Magicians get a lot of interesting questions. One of the most interesting questions I’ve ever received was also the most simple: “What separates a good magician from a great one?” I argue that great magicians tell the truth.
I realize this seems antithetical to the entire idea of doing magic, so let me elaborate. Magic is based on having a secret. Magician Ben Earl talks about how, in fact, the “magic” that we typically speak of (tricks performed by “magicians” who are ordinary people with no special powers) is interesting precisely because it is fake. Put another way, magic tricks are interesting because the audience knows that what they’re seeing isn’t real, but they don’t have an explanation besides “magic.”
So, how is it possible that something inherently fake tells the truth? The same way a movie makes you feel something real, or a comedian can make up a story and make you laugh. What matters is that something truthful happens within an untruthful situation. In my recent show, I did a trick where a randomly selected member of the audience chose a random fortune cookie from a bowl. When she opened it, the fortune encouraged her to spend time with her teenage son before he left for college, and called them both by name. Did real magic cause that to happen? No. But the fortune cookie was absolutely real, as were both of their names printed on the fortune. That trick happened within an untruthful situation–a magic show.
Here’s an example that highlights another route toward truth–vulnerability: During my show, I do a trick where I reveal the name of a college someone in the audience was rejected from. That’s a weird thing to ask someone to admit to a room full of strangers. But I circumvent that awkwardness by revealing to the audience the names of the colleges I was rejected from (Penn, UVA, and USC). It’s not a crazy amount of vulnerability, but it’s exactly what I’m asking the audience member to do, and my doing so always puts the audience member at ease. I use that untruthful situation–the magic trick–to tell the truth about the college admissions process.
I am by no means the first person to do this. Recent high-profile examples include Derren Brown opening Infamous by coming out as gay and closing the show by talking about how he was bullied in grade school. Brown’s finale is his solution to being bullied, and it’s phenomenal. Honesty is Rune Klan writing an entire show about him and his wife’s struggle with infertility. It’s Derek Delgaudio performing In and Of Itself about his conflict with identity and the difficulty of keeping secrets.
Great magicians use fiction–magic tricks–to communicate reality, in the same way a movie uses special effects.
I’ve heard a lot of people say that they don’t like magic. But that’s too vague. Saying you don’t like magic is as broad as saying that you don’t like food or music. What you hate, quite understandably, is bad magic. And on a more fundamental level, you hate dishonesty. You hate the idea of someone claiming he can read your mind when we all know he can’t.
Most magic does not contain inherent truths or humanity. One of the most famous tricks in magic is the cups and balls, where balls go on top of cups and then appear underneath them. But it fails to resonate with audiences because there is nothing human or vulnerable about a few balls going through cups for no reason. Additionally, the methods are rarely strong enough to withstand enough scrutiny to make the trick stand alone.
Magic, though, is beautiful. Derek Delgaudio, mentioned above, talks about how we regularly describe reality as “magical.” We might say that “My first kiss was magical” or “the sunset was magic.” We hold magic in a high regard. But that only goes one way. No one has ever said “My first kiss was like a great card trick.”
So, then, what is this “magic” we speak of? It’s truth. Or, more specifically, it is the overwhelming presence of reality. Let’s take the first kiss example. When your first kiss happens, you are extremely attuned to your immediate environment. Everything is new and exciting and you’re recognizing everything that’s happening. You know this is a story for later, and you hold on tight to the moment. Something in your head is going “I can’t believe this is happening. I can’t believe this is real.” It’s magical precisely because it exists in the first place!
Let’s take a great magic trick. You hand a magician a dollar bill that you brought specifically for this occasion. You examine it. Nothing weird about it. You hold the bill tightly in your hand. With your other hand, on a piece of paper, you start to write your name in cursive, just like you did as a kid. You just write your name in cursive, over and over, and as you do, you squeeze the bill tighter and tighter until you swear you feel something happening in your hand. Eventually, you open the bill. At the bottom, where the signature of the Secretary of the Treasury usually is, is your signature, permanently printed on the dollar bill.
There’s a lot that goes into making a magic trick interesting and deceptive, and most of it is beyond the scope of this post. The point is that the above example is interesting because when you see your real signature actually printed on a dollar bill, you are forced to reconcile not with how “fake” the magic trick was, but with how real it is that your signature is irreconcilably there.
To be clear, I wouldn’t say that this situation contains vulnerability. But it’s another route to great magic, which is forcing the audience into a state of awe by making them look at something that shouldn’t exist. In magic lingo, this is called an “impossible object” and it’s hard for it to not be strong.
The fortune cookie example above is a nice example of both vulnerability and an overwhelming presence of reality. It’s vulnerable because we’re on stage talking about being an empty-nester. And it’s overwhelmingly real because an actual fortune cookie now has an audience member and their son’s name on it.
Experiencing an overwhelming presence of reality goes far beyond magic. It is how we remember great (and not-so-great) events. They are all characterized by the same emotions, including shock, awe, and astonishment. We might react to a buzzer beater and a sudden death similarly (though with different emotions): “I can’t believe this is happening. This thing is now real, and I must figure it out.”
Great magic tells the truth, usually through the overwhelming presence of reality. Really great magic comes from creating an overwhelming presence of reality and vulnerability. And while vulnerability is hard, I don’t think magicians can be truly great without it.