I love magic. I love the pomp, the artifice, the imagination, the exactitude. The way a guy who’s about to tear a dollar bill in half folds it just so. The barely unnatural bend in the finger joint when he gets set to make a silver dollar disappear. The precision of “randomly stuffing” a hanky into an open fist. And all the while, patter: the secret weapon of all magicians, something to take your mind away from what’s going on before your very eyes: misdirection.
I used to know a great card-finding illusion. I still do. It depends upon a simple, almost laughable, bit of misdirection. One day, I made the mistake of performing it a second time for the same group of friends. That’s not magic; that’s chumpdom. Leave them aghast! Two childhood pals, twins, chumped me at age ten when they finally revealed how either of them (hint: but not both!) could go out of a room, across the street, into the next state, whatever, and come back and correctly identify whichever person the rest of the room had agreed to silently choose, every single time! Their secret is equally laughable once you understand the colossal misdirection they’ve suckered you into. But for a couple of weeks, I’d actually considered their patter: they were such close siblings that they could read each other’s minds! Now, I’m all grown up, I’m initially skeptical about every “amazing” claim – but I still love magic!
Resourceful magicians just floor me – whether it’s close-up sleight-of-hand or larger tricks that get the same reaction as a fireworks display. When I lived in Georgia, there was a close-up guy named Tom Mullica (thanks, Nancy!) who owned a magic store in an Atlanta shopping mall. You would sit on barstools and he’d perform sleight-of-hand just inches away from your face. In fairness, he was standing opposite you, so you couldn’t see behind him, which is where I’m sure a lot of top-secret stuff happened. I bought a trick from him that turns a penny into a dime with a wave of my hand. Bet I’ve done it a hundred times. (Profit: $9! Just kidding.)
In my opinion, the best card handler today is Ricky Jay. I’ve seen two of his one-man shows: RICKY JAY AND HIS 52 ASSISTANTS, completely devoted to card manipulation; and RICKY JAY: ON THE STEM, his tribute to the rich history of hustlers and con men in Manhattan. Both were directed by David Mamet, who has frequently used Jay as a consultant – and actor – in his films dealing with elaborate deception (as have others: for example, Jay helped design a phony wheelchair that made Gary Sinise appear legless in-camera for certain shots in FORREST GUMP). He also has a respectful, even encyclopedic, awareness of the tradition of “variety theatre,” which enjoyed its “golden age” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when magicians regularly headlined popular vaudeville shows and competed amongst themselves to create bigger and more astonishing illusions. Jay employs this literally arcane knowledge in ornate bursts of patter that are almost as entertaining as the tricks themselves. (If you’d like to know more about this era, the single best book is Jim Steinmeyer’s highly entertaining HIDING THE ELEPHANT, in which you will learn how magicians, each building upon the creativity of their predecessors, gradually advanced their art to the point at which they could make an elephant disappear – and you’ll discover how it’s done.)
Hmmm. How it’s done. Mr. Jay would surely despise the oncoming paragraph, but this isn’t his blog, so I get to indulge myself. As ON THE STEM broke for intermission, a young man walked up to me and said he worked for Ricky Jay. Would I mind if Ricky used my wedding ring in an illusion in the second act? It’d be perfectly safe, and I’d get it back unharmed. Duh, sure! “Ricky’s going to ask for a volunteer to loan him a wedding ring. Just raise your hand, and he’ll call on you.” He did, I did, he did (after surveying the other volunteers for a moment to sell the “randomness”), and before long my wedding ring disappeared, then slowly emerged a little later from inside one of those Victorian mechanical flowering-tree contraptions! That was the effect. But Linda and I had some clues, since we were the only ones outside the magician’s team who knew I was a spontaneously-selected audience plant. (It occurred to me later that had this been one of those tricks where the magician asks, “Have you and I ever met?” the honest answer would have to be, “No.” I wonder how many times that little exchange has played me for a sucker!) Here’s what I think actually happened in our real, physics-based world, the one in which there’s no such thing as magic (this mundane part is called the method). At the halftime break, the assistant looked around for a man wearing a simple gold wedding band of a certain thickness, a fairly common ring identical to the one which, unknown to us all, was already stuffed inside the mechanical tree. He noticed the perfect candidate on my finger. Bingo. When I handed Ricky Jay my ring, he palmed it expertly (making it “disappear” for the audience and giving them a snicker at my expense as he looked stricken for a second), grandly narrated the flowering tree-machine’s elaborate history, and finally plucked “my ring” from inside it. Once again, his absolutely impenetrable sleight-of-hand skills switched the prop ring with the previously palmed ring (i.e., mine), thus he could hand my real ring back down to me. The trick was simple: it required only two very skillful “close-up” moves, just like Tom Mullica’s. (And the rest of the audience, which didn’t know I’d been hand-picked, couldn’t even piece it together that far.) But the payoff was this beautiful effect which, in truth, had nothing to do with my ring, which had simply been used as misdirection. And though the method – for I’m almost positive I’ve just revealed it to you – might have been slightly translucent for me and me only, it didn’t diminish the magician’s wonder-full, and genuine, powers of manipulation, demonstrated twice. Sleight of hand isn’t something you can simply cover with verbal patter: it’s an art, not a skill, and it’s for real, proficiency requiring as many hundreds of hours of practice as does the violin.
