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Joz Norris


Tape 26: The Art Of Revealing Information

  • Tape 26: The Art Of Revealing Information

When To Reveal Information

Thanks so much for all your replies to last week’s Tape, it’s really helpful to read through a few different takes of what it is people like and appreciate about this newsletter, and start to think about ways of continuing to deliver that for people without it being too big a drain on my time now that things are busier than in the first half of the year. I’m still in the process of working out exactly what sort of approach I’ll take with that, so this week’s Tape is just another rambly-jumbled-thoughts newsletter like usual, and perhaps soon there’ll be a bigger rejig of the newsletter’s format, though I doubt it’ll be a total overhaul. Anyway, this week I’ve been thinking about comedy and magic.

A friend recently recommended me the book Designing Miracles: Creating The Illusion Of Impossibility by Darwen Ortiz, which I’ve not got round to reading yet, but the way she described it really sparked off a lot of thoughts and turbo-charged my own thinking about the show I’m in the early stages of putting together. I’m starting to work on a new show called Blink with Ben Target and some support from Soho Theatre, and currently it’s an idea for a show with absolutely no content. When I first started talking to Ben about it, he said “It sounds like it starts out as a series of, essentially, magic tricks” and I really loved that description. We had put magic tricks into shows before – my Mr Fruit Salad show in 2019 was entirely constructed around a stage illusion I imagined specifically for the room in Edinburgh where it was going to be performed, so we put a couple of other illusions into it as well to make that a more consistent tone across the whole show. Because of this, my friend Elise recommended the Ortiz book to me because she thought I’d be receptive to the ways in which everything Ortiz says is equally as applicable to comedy as it is to magic.

I worked as a magician (of a very junior sort, doing fairly entry-level tricks for children) for about four years, and magic, as apparently Ortiz discusses in his book, is an art form entirely defined by when you choose to reveal information. “Your card is now over here!” is impressive purely because you, the viewer, didn’t know it was already there. If a magician says “You can’t see it at the moment, but there’s a dove hidden in this pan, and in a minute I’ll reveal it” is not an impressive magic trick. A dove being produced from a seemingly empty pan is. The art of putting together a great magic show is about being very, very precise in terms of how much information is revealed at each stage and, crucially, which bits are never revealed. Producing a dove from a pan is impressive, but becomes less so if the magician immediately says “It was actually already in there.” The magician is in control of all the information, which is relatively underwhelming and simple, and decides how much to reveal and when, and the exact combination of those decisions is magic.

The same is true of comedy. The old pull-back-and-reveal model of joke writing – “And that was just the teachers!”; “And then I got off the bus!” etc – is subject to exactly the same rules as magic, and all comedy functions on the same basic principle. If you start by saying “Let me tell you about the teachers in my old school” or “So I was on a bus the other day”, then what you have is no longer a joke, it’s merely some information you’re going to relate. But if you exercise careful control over when that information is revealed, and how much of it, then you have the beginnings of a comedic effect. Elise was excited about the idea of a show that explores the parallels between magic and comedy in terms of controlling what the audience knows at any one time, and what they don’t know – in the same way that explaining the trick destroys the magical effect, following up a particularly well-crafted funny anecdote with “I actually made up these specific elements of that story to make sure it hit the right comedic beats rather than just telling you the truth,” then the comedic impact is lost. But what if a show could somehow take ownership of that and find the comedy, and the magic, in both the correct and incorrect handling and mishandling of information? As it happens, these sorts of ideas – who is thinking what at any one time, who is in control of who knows what in the making of a show – were already central ideas in the show I was discussing with Ben and Soho, and this next step felt like a natural progression for my thinking around that show.

Two People Walking

Finally, because it’s an image I can never get out of my head that feels relevant to this train of thought, I want to tell you guys about a photograph I have never seen but frequently picture in my head. My dad told me about it once, and I’ve never forgotten it. I have no idea who took it or where he saw it, and have no way of ever finding it, but the story behind it made an impression on me. The picture is of a couple walking down an otherwise deserted street, in step with one another. Perhaps it looks a bit like the one above, which is the closest thing I’ve been able to find on Google images to the way I’ve always pictured it, but it’s still not quite right. The couple in this picture were not in fact a couple. They didn’t even know one another. They were two strangers walking alone down the same street, one ahead of the other. The photographer took the picture at the exact moment the person behind caught up with the person in front, on their way to overtaking, and fell in step with them. The picture tells the story of a couple walking home, but the story is a lie that springs out of the decision to present only part of the information in one specific moment. Every story we tell, and every story we hear, and all the many things they make us feel and think, are the product of somebody’s conscious decision to curate which bits of information they reveal to us. Anyway, that’s me for this week, I’m off to try and make a show about all this nonsense.

A Cool New Thing In Comedy – The second series of Liam Williams’ incredible coming-of-age sitcom Ladhood has just landed on BBC iPlayer. Series 1 is one of my favourite things, so I can’t wait for this.

What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – I just finished shooting a short film I’ve written that’s directed by Stuart Laws and co-stars Stevie Martin, Ali Brice and Lucy Pearman, and Stu’s just shown me the rough cut of one scene that involves Ali leaning into shot in a way that really made me lose it. Also hopefully the whole film will be funny, but that bit in particular is great.

Album Of The Week – Both Sides by Phil Collins. This is actually terrible, but it’s the only new album I’ve listened to this week, so there we go. “Both Sides Of The Story” is an absolute banger of a song, but the rest of the album is a full hour of seven-minute songs with no tunes, really. A slog.

Book Of The Week – The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund De Waal. Most of the art that has most moved me is about objects and why we form close emotional relationships with them, and this book is the story of a collection of Japanese netsuke that were passed down through De Waal’s family over 130 years or so. It’s one of the best history books I’ve read, particularly the story of how the netsuke survived World War II. If you like stuff about objects, do read this.

Film Of The Week – Officially re-launching this segment next week once Love Island has finished and I can start watching films again.

That’s all for this week! As ever, I’m always keen to hear your thoughts on all this, so do let me know if you have anything to add, and if you ever want to share this newsletter with a friend or encourage people to subscribe, then it’s hugely appreciated. Have a great week and take care of yourselves,

Joz xx

PS Here’s a behind-the-scenes shot from this film we made this week. It’s about a two-way mirror.

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