Why Magic Sucks

I was going through my files this afternoon when I came across the following piece I wrote in 1998, but never published. I’m not sure I agree with everything I said then, but I’m very interested to hear your thoughts and comments about the topics discussed and the conclusions I came to:


The entertainment industry is comprised of a fairly straightforward hierarchy. At the top are celebrities: people the public are interested in no matter what they do. One step down are the artists: creative people: actors, singers, filmmakers… highly skilled people who infuse whatever they do with their own personality. Further down the tree we find theworkers: bit part actors, cover bands, members of the chorus. These are the people who excite the public’s interest for the duration of their time on stage; we enjoy their work while we are watching it, they have learned how to entertain but because they are merely workers presenting the creativity of others, it generally has no lasting impact in the collective memory of Joe and Josephine Public. Finally there are the hobbyists: members of amateur theatre groups, people who study music or singing, people who produce television for community access TV. People who love doing what they do, but have a ‘real’ career which must take priority. Hobbyists will often concern themselves with the technical side of their art and can often come up with new ideas or principles which are developed and put into public use by artists, and then later copied by workers.

Magic, as a form of entertainment, has had two celebrities this century. Our first, and possibly only bona-fide celebrity, was Harry Houdini. A man who so captured the public’s imagination through his grandiose feats and outrageous self-publicity, that they yearned to learn more about what it was that made this man tick. David Copperfield earned the status of celebrity through association. Though I’m sure some would like to disagree with this opinion, the public don’t see Copperfield as a fascinating artist and eagerly scan the tabloids for any little snippet of info which may give insight into his psyche. To them, he’s Claudia Schiffer’s other half.

Magic has, however, had a good number of incredible artists. Performers like Dai Vernon, Channing Pollock, Seigfried & Roy, Penn & Teller… people who have injected so much of themselves into performances which they have created, or had created for them, that they have contributed to the great tapestry of magic. However percentage-wise we haven’t had nearly as many as other performing arts like music, theatre or even dance.

Magic has plenty of workers. People who are more than eager to dress up in the evening wear favoured by Robert-Houdin and vanish Ricardo Fantasio’s candles as per the instructions, while they play music chosen by Lance Burton… chosen by Lance so that his act would stand out from the crowd… People who want to buy the latest creation of Jim Steinmeyer and perform it just like David Copperfield did on his last special, but use a different Peter Gabriel song to add that “original” touch. People who buy a set of Al Goshman’s spongeballs and perform the full Dai Vernon routine while reciting Mike Close’s patter sprinkled with spectator put-downs from any one of Harry Allen’s compendiums.

Have you ever been to a wedding and sat through a cover bands “interpretation” of Can’t Help Falling In Love With You, Holiday, or even The Time Warp? More often than not you endure it, and sometimes even jump up and dance, however you can’t help but remember the original artist’s version of the song… and how much better it is. Sometimes the band play a good rendition of the song, sometimes their version turns you off the song forever.

So it is with magic… but without the benefit of the public knowing that there ever was a good version of the trick in the first place. They just assume the magician performing the trick made it up themselves. Can you imagine yourself ever paying $70 for a concert ticket if the only music you’d ever heard was performed by cover bands at weddings?

A large percentage of our community all around the world is comprised of workers, the magical equivalent of cover bands. An even larger percentage is wanna-be workers, those who actually aspire to perform other people’s tricks and routines in front of the paying public. If you ask them if they’d like to move up the hierarchy into the category of artist you’ll often find they are quite content with their current status. Being a worker doesn’t require much effort, thought, or creativity. It doesn’t take up too much of their time or their money. Yet they can enhance their reputation with the enigmatic title ‘Magician’.

Some would argue that the responsibility for magic’s reputation lies with the artists. After all, if there were more magicians presenting personality-based original magic, then perhaps that would broaden the public’s perception of what magic really is. They would see that magic can be presented as broad comedy, spine-tingling horror, theatrical playlets, or even sophisticated mental stimulation… as well as the standard “Look what I can do, aren’t I good, you don’t know how I did, you’re so stupid.”

(As an aside: It’s this “standard” presentation which is, in my opinion, solely responsible for the existence of the Masked Magician. We’ve sold audiences this standard presentation so often they have lost all respect for us and our precious secrets. This standard presentation has done more damage to magic than a thousand Masked Magicians, simply because we’ve done it to ourselves. We have placed so much emphasis on what we can do that no-one cares who we are anymore).

So the simple answer, it would seem, is for magic to generate more artists. More people who are prepared to question what has gone before. Why should I find a spectator’s card when they themselves had it only a few moments ago anyway? Why does the zombie ball have to have a cloth in order to float? Why am I pushing blades through this person who is supposed to be my friend? Why spongeballs?

There are so many questions in magic that are simply accepted as gospel and result in the creation of more drone-like workers attempting sleights that they don’t understand and reciting jokes that they don’t even get.