Having a ball with the stuffiness of magic secrecy are my other two favorites, Penn & Teller. I’ve seen them on Broadway a few times, and at their theater at the Rio in Las Vegas. In fact, I see them whenever I can. Their act is mostly magic and other carny stuff (juggling, fire eating), a bit of comedy, but tossed together like a salad. When they get it right, you’re unnerved as if you’re watching a horror movie, then there’s a release as Teller escapes the latest Grand Guignol nemesis, like a row of spring-loaded bear traps, or the sharp spikes above which he’s been hanging upside down, or the water chamber inside which he’s been “holding his breath” longer than humanly possible. Before you applaud, your immediate reaction is relieved laughter.
They work in matching three-piece suits – containing many handy pockets to hide stuff in – and Teller rarely speaks. They love to perform a classic trick in full view: for example, the centuries-old “cups and balls” manipulation, only with transparent cups; or a jazzed-up “body-parts” illusion (that’s how you saw a lady in half) using cutout blocks and triangles, and precise musical cues, once for the effect and a second time, with see-through props, for the method (which is physically strenuous and gets just as big a hand: whew!). In their show THE REFRIGERATOR TOUR, they performed an illusion called “By Buddha, This Duck Is Immortal.” The effect: Penn displays a live duck and stuffs it inside a paper bag. He sets it on a table and a heavy anvil falls on the bag, presumably crushing the duck. He opens the bag, it’s full of feathers, but the duck is gone. I forgot to mention that meanwhile, on the other side of the stage, Teller is pushing a shopping cart into a light stand, causing a muffled POP and sparks. Obviously, this is meant to distract us. So the boys repeated the same illusion, at half speed, and told us to watch carefully. The same patter, moves, everything. That anvil was still about to crush that poor duck, only slower. Finally, Penn gave us the reveal on a third run through. At the precise moment when the light stand started to pop and spark, Penn yelled “HEY!” and showed us a simple switch, one foot into the wings, for a second bag with no duck, just feathers. He and his assistant had practiced the move so well that not only didn’t he break stride, the switch was absolutely invisible, even at half speed. He had to waggle the bag overdramatically to make us notice it! Once again, knowing the very simple secret didn’t detract from our appreciation. On the contrary: we got a look into how hard this stuff is to pull off!
I guess I’m just lucky, but I had a personal experience with Penn & Teller too. I took some friends of mine to see them on Broadway, and at intermission Penn walked the aisles with a large glass wine jug in his hand, the kind that often contains Gallo Hearty Burgundy. It was sealed and empty, except for a folded piece of paper inside. He handed the jug to my friend and told him to hold it, keep it safe, don’t let it out of your sight, and whatever you do, don’t open it. A few minutes later, just into the second act, they brought my friend up with the jug. He’d never before set foot in a Broadway theater, and now he was on stage!
