The Insider | Steve Cohen
By Damian Jennings - Monday, February 25, 2019
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Steve Cohen, the millionaires' magician, is our guest on this week's episode of The Insider podcast.
He takes time out to chat about how to create your own magic show in your own home town - the subject of his Astonishing Essay, Evergreen. He also talks about his graphic novel. And, of course, lasagne.
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Transcript of the podcast
Steve Cohen: It is now recording. Yes.
The Insider: Hello and welcome to this week's episode of The Insider, brought to you as ever by Vanishing Inc. Today. We're lucky enough to have the Millionaires' Magician, Steve Cohen on the line. Steve, we've got about 30 minutes and two important things to talk about. There's one important book on one important comic to talk about. So for the uninitiated, and there may be one or two, tell us your origin story. You have 53 seconds.
Steve Cohen: Wow. I can do it in 54 seconds if you give me an extra second.
The Insider: I'll give you that, I'll give you that.
Steve Cohen: I have been doing magic since I was six years old. I moved to Tokyo. I lived in Japan for five years. Moved back to New York, was a starving artist, and realized that I needed to make some sort of a venue where I could show people that I was worth hiring for private events. But as it turns out, those private events weren't as much interest to me as doing that solo venture. The public show is actually took over, and I've been doing the public shows ever since.
The Insider: And I've seen it and it's brilliant. And if you're ever in New York, you should absolutely go and see it.
Steve Cohen: That by the way, that was, that was like their real Cliff's Notes version of my career.
The Insider: That was the real Cliff Notes, yeah.
Steve Cohen: I was trying to really edit things down to just the beats that you're trying to emphasize.
The Insider: You did it perfectly. That's exactly what we need. Your life story is available than other places. Here, we two are here to talk about something much more exciting, comics.
Steve Cohen: Sure thing, sure thing, yes. That's actually my fictional origin story. When people often ask, "How did you become a magician, how did you get to be the Millionaires' Magician performing at the fanciest hotel in New York City?" It doesn't sound very exciting to say, "Well, I just worked really hard and I put my nose to the grindstone and just kept at it." So I decided to create a legend. And the legend is this comic book. It's inside this comic book. It's a graphic novel, 110 pages long. The foreword's written by David Copperfield. And I had one of my good friends who is an artist for Marvel Comics, he draws Daredevil, the character Daredevil. So he draws Daredevil, and I thought he's such an incredible artist. I wonder if he would team up with me and help write an origin story, which has real elements of my career in it.
The Insider: It does.
Steve Cohen: So I really have done certain items that are stories in this, in this book. But then there are many legendary, fictionalized stories that are included just to make it more spicy.
The Insider: Oh, so you don't really go fight crime in the evenings?
Steve Cohen: Not in the evenings, no. But sometimes during the day. Yeah, so basically, this legend or this origin story was influenced by Batman Year One. I'm a huge Batman Fan. I'm a real fan boy. Many people wouldn't know that about me, but, um, I have been reading comics ever since I was a small child. And then I thought, wouldn't it be great to become my own superhero, have my own comic book. And I figured rather than wait for someone to come to me, I have people who I know in the comic industry, I'll just go to them. So I went and started this whole project on my own. It took two and a half years to both write the story and have it fully illustrated and colored, and then another half a year to get the book ready for press and released. So it's been a three year process, but it's been one of the most liberating and exciting creative projects I've ever been involved in.
Steve Cohen: Because with comics anything is possible. If I need to have a giant apocalyptic scene where there's a warehouse blowing up, it's not like in the movies where you actually have to rig up a whole warehouse with pyrotechnics. You just have your artist draw that. It really was just an open canvas, and I had so much fun making this book.
The Insider: And even methods you don't need to worry about. There's one bit where you're levitating on the stage. So you don't even need to think about, well how am I going to do that? Well, the angle ... No, you can just draw me floating.
