The magicians Penn & Teller are in New York this summer performing Penn & Teller On Broadway. In a conversation with Teller (the quiet one) last week, the topic of explaining magic tricks came up, and I happened to have a tape recorder running. An edited transcript is below.
I first asked Teller about revealing secrets in a Q&A for Psychology Today seven years ago:
Many atheists argue that science doesn’t explain away wonder and awe, but delivers more. Do you ever think in those terms when deciding whether to reveal a trick?
Some magic tricks are better as an experience when explained. They’re more interesting, more multileveled, more ingenious. [In one act, we get to watch Teller wiggle through tight spaces.] Most are disappointing, except to a real connoisseur. To me, a carefully timed palm of a card may seem like a beautiful thing. Someone else might say, “Oh, so he just took the card in his hand? Big deal.” You make the choice on aesthetic grounds. Virtually all the tricks Penn and I have explained were invented with an eye to explaining them.
I pursued this line of questioning further last week when Teller brought up the TV show Breaking the Magician’s Code: Magic’s Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed.
Teller: “Do you remember few years ago there was a TV show in which a masked magician came on and gave away magic secrets? When that happened, the network tried to goad members of the magic community into saying that he was doing something terrible. It’s always good to try to generate controversy when you’re publicizing a series. I told the network I rather liked that presentation for many old illusions. In most cases when you see a woman vanish from under a plywood pagoda, you sit there saying, ‘Oh she’s just gone into that overly thick table the pagoda is sitting on.’ And you’re left with a half-certainty but no satisfaction. The Masked Magician at least provided a punch line. Still, it was pretty dull. He didn’t show too much, he showed too little. If you really understand what goes into a piece of magic, from the technical stuff to the history to the discoveries you make along the way, if you understand every single bit, it becomes more mysterious, not less.”
Matt: “So why don’t you explain all your tricks?”
Teller: “Because the short explanation—the explanation that you’d have to do during a theatrical or TV performance—is dull and no fun. The greatest secret to making a deceptive piece of magic is you do it by the ugliest possible means. It’s complex, it’s unromantic, it’s unclever. Because there are no big secrets. There is no safe full of magic secrets somewhere. Jim Steinmeyer said he thinks most of the public believes there’s a big safe that contains all the magic secrets. The biggest job for a magician, he says, is to conceal the fact that that safe is empty. Because every magic secret is just a minor modification of something that you fully understand in everyday life. Take suspending something with a thread, for example. Everybody’s not been able to see a piece a thread when they were trying to put it through a needle. What makes it difficult to find is lighting and background. If a magician’s using a thread on stage, say, to levitate a ball, he must use lighting and background to conceal the thread. There’s no obscure secret in that. You learned that playing in your grandmother’s sewing box. Every magic ‘secret’ is hiding in plain sight in the everyday world. It’s not news, and eminently drab.”
Matt: “So you think people would be disappointed by the explanations?”
Teller: “Disappointed and bored. On the other hand it’s great fun for an audience to fantasize about the romance of magic secrets. It’s rather like crime fiction. Real criminals are simply awful people doing cruel things. But caper movies are fun. So when Penn and I deal with the idea of magic secrets, we create tricks backwards. We create fun, caper-like explanations, then work backward from that to a trick. Take for example our Cups and Balls. Penn and I were sitting at a diner, and I was playing with napkins, and I had an empty water glass. I turned the water glass upside down, balled up a paper napkin, and put it on top of the inverted glass. Then I balled up a second napkin and palmed it. Then I did a standard cups and balls move: I tilted the glass to make the ball roll off, as I loaded the second ball underneath. And the way the eye followed the falling ball made one not notice the ball being snuck under the glass. It was such a fascinating thing that we spent months composing a whole routine structured like that, where we could do the cups and balls with clear cups. To give humor to the presentation, we presented it as ‘We’re exposing the ancient Cups and Balls Trick!’ We do a sawing-in-half in our show, in which we apparently expose how the trick is done, then have a terrible accident and actually saw the woman in half. It takes 25 minutes to set it up. Pushing squishy stuff into tubes and setting triggers for servos. The audience doesn’t want to see that. That’s watching homework. It’s ugly.”
Matt: “Well, they might just want to be told where her legs are hidden.”
Teller: “With a moment’s thought they could figure that out. They don’t, though, because it’s no fun to think about.”
Matt: “I think it’s fun to think about. Recently on your show Fool Us, there was a guy doing card tricks with smoke. I watched it in slow motion until I figured certain things out.”
Teller: “But it’s not theatrical. That’s you doing homework. It’s great for you to do whatever homework you want to do. That’s you solving a puzzle on your own time. But don’t expect that to entertain an audience in a theater.”
Matt: “I guess I’m thinking more about people being told after a show how a trick is done. Would that take away from the presentation?”
Teller: “Our friend Mike Close has the greatest statement about magic I think that anyone has ever made. He says, ‘A magician gives you the gift of a stone in your shoe.’ My co-director on The Tempest and Macbeth was really really really baffled by our vanishing elephant trick. He and his friends sat around a table discussing all the possibilities for an hour afterward. Great. My job is to create that conversation. My job is not to show you what we went through for six years to make it happen. That was strenuous and tedious, and so horribly unromantic, that you would hate me for it. I’ll present you with a beautiful mystery.
