Magic tricks are often sold alongside of gags. Back in the day when we found ads for tricks on the backs of comic books, we also learned that we could purchase hand buzzers, snapping gum packs, and whoopee cushions, among other devices. As kids we thought they were funny, like a clown’s flower squirting water on the unsuspecting, or the sight and sound of someone’s pants ripping. It was all hilarious when you were a ten-year-old, assuming the victim of your gag didn’t punch you in the face.
As many of us got into magic we started to learn so-called sucker tricks. Among my firsts were the “Torn and Restored Napkin” and “Three Card Monte.” In both cases the spectator played the part of a rube, the unwitting victim. I, the magician, pulled one over on you. Ha ha! Aren’t I smart? Sucker!
Of course, these “tricks” played best in front of a group of people, perhaps because human nature is such that some folks enjoy laughing at the misfortunes of others. Yes, sucker tricks were great, until I got to play the part of the sucker a few times. That cliché about wearing someone else’s shoes is spot on, because there’s nothing like a little humiliation to open the door to transformation.
So it didn’t take long for me to realize how thoughtless it was that I was getting laughs and accolades at someone else’s expense. And it was also at this time that I started to appreciate the difference between the words “trick” and “effect.” Did I really want to trick people? Well, obviously I figured out that I got a much bigger “high” when I did something that was inexplicable, thought provoking, or moving. And to this day, if I perform an effect that falls into the category of “sucker tricks,” I always script it around something that once happened to me, so that I am the fall guy in the narrative. I think this awareness elevates our art and I never want anyone who sees me perform to walk away disgusted. They may be disappointed, they may think my skills didn’t fool or impress them. That’s fine. Besides, at least I won’t get socked in the face.
If I sound preachy, I apologize. I was born in 1951 and have, I hope, learned something over the years. But not all of my contemporaries feel the same way. Several years ago I was at the New England Magicians Convention (NEMCON) and I watched a very well known magician do the old bra trick. He pulled a very reluctant woman out of the audience and even had her exchange her shirt with another spectator to facilitate the sudden appearance of what was supposed to be her brazier. Needless to say, it was humiliating, childish, and embarrassing. No one really laughed as I recall, and others, like myself, walked out of the room. To this day, I have trouble watching any video of this performer because I can’t help thinking of that puerile, and misogynistic effort to get a laugh in front of a group comprised predominantly of men. And to make matter worse, like most convention audiences, there were young people in the room. So what I ask rhetorically were the young folks learning from this seasoned and well-known performer? “Oh come on, it’s okay because we’re just having fun?” Sorry but in my opinion that has no place whether you’re a bar magician or David Copperfield. We have a responsibility to entertain in a manner that heightens our art, not denigrates it.