Steve Cohen: Exactly. Exactly. That's right. But that was another parameter which I gave to the artists. I said, "Look, everything that's in this book needs to be a real or a potentially real magic trick." Because in comics, like I said, anything is possible. So you could go to the Doctor Strange route where you have mystical portals that are opening and odd creatures coming out of those portals. But I didn't want to go in that direction. So of the tricks that are in this book, everything is something that I've either done, like for example, the lemon and the egg and the walnut that I performed on the David Letterman show, that's in this book. Or it could be like the levitation, which-
The Insider: The card stab.
Steve Cohen: Or the card stab, of course. But then the levitation is not something that's impossible. It's just maybe not as realistic as shown in the comic, but there are levitations, I could potentially make that work. So I did try to have some veracity or real stronghold in the world of reality
The Insider: Of course. There's lots of references for magicians in the comic, your mentor character being called Max, the Ton San reference, even using your linking rings. Although I shuddered when I got to that frame, your think a drink kettle as a weapon.
Steve Cohen: Yes, exactly. That was a thrill also, that I'm able to use the, the, the kettle to whack over the head of one of the Yakuza members with the Japanese mafia. So it was pretty exciting.
The Insider: I don't know how much the kettle costs to get make, but I imagine it's not from a dime store.
Steve Cohen: No, I bought it in ... No, that's not true. That's not true at all. I bought my kettle in Chinatown in New York for $19.
The Insider: That's very reasonable. It served well over the years.
Steve Cohen: Yeah, it sure has.
The Insider: So who's ... Obviously there's lots of a magician references in it, but who is it aimed at? Who's it written for? I presume it's slightly more than just back of room sales for you after you've done a show.
Steve Cohen: Well that definitely does happen, where people have come to Chamber Magic at the Palace and then afterwards they want to take something home with them. That's certainly part of the audience for this. But the other part of it is people who are comic book readers are comic book lovers and then when they read the book they say, "This guy seems like he's pretty cool. What else does he have to offer?" And then they realize that I'm a real person. And then they come to see the show and they say, "Wow, I wonder how much of this is real? How much of that is falsified, how much of it is real, how much of it is legend, how much of it does this guy actually have under his belt?" And that's part of the thrill is not knowing. And people will come to the show by the book and then it kind of gives a little bit of a backstory. Or the opposite, where they haven't come to the show yet and then they want to afterwards. So I think that those two, they cross sell each other.
The Insider: I know there's an element in the story, and the comic that was as a dad kind of uncomfortable. And I know that your family is really important to you. And you have a daughter and a son. Did that influence that part of the storyline, the children?
Steve Cohen: Because there are children who are, there's human trafficking in the story. Not really. I mean, my kids actually read the book when it was in its early stages and helped me with the story. In fact, I used them as a sounding board to find what parts of the story were unclear and what needed to be brushed up. And both of my kids now are teenagers. My older son is in college. So they've got a little bit more maturity under their belt. And the book is not meant for children, for small children anyway.
The Insider: Sure.
Steve Cohen: However, it is very uncomfortable to see kids in cages, I mean, especially-
The Insider: It's horrific. Horrific.
Steve Cohen: Yeah yeah, with what's going on in the southern border of the United States right now with children in camps and whatnot. It was a way of emphasizing the evilness of the villain of this story. Victor is a really evil man, and he tries to come across as being a real philanthropist and a good citizen. I was trying to think, what's the best way to prove to the reader that this man is actually as evil as I wanted to portray him? And you can't get much more bass or more vile than capturing children in cages and using their organs as a means of commerce.
The Insider: Yeah, yeah, no. It's interesting because it does feel initially like comic, and then when you turn that page and you see the girl ... I don't think it's really a spoiler. But you see the girl from the hospital in the cage with the six of hearts or diamonds, whichever it was, suddenly it goes, oh right, this isn't what I thought it was.
Steve Cohen: Right. Well, it's not meant to be ... That's the other thing is it's not meant to be Archie comics.This is not ... I don't know if you're familiar with Archie comics ...
The Insider: No, I don't think they have that over here.
Steve Cohen: Right. But it's not meant to be-
The Insider: A kids' comic.
