I say, Thank God Penn & Teller reveal the workings of their magic tricks. We’re all used to it now, but when they first got going they caused a lot of angst and delicate hand-wringing among the brotherhood. No one will watch magic if they know how the tricks work! went the standard lamentation.
But it wasn’t shouted too loudly. Sympathy for secrecy wasn’t exactly on the wane when the boys showed up, but complaints against violations were reflexive more than strident.
This is because magic had fallen into the doldrums. There were a plethora of exaggerated hand-waving silent acts. These consisted of a magician who would purposefully stride across the stage, gesturing like a ballet dancer at his change cabinet—whoosh, whoosh, whoosh—swirl the thing round once or twice, and out would pop a bikinied gorilla, all set to bad, loud music. The only difference between acts were their magicians’ costumes—and those weren’t too dissimilar either.
Penn & Teller forced illusionists to change their thinking, or at least to develop fresh material. Silent acts are still with us, but not to the same extent (yes, I know Teller doesn’t talk).
And it was Penn & Teller, and later Fox’s Masked Magician, that proved the old belief wrong. Knowing how the tricks were done did not lessen people’s enjoyment of them. I’d say it was also empirically demonstrated that nobody can remember how illusions work. Or that even if they do, they can’t follow the trick as it’s happening.
Psychologists, presumably having bored themselves with ritalin studies, are starting to wonder how it is illusionists can fool people so easily, so they have engaged the help of Teller and others to find out. They came to the right people: you’d be surprised how much of the conjuring literature is devoted to psychology and how little to the mechanics of the tricks.
“The magic show is a competition,” [Teller] says. “The audience is trying to figure you out. They aren’t suspending their disbeliefâ€”they’re trying to expose you as a scam artist.” This is what makes magic so difficult: The magician must sell people a lie even as they know they’re being lied to. Unless the illusion feels more real than the truth, there is no magic.
One pickpocket in the study shows how he can filch wallets when he uses misdirection, but only if he waves his hand in an arc but not if he moves it in a straight line. I can vouch for this.
Once at Tannen’s, the famous Manhattan magic shop, I saw a clerk (all clerks there are magicians; I’m sorry I can’t recall his name) demonstrate a card trick to a patron. Cards were moving left and right; it was hard to keep up. But that wasn’t the trick. The clerk first showed a move and then asked the patron to mimic it. While the patron was doing this the clerk would steal an item from the patron’s person.
First his watch, then a pen from his pocket, finally the glasses right off his head! Understand that this was happening right in the moment. The clerk would grab the patron’s wrist to “show a move” and then steal the watch. The glasses were hilarious: he just reached out and took them while jabbering about the cards. The guy never noticed.
The clerk put the watch on his own hand, the pen in his own pocket, then the glasses on his own face. When the card “trick” was over, the patron nodded his head that he understood the card moves and began to walk away. It was only then he realized he couldn’t see too well.
After Penn & Teller, the field started taking advantage of more psychological methods and moving into different areas, especially with the younger breed coming up: guys like David Blaine, Chris Angel, Derren Brown, The Amazing Jonathan, and so on.
Mental and bizarre magic—psychic readings, ESP, psychokinesis, ghosts and hauntings, etc.—have become more vibrant. Some practitioners took, and are taking, the ideas too far and are trying to become the next Uri Geller (see the second book on the left). But there’s no arguing that mentalism feels like real magic, like producing a rabbit from a hat must have done four hundred years ago.
For example, I often do a trick using a Si Stebbins deck. The moves are trivial, but I tell my mark that I’m doing a psychological experiment. I ask them their favorite color or what word immediately comes into their mind. After that, I “guess” their card, sometimes purposely making small mistakes. Everybody instantly forgets about the cards and starts discussing the questions I asked. “Oh, you knew it was a black card because I told you my favorite color was blue, which is dark” and on an on. People are extraordinarily inventive coming up with spurious explanations. Nobody guesses the deck is gaffed, nobody tries to guess how the trick was done because they don’t believe one was done.
No matter what theories the psychologists glean from conjurers, I don’t think it will stop people from coming to magic shows.