On the Fragility of Fooling

I have no doubt these thoughts have been expressed before. In fact, the only idea I'm totally sure is 100% unique to me on this site is the time I suggested making cards with brown and pink pips and then using the statement, "It's a fanny colored card," as a two-way out (based on the multiple meanings of the word 'fanny') in order to fish for the color.

I used to believe that fooling people was the purpose of magic. And, I guess, I still believe that. Certainly there needs to be some level of deception for something to be considered magic. But what I don't believe is that the more someone is fooled the better their experience is.

In 2004, on my old blog, I talked about the experience of seeing Kenton Knepper perform Kolossal Killer live. I talked about how the people who I was with were fooled by it, but then after he left the trick quickly fell apart. This has been the same with pretty much every performance of KK I've seen. People are fooled, but then they think, "I'd like to see what else was in that wallet. Maybe it wasn't a full deck, but he could have had a bunch of cards." And from there it's not hard to see how the "out" on the back of the card actually gives the trick away. 

At the time, I thought the fact that the trick falls apart on reflection was the fatal flaw of the trick. I wrote:

When performing magic your greatness is only determined in part by how well you fool them in the moment. The other part, the overriding part, is if they look back on the incident and are still fooled by it. Imagine if you were prepared the finest meal you'd ever tasted, everything was cooked to perfection with the perfect amount and right combination of spices, it was served in a beautiful room, on beautiful china, by a beautiful waitress. And for the rest of your life you think, "That was the finest meal I ever had." What makes that meal important to you is not just how good it was at the time, but in retrospect it is still the finest meal you ever had. Now take the same situation, same incredible meal, but this time you go home and a little while later your stomach starts rumbling and you spend the rest of your night puking and shitting your brains out. That's right. The sluices are open at both ends. Now, if anyone ever asks you what the finest meal you ever had was, you're not going to choose the one that had you puking and shitting all night despite the fact that it was incredible when you ate it. You're going to choose something you got at Applebee's or whatever. My point is, for an audience, figuring out a magic trick has the same effect as getting diarrhea from a meal. You get the point.

I no longer believe that. In fact, I know it's not true. I've experienced the opposite (that is, a trick that doesn't fool people in the long run, but still provides a great experience) from both sides (performer and spectator).

In the epilogue to The Jerx, Volume One, I tell the story of the greatest magic trick ever performed. This was a trick that was profoundly mystifying but only for a short length of time. I've never seen a trick get a stronger reaction, nor have I ever seen a trick have a more profound impact on someone long after it was over.

Earlier this week I wrote about Derek DelGaudio's show and I said:

I especially loved the final moment of the show. I'm a sucker for a twist ending. And In & Of Itself, has a final 2-second effect that occurs at the very end of the show that came as a complete surprise to me and will forever be one of my strongest memories from any theater show. And it made something click in my head about our objectives when we perform magic (more on that to come in a future post).

(This is that future post.)

Now, here's the thing. That final effect only fooled me for a matter of moments. I experienced the effect, was blown away by it, but almost immediately knew what must have occurred. (Or, at least, I have a workable theory of what occurred.) And I don't think that's just true of me as a magician. I think any intelligent audience member would say, "Ah, when we were looking here, this must have happened over here." (I'm being coy to preserve the moment for those who haven't seen it yet.)

But that moment was still powerful to me. Even though it didn't "fool" me in the long run, it was still so surprising and visually and conceptually interesting that it's one of my favorite pieces of magic I've ever seen.

This was kind of a key moment for me, to be on the other end of the equation. I had learned as a performer that people had a greater appreciation for an effect as a story they live through rather than just being fooled by a hard-hitting trick. What I mean is, in my experience people have a greater enjoyment for a minor trick with an interesting presentation than they do some mindblowing miracle that they just can't connect to in any real way. But it wasn't until experiencing it myself that I felt like I truly understood why that is in a personal way, rather than just a theoretical way.

