A Big Concept and A Little Idea

The Big Concept

Here is a duality you should keep in mind when creating and performing magic.

1. Magic is great because it focuses all our attention on the present moment, perhaps more than any form of art or entertainment. 

2. Magic is at its most memorable and powerful when it is not just about what's happening in that moment. That is to say, the most resonant magic suggests that this magic moment is just a glimpse at some grander concept that is inherently interesting, engaging, or mysterious.

The most profound magic directs 100% of our attention to moments that are manifestations of compelling ideas that exist outside of that moment.

[I want to clarify, because there is some confusion on this point. The trick should never be an analogy for something outside itself. The trick itself should be a part of this outside concept and thus a part of the world around you. Don't connect the trick by simile or metaphor or "this card represents [whatever]." Those things devalue the magic moment. They suggest the magic moment is only valuable as a representation of something else and it needs some kind of veneer to make it relevant. Instead, make the magic moment an example of something relevant that exists outside of the effect.]

The best tricks are like the best first kisses. It's not primarily the mechanics of the kiss that make it great and overwhelming, it's the thought of what that kiss is an expression of that will make her spine deliquesce. 

Imagine this. You come to my house and I show you a shark tooth. It's 12 inches long. "Whoa! That's huge!" you say. At first you're just impressed by the size and heft of this tooth. And then your mind flashes to the image of how massive a shark would have to be to have 50 of these in its mouth.

There's the moment of magic (seeing the shark tooth) and then the context of what it implies (there's a gigantic shark out there). Do you leave remembering the tooth or remembering that image of the shark? Both, probably, but I think it's the thought of that shark that stays with you.

When it comes to magic tricks I strive for great effects and great contexts (presentations). But I will take a weaker effect in a strong context rather than the other way around.

If you tell your friend you want to show them a trick and you float a coin in your hand, that may be a great magic moment. But, if you say, "I was walking in the woods and I tripped over this piece of metal coming from the ground. It seems like it's part of some larger object. Strange. And ever since then my tooth have been feeling loose in my skull. Oh, and look what I can do now."* And then you float the coin, and when you're done you spit a tooth out of your mouth. You still get that great magic moment, but it's evidence of something more profound than "just a trick." And no, they don't need to believe in this "more profound" thing. It's just a context to expand that magic moment outwards. (* And yes, that's a straight Stephen King, Tommyknockers rip-off. But it's apropos as an example because the whole notion of this is that you show someone something that is just a fragment of something greater buried underneath.)

If you think it's impossible to come up with really great presentational concepts for all your tricks (especially if you have a large repertoire, like I recommend) you're right. Thats why I like to come up with universal meta-presentations that can be used for all tricks, or at least all tricks of a certain type. I've mentioned some of these before.

Here's a meta-presentation that is very down-to-earth and can be used with any effect. "Can I get your opinion on this trick I'm working on?" Then the effect is not just about that "magic moment," it's about you and your relationship with the spectator and trusting their judgment and wanting their input. This may seem like a very pedestrian "presentational angle" but it's also one of the best because it's the closest to being true. I didn't say the "grander concept" mentioned above needed to be mysterious. It can just be something interesting. And people are (usually) interested in things when they've been asked to give feedback. Plus, the idea of magic being something that is practiced and honed and perfected is a "bigger" idea that is very easy for people to get on board with.

If you want to go with something a little more interesting you could ask for their opinion on something because you meet up with a group of magicians every Wednesday and whoever does the best trick gets their meal paid for by the others. And this is what you're working on for your next meet-up. Now what you're showing them is not just a magic moment, it's part of a story of a group of magicians and a gentle rivalry and things like that. 

Or, bump that shit up even more. "I need your opinion on something. There is a trick that has vexed magicians for centuries. They've said it's impossible. It's like the problem on the chalkboard in Good Will Hunting. Well... I think I figured it out. Will you watch it and let me know if it works?" So again, the moment is not just about the trick. It's about perseverance and tackling impossible problems. And it implies that the climax of the effect has some resonance beyond that moment.

In the past I've offered a universal presentation to be used with gambling effects. We often make the trick into some story about something that happened in the past: "One time I was at the table and this card-shark sat down next to me, but he had a funny way of dealing." Whatever whatever. Instead, recast the effect as a rehearsal for something to come later. "Can I get your help? I've got a big poker game this weekend and I'm working on a new scam. These guys are bad dudes, I don't mind taking their money. Let me try out a couple scenarios with you." Now the magic moment -- or the gambling demonstration -- still packs the same punch, but it has a different meaning. It's a dry run for something you're going to try later instead of just a trick in the moment to show how skilled you are.

I remember the first time I presented an effect like this to a friend who was notorious for trying to bust me on things. All of a sudden, this guy who was always watching intently and questioning everything I used to do in the past, was now getting excited because he was "not seeing" all the moves and switches I claimed to be doing. When the moment was no longer about fooling him or impressing him he became 100% into it and a fan of the material in a way he had never been previously. It wasn't him vs. me anymore. My side was now our side.

The Little Idea

Finally, I want to end with a little idea I have for a universal meta-presentation for Tenyo-style effects. Tenyo tricks are so fun and so fascinating to me as a magician, but I would just never perform them. They seem so far removed from anything truly "magical." By that I mean there's no staying power to the effects. People watch them and think, "Huh, well... there you go. I guess he's got a plastic thingamajig that allows that to happen somehow. Neat." Not only is the trick obviously "a trick," but it exists only in that little bubble of space in front of you for that moment in time. It's almost impossible to make it about anything other than that plastic gizmo. 

