Friday, November 25, 2011

Too Cool to Be Cool

This is something I've had on my mind for a while now. A while back when I was auditioning for agents, I received a comment, "You're not like other magicians." I asked how so. Feedback is always appreciated. The answer was disheartening however. I was different in this person's mind not by virtue of anything unique I had done, but by what I wasn't. And while that's certainly not a bad way to approach building a character, it was the fact that this person considered magicians to be cornball, oily windbags with bad puns, stupid pickup lines and a sense of coolness about 50 years out of date.

I started watching more performances from both the old guard and the new guard and realized she was right. Most magicians come across as a stereotypical used car salesman. Most likely because that sort of corny act worked at one point in history. But not anymore. Times have changed. What was fashionable then is nothing more than an embarrassing novelty now.

There is a way for such things to continue existing however. They belong in the realm of ironic camp. People don't like it when magicians in real life tell their stupid jokes, but they still laugh when Gob did it on Arrested Development. Why? Because it was made abundantly clear on the show that Gob is not someone we're supposed to like as a person. The other characters' reactions to his obnoxious behavior mirror our own. Gob becomes cool by being interminably uncool.

Yet despite this very obvious lesson, magicians still persist in hokey, outdated one-liners and personae, totally oblivious to the fact that no one under the age of 60 finds this sort of thing funny anymore. They take themselves seriously. Too seriously in fact. They really do expect us to laugh at puns and pickup lines that are about as funny as prostate cancer. They think their cornball pseudo-Vaudeville antics that wouldn't make the cut in a Looney Tunes cartoon are endearing. They're trying so hard to be cool and command the spotlight that you can practically see the veins popping out of their necks under the strain and no one is fooled. It's the polar opposite of a lovable loser.

If they took themselves less seriously and didn't expect us to like them because of their campy image, they'd get a lot further. But they don't. And so here we are.

If you're going to try to be cool, you have to do it gracefully and with a sense of restraint. Or if you think you can be ironically entertaining, knock yourself out. But for the love of all that is sacred in this world, please stop aping the magicians of yesteryear and expecting people to like it and take you seriously because you're just going to end up looking like a tool.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

YouTube: Is It Really the Devil?

Much has been made in the magic community of YouTube and the various exposure videos and channels up and running on the site. It's drawn a lot of criticism, not always undeserved. But how bad is it really?

I'm of the opinion that magicians make a bigger deal of their secrets than is necessary, and in the grand scheme of things YouTube really isn't that big a threat to us. The exposure videos are annoying, but if you're good at what you do, you can still maintain the mystery to your show. There are obvious ethical concerns with the exposure channels, especially the ones trying to monetize them, but that's not really what I want to address here.

See, what I think is the bigger problem with YouTube exposure videos is how crap most of them are. A lot of newbies go online looking for a place to get started, and unfortunately the exposure videos are pretty convenient. I'm not angry with the newbies. They don't know what's considered proper procedure in this community. How could they? It's not like we go out of our way to publicize it. And doing so would just draw more attention to the exposure monkeys and killjoys anyway.

The problem this creates however, and it is one that we have to be aware of in order to remedy, is that a lot of new guys end up getting their start learning from a bunch of incompetent teenage attention whores with the manual dexterity of a three-toed sloth. I've said it before, but it's worth repeating: YouTube tutorials are to learning magic what a Swiss army knife is to open heart surgery. The overwhelming majority of guys who post these videos are terrible magicians and worse performers. I've looked up some of these videos, believe me. They couldn't deliver good scripting to save a burning orphanage, their hands are all stiff and weird like they're doing an impersonation of a robot at the bottom of the uncanny valley, and they have the timing and character of a fart in the middle of a eulogy. Their webcam performances could not be any worse unless they were stabbing you in the face is what I'm saying.

Yet this is where a lot of new guys get their start. And it's a bad thing because then they develop bad habits early on and they have to spend time breaking them. Time they could have spent refining the material they have or gaining a better understanding of the fundamentals. Learning from YouTube is one step forward, two steps back.

But ultimately the magic community must share a certain amount of blame here. Being as dramatic about our secrets as we are, there's a certain degree of outsider unfriendliness and suspicion. Guys turn to YouTube because other magicians don't make themselves very approachable. The majority of us aren't complete jerkoffs, granted. It's more a sense of complacency. It's an unintended side effect of our culture of secrecy.

So YouTube is not the threat many of us imagine it is. The problem it presents is more indirect. And the best we can do to combat it is to just step back and consider if perhaps we might be acting a bit too secretive. If more newbies discover early on that there are better ways to learn and that we will happily volunteer that information, we'll see the audience for the exposure monkeys shrinking. They'll never truly go away, but marginalizing them means there will be fewer new guys who get a bad start due to the incompetence of Magic Exposure Channel #347.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Make the Other Guy Look Good

As magicians, we love attention. Don't try to deny it. To be a performer, you have to enjoy the applause to some degree. You have to have a bit of an ego to enjoy being in the spotlight that often. But there are times when it's appropriate to give up that spotlight and make one of your spectators the star of the show. I'm going to give you two examples from my own experience, but keep in mind that there are many, many more.

When I was busking in 2008, there was one day where a young boy walked behind me as I was in the middle of a routine and he caught me palming a coin. He of course had to announce this to everyone. I didn't make a big deal of it, and neither did the audience. Hey, these things happen sometimes. No sense getting bent out of shape.

Unfortunately, the young man decided to stick around. His father stood about 50 feet off, watching mutely as his son watched my next several routines, loudly voicing every idea he had for how he thought I did something, no matter how outlandishly wrong those theories were. I didn't give him any attention, but boy howdy was this kid stubborn.

After about 15 or 20 minutes of him trying to shout over me and getting in the way and his father doing absolutely nothing I decided that enough was enough. I called for a volunteer, and framed the card effect I was doing as the work of the volunteer (whom we will refer to as Jeff) rather than me. Of course, after the reveal the boy shouted out his theories, but this time I interrupted him. "Hey! Jeff was talking."

I gave Jeff a moment where he looked good in front of a small crowd and turned things on the kid to make him out as being rude, not to me, but to Jeff. Since I made Jeff look good, he was now on my side. Sure enough, at the next effect the kid piped up but was immediately shouted down by Jeff and all his friends barking in unison, "Dude, shut up!" The kid walked off after that. He wasn't going to get the crowd praising him for how smart he thought he was. They wanted to enjoy the rest of the show. And Jeff didn't want someone messing with the guy who just gave him some of the limelight.

At another time, I was doing a set for a guy and his girlfriend. I had a suspicion that the guy liked the show, and wasn't going to chase me off, but he wasn't entirely on my side. I asked them if they felt they had some sort of special connection and that I wanted to test it. I had the girl select a card, which I controlled to the bottom of the deck. I asked her to look at her boyfriend and try to focus on her card.

When I turned to the boyfriend, I held the deck in both hands and tipped it up slightly so that he could see the bottom card but she couldn't. As I told him to look into her eyes and reach out mentally, I tapped the card and gave him a little nod. He understood. He looked into her eyes, paused a few seconds, and named her card. The look on her face was priceless. Her boyfriend of course left a generous tip in my hat.

If you make a spectator look good in front of a crowd or their friends or even a significant other, they will be your buddy. And they will thank you for it. Leave an anecdote in the comments section about any times you've used this principle yourself.