Steve Cohen: A kiddie comic, where everything turns out hunky dory in the end. This is a graphic novel, which is why I even like to, I don't like to call it a comic book as much as I do like to call it a graphic novel because it does have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and it goes into some deeper, darker places. And certainly there are light, funny moments, but it's not meant to be a joke a minute type of a comic book, like the Peanuts or Calvin and Hobbes.
The Insider: Sure, it's much more Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns territory, isn't it?
Steve Cohen: Correct. Exactly. That was the design parameter.
The Insider: What drove you to create it?
Steve Cohen: Okay, so I have been trying to find another creative project, and when you've already done a television show, and I've already been on Carnegie Hall stage, and I've already written some books from the public, et cetera. I was trying to figure out what else would excite me. Because I wanted to find something that would keep my interest for a year plus. And I was actually floundering for quite some time, couldn't figure out what to do next, because I've already got a public show that's very successful, and that's running, I wouldn't say an autopilot, but I've gotten that formula down pretty well. So I have time during the week to work on projects that excite me. And after floundering, like I mentioned, for a good amount of time, I thought, what would I really like to do? And I thought comic books. It came to me in a flash.
Steve Cohen: So I have a friend who used to work for DC Comics, and I called him up and said, "Who do you know in the comic book world who might be able to work with me on this?" And he said, "Oh, don't you remember a buddy of ours." And he introduced me, reintroduced me to him, and we started the project that very day. So it was more of a eureka moment that I decided I was going to do this. And for the next two and a half years after that eureka moment, I was all in.
The Insider: And everything fell into place that quickly.
Steve Cohen: Everything ... Well, I wouldn't say anything fell into place. It was just, I had this moment where I realized that this is what's going to excite me for a while. And I wouldn't say it was like a shiny object and say, "Oh, I'm just being swayed by this shiny object." It was really something that I guess in the back of my head I had been wanting to do for a long time and just didn't realize it.
The Insider: Oh, how wonderful to be able to bring it to fruition.
Steve Cohen: Yeah, it was exciting. I mean, and in fact, I already have another publisher who wants to work with me on another graphic novel project, which should be for young adults. So that would be a little bit less of the dark side that this book brings to the surface. And it would be more for young adults. So I'm working on that project right now.
The Insider: That was my next question, which was whether you're going to do another one.
Steve Cohen: Yeah, well yeah, it's funny you asked, because the artists who I worked with on this project, one of them is based in Connecticut, one of them is based in Ireland, one of them is based in Minnesota, and then the cover art was drawn by an artist in Australia. So we had a really international team of artists to work on this project. And after it was over, every one of them said, "When can we do the next book?" Everyone loved the characters because they're already well rounded characters. We've already put in all this effort to create this world unto itself. Every artist that I spoke with them that said, "Yeah, I'm all in." I have a publisher who's interested in working with us again.
The Insider: Oh, how wonderful. That's not the end of your writing and publishing, because just about to come out as part of Vanishing Inc.'s 10th anniversary, there's a series of astonishing essays where various incredible magicians have been asked to put down some thoughts on something they might not always write about, published as real books. Beautifully, they're beautifully laid out. And yours is called Evergreen. Can we start off by you telling people what this book isn't?
Steve Cohen: What it isn't? Oh boy. That was the curveball question. The book is not a lasagna.
The Insider: There's no mention that you did this ... No recipes in there. Nothing.
Steve Cohen: It's not a cookbook.
The Insider: I was leading you to say about the bit at the beginning of the book about it not being template to copy your ... Create your show and-
Steve Cohen: Right, of course you were. Of course you were. But, yeah yeah, I think a lasagna is a better answer.
The Insider: Lasagna is a funnier answer man, absolutely.
Steve Cohen: Exactly.
The Insider: There is something about, there's some story about you and lasagna, or your grandmother's, somebody's lasagna that was sent to you. I've had some story about you and lasagna.