“We do a piece that’s not in our current repertoire but that I adore called ‘Honor System.’ We let people come onstage and examine a wooden box with a hinged lid on top and a plexiglass box with a lid that fits over it like a shoebox lid. We put me in the plexiglass box, then nest that inside the wooden box and lock the lid shut with padlocks. Now how would one escape from that? The wooden box is holding the plexiglass box lid tightly shut. And even if the wooden box had a trap door in it, I couldn’t get to the trap because of the plexiglass wall between me and the wood. It’s a really pure intellectual puzzle.
“And then Penn gives the audience a choice. He tells them they can experience the escape with their eyes open or closed. They can take home either a mystery or a solution. Most people choose the eyes-open course, and for them, we’ve created a clever bit of mechanics they find satisfying. But I think those who are really sophisticated choose the eyes closed. It says so much about people when they can deny themselves the easy answer and relish the mystery and the challenge. Those are the people I’d like to know personally.”
I can’t help but take this personally. Not that I don’t like awe, but by nature and by profession I search out explanations for things.
Matt: “What percent of the audience closes their eyes?”
Teller: “I would say five percent. Everyone else either closes their eyes and then when they hear a laugh opens their eyes, or start with their eyes open. But the idea that we’re giving you a choice—Which do you want to take home: a mystery or a solution?—well, I think that’s kind of beautiful,”
Matt: “To play devil’s advocate, you’re a Libertarian, right?”
Teller: “That’s politics, not art.”
Matt: “Is part of Libertarianism not being paternalistic, and giving people freedom to choose what they think is best for themselves?”
Teller: “This country institutionalized the idea that we should have liberty whenever possible without injury to others.”
Matt: “Here’s the devil’s advocate part. It’s great that you gave people a choice to learn the secret in ‘Honor System.’ But in most cases you’re not giving people a choice. You’re saying, ‘We’ve decided it’s best for you not to know, because then you’ll have that rock in your shoe, which you’ll enjoy more.’ Does that conflict with any of your other beliefs?”
Teller: “There’s a difference between government and art. In art, one wants totalitarianism. You want the artist to force his vision down your throat. That’s why you came to the theater. And, of course, the artist isn’t really forcing anything. People are not compelled by law to come to my show. In fact they’re not even allowed in unless they’re so eager for our brand of totalitarianism that they’re willing to pay money to gain admission. They come with the hope and intention that we will deceive them. With the hope and intention that they will be mystified and amazed. With the hope and intention that they will take home mysteries, stones in their shoes.”
Matt: “Why is there a rift between magic and other forms of entertainment, such as movie magic? There are all kinds of things on the web about how special effects are done.”
Teller: “There are all kinds of things on the web about how magic tricks are done.”
Matt: “That seems less accepted.”
Teller: “It’s a different art form. When you go to a movie, you are willingly suspending your disbelief for the moment. You are going in with the intention of being swept away by a fantasy. When you go to see a magic show, you are going with a little bit of a chip on your shoulder, because you’re in a room, actually in a room, with all your senses available to you, with no screen between you and what it is that you’re seeing, and yet somehow the performer on stage is doing stuff that looks like it couldn’t be happening. There’s an element of conflict that is always there, that isn’t there in the movie. In the movie you say ‘I give up’ the moment you walk in. But magic is not about giving up. It’s about trying as hard as you can to penetrate the trick, then having the pleasure of failure. Magic doesn’t just wash over you like a romantic concerto. Magic keeps you on the edge of your seat going ‘What?! What?! What?! What?!’ And that’s the great part of the fun. That there is this interaction and struggle and a strong sense of three dimensions and a strong sense of ‘I’m bringing every bit of brainpower I have to see what’s going on here,’ and ‘Wow, that can’t be done, but he’s doing it!’ It’s the joy of being defeated by art. Which is really true I think in many art forms. When you see a really beautiful painting, it mystifies you. Think of Dali, Rembrandt, Vermeer. Astonishment—often using trickery—is the fundamental impulse of art.”
Then we go into a discussion of Tim’s Vermeer, a documentary Penn & Teller made about their friend Tim Jenison’s possible rediscovery of Vermeer’s painting methods.
Teller: “The film got great reviews from everybody except those who had an almost religious feeling about Vermeer. They said, ‘But you’re debunking Vermeer, and we love Vermeer!’ And I’m going, ‘Noooo, we’re not! We’re saying Vermeer is different from what you think he was. Vermeer was more of a scientist, more of a craftsman, just as much of an artist, just not supernatural, you naïve motherfuckers.’ Throughout the film we showed Vermeer only the highest admiration, amazement, and respect. We just committed the sin of insisting that he was not a supernatural being with eyes constructed differently from all the rest of humankind. We showed how a single trick was done in rich detail over eighty minutes. And it was beautiful.”
Matt: “That view could also be applied to explaining magic tricks. With Vermeer, your argument is that understanding his process doesn’t take away from the viewer’s awe, and perhaps even enhances it. But then your argument with magic tricks is that explanations would make things less interesting.”
Teller: “Again, the short explanation is always dull. It generally includes the word ‘just.’ ‘Oh, Vermeer just used a mirror.’ ‘Oh, the magician just palmed the ball.’ The explanation only becomes beautiful when you immerse yourself in every nuance.”
Teller then spent ten minutes teaching me the French Drop. Not quite full immersion, but a first step in the shallow end.