As magicians we concentrate so much on whether something fools people. But fooling people, at least initially, is relatively easy. One magic book alone will give you 50 ways to fool someone. Yet we keep looking for some new trick that might fool someone in a way it matters. The problem is that "being fooled" is a very fragile thing. If your spectator figures out the method, or thinks they figured out the method, your goal of "fooling" them crumbles. Even if they don't figure out the method but just say, "Ah, I don't really care how he did it," then you've sort of failed to fool them. Because fooling them would imply they're actively trying to figure out how you did it. You can't beat someone in basketball if they're sitting on the sidelines. And you can't really fool someone unless they've bought into the challenge.

So "Fooling" is not really the metric I use anymore. I don't think it's that useful as far as determining what people will enjoy. "This fools them more, so they'll like it better," isn't something that really rings true. Being fooled is an intellectual concept, not inherently an entertaining one.

What I've found is that if you want your magic to resonate, you don't just want to fool people, you want to thrill people. That's the verb I'm trying to keep in mind these days.

I want experiencing an effect to feel like...oh... I don't know... something like saving a hot blonde from a gorilla and a muscle-bound guy with a wooden mallet by fighting them at the same time. Punching them simultaneously with such force that you bust through the bars of a jail cell while death attacks you with a snake. Or something like that.

The main problem with most of the tricks in print isn't that they don't fool people, it's that that's all they do. You're fooled by Kolossal Killer, and that's all you get from it. So when the method crumbles the whole point of the interaction goes with it. Even if your method is impenetrable, being fooled is something that tends to diminish over time, especially if a trick is otherwise sort of meaningless. 

But being thrilled is something people cherish and romanticize. It doesn't necessarily diminish over time, often it gets built up.

How do you thrill people? I don't really have a step by step approach to it. But I think that's what I've been working towards in this site, although I didn't really know that was the word I was looking for. For example:

  1. I think you can thrill people by appealing to their sense of adventure. The Romantic Adventure and Engagement Ceremony styles are designed to put people in the position of taking part in something they've never done before.
  2. I think you can thrill people with genuinely surprising moments. The finale of Derek's show was a surprise. There was no prelude to the moment. It just happened. That's similar to the esthetic I strive for with the Distracted Artist style. Real surprise in magic is rare. If I borrow your ring, wrap it in a silk, make it vanish, and it appears on my shoelace, that's kind of a surprise, but kind of not because you're expecting something unusual/amazing to happen. It would be completely different if I asked to have a closer look at your ring (for some reason) then when I handed it back it was gone. We both looked all around for it and found it on my shoelace. Imagine how that would feel, especially if you had no idea I did magic. That's a true surprise.
  3. And I think you can thrill people by removing them from the role of spectator. For years I've harped on removing yourself as the magician, but haven't mentioned the corollary to that which is that when you do that, you remove the other person from the role of "spectator" or audience. They become more of a participant. And that expanded role makes them more susceptible to getting wrapped up in and "thrilled" by the experience.

Obviously I still think fooling people is important in magic. And the two goals should go hand-in-hand. Being fooled can be a big part of being thrilled, but I think the first step for me in making progress in this direction was realizing that just fooling people was more about my ego than it was about entertaining people. 

I'm not suggesting every trick needs to be some monumental life-changing thing. I think there's value in little thrills too. I'm only suggesting that I think you need to offer more than fooling someone if you're looking to give them an experience to remember.

Someone will now email me and say I'm just reiterating something that was said in Our Magic, or Your Magic, or Fucking Steve's Magic, or whatever it is. I'm sure that's probably the case. But I'll tell you this: To whatever extent it's been said before, it clearly didn't stick. Bill in lemon, cups and balls, linking rings, the egg bag, almost every card and coin trick ever—these are tricks designed to fool, not thrill.

I really like thinking in terms of "thrill" "enthrall" and "excite" as opposed to "fool" when thinking about the experience I want to deliver. It gets me in the right mindset in regards to thinking presentationally rather than methodologically. For the people who write me and ask how to go about coming up with more engaging presentations I think it's helpful to have those words as the target you're shooting for. That's going to have a greater impact on what you present to people than if your goal is just their basic ignorance of your methodology. 

And it's just a good word.