Steve Cohen: Oh yeah. Actually, it's funny you mentioned ... Yeah, one of my assistants is Italian, and every Christmas she brings me this handmade lasagna, homemade lasagna, that's just phenomenal. You can't get this in restaurants. It's really something else.
The Insider: That doesn't come as a bonus with the book.
Steve Cohen: Right. Yeah. There's no ... It's not like a Frank Garcia magic book where there's a recipe at the end. I always thought that, by the way, it'd be wonderful if at a magic convention they took all the recipes at the end of Frank Garcia's magic books and then serve those to the attendees of the magic convention.
The Insider: And wondered if they actually realized what it was, if you did it affecters or something where it would be the right place for people to get it. They actually would. That would be brilliant, yeah.
Steve Cohen: Right, right. That reminds me also of Teller, who was wanting to learn how to make the cake in the hat from Al Baker. And so he actually went and made the recipe that was from Al Baker's book, and then tasted it and actually learn how to make the Al Baker's cake.
The Insider: That's dedication to detail.
Steve Cohen: It really is. But going back to our story here, so Evergreen is not a book that tells how to create my show. In fact, it's not a how to guide, it's not a list of, like a course that teaches how to become a parlor magician. But what it really does attempt to do is lay down what I've found to be elements that have led to my creation of a successful show. And hopefully people can look at this and then find some key points that may be able to help them in creating their own show.
Steve Cohen: Of course, the idea is not for me to create competition. I don't want to have the people look at this book and say, "Okay, well now I can come to New York and we set up a shop at the hotel down the block." That's not what it's meant to be at all. I think what it really does is it says if you have your own show already, if you have a show that you feel is a professional level show, and you want to be able to create a career around it that will last a long time, thus the name Evergreen for the book, here is what I've done, here is a template of what I've actually thought about, and perhaps you might be able to find some ideas that you can lay upon the show that you've already created to make a career of your own.
The Insider: Sure. I think one of the things, particularly for more close up workers is the whole going to people that aren't expecting to see you and interrupting them, and then saying, "Do you want to see this card trick?" As opposed to you being the destination where people are coming. And what's kind of interesting, I live in a small town, but it's somewhere where I interested, could probably support a once a week, it's a tourist town for the summer. Like once a week I could be doing a show like that. And the book seems to be more about helping somebody like me make a career that would get you out of having to interrupt people for a living doing closeup magic.
Steve Cohen: Right. That's right. Because basically the idea is to create a different paradigm. And the paradigm is turning the tables and not waiting for people to call you, but for you to create something, put something out into the world, and then become an institution in your town or in your city so that people will come to you. And it's a different power dynamic also, because if people are coming to your show in your venue, then they're expecting to see magic. They're coming in with already kind of a ... They're walking through many frames to get there. They're walking through the frame of buying a ticket and then coming to the venue, perhaps getting dressed up to come to the venue, then walking through the front door and walking down this beautiful hallway, and coming to a seat where they see this beautifully printed program. By the time that you've already walked out on stage, the audience is programmed, or they're predestined to enjoy what your offering is.
Steve Cohen: As opposed to the opposite, where you're a road warrior and you're coming into some other other person's venue or event and saying, "I hope that you think I'm good." That's kind of a demeaning, I think, to an artist where it's almost like a Mariachi band, where you're going up and saying, "Let me intrude upon you and show you something that you may or may not like, and now I want you to pay me for it." In this case it's everything, all the transactional part has taken place weeks or months before, and people are coming with the intent of seeing something extraordinary to take them out of their world.
The Insider: It's almost like there's a social contract that you've put in place by the buildup towards the evening where they come, as well as what's physically going on, them coming up in the private ... Well, it was in the Waldorf, but the private elevator to the room and all that stuff. Which, there's advice referenced to in the comic with the position of the gold candle stick.
Steve Cohen: Yes, exactly. That's right. That's right. Yeah. The comic book was started when I was still working at the Waldorf Astoria. So there's a lot of references to the Waldorf in there. And the next book-
The Insider: It was an important part of your life.
