Meaning Is The Best Misdirection

By Joe McKay - Friday, February 12, 2021

I want to look at an aspect of the work of Penn & Teller that I have not seen discussed before. I think the "real" secrets of magic are to be found in the work of these two magicians.

Kenton Knepper once said that meaning is the best misdirection. Teller expressed a similar thought in the following quote:

In real life, effects have causes. In good magic, effects have fake causes that are beautiful or funny or thought provoking. That’s the idea of magic: connecting a cause with an effect by means of a lie that tells a greater truth.

In the book, A Secret Has Two Faces, Teller was interviewed by Derek DelGaudio.

During the interview there is a discussion about the nature of secrets, and the difference between ugly and beautiful methods. In the ensuing discussion Teller expresses the point of view that he prefers ugly methods since they can be hidden by a beautiful effect. When the effect is beautiful the mind misdirects itself into thinking the method must be beautiful as well. Teller says that the P&T Bullet Catch is a good example of this. The effect is beautiful and simple. And the method is anything but.

Teller then - echoing Kenton Knepper - says that the best way to hide an ugly secret is with a beautiful effect. He says that with ten seconds of pure intellectual thought - you could figure out the secret to his trick, Shadows. But since it contains so many romantic images (roses, daggers, shadows, blood) in less than 2 minutes of theatre - it creates a deep, deep meaning of a deep, deep causality that is simply irresistible. As such - the effect itself misdirects from the method because it creates such a beautiful image.

This is a wonderfully contrariwise way of thinking about magic.

You can see the same thing at work in Penn & Teller's handling of the Haunted Deck. Usually this is done as a card trick in which the magician focuses on the deck (or casts a shadow over it) and makes the deck cut to the selected card. It is a wonderful trick - but it can also feel like a puzzle to be solved since there is nothing but the method to focus on.

Now look at how Penn & Teller rework this trick:

It is hard to even begin to try and unpick the method, since the trick itself (both in terms of plot and imagery) is so compelling.

Recently I have been learning a great trick by Dan Harlan called All Seeing Eye. As I was learning it - I realised that what really sells the trick is the image that Dan creates of the drawing of the eye on one of the billets peeking into the folds of the other billet as the spectator shakes the two pieces of card in her hands.

It creates an image for the spectator to hold onto that gives them something to think about other than the method.

Teller once wrote that the reason he adored the work of Karl Germain is because Germain realised the goal of the magician is to use method and effect to create a beautiful image that can be shared with the audience.

It is this higher-level way of thinking that we don't see enough of in magic. What else is there for the audience to appreciate other than the feeling of being fooled? If you are not offering anything else - no matter how small (as in the case of the Dan Harlan trick) - it is only natural that the trick will be seen as a puzzle to be solved.

This is why I am such a big fan of Andy (The Jerx). He says he is no genius when it comes to improving methods. However, by improving presentations he can also strengthen the method, since the spectator is left with an experience more compelling than simply trying to solve a puzzle. This has the double benefit of making the effect more entertaining and the method more deceptive.

Teller has given away many pearls of wisdom in the interviews he has given over the years. If you want to improve as a magician, it is worth spending time gathering up as many of them as you can.

Reader comments:


Friday, 12 February 2021 14:10 PM - Reply to this comment

Excellent post, Joe. I think Ben Seidman's "The Oracle System" is a great 'recent' example of this approach to magic. Another effect which comes to mind is the vanish of the golden you-know-what in Derek Delgaudio's "In and of Itself". I refuse to invest intellectual energy into trying to figure out how it's done because I don't want to tarnish the image of that perfect marriage of art and mystery in my mind's eye. I've had similar experiences with Juan Tamariz and a handful of other magicians. This is what we should strive for!


Friday, 12 February 2021 18:57 PM - Reply to this comment

John Wilson is discussing similar sentiments in his excellent book Postidigitation. Recommend reading.


Friday, 12 February 2021 22:11 PM - Reply to this comment

I cannot find the John Wilson book on google. Can anyone help me out?


Friday, 12 February 2021 23:25 PM - Reply to this comment

It is okay - I have gotten in touch with him via Facebook!

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