The Art of Fooling People

Dear Friends:

On this first day of April, I find myself thinking about something we hold dear in the practice of performing magic – the art of fooling people.

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.
— Richard Feynman

I was thinking of this phrase not long ago when giving directorial notes to a magical friend. “Oh, and by the way, you’re flashing when you do X.” He had been doing this bit for years, and had been certain it was totally fooling his audiences. That happens when you perform a lot and are a strong, engaging performer. They’ll “just go along” with you. But the truth was, he had been flashing just as I saw him do, for years, and the audiences had been seeing it. His audiences were fooling him by telling him, “Oh, that’s great! Amazing.”

I’ll never forget taking my (then) wife to a party at Jeff McBride’s a few years back. Johnny Thompson was there demonstrating a card trick to some young magicians. My wife watched. She had seen hundreds of magicians performing magic with cards over the years, but she told me, “That’s the first time it ever looked like real magic! I mean…I don’t always know exactly what they’re doing, but somehow it always looks like a trick. When he performs…it just looks impossible. Like real magic!”

What was so different about Johnny’s performance? If you knew him, and had the chance to talk magic with him, you realized it had a lot to do with his willingness to go the extra mile, and put in the extra thought—the extra effort to make sure every detail of every performance would look natural, and would lead you to have the experience he wanted to give. If there was anything—anything at all—that might not ring true for an audience, that was a problem to be solved, and solved before you ever showed your magic to anyone.

I suppose that’s why many of magic’s top performers over the years—I’m thinking particularly of Lance Burton and Penn & Teller—made Johnny Thompson their full-time magic consultant. You don’t do that if you don’t care as deeply about the quality of your magic as he did!

It’s hard to perform as Johnny did. It takes deep curiosity, deep knowledge, and endless effort. If I’m honest, I think that may not be the route all performers will wish—or need to take. There may be other reasons for performing as a magician than to give an experience truly indistinguishable from real magic. You might perform magic as the “special effects” in a story you tell. Or, you might perform as a trickster who doesn’t care that the tricks performed look like tricks, as long as the audience is amused. Many of us perform magic because we want to impress our audiences with how clever we are. It doesn’t matter that they can tell we’re just doing tricks, as long as they can’t figure out exactly what the secret of the trick is.

A recent survey that our friend Joshua Jay helped conduct, came up with the startling notion that what most magic fans like most about magical performances is being surprised—and not experiencing something truly magical, at all. I’m sure there are many other possible uses for magic effects within performances.

I suppose my point here is this: If you want to provide experiences that feel like real magic, you’re stuck with going Johnny Thompson’s route. Just learning a trick from a book—a “secret method,” and then practicing it a few times in front of your mirror, won’t get you there. Deep study, deep thought, endless practice, endless rehearsal, and after a thousand performances or so, it will, sometimes begin to look and feel like “real magic” to your audience.

But that shouldn’t be too daunting for all of us enthusiasts and hobbyists, or even those who simply use magic within the context of their “big spectacle” shows, comedy routines, or even great storytelling. In these endeavors, audiences can be fully and delightfully entertained by magic that’s not as perfect, and not as completely magical, as Johnny’s was. There are different levels to this “fooling us” thing, and as long as you’re not really “giving away the secret,” I suppose you can call yourself a magician.

For myself, though, I’d like to see more magic like Johnny’s, and fewer magicians out there “just fooling themselves.”

As you know, we’re always changing, and always moving forward here at the McBride Magic & Mystery School. Have a look at some of our upcoming classes and events by clicking the calendar below.

A bit of late breaking news—Dan Harlan has agreed to be our special guest at this year’s live and In person Magic & Meaning Conference at Sunset Station. Dan is one of the most knowledgeable and creative magicians of our time, and has been a friend of the Magic & Mystery School from the beginning. We’re going to have an amazing time at this, our first real “in person” event in over a year. I hope you can join us. CLICK HERE to register!

Until next time, stay safe, stay healthy, and keep on making magic!

Tobias Beckwith

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