to go on for another 15 billion years and here we are
right now, for the briefest moment..alive! What luck! It’s amazing
that we don’t all walk around with our mouths hanging open every
second of the day thinking nothing else but “I’m alive!”
What a miraculous thing it is. We’ve won the lottery.
I love to see what’s beneath the surface. My humor often goes in
that direction. That’s why I love Harry. He’s an illusion.
He looks like a human and acts like a human but I love to pop that bubble.
He and I will have big arguments about his true nature. Physics does that
as well. What’s really happening around us? I love to think about
that stuff. Buddhism can do that too. And other religions when practiced
correctly are also good tools. Except for fundamentalism which gives you
the answers and discourages questions. A little bit like being given the
answer key before the test even starts. It might make you feel secure
but there’s no growth.
But it’s physics that floats my boat.
If I wasn’t a dummy in Steve’s act? I’d run for political
office. Not much of a stretch.
Harry – what’s your favorite word?
What's your least favorite word?
Steve Charney’s website is www.stevecharney.com
2005, Dr. Istar Schwager
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