Or so I thought, until one night while eating some short-cut pasta (orzo, I thought) and I had this idea. I don't know if it will translate well in writing but I can't tell you how much this improves any plastic-y gimmick-y effect. The one requirement is that the trick ends in an examinable state. I really love this idea.

Imagine you have a friend over for dinner. At some point in the evening you say, "Oh, I'm glad you're here for this. I got something in the mail today. I was hoping someone else would be here to experience it with me and I'm glad it's you."

You pull out a little package and begin to unwrap it revealing a plain box inside. As you unwrap the box you tell a story like this. "So, in Japan, there's this guy who runs this little factory. Now, I don't know how much of this is true, but this is what I believe to be true. It's not anything you can google because this stuff is all secret, but this is what I've picked up from other people. So, he runs this small factory and no one knows for sure where it is, and no one knows for sure who works there. And this factory of his produces one magic trick every year that he sends out to a couple hundred magicians. People who have done something in magic that he enjoyed. No one knows how this guy finds out about your work, or how he find out where you live. Just one day you start getting these packages in the mail."

"He's supposedly a funny little dude. His name is Mr. Yento, I believe. This guy is like 4 feet tall and 200 pounds with these big glasses. And one time when one of the magic magazines did finally track him down when he was out for a walk, they tried to interview him and apparently he just giggled for 5 straight minutes. Not in a creepy way, but in a way that had them all laughing too. At one point the interviewer looks down to stop his recorder and when he looks back up the guy is 40 yards away scurrying into the forest. Like apparently he ran 40 yard in 4 seconds. Like an NFL wide receiver."

"But here's the thing. He doesn't create tricks for other magicians to perform. He creates these tricks -- these little plastic tricks that look like toys -- and they, somehow... I don't even really know how to say it... they perform themselves. You just follow the instructions and something magical happens and no one has any clue how it works. But it only works that once."

"And that's why I'm glad you're here because I just got this year's package and usually I'm too excited to see the trick to wait for anyone to come by. And one of the rules is you're not allowed to record the trick. I don't know how he'd know. But apparently he knows."

So you open the box, and remove the packing material and you find this little plastic thing. Then you remove a small envelope with little cards in it. Each card is numbered with a step for you to follow. You go through, step by step, following the directions on the cards. And at the end the thing vanishes, or changes color, or penetrates, or whatever, and this Tenyo effect is now real magic.

For those of you who disagree with a main tenet of this site that removing yourself from the equation leads to stronger magic, you will be a believer if you perform a Tenyo trick this way. I've only had a chance to perform this a couple times but it's a gigantic difference. The tricks aren't twice as powerful, they're 20 times as powerful. It's a completely different thing for people.

What makes this so good?

1. The trick is no longer just the trick. It's an example of something bigger and more wonderful, as I've discussed in this post.

2. The idea of a Willy Wonka-esque mad genius, with a secret factory in some Japanese forest, sending out packages of tricks that perform themselves to mystify other magicians is just a ridiculously perfect presentational idea. One of the top 10 presentational ideas in the history of magic. Who are you to say that, Andy? Oh, just the guy who came up with like 6 of the other top ten presentational ideas in the history of magic.

3. Your actions can't be questioned. You're just following instructions on cards. "Following instructions" is the ultimate excuse for getting away with anything questionable. Ask the Nazis.

4. 200 people in the entire world get these packages, once a year, and it only works once. You're giving your spectator a rarefied, special moment... with a mass produced, plastic molded Tenyo trick. What a great thing.

5. I don't know if this has been discussed before, but I think it's true with these Tenyo-style tricks. They look like toys and I think people have their defenses up about being fooled by a toy. Magic alone can make people feel stupid, but to be fooled by this Happy Meal toy? I think people will deny their astonishment to a certain extent; it might even be subconscious. But with this presentation you get to set the example of how astonished they can feel free to be. If you, the knowledgeable magician, are blown away by this effect, then they can feel uninhibited about indulging in their own amazement.

6. There's a lovely little line in the presentation about how he sends these packages to "people who have done something in magic that he enjoyed." This raises the question, what did you do to earn a spot on that list? And that naturally leads into some other effect. "Oh, well, you know that problem on the chalkboard in Good Will Hunting? Well, there was something similar like that in magic...."

If you're like me you will do this set-up. You'll get a nice but unassuming little cardboard box, about 6 inches square. You'll get some natural wood excelsior packing material. You'll get some kraft paper to wrap the box in and some kraft paper cards and a little envelope to put the instructions on. You'll put your favorite examinable Tenyo effect in the box surrounded by the packing material. You'll place the envelope with the instruction cards inside. You'll close the box. Wrap it in kraft paper. Put your address on it in a simple, clear handwriting, and then add a dozen different old Japanese cancelled stamps you ordered off ebay. Tie the package up with an X of twine. Packages with real stamps and twine look like something from 50 years ago. This is good. Timelessness is a good thing here.

When you perform the trick, cut the twine, but remove the wrapping from the box gently so you can use it again. You can use everything again except the twine. And you'll want to do it again and again, because it's so much fun. This trick has made me a Tenyo collector.

I'm not going to do that. I'm not going to put all that effort into a Tenyo trick. That's stupid.

Yes, I know, I know. You wouldn't waste your time on this. You're going to practice your pass for two hours a day for eight years until you can get it invisible so you can expertly perform a difficult trick that your audience will never remember.

But okay, that's fine. That's your path. When I drive home for thanksgiving I don't honk on my horn and scream at the cars going the opposite direction, "Where are you going!? Home is this way!" They, like you, are going to a different destination than I am.