Steve Cohen: ... we'll have more references. Yes it is. I mean, I was there for 16 and a half years. So the Waldorf is, it's a really big part of my life. In fact, I don't know if you know this, but I used to live in the room where I did my show. So from Wednesday through Sunday each week I would do my performance ... I did the performance on the weekends, but I would stay in that room with my family from Wednesday through Sunday each week. So after the show was over, I would take off my Tuxedo, put on my pajamas and go to bed. It was the best commute in show business.
The Insider: Wonderful. If somebody could read one piece of advice for building, let's call it a magical career from the book, what do you think it would be?
Steve Cohen: I think the good advice from this book, and by the way, I think that there are ... I'm flipping through it as I'm talking with you. I think there's a lot of really good advice in here. Obviously, reading your own advice, you can't help but think that.
The Insider: God I'm good. That's amazing.
Steve Cohen: But if I were to look at this objectively, if I had never read this book before, I think could actually really make someone's career. I think if it's the right person, the right person can look at this and say, "There is a template in here laid upon a good act." In other words, the key really is you have to have a good act. This is not going to give you material, and it's not going to tell you how to create a show. That part is really upon the reader, upon you. But I think that one of the best bits of advice in here is to play the long game.
Steve Cohen: I have a mentor named Holly Pepe She's been a lifesaver for me. And early on she said to me that you have to let things happen in real time. Everyone wants to have success right away. When you put something out, especially for millennials, people who expect things to happen at the push of a button, you put something out there, you expect to have a great success. But I've decided rather than playing the flavor of the week, I'd rather be the flavor of the decade, and make the show something that is a long term investment. And maybe you won't get success, you won't build a success right away. But my mentor Holly said, "Don't push the river. You have to let it flow. You have to be more patient."
Steve Cohen: That's a really great mantra. And I used to say that to myself all the time, let it happen in real time. And when you have a great success, one moment of success or one twinkling of success, then that's when you say to yourself, "See? It's happening in real time." And not everything's going to be a floodgate where you have this massive amount of cash flowing, and all of a sudden, and you're not going to have a massive amount of accolades from the press or from notable people. It's going to happen in dribs and drabs. But when you look back on that career, then you could say, "Look at what I've created. I was very brave. I put something out there that didn't exist before, and it's changed magic for the better."
Steve Cohen: That really what I was aiming to do with this book is to give people ... I've had almost a 20 year career in this public show, and I want people to say, "Look, this is what his legacy is. Hopefully we can use that idea to create more solid magic shows to make magic look good to the public."
The Insider: Sure, because when I last saw you a couple of years ago in New York, it was like suddenly knew it was on fire with magic, and there was Darren's show over there and DelGaudio's show and you and the thing at Tannen's, there was just, every night there was a magic show. It was an amazing ...
Steve Cohen: I know. And that's good as long as they're good shows. I always say that anyone can start a project. Anyone could start or launch a show. But the hard part is to maintain it. And the maintaining the show really is based upon the quality of it. If you have great enough marketing, anyone can get an audience, you can have a great website and great press kit. You'll get people to attend the show if it seems enticing enough. But the real test is, will it last? Will it last for a year? Will it last for five years? Will it last for, in my case, 20 years?
The Insider: Would they want to come back.
Steve Cohen: Right. Will they want to come back, will they want to send people-
The Insider: Tell their friends.
Steve Cohen: Exactly. I have $0 marketing budget. I don't need to advertise. It's more through word of mouth. And we have a way of testing it. At every show I say, "Please raise your hand if you've been to the show before." And I get 10, 20% of the audience is raising their hands, because they've been to the show. And I say, "When were you here last? And they say, "I was here 10 years ago, I was here five years ago." And I say, "Well, thank you very much for coming back. And it really means a lot." And I say that very genuinely.
The Insider: Absolutely.
Steve Cohen: Because it's a real compliment when someone says, "I enjoy this enough that I want to return."
The Insider: But you do bring, you do keep it fresh by bringing in new material, don't you, with your show, it's not the same show that it was 10 years ago.
