Mailbag #7


We all constantly hear magicians talk about how they want to be the most memorable part of the performance. Many times I’ve heard a magician tell of how a layman began to describe a trick he once saw and how amazing it was, and when the magician asked him what that magician’s name was, the layman came up empty. And every magician always talks down about this, that the opposite is really what’s important: for the spectator to remember YOU and not necessarily the trick.

I just found it interesting (and correct me if I’m wrong) that with you, the important thing is for the spectator to get the experience, and whether or not he remembers you were involved is almost irrelevant. As you’ve said many times, you are just as happy when a spectator has an experience and you are just another “bystander” that apparently had nothing to do with creating the experience. Especially because with your style you are not even trying to take credit for the effect.

I guess this is understandable for professionals that want to get future bookings, it’s important people remember them and their names. But as you’ve pointed out, a huge percentage of magicians in the world are mostly hobbyists that do magic for family and friends. —YR

Yes, this is one of those things that is completely the opposite for professionals and amateurs. If you’re a professional magician and nobody really remembers you, then you probably won’t be a professional magician for very long. So if you don’t make the performance about you in some way, you’re not really ever going to take-off as a professional.

On the other hand, if you’re an amateur magician and you consistently make the magic about you then you won’t be an amateur magician for very long. It’s just not going to be fun for your friends and family in the long term.

Let me illustrate this by taking it to the extreme. Imagine you were at a barbecue at your friend’s place and you said, “Hey, everyone, want to see a magic trick?” And then you fired up some Peter Gabriel and unbuttoned your shirt and had a fan blowing your hair and you acted like Shin Lim for the next 8 minutes. If you did that, it’s possible you’d get a good response. But if you tried to do it again a week later, people would be like, “Oh, that’s okay. We’re going to play Jarts.” Putting the focus on you is not something that’s going to appeal to people week-after-week, year-after-year.

I’m going to get back to this letter at the end of this post. First I’m going to answer a couple other emails…

Can you give us your impression of John Kennedy’s Tractor Beam? I like the idea of the light being what causes the animation but I feel like the “laser pointer” also being the actual electronic reel makes it pretty obvious what is going on. Am I just overthinking this or is it just that blatantly obvious what’s going on? —SL

This is the sort of thing where I honestly don't know how a layperson would respond to it without showing it to them myself (and I don't like the trick enough to bother with that). I definitely don’t think it looks “obvious” at all, so that wouldn’t be my concern.

My issue with the laser pointer (besides the fact it doesn't look like a laser pointer) is that I think it's probably less interesting than "amplified mind power" or "sexual energy" or "low level nuclear radiation" or "shadows" or whatever you might say is moving the object if you did something similar without the laser pointer. The laser pointer is almost too believable for me. I mean, it is possible to move things with lasers.

I apply the "green grass test" to this. If people had been doing this trick with a laser pointer for years and then someone came along and said, "I've found a way to do it without the laser pointer," wouldn't we all be excited about that? So isn't this maybe a step backwards? 

That being said... I could be dead wrong. Someone could test this out and find it gets much better reactions for some reason I can't wrap my head around.

If any readers end up getting it, I’d be interested in hearing how it plays for you.

Have you ever written about methods to overcome / bury / decapitate-and-shove-garlic-in-the-mouth-of my "magician's voice"? 

I try to be conversational with my scripts, but tense up, and endlessly revert to that booming, gesturing "and now I'm going to show you something amazing!" Robert-Houdin persona. Which isn't pleasant for anyone. 

(Or, if you haven't written on it, do you know of any good books / articles on the subject?  Ken Weber's chapter was way too short and pretty much said, "Just don't do it. Be conversational." Which I'm having a damn hard time doing.) —AD

No, I don’t think I’ve written about this specifically and that’s because it’s not an issue I’ve ever really had to deal with, so I don’t have much insight into it. I do think it’s an important issue, though, because hearing someone go into a “performer” voice is a huge buzzkill. In a social situation it’s the kiss of death as far as creating a moment that feels spontaneous. But even in a professional show you’re going to want to feel more conversational at times.

You say you “try to be conversational in your scripts.” If I had to guess, I would think that might be one of your problems: you’re too scripted. You’re too comfortable in what you’re going to say, which allows you to slip into a more presentational tone of voice. I don’t really know how to get around this if you’re talking about a professional show. I guess it’s just a matter of getting better at acting. You need to learn to act as if you’re speaking extemporaneously. I can’t act for shit, so I can’t give advice there.

In a social magic situation, the way to appear less “performance-y” is simple: don’t script so much. It’s hard to appear too presentational when you’re not sure exactly what you’re going to say. And you don’t gain anything by having a polished script when you show some friends a trick after dinner.

