Teller and the magic of surprise

A magician shares a 14-year old letter from Teller with the secret to a career in magic. Comedy often feels like magic but with words so I think the advice resonates for standup too.

[Penn and I] made a solemn vow not to take any job outside of show business. We borrowed money from parents and friends, rather than take that lethal job waiting tables. This forced us to take any job offered to us. Anything. We once did a show in the middle of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia as part of a fashion show on a hot July night while all around our stage, a race-riot was fully underway. That's how serious we were about our vow.

Get on stage. A lot. Try stuff. Make your best stab and keep stabbing. If it's there in your heart, it will eventually find its way out. Or you will give up and have a prudent, contented life doing something else...

Have heroes outside of magic. Mine are Hitchcock, Poe, Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Bach. You're welcome to borrow them, but you must learn to love them yourself for your own reasons. Then they'll push you in the right direction.

Here's a compositional secret. It's so obvious and simple, you'll say to yourself, "This man is bullshitting me." I am not. This is one of the most fundamental things in all theatrical movie composition and yet magicians know nothing of it. Ready?

Surprise me...Here's how surprise works. While holding my attention, you withold basic plot information. Feed it to me little by little. Make me try and figure out what's going on. Tease me in one direction. Throw in a false ending. Then turn it around and flip me over...Read Rouald Dahl. Watch the old Alfred Hitchcock episodes. Surprise. Withold information. Make them say, "What the hell's he up to? Where's this going to go?" and don't give them a clue where it's going. And when it finally gets there, let it land. An ending.

It took me eight years (are you listening?) EIGHT YEARS to come up with a way of delivering the Miser's Dream that had surprises and and ENDING.

Love something besides magic, in the arts. Get inspired by a particular poet, film-maker, sculptor, composer. You will never be the first Brian Allen Brushwood of magic if you want to be Penn & Teller. But if you want to be, say, the Salvador Dali of magic, we'll THERE'S an opening.


Here's that Miser's Dream trick:



Read the full letter. [via JF]

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