Steve Cohen: Correct. It's always evolving. I don't change one trick every three months or anything. The show is just slowly evolving. It's like magma released from a volcano. But the show 20 years ago is almost entirely different from what it is right now. That's another part that I talked about it in Evergreen is that given time you can also become a better, you will become a better performer simply by nature of having done the show as many times you have.
The Insider: That much flight time.
Steve Cohen: Exactly. I've done, this show, I've done over 5,000 performances now. The 5,000th performance was in October of 2017. And now when we're recording this, it's already late December 2018. So it's getting closer now to 6,000 performances. Really what it boils down to is becoming more comfortable with the material, being able to riff more with the audience. And I realize that it's not about me, it's not about my experience. It's really about the audience's experience. If I can go off script and really played in the moment with the people, for me that's the joy. And you only really get that comfort by doing the show as many times as I have. Like you said with flight time, that's obviously a great way of describing it. You become less enamored in yourself and more focused and flipping the attention to the audience.
The Insider: Obviously your work is scripted, but you've done it so many times, and I don't mean this in a bad way, that you're not having to think about the lines, you're not having to think about the blocking and where you're meant to be walking, because that is also pilot automatic, that it's so ingrained. So it gives you the opportunity to look at what's happening in front of you and look at what the people are saying and doing and respond to that. It's a wonderful opportunity to have.
Steve Cohen: That's right. As you know, the classic ... I was trained as an actor. The classic saying is acting is reacting. And so really paying attention to the audiences and not snow plowing or steam rolling over what they offered to the event, it makes it a real genuine experience. And I think that's what people are paying for. In an age when we can go to a Broadway show or a concert and just be a faceless audience member, something like this is very refreshing. I think that's why people keep on coming to magic shows is because in a way they're contributing ... Actually in a big way, they're contributing to the overall experience, and not only themselves, but the audience. And even the performer.
Steve Cohen: I remember Andy Kaufman, the comedian, I'm sure you know Andy Kaufman. Yeah. He used to provoke the audience so that they would be so angry they would want to leap up on stage and beat his head in.
The Insider: Like reading the phone book bit.
Steve Cohen: Right. Exactly. And that was his entertainment, because he wanted to be entertained by the audience. And in a way, when I'm doing my question and answer, the Q and A mentalism routine, I'm as entertained by the audience as they are as me. And for me, that's the thrill. I looked forward to that at every show. And that's how it doesn't become stale even after thousands of shows.
The Insider: It gives you the opportunity to improvise.
Steve Cohen: Exactly.
The Insider: When I was reading the book, I thought that actually a lot of this doesn't just apply to magicians, that it could be actors, musicians, artists. A lot of the things in that are applicable to anybody that wants to form an artistic career. Did you think about that when you, when you wrote it, or did you just wrote it for magicians?
Steve Cohen: I did actually. Well, I mean, I wrote it ... There's a great book, I believe it's called The Music Lesson. I'll find the title and send it to you.
The Insider: Perfect, and I'll put it in the show notes.
Steve Cohen: But I remember reading the book and thinking to myself, the book really spoke to me as a magician. And I thought if I could interchange every time where it says music for magic, this book makes 100% sense to me as an artist. So when I was writing Evergreen, I didn't want to necessarily make it generic so that it could apply to everyone who is in the artistic realm. But I had the feeling that that other people could pick this up and find that it speaks to them, especially in the idea of creating your own venue.
The Insider: Well, should you want to organize your own so in the town where you live, then hop along to Vanishing Inc.'s website and secure a copy of Steve Cohen's book, Evergreen. And if you'd like a graphic novel with a darker twist that features a crime fighting magician, where can people get ahold of the graphic novel, Steve?
Steve Cohen: The graphic novel is available at my website, themillionairesmagician.com.
The Insider: Perfect. Thank you so much for your time, Steve. I really enjoyed talking to this morning.
Steve Cohen: Same here, thanks so much.
The Insider: Bada bing.
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