The brotherhood of magic and comedy

Magic goes for ooh's and aahs, comedy goes for laughter. But they both come from the same place: surprise. Get people to expect one thing and then elicit a reaction with an unexpected twist.

Sleights of Mind is a look at the mental stuff that makes magic work. It discusses about how magic takes advantage of the tendency of people to see patterns and make assumptions.

The cognitive illusions that masquerade as magic: disguising one action as another, implying data that isn’t there, taking advantage of how the brain fills in gaps — making assumptions, as The Amazing Randi put it, and mistaking them for facts.

Sounding more like a professor than a comedian and magician, Teller described how a good conjuror exploits the human compulsion to find patterns, and to impose them when they aren’t really there.

“In real life if you see something done again and again, you study it and you gradually pick up a pattern,” he said as he walked onstage holding a brass bucket in his left hand. “If you do that with a magician, it’s sometimes a big mistake.”

Take this Steven Wright joke: "The Stones, I love the Stones. I watch them whenever I can. Fred, Barney..." It's pretty much a magic trick, just with words. You set 'em up in one direction (Mick & Keith) and then tweak 'em with the twist (Fred & Barney).

The Rule of Threes works this way too. Set up a pattern on the first two items and then break out of it in a ridiculous way on the third. (Lots of lame hack jokes work this way. For example: "I only know three French words: Bonjour, merci, and surrender.") This look at the Rule of Three gives priest, nun, rabbi jokes as an example:

The subconscious, the minute it sees the rabbi walk up to the bar, has already filled in the blank. It knows what’s coming next because it figured out the pattern and is feeling pretty smug about it. That’s when the rabbi delivers the twist. It’s the surprise, the jerk away from the expected path that brings the laugh.

Speaking of magic, one of the people I most enjoy seeing perform is a Chicago magician named Bibik. He works parties and events doing up close magic tricks and riffing along the way. He's slightly off but in a great way: he insults the crowd, performs the same trick several times, works in some props, etc.

The funniest thing I ever saw him do: Wave over a Mexican guy selling tamales in a bar, pull out a wallet, and reach for a $20 bill that then exploded in flames. The tamale guy, who had no idea Bibik was a magician, looked as if he'd just seen a ghost. Bibik offered him the charred $20 but he ran off. Good times.

One last tangent: In Steve Martin's new book, he talks about how he began performing as a magician and the impact it had on his career. Here's him doing "The Great Flydini" on the Tonight Show.