What Should I Say?
By Joshua Jay - Sunday, September 27, 2020
“Will you tell me how you did that?”
“Can you saw me in half right now?”
“Can you make my wife disappear?”
I’ve read the classics; nowhere in Our Magic or Magic and Showmanship does it prepare us for how to answer these questions. Yet we get them all the time. And despite the accumulation of all of my experiences so far in magic, I don’t have answers that satisfy.
The standard hack replies are so unfulfilling, even when they get a chuckle. “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.” “A magician never tells his secrets,” seems equally insulting, since it’s a deliberate non-answer; it’s a buzzkill.
Part of the issue is that many questions are asked as jokes; unfunny, obvious, uncreative jokes that throw off our timing. But the moment they’re spoken, they require some sort of acknowledgment. And I never really know what to say.
Trying to respond thoughtfully to a thoughtless question makes us seem out of touch. “Interesting that you ask about sawing a woman in half,” I would say, “In 1920 P.T. Selbit created this illusion, but he called it ‘Sawing Through a Woman because…”
“Sorry, I don’t make wives or weight or checks disappear.” These responses are as funny as the questions, which is to say, not funny at all. Why should I be forced to make a Dad joke just because someone made one to me?
As usual, Tom Hanks solves the problem for us. Tom Hanks has made a career of playing the relatable, affable Everyman both onstage and off. I saw an interview where Hanks was promoting Saving Mr. Banks, a film in which he portrayed Walt Disney. He was asked about his acting methods. Then about what it was like to play such an enigmatic figure. Then he was asked this: “If you had to fight one Disney cartoon character, which one would it be and why?”
We aren’t the only ones to be asked stupid questions. As far as I can tell, Hanks fielded the question in the most Hanksian way possible, and it’s a model worth following. He paused for an eternity, which allowed everyone watching enough time to comprehend the wasteful nature of the question. Then he gathered his thoughts and answered in an abbreviated way and moved on. He didn’t dwell or try to match the question with an equally silly answer. His pause-and-response approach had pitch-perfect subtext. I didn’t expect you to ask something this dumb, but sure, I’ll play along. In Hanks we Trust.
Pause-and-response is a viable tactic for the worst questions, but sometimes spectators are genuinely curious. “Is [insert television magician here] a good magician?” is tough to answer. It might be about David Blaine or David Copperfield, or whoever has had recent televised success. These are thornier questions.
It’s your show and now they’re talking about a trick they saw someone else do on television. “I saw a guy make a watch appear on the other side of a shop window. Can you do that?” The problem with these questions is that they’re often asked during a close-up performance, between tricks. And despite being asked out of genuine interest in what we do, they slow momentum. They force us to go off course, to a place we’d rather not waste time.
I’ve witnessed magicians criticizing other magicians to the audiences. The only conclusion anyone is likely to come to when listening to one magician denigrate another is that it’s about jealousy. There’s something to be said for being honest. If someone asks me about David Blaine or David Copperfield, there are so many positive things I can say about both that it’s easy to pay them a quick compliment and move on.
Questions get even tougher. “Are you any good?” This is an impossible question to answer, yet it comes up often. Who asks that? I always think to myself. Sometimes it’s asked in a cutting, judgy way, but I get it. When someone is introduced to me as, say, a writer, the question in my head is, Are you an actual writer or are you someone who writes political missives on Facebook? Insensitive, perhaps, but it’s natural to want to know if someone is good at their job.
If we take the humble approach we sound pretentious: “Excellence is unattainable to all but those claim it, but I’m working as hard as I can.” It’s worse if we claim we’re great. “I’ve won several magic competitions and I’ve performed on TV so, um, yeah, I’d say I’m doing pretty well.” Yikes. The worst answer, surely, is this: “Why don’t I show you a trick and you decide.” Now we’ve given a presumptuous person permission to judge our work. We want our audiences to enjoy the magic, not evaluate it.
Some questions—like “Are you any good?”—are essentially unanswerable. But the best way to answer someone’s question is through our work. And the best time to address a question is before it’s asked. Many of the audience’s questions are just a formless curiosity buried in their subconscious. But the best magicians anticipate these questions and answer them, before they even arise.
If you’re getting the same question over and over again after a show, it means you’re not answering it through your work. “Can you eat before you do that trick?” I was asked, over and over, when I added Needle-Swallowing into my parlor show. Clearly this is where many people’s minds wander when they saw me swallow and regurgitate twenty needles. I wrote a line of dialogue to answer that question before it could be asked—a line that also adds to the mythology of the piece. “In preparation for what you’re about to see,” I say, “I haven’t eaten anything for nine hours and before coming onstage I consumed a gallon of alkaline water.”
At a workshop I conducted, a young magician asked how I handle hecklers. He was being asked aggressive questions and getting some rude comments during his show. I didn’t have particularly good insight for him because I have rarely encountered hecklers and I don’t have a quick wit to engage with them.
When it was the boy’s time to perform a piece for the group, it was immediately apparent why he asked about hecklers. His performance style was confrontational and full of comments like, “Wrong,” and “You’re not paying attention,” and, “You’re too slow,” type of stuff. As is the case so often, the answer to the boy’s question was that it was the wrong question. He asked, “What do you say to hecklers?” The question he should have asked is, “Why am I getting heckled?”
There was a magician in my hometown who did a terrific parlor show; he was funny and relatable. But he weighed over four-hundred pounds. He shared with me a big breakthrough in his magic when he finally admitted to himself the questions everyone wondered when he first walked onstage. Their image of a magician didn’t mesh with the large man they saw. So he developed this classic opening line, which makes me laugh whenever I think of him delivering it. He walks onstage expressionless and stands in front of the mic stand. He opens up his arms to fully show off the girth of his figure. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he says with enthusiasm, “I have conquered anorexia.” Huge laugh, and then he reigns it in. “I’m a big guy but I have a big heart, and for the next forty minutes, I’m going to share it with you.” You can’t help but love a guy who pokes fun at himself. The curiosity about his appearance was answered, and everyone is primed for the show ahead.
The questions your audience asks you will depend on your appearance, your material, the venue, who you’re performing for, and dozens of other factors. But rest assured: there are always questions. Our material ought to answer as many questions as it raises. These questions—whether or not they’re actually asked aloud—can be catalysts for your material.
I hear the same questions a lot, and I suspect you do, too. “What happens when a trick goes wrong?” “How many hours a day do you practice?” “Do you invent your own tricks?” Each of these questions has an answer. But each of these questions has a more interesting answer in the form of a magic trick.
“I was doing the trick you’re about to see a year ago,” I say in my show, “and something happened that had never happened before onstage: I failed.” That’s immediately captivating to an audience because it answers a core curiosity they have about us. I’ve introduced an element of failure that enhances what I’m about to perform.
Since we know that spectators are curious about how and how much we practice, ask yourself how you might answer this with your material. Is there a trick in your show that can be presented as a practice drill? Can you show the audience how you warm up before a show? Whenever you’re stumped for new material or a new angle, look for inspiration in the audience’s questions.
Let’s leave it here for now. It’s impossible for me to identify the questions your audience is asking while they watch you perform. But these questions—if you can identify them—are a golden opportunity to turn a series of tricks into a show. I struggled for years with ways for my shows to be more than just a collection of tricks, and these questions provided a breakthrough you might find helpful.
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