How jokes are like magic tricks

The Honor System is a really interesting look at Teller and the thief who tried to steal this trick from him:

The article mentions how Jim Steinmeyer, one of the greatest inventors of magic, compares jokes and tricks in his book Hiding the Elephant.

In it, he writes that the best tricks are a "collection of tiny lies, in words and deeds, that are stacked and arranged ingeniously." Like jokes, tricks should have little plots with a twist at the end that's both implausible and yet logical. You shouldn't see the punchline coming, but when you do see it, it makes sense. The secret to a great trick isn't really its method; the method behind most tricks is ugly and disappointing, something blunt and mechanical...The value of a trick lies mostly in how much it stokes that battle between your head and your heart, and how badly it makes you want for your heart to win.

I like the "implausible yet logical" concept. I often think of a great joke as being the hard-to-find combination of truthful yet surprising.

It was also interesting to hear Teller discuss how hard it is to hone a trick:

The real point of magic, Teller said during those lectures, is "telling a beautiful lie. It lets you see what the world would be like if cause and effect weren't bound by physics." It's the collision between what you know and what you see that provides magic's greatest spark.

So Teller rigged a thread in his home library, and he put Abbott's ancient instructions on a music stand — pages that had been miraculously saved from a trash fire years before — and he went to work on making the impossible seem real. Eventually, he decided that the ball shouldn't float but roll. That would look simpler, but it would be harder. He practiced some more at a mirrored dance studio in Toronto, and at a cabin deep in the woods, and on the empty stage in Penn & Teller's theater. After every show for eighteen months, he would spend at least an hour, by himself, trying to make the Red Ball obey. ("Sometimes magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect," Teller says.)

"I have to screw around," he told those four audiences, "to sniff the scent of an idea and track it down like a wild boar in the forest.

"It's still the hardest-to-execute piece of magic I've ever tried. In six months or a year, it will start to settle into my bones. In ten years, it'll be perfect.

Telling a beautiful lie, eh? Reminds me of a tweet I wrote a while back: Comedy is the most beautiful way to complain.

Btw, Nate Bargatze talked a lot about how his dad was a magician during his great WTF interview. Here's a clip of Nate's dad performing. Funny guy!

Teller and the magic of surprise
The brotherhood of magic and comedy


ethan marsh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ethan marsh said...

Great post! So much quality stuff on here always one of my favorites to read. I had been thinking about the parallels last summer when I went to see a magic show at The Comedy Studio in Cambridge, MA. It was one of those moments where everything clicked and I realized why he would have magic in a comedy club.
-A premise is like a reality you are presenting the audience and they are checking to see if there are faults in it and if the logic is sound like how a magician will pass around a hat or a rope to show you it is ordinary. If you start off too surreal the audience has no grounding to stand on.
- After the premise it is your responsibility to skew it in a way that doesn't match what the audience's expectations are. They do softer skews early to build to a big jaw-dropping skew at the end.
-Silences work so well in comedy in magic (In magic its more of the drum roll before the final surprise) because they build suspense. Thus slowing down a joke makes it hit so much harder.
-The glue that holds it together is confidence. An audience is looking for any reason not to trust you (or in some cases ignore you by looking at their phones) but the momentum you build in the premise by seeming like someone that knows what they are doing and that is identifiable makes them pay attention.
-This works with doing characters: they not only have to believe who you are but that you are based in the reality you are creating. That's why when I do characters lines I didn't expect to get a laugh will because they are how the character would react in that situation. In stand up you get laughs by playing up the skew. With characters it works better if you just act like nothing big happened.

Those were my notes on watching the magic show. The post made me think of them. Hope you enjoy.

Matt Ruby said...

Yeah, it always is interesting to me to do character stuff and how things that aren't punchlines will get laughs. Feels like a different kind of humor.

ethan marsh said...

Oh yeah, definitely. In stand up you can sometimes be meta about it and reference how the set is going but if you do that as a character it takes people out of it. By doing small, method-y things like changing your posture or breathing when doing a character it makes the audience believe you are a different person than the guy walking around the bar before the show and it gives you something sensory to keep you attached to it as well.

Moving on/Subscribe to my newsletter

I only post on rare occasions here now. Subscribe to my Rubesletter  (it's at  mattruby.substack.com ) to get jokes, videos, essays, etc...