I’ll give you the effect first. Penn & Teller select a random verse from the Bible. “Rev. Cecil” (for that’s my friend’s name), having sat on a throne and hugged the jug through the whole randomizing part, reads the verse out loud. He leaves the throne, joins Teller, and hands him the wine jug. Teller smashes the jug on a table with a hammer. On the paper inside the jug, which my friend has been assiduously protecting for half an hour, is written the just-selected random Bible verse!
After the show, my friend was the third most popular person at the theater. (Penn & Teller personally greet their audience outside after every performance.) How’d they do it? What did you see? Teller was standing right next to you! My friend had to say repeatedly, I’m not a plant, Penn just handed me the jug, I don’t know how, I’m innocent! But later, thinking about it back home, we pieced the method together using two clues.
This being Penn & Teller, the prosaic act of randomization was made into an audience-participation spectacle. The scriptural location was determined by children throwing Nerf darts at a big target containing all the books of the Bible. The verse number emerged from the audience passing gigantic fuzzy dice over their heads until they reached the stage. I can’t remember how the chapter number was picked, only that it was a similarly absurd way to sell, this is a frickin random verse! The whole process took maybe 15 giddy, laugh-filled minutes, “Rev. Cecil” presiding over it all. This entire over-the-top production deliberately obscured the fact that what we now suspect to be the actual method was as simple as “By Buddha, This Duck Is Immortal!” But that was just us. As with my Ricky Jay experience, not everybody had the perspective of Rev. Cecil.
My friend remembers that Teller put on safety goggles before smashing the jug, and handed him a pair too (partly obscuring his view). As he raised the hammer to strike, Teller simply said, “Look away,” as would any reasonable person who’s about to send glass shards flying (clue 1). Then, an instant after the jug was shattered, my friend smelled the distinct odor of fresh Magic Marker (clue 2). With Rev. Cecil looking away, and with the audience – the closest of them yards distant – distracted by the loud SMASH, Teller simply switched the paper that had been inside the jug the whole time for a second piece, newly scrawled while Rev. Cecil was on his throne reading the Bible verse out loud, thus giving a covert operative the time to do it. All that theatricality for a trade as low-tech as the one that made the duck disappear! [Spoiler Alert: I think I just revealed the entire history of magic!]
If you had heard the Bible verse aloud, you might have noticed a subtext: most of what you can randomly pick out of the Bible makes no sense out of context. This one was some obscure dietary law (I think), but it might just as easily been a recitation of cubits or begats. Or, to be fair, a beautiful psalm, maybe a Beatitude — but that would be like hitting the Vegas jackpot, and it’ll happen at random just about as often. Penn & Teller are both atheists and skeptics, reserving their sharpest ire for con artists who dupe poor, gullible people into paying them money for some supposed supernatural feat – and that includes greedy TV evangelists who pray for pay. Ehrich Weiss, better known as “Harry Houdini,” was the most prominent magician to take on such charlatans, debunking mystic after mystic – after all, a magician is the hardest guy to fool – and Penn & Teller follow squarely in his tradition. They even have a TV series on Showtime called BULLSHIT!, attacking “the things we know that just ain’t so.” For example, did you know that there’s no conclusive scientific proof that second-hand smoke is a health hazard? It’s nasty, yes. Ruins a restaurant meal, I’m with you there. It’s great that you can’t smoke in airplanes or New York City restaurants any more. But a danger to your health? Sorry, but that’s just bullshit – and here’s the proof. It’s a terrific series.
Penn & Teller also perform feats of magic which they don’t explain. But they’ve already sent the message: we’re con men, we can do some cool stuff, but we can also fool you into thinking we did some cool stuff that we didn’t. I saw a mentalist once. I have no idea how this guy pretends to read minds, but I was glad to hear him say at the top, “I have no supernatural powers. Everything I do tonight could be done by a 12-year-old, given enough practice.” Penn tells his audience, “Don’t think about how we do it. Think about why we do it.” Because it’s fun, it’s amusing, we’ve all agreed to call it “magic” – but never ever forget that in the real world, after the stage lights go down, the term requires those quote marks.
4/3/13: Two days from now, Penn & Teller will be honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
11/30/13: A wonderful new documentary on Ricky Jay and his many influences, DECEPTIVE PRACTICE, has just been released on DVD. Highly recommended.