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.


Reader comments:

Brian

Monday, 28 September 2020 01:32 AM - Reply to this comment

What a great article, Josh. A fascinating subject that I will now consider in more depth than I have in the past! Bravo.

Joshua

Friday, 02 October 2020 15:51 PM

Thanks Ben! This is Joshua Jay and I appreciate your thoughtful comments. Yes! Tommy Wonder did mention the notion that hecklers are often simply trying to connect with us and don't know how. And I don't dislike your line below about "But then you'd know." As you point out, it would be all about the right delivery to not sound snarky.

Thanks so much for your feedback!

Michael

Monday, 28 September 2020 13:21 PM - Reply to this comment

A superlative essay, Josh. Thank you for posting it.

Landon

Monday, 28 September 2020 14:37 PM - Reply to this comment

Great read!

Ben

Monday, 28 September 2020 21:22 PM - Reply to this comment

I think it was Tommy Wonder who said that most heckling is an attempt to connect. A sign of respect or interest or at least curiosity. Perhaps sometimes it's enough to make eye contact, smile and say 'thank you for asking. I'll have to think about that one'. Connect and validate.

Matthew

Friday, 02 October 2020 16:53 PM

I fully agree -- I dont know if you got the chance to watch the lecture that they put together between Michael Weber, Max Maven and Luke Jermay, but Weber said that he's noticed a stronger sense of the audience needing to be seen and heard.

I feel magic could really give the audience this sense of being seen and heard more than any other theatrical art.

I love what Josh said about answering the questions before they even come up. In my experience with more aggro heckles from (in my experience) overly macho men asserting intellectual superiority over my magic, I have come to learn to appease these guys before ever trying to "fool" them by making them the magical thing in the effect.

I've found many reasons to make the audience not want to heckle, and the best way I have found for me is by making the spectators the magic do-ers and have me only be the vessel of that magic.

Peter Turner, a mentalist, has a great routine called "Principle" he sells, and he answers the "How did you do that/Where did you learn how to do that" question by giving spectators the ability to read HIS mind by guessing his "Pin Code"

I love the routines and tricks that make people question what their full potential actually is by doing something incredible. It also lets them feel seen and heard!

Colin

Thursday, 01 October 2020 02:29 AM - Reply to this comment

This is really great, and I've done some of the things you saw not to do to deal with these questions in the past so thank you for the advice!

Rob

Thursday, 01 October 2020 19:46 PM - Reply to this comment

Excellent commentary and of value to all magicians. Thank you!

Robin

Thursday, 01 October 2020 20:06 PM - Reply to this comment

Great article. When I was younger I used to buy booklets that gave me comebacks and insults with which to hit back at hecklers. But I have matured since then (I first fell in love with magic at age 8 when I saw Tony Curtis play Houdini and did my first show at the public library for kids when I was in high school; performed for groups while in seminary; and now I am 65). Your article is extremely good.

Graham

Thursday, 01 October 2020 20:06 PM - Reply to this comment

Josh, congratulations on a thoroughly engaging essay, absolutely laced with helpful information. As you suggest, nobody likes a bighead and your own self deprecation shines through. Loved it. More like this please.

Joshua

Friday, 02 October 2020 15:51 PM

Thanks Graham. This is Joshua Jay. Very appreciative of your comments!

Jerry

Thursday, 01 October 2020 21:10 PM - Reply to this comment

Insightful & helpful, many thanks for sharing your wisdom & experience!

Elliott

Thursday, 01 October 2020 21:27 PM - Reply to this comment

Thanks a Josh. This is one of the magic blog posts I've ever read.
I have given a lot of thought to how I can avoid seeming pretentious and I've always thought that pre-scripted answers just shows a lack of trying to get the reason as to why the spectator is asking the question.

Ben

Friday, 02 October 2020 03:43 AM - Reply to this comment

Food for thought there for sure.

A while ago I thought of this as an answer to "How did you do that?"

"I'd tell you but..." (Everyone expects the old "then I'd have to kill you" line here)
"then you'd know."

It would be hard to say without sounding snotty though, which isn't what I'd want.

stuart

Friday, 02 October 2020 10:14 AM - Reply to this comment

Great article, thanks for sharing!

Danny

Friday, 02 October 2020 11:52 AM - Reply to this comment

Fantastic article. I used to say that line about a magician never reveals secrets. It does seem lame. Now when I begin my show, or after the first quick opener. I say something along the line of why I do magic. It varies, but normally is like this: "I hope you enjoy the rest of the show, my goal is to entertain you to the best of my ability, and if you are fooled or filled with a sense of wonder, then that is a bonus."

I am a hobbyist, not a professional, but most people then relax and enjoy the show.

Thanks again, Jay. I truly enjoy this website.

Kind Regards,
Dan

Dustin

Friday, 02 October 2020 18:13 PM - Reply to this comment

Thanks for the pointers.

Chirag

Friday, 02 October 2020 19:08 PM - Reply to this comment

Such a great perspective Josh! Really appreciate this!

Gary

Saturday, 03 October 2020 01:17 AM - Reply to this comment

I love this! I’ve always thought of taunts and dumb questions as something to overcome or have a clever comeback for. Never thought of them as feedback to mine for better material. This also explains some of my best-received lines like “this one took four months of practice before I could show it the first time” (Jon Rauchebaumer’s Hypertwist) or “I’ve been doing this since I was 14 and you can still buy it at a magic shop for $10, but it’s one my favorites“ (Invisible Deck)

Pasquale

Saturday, 03 October 2020 07:04 AM - Reply to this comment

Joshua Congratulations on the article. I have done shows in the past in Italy, Now with my relatives in my living room, always smiling with everyone. They often ask me these questions even during the show. I simply answer: I perform Magic Tricks with my heart ... to entertain the Audience ... and I don't even know how I can do it ... maybe it's really Magic? ... I say it Smiling and doing they smile ..... and the questions stop immediately there, congratulating me on the performance.

Barry

Sunday, 04 October 2020 21:57 PM - Reply to this comment

I am starting my journey of learning to be a magician. My instructor while we are learning the techniques is also teaching us how to write scripts. This column came at just the right time for me.

Thank you very much.

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