My “scripting” consists of this:

  1. I will come up with a one-sentence general premise for the effect.

  2. I will make note of anything I need to establish for the trick to really seem impossible. Establishing these conditions is key to making the magic as powerful as it can be, so I will “script” the way I’m going to reinforce them (verbally or via my actions).

Beyond that, I sort of wing it. I talk to you and I tell you a story and I may stumble through parts or say something that’s not 100% clear and you’ll have to ask me to clarify. This is how people communicate in real life. The subject of the conversation may be somewhat fantastical, but it will still have the rhythm of a normal interaction.

So my first recommendation is to script less.

My second recommendation is to use presentations that involve less certainty on your part. You say you end up reverting to the, “And now I’m going to show you something amazing,” style. But you can only do that if your premise is, “Hey, here’s something amazing,” in the first place. If your presentation is more along the lines of, “I don’t understand this thing I found,” or, “Can I get your help with this?” or, “Let’s test this out,” or, “This weird thing keeps happening, I want to see if it happens with you too,” then you will find it difficult to get pulled into something that feels too much like a “Ta-Daa!” moment because it would be a very abrupt change from the presentation you’ve established.

But again, that advice is more geared towards social performances. If you’re reading Ken Weber you may be thinking more in terms of a professional show. In which case I agree with his advice: Just knock it off and act like a human.

So, getting back to the first email, there was this line I wanted to comment on…

[W]ith you, the important thing is for the spectator to get the experience, and whether or not he remembers you were involved is almost irrelevant.”

Yes and no. I think sometimes people interpret me saying, “take the focus off yourself,” as me implying that I see magic as some selfless act of giving “wonder” to the world. Like I see myself as just a benevolent sprite, spreading joy through my delightful acts of magic!

Not quite. While I do think it’s sad if you’re doing magic just for some validation, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting magic to be a part of your persona that makes you more likable and enjoyable to be around. Magic is not really the kind of art where you’re like, “I’m going to do whatever I want, and damn what anyone else thinks!” Magic, especially social magic, should be an enjoyable, communal thing that draws people to you. But the Catch-22 is this: if the primary goal of your magic is to make yourself look good, you will turn people off. You won’t be able to hide the neediness in your performance.

Imagine you knew someone who was incredibly strong. One day he proved it to you by bending a frying pan. Another time he did so by bending a steel bar. The next time he lifted an anvil. Another time he lifted a car. And so on. The first time he demonstrated his strength, you would have been like, “Damn, that’s impressive.” But each subsequent time it would be a little less so. Eventually you’d just be like, “Okay, I get it.” And you’d wonder what his need was to keep demonstrating this skill. This is what can happen if you just do tricks that come down to a demonstration of your abilities or your cleverness.

When the focus of the trick is on you, you are forced to tell the same story over and over. That story is: “Look at this thing I can do.” That’s not a story that can maintain its power over time.

When I performed in a magician-centric style, I would burn people out on tricks very easily. Unless they had an innately strong interest in magic, I would feel a slip in enthusiasm after a few times performing for them. And I used to think that was just the nature of performing magic.

But by shifting the focus off myself, and putting tricks in other narratives, a whole world of stories beyond “look what I can do” opened up. That change has allowed me to maintain people’s interest and engagement in magic for so much longer.

The other day I was with a friend who has easily seen me perform 100+ times in the last few years. I walked into her apartment, grabbed a drink and said this, like it was the most normal thing in the world…, “I went to a baby’s funeral and stole this rattle out of its coffin. Check this out….” Now, she knew it wasn’t true, but it didn’t matter. Her interest was piqued. Her eyes lit up. She adjusted her chair, leaned in a little, and said, “I can’t wait to see how this plays out.” And she was into it and engaged up to—and past—the point where the rattle began to shake on its own.

“I can’t wait to see how this plays out.” That’s exactly what I’m shooting for.

Now, if I said, “Here’s a baby rattle. I’m going to shake it with my mind.” That would have been just another trick about me. She wouldn’t think, “I want to see how this plays out,” because she would be completely used to me saying I was going to do something impossible and then doing it. It’s a story she’s already heard over and over. It would be like if the strong man came in and said, “Take a look at this wrench. It’s not possible to bend this thing, right?” You wouldn’t think, “I wonder what’s going to happen.” You’d think, “Oh, I guess he’s going to bend that wrench.”

When I was a kid performing magic, I wanted people to think, “Wow! You’re amazing!” But now I realize that you can only pull that off for a short amount of time before you look like a needy egotist performing fake miracles. Now my goal when I perform is for people to think, “that was fun, that was crazy, that was incredible.” Those positive feelings are ultimately going to flow back to me as the person responsible for creating that experience.

My point is, whether you want to just magnanimously show people a good time, or whether you’re hoping to make people like you, the route to both of these goals is to take the spotlight off of yourself.