Dear Jerxy: Suspending Their Disbelief


Dear Jerxy: A lot of your effects/presentations seem to involve the spectator being very willing to go along for the ride. I find people want to bust me when I perform. How do you get an audience to play along/suspend their disbelief/not question everything you do?

Tom in Austin

Dear Tom: "Tom in Austin" is not a good advice column letter-writer name. We need some alliteration or something. I'm going to call you Wondering in Wichita. And no, I don't care that you're not in Wichita.

Dear Wondering: That's better. 

I have a few thoughts on this. 

The one thing that will get you 90% of the way to having people suspend their disbelief and being a participant rather than a combatant is to have an entertaining presentation. People don't want to pull the rug out from under an entertaining presentation. They don't gain anything from that. But if your presentation amounts to: "Look at this incredible thing that I can do that you can't," then it's more fun for the audience to bust your ass rather than to play along. And of course it is. What would you rather do? Listen to someone bore you while he tells you how great he is, or point out what a buffoon he is and mock him for his attempt to get one over on you?

There are those who believe the magician's job is to fool people. But that's not what it is. Fooling people is essentially a neutral act that is part of the process. The magician's job is to entertain people through the medium of deception. ("Entertain," in the broadest sense. It could mean to move them to tears, intrigue them, scare them, enrage them.) To think otherwise is to believe that the photographer's job is to press the shutter button. No, the photographer's job is to capture images that move people in some way.

When people get busted a lot they often think, "I need better tricks." But what I'm saying is that better presentation will negate the impulse to call you on your shit for most people. There's very little in it for them to put the brakes on a fun, entertaining time in order to fight you on something. As the greatest magical mind of our generation once said, "The world wants to be charmed."

There will definitely still be a small percentage who will always see a magic performance as a battle of wits. And to a certain extent I want that trait in the people I perform for. When your audience is somewhat critical then your effects will have a bigger impact. But if it's only a battle for them, they will question every last little thing you do, and you will never get any momentum behind your performance. Here are the things I would suggest for dealing with those types of people in the following categories.

1. If you think you can reason with them. If I think the person is reasonable I sometimes suggest an analogy that gives them an idea of how they might want to try and perceive these effects. There's the classic Paul Harris line of telling them that astonishment is a gift and it brings them back to their child-like state of wonder, but I never got any traction with that line. Instead I use a much more prosaic, and I think relatable, analogy and that is comparing a magic trick to a movie with a twist ending. If you're a fan of thrillers or suspense films then you're probably familiar with the concept of turning off your brain a little and letting the move just play out without questioning everything. I will sometimes suggest this is a good way to look at a magic trick as well. Not for my benefit, but for them. "The end of a magic trick is kind of like the twist at the end of a suspense film." I'll say. "If you're up in your head the whole time, questioning everything, you can learn to anticipate even the most clever twists. But you're kind of denying yourself the enjoyment of experiencing the movie, or in this case, the trick, to the fullest." 

2. If you don't think you can reason with them. Walk away. That's what I do. If someone is paying you to perform, and you can't just walk away without doing anything, then lay your most bulletproof effect on the person and then walk away. (By bulletproof effect, I mean something that doesn't have many sleights for you to get caught doing, and has a method that is not something a layperson would even know to consider. Like the Gilbreath principle or some other impenetrable shit like that.)

3. If you don't think you can reason with them and you want to make them feel like a moron. I've never done this when I was performing, but I did do it when a friend was performing for a small group of people, including myself, and one guy was calling him out on everything he tried to do. I turned to the antagonist's girlfriend and I was like, "Is he [pointing to her boyfriend] kind of... dumb?" He turned at me and said, "Oh, I'm dumb because I can figure out all his tricks? Yeah, I guess I'm real dumb."

To which I spun this yarn...

"Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything by it. It was just... did you see that article on reddit sometime last week? I was just going over it earlier today so it was in my mind and it just seemed to go along with that stuff you were saying. Oh... you didn't see it? Well, I guess at Harvard or one of those schools they actually just did a study on magic. And they tested IQ against people's abilities to figure out magic tricks. And I guess they thought it would be a pretty straight line but they were shocked to find that it was actually the people in the "well below average" category who did the best at figuring out tricks. And at first they thought maybe these people had made up for their lack of intelligence with some other type of intellectual gift. But as it turns out it's just that people with at least average intelligence feel like there is nothing to be gained by trying to figure out magic tricks, so they just watch them for pleasure, not as something that needs to be debunked. For a smart person, being hyper critical of a magic trick is like going to The Avengers movie and sitting there saying, 'This is so fake.' It's something only a moron would do. And I guess what was borne out in their research is that people who feel a desperate need to figure out magic tricks are similarly... you know... dumb. Just to be clear, I'm not saying you fall into the lowest category. It's not the lowest category at all. You wouldn't be labelled retarded. I think technically your category is considered 'feeble-minded.'"