Give Them What They Want

septiembre 8, 2007

I’ve been busy reworking the Unexpected Wonders site, so haven’t had a chance to sit down and write. I think the new design looks much cleaner – this is about the third redesign so far, and should be the last for a good long while. I started off with a hodgepodge of images and text that looked to have been thrown together by a hyper twelve year old who forgot to take his Ritalin, but I think the design now looks more or less professional. I certainly hope so, at any rate.

I still have to finish some pages, though, so don’t have time to write anything new today. Plus I have an engagement later this afternoon that’s making time especially tight. So here’s the second chapter from the project I posted about yesterday. See you again soon.

Having established the importance of the audience in the previous chapter — never forget they are crucial to your success — common sense dictates that you should do everything in your power to give them what they want. A good performer defines what his audience wants and focuses on fulfilling those desires. A bad performer ignores his audience and concentrates instead on satisfying his own wants, with any entertainment derived by the performance being little more than an accidental byproduct. Unfortunately, many magicians fall into this latter category.

As magic is so move oriented, it’s hardly surprising that very few magicians are aware, in any but a peripheral way, of what constitutes good entertainment. It’s completely normal for a magician to invest thousands of hours into the mastery of his moves and little or no time into discovering how to transform those moves into something of interest and value. There are scores of magicians fitting this description in the magic underground, persons who have developed extraordinary technical skill but seem incapable of putting that skill to work in a way that would interest and engage an audience. They are hypnotized by their own prowess, and can’t understand why anyone but other magicians aren’t also entranced.

To avoid this pitfall, it’s important to remember that a good magic performance is not just a display of skill. This is not to say that a good performance can’t contain skillful displays, only that they should be enhancements, not the main attraction. A juggler’s performance can be one continuous display of his abilities or skills and be good because that is the main focus of his craft. A magician, on the other hand, is in the business of creating the illusion of the impossible. He might describe himself as a sleight of hand artist and let the audience know that the things he’s doing are brought about by great skill. However, if skill becomes the primary focus, as opposed to the illusion of the impossible, he is doomed to fail — it would be somewhat like a talented guitarist putting all the emphasis on his ability to play intricate notes instead of the music itself. They can know that what you’re doing requires skill, but it’s the impossible aspects of what you do that sell the performance.

Therefore, as a magician your audience expects from you, first and foremost, an experience of the impossible — a magical experience. They could care less if your pass is the best in the world or if you can deal perfect centers — unless you’re doing a gambling type act where exhibitions of skill would be the primary focus, but that would not constitute a magic act. They may be impressed with flourishy displays, they may realize that what you’re doing is born of hard earned skill, but what they are most interested in is that their signed card somehow defied physical laws and ended up in your pocket. They are most interested in the magic.

The common trait all audiences share is the desire to be entertained. As a magician, they expect you to entertain them with magic. All other elements of the performance are secondary or should act as enhancements. Remember, the primary objective of the magician is to entertain with magic.

Let’s take a moment to look at entertainment in broader terms as so many in the magic world seem to have no concept at all of what entertains. Entertainment might best be described as something that engages an audience’s interest and provides pleasure and amusement. In the case of the magician, that something is the apparent experience of the impossible. The real secret of magic is not how to do the trick, but how to make the trick interesting — how to make it pleasurable and amusing to experience.

The good news for all performers is that people want to be entertained. This is witnessed by the phenomenal amounts of money spent on the pursuit of entertainment and the sundry forms it takes. Entertainment is a form of escape that we all need, a chance to momentarily leave all else behind and simply enjoy ourselves. If presented with a choice between boredom and entertainment, anyone sane will opt for the latter.

However, because there are so many different forms of entertainment, many more in our technological age than ever before in history, the magician has to make what he’s offering preferable to the many other diversions available. We’ll examine techniques to make you and your magic more attractive in coming chapters, but for now we’ll just say that to entertain with magic you must make what you’re offering more valuable than any other competing entertainment at that time.

Just as important as what the audience wants is what it doesn’t want. Things the audience doesn’t want can be described as the antithesis of entertainment and when eliminated from your performances can dramatically improve your abilities as a magician.

Audiences do not want to be demeaned. This should be painfully obvious, yet we’ve probably all had the experience of watching a magician single out a hapless spectator and proceed to embarrass that spectator, sometimes mercilessly. Arguably this kind of thing can generate laughs and be entertaining if played correctly. But how entertaining is it for the person being made a fool of? My guess is that this person would harbor a dislike for magicians from that day forward. That’s not good for the art of magic, and especially not good for the next magician he might see — this is how some hecklers are born. Even when bits of this nature do entertain, there is invariably an undercurrent of unease about the proceedings. We resent the performer and begin to sympathize with the person being ridiculed, even as we laugh at his plight. It’s all too easy to see ourselves in the other guy’s shoes.

Again, correctly presented, bits of this type sometimes do entertain…but it’s a very fine line to walk, and on the whole not worth the risk. There are much safer and more effective ways of generating laughter than at the humiliation of another.

This is why sucker effects should be eliminated from your repertoire or, if kept, restructured to diffuse the sting or direct it back upon yourself. Being played as a sucker is neither entertaining or desirable to the recipient. Such effects are too reminiscent of practical jokes to be truly amusing to anyone but the instigator.

Similarly, eliminate any lines which might be construed as insults. This is really a matter of common sense, and the golden rule of doing unto others as you’d have them do unto you holds especially true here. Strangely enough, many magicians are either lacking any common sense or are operating under the delusion that insults constitute strong humor because they sprinkle their patter with one cutting remark after another and expect the recipients to somehow enjoy this. Again, use common sense. You can use lines which might be otherwise insulting if your delivery makes it clear that you’re joking, and if you are willing to direct such jabs back at yourself. Witness the way in which Bill Malone calls a spectator “sucker’ in his Sam The Bellhop routine and how he has structured his delivery to make it clear that he is joking. He immediately corrects himself by calling the spectator “sir” (in effect apologizing for the slip) and holding up his hands in a please-don’t-hit-me gesture (subtly demeaning himself). If he merely called the spectator a sucker and moved on without letting the audience know he wasn’t serious and without directing the insult back upon himself, he would be regarded as rude and arrogant. The main point to remember is that there’s a world of difference between an insult and a joke and if there’s any doubt, leave it out.

Never be rude to the audience. Don’t order them about, tell them to be quiet, etc. Again, there are exceptions here. If the audience is well aware that you’re joking some mock rudeness will be tolerated. However, it should be kept to a minimum, and make sure they know you’re joking.

Finally, don’t make the audience work. The audience does not want to invest undo effort into the proceedings. They’re willing to help out by signing a card or holding out a hand. They’re not willing to remember three different cards and that each is exactly three cards down in three packets, etc. If you do make them work they will resent it unless the payoff is huge, but even then they’re liable to remember more about all they had to do than what the outcome was. Audiences want to watch you work. They expect you to entertain them. Therefore, everything you do should require minimal effort on their part; everything must be clear and easily understandable. We’ll take a look at what kind of material best fits that bill in the next chapter.