Magic is Fake, and That is Ok

This is the full written speech I gave recently at "Nerd Nite" in Orlando Florida.  http://orlando.nerdnite.com/

"Magic is Fake, and That is Ok"

We Demand to be taken seriously

I’m not really a wizard. In fact, I hope this doesn't bum you out…but all magic is fake. This includes mentalists, psychics, mediums, and…politicians. But I don’t say this to make you sad or make you think the end of the world is near, I say this so hopefully we can find a new respect for the art of magic. Magic is fake, and that is ok.

I have been a professional magician for over 13 years. I have performed internationally and all over the US for fortune 500 companies, theaters and colleges…and a few times at Timmy’s seventh birthday party. Which I will tell you right now, that is sometimes more challenging than the worst comedy club heckler. At least with an adult heckler you can imply they should take a long walk off a short bridge, and no one gets mad.

But as a professional working magician, I have come to the conclusion that I want the audience to know that what I am doing is not because of some magic power, but rather from lots of free time in middle school. Seriously, magic is a skill that has to be honed over lots of practice and time. The Malcom Gladwell 10,000 hour rule applies to magic perfectly. I never feel confident doing a new trick, until I have done it in front of an audience at least 20 times. Teller has a great quote that makes perfect sense of this hopeful respect many magicians seek, “Sometimes, magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect.” And I think this applies to any real art form. No one gets good at guitar or stand up comedy with minimal effort. A magician has to do two things: He has to entertain, and he has to amaze. If not he is just a creepy guy in a vest.

This idea is not a new one. The father of modern magic, a 19th century magician by the name of  Jean Robert Houdin (the man Houdini took his name from) said, “A magician is an actor playing the role of a conjurer” So simply put…we fake it. But hopefully we are faking it so well it looks real. And that is the true goal of a good magician….at least in my mind. The other goal is that the audience is having an enjoyable time in the first place. There's nothing worse than a magic show that you can’t wait to end. I have been on the giving and receiving end of both.

So I am sure everyone here is familiar with Gob from Arrested Development. People often ask if I am offended by such portrayals of magicians…and I tell them, “No.” If anything we need more of it. There are hundreds of Gobs working regularly, and I can’t figure out why. Pretty much any ridiculous thing Will Arnet did in that show was not too far off the path of things real Gob’s have done.

Unfortunately, this is what many people tend to think of when someone says, “Magician.” The hope is to eventually change this perception. Currently there is actually a lot of good magic on television. The guy who just won America’s Got Talent was great, and Penn and Teller have a show on The CW called Fool Us where we get to see polished, non Chris Angel type magicians performing their craft beautifully. However, the best magic on TV can still be written off as a camera trick, especially in today’s over use of CGI. So the best place to see magic is in a live setting.

Magic is a live medium. Similar to music or comedy, it does not work without a crowd present. There is a communal experience with magic that you cannot get in any other art form. Magic seen live not only changes a person’s perspective of what they think of when someone says magician…but it is a visceral experience that stands alone. When a trick happens in real time, and ends up fooling you, it sucks you in like a tractor beam. Especially if that trick is done well.

The strange thing about magic is that someone can learn a trick on Youtube and call themselves a magician. There are few jobs where this can happen. If you call yourself  a plumber, but have no idea how to fix a toilet, it will become obvious rather soon.

When I was 15 I had business cards made up that a said “Family, Funny Magician!” and I would hand them out to people looking for work in private parties and what not. And you know who gave me permission to put that on their? Me. The most amazing thing to me, is that like with most art, there is no real accreditation process required to be a working performer. A lot of it is being at the right place at the right time….and hoping you don’t suck when the moment of truth comes.

As stated before, a performer most likely becomes good from years and years of practice. There are magic prodigies, but they still work very hard. So I guess it’s a good and a bad thing to not be required to have a degree in magic. There is however a school in Las Vegas named the Mcbride Magic and Mystery School where you can study rather indepthly about magic, magic history and magic performance styles. Also the Magic Castle in LA has a great youth training program for young magicians out there.

But like stand up comedy, there are many different styles of one the art form. I heard Patton Oswald talking about this, and he made a good point, he said that live comedy is weird because you can just put “comedy night” on a marquee and that is normal.…no madder who is performing, everyone will have an idea about comedy in their head even if that idea is way off from the person performing that night.  But if you put up “movie night” on a poster, people would get confused when they show up, and want to know what movie specifically is playing. Magic shares this same common perception as comedy. You put “magician or magic night” on a poster and everyone who walks in will have their own idea of how that show will go. So it’s up to the public and the performers to work towards a change in this generalization of magic.

But getting back to my thesis, as for magic being openly fake, I am someone who embraces this. I know a lot of magicians do not share my same view point. I know I am pissing off a lot of magicians by simply making this statement, but I am ok with that. I fundamentally have a problem with any magician who claims to have real magic powers. Not only because it is borderline insane, which it is, but because it makes magic into something it is not…and that is a manipulative device to skam people. That’s how magic started off some 2000 years ago, and I think its important to move past that.

This viewpoint has become very important to me in the past few years. A lot of it stems from James Randi’s wonderful opinion about psychics and mediums. James Randi is a famous skeptic and magician. He is most famous for his million dollar challenge to anyone who can demonstrate a supernatural or paranormal ability under agreed-upon scientific testing criteria. Over a thousand people have applied to take the challenge, but none has yet been successful.

Aside that claiming to have magical powers is weird and warrants being locked up in a white cell, it also can pry on the emotions of the unsuspecting public. Mediums will often use audience member’s dead relatives to evoke emotion in unsuspecting participants. There is something fundamentally wrong with using a simple parlor trick to play with someone’s head who has gone through such a traumatic event. These people are often in a vulnerable state their guards being down simply searching for answers, and so called “mediums” and psychics take advantage of them.

Houdini even turned his energies toward debunking psychics and mediums, Houdini's training in magic allowed him to expose frauds who had successfully fooled many scientists and academics. Houdini died on October 31 1926…and before he died, he and his wife agreed that if Houdini found it possible to communicate after death, he would communicate the message "Rosabelle believe", a secret code which they agreed to use. Every year since his death a seance has been held…and not once has there been any concrete communication between the ghost of houdini and the participants in the seance.

On the surface, most people can tell the difference between a card trick, and someone pretending to talk to your dead mother. But in my mind a lie is a lie. Pretending that magic is nothing more than entertainment ultimately hurts magic. Magic is so much stronger, and for some people, so much more maddening when they know there is a plausible scientific explanation…but can’t quite put their finger on it. I like that idea of wonder and a search for discovery. It’s the same thing that drives good a scientist. Magic does this well, because you can evoke an emotion of excitement that not many people often experience in their daily lives.  And yes, for some people that emotion is anger. A lot of people look like they want to hurt me…and when I see that expression on their face, I know I have done my job well.

Magic is fake…most of us know this deep down. But excepting this, allows audiences to theoretically have a much more enjoyable experience. Ultimately the magician’s goal is to fool, but we also want to leave you with something memorable. Magic is meant to evoke excitement and bewilderment. If anything more is layered on to it beyond entertainment, it becomes preachy and uncomfortable. I hope I have not ruined your childhoods, but in some strange way enhanced them with curiosity.

 

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