Once you dissect a trick, analyse it, find out exactly why it fools you, then and only then can you start to say “Maybe I can use the Olram Subtlety instead of the Elmsley Count.” You can discover a trick’s weak spot and maybe even change it enough that it becomes a completely different and original trick. It’s that dissatisfaction with magic, the burning desire for something better, that turns a worker into an artist. That is where the artists, and possibly even another celebrity, of magic’s future will come from: today’s workers.

(Who knows, if you analyse your patter as well you might come to the realisation that comments like “Show all your friends, that shouldn’t take long” and “Not that hand, the clean one. Oh that was the clean one” are actually quite insulting.)

It was dissatisfaction with magic that lead Peter Marvey to eliminate boxes in his new illusions at last year’s FISM, and visibly shrink himself on stage. Some of his new illusions worked, some didn’t, but the most important thing is that they were Peter Marvey’s illusions. He made his mark. He was the talk of the convention and his illusions encouraged others also to extend the boundaries of magic.

Of course, there are some workers who don’t want the spotlight of fame which comes absolutely free with the title of artist. These are the hobbyists who are generally more concerned with getting the trick right than even entertaining the thought of entertaining the audience. For them there are friends, families and magic clubs in which to perform and that’s great. These places are the breeding grounds for creativity, places where potential artists can be inspired by seeing basic magic performed (hopefully) well.

However, at most magic meetings we don’t see much magic performed by anyone. The trick-centred hobbyists are afraid that some uncreative person might steal their latest routine… David Roth’s Hanging Coins or Mike Kozwalski’s Bill Switch or even worse, tell them that they’re doing it wrong. So instead they present their tricks in the less critical public domain. Places where Joe Public has never even seen another magician with which to compare them and, as a result, may even tell them that they’re pretty good.

Just to put this in context for a moment, if I had never heard a singer before and couldn’t sing a note myself, and you performed a comparatively tuneful rendition of ‘Happy Birthday To You’ I would probably be pretty impressed. I might even suggest you release sing professionally… but in the real world I would have already heard singers from Pavarotti to Madonna, from Celine Dion to Run DMC and I’d probably have a fair idea of how good you really were. If you were honest with yourself, you would to… and you probably wouldn’t rush off to the nearest record label.

In reality Joe Public may have seen magic only once before, and usually only on TV where it’s impact is lessened considerably. So when a trick-based hobbyist performs for him he honestly says that it was “pretty good”. Especially if he was fooled. He’s not entertained. It was just the demonstration of a clever secret. The performer may be quite pleased with his success and remark that he’s a “semi-professional” or a “part-time magician” and this is where the damage to magic really begins. Joe Public assumes that the quality of this person’s performance relates to the inferred status of ‘semi-professional’ (or worker).


Many artists lie undiscovered among the ranks of workers, afraid to take a creative risk because they might fail. Afraid to develop a trick or a new presentation because some stupid jerk who’s been in the scene forever told them “it won’t work.” Just because it may not work for him, doesn’t mean it won’t work for you. Try it! Experiment! Let the artist inside you express himself.

On the other end of the scale we have hobbyists masquerading as magic. If you truly love your art, take a good hard look at yourself… do you stay things like “Well magicians don’t appreciate my stuff but the public do.” and “At least it fooled them.” Maybe you belong in the magic club. This is not a put down. You love magic and you want to perform it, people in magic clubs love to watch it, and they don’t mind if you make mistakes. They don’t even mind if you don’t have time to add entertainment to the trick. You may even learn or teach something to a fellow magician (instead of a spectator) in the process.

The clubs are the training grounds. We need hobbyists – A LOT OF HOBBYISTS. They form the base of the magic community and it needs to be strengthened.

Libraries, shopping centres, parties, and restaurants are the domain of the workers. People who go out and present a mix of baffling magic and entertaining presentations to the public.

Corporate events, theatres, television, casinos and resorts are the rewards of the artist. The public attending a worker’s show should expect a much higher, more original and innovative standard of magic… and they MUST NOT be disappointed. At this level they should never see Bill Bloggs performing Phil Cass’s Pea and Shell game. They should see Phil Cass performing Phil Cass’s Pea and Shell game.

The reason magic sucks is ego. The same ego that perpetuates the standard presentation of “I know the secret so I’m better than you” tells people that being a hobbyist is not good enough and they are really ‘part-time pros’ when they’re not. It causes workers that aren’t artists to maintain their status quo among their friends by preventing them from becoming artists too.

Magic is NOT an egalitarian community where everyone is equal. Some are performers, some are not. We should be proud of the success of others and not bring them down by criticising them in public. We should learn our status and, if we don’t like it, change it by hard work not by a business card.

We need to strengthen our community, develop and encourage artists, and learn how best we can contribute to our artform.

If we can first discover the truth about ourselves… that we’re not really superior to the audience just because we know a secret or two, that we can’t call ourselves magicians if we don’t know how to entertain, and that all the really good magic hasn’t been invented yet…

Maybe then can we stand proudly in front of an audience, tell the most outrageous lies, and it will be magic.

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