The Magical Effect
I’m banging on about magic again this week, because I’ve now started actually reading (forward slash listening to – it’s my first ever audiobook, and boy, I hate audiobooks, I’m getting withdrawal symptoms thinking about all the music I could be listening to) that book on magic I mentioned in a previous Tape, Darwen Oriz’s Designing Miracles. My reservations about audiobooks notwithstanding, it’s absolutely wonderful, and my thanks go out to Elise Bramich for putting me onto it. I highly recommend it for anyone who has an interest in art, craft and performance, because the stuff Ortiz explores isn’t particular to magic but has applications for every art-form.
When I was a kid I wrote to Terry Pratchett for writing advice and was absolutely floored by one thing that came back – “I cannot stress enough that if you want to write fantasy, read outside of the genre,” he said. “Characters don’t talk like they’re in fantasy, except in bad fantasy.” At the time I only enjoyed reading stuff if it had at least one dragon in it, so this was challenging advice, but it set me on an important path in my approach to reading and to learning and to art, I think. Prunella Scales told me a similar thing in a sort of Q&A for wannabe actors, denouncing the idea of drama school – “Actors don’t need to learn about acting, they need to learn about life,” she said. To this day, if I want to think and learn about comedy, I’ll read, watch and listen to stuff outside of comedy. I think the most important thing to pursue in the making of art is not to study the type of art you want to make, but to study the things you’re naturally interested in. Art is a product of curiosity, not of imitation. Anyway, the first three chapters of Ortiz’s book about designing magic tricks have made me think more intensely about comedy than any number of books about comedy theory.
Ortiz talks a lot about the specificity of “the magical effect,” and stresses that any magic trick needs to prioritise first and foremost its effect on an audience, not its own cleverness or uniqueness or efficiency of method. Magicians themselves often talk about magic tricks focusing on their deceptiveness – “that method had me completely fooled,” etc, but this isn’t the core element of an audience’s experience of a magical effect. An audience doesn’t have a conscious experience of having been fooled, deceived or tricked, they have an experience of having witnessed something impossible. If a magician did a coin trick and then said “You don’t know where the coin is, do you?” to the audience, they would not feel satisfied or amazed – the whole point is that the coin is not anywhere. It has vanished, impossibly.
Crucially, they have to witness the entire process of a magic trick in order for the effect to work, because the magical effect is contained in the change from Condition A to Condition B, and the seeming impossibility of moving from one to the other. Any individual part of a magic trick is not in itself remarkable, it is the causality of moving from A to B that creates the illusion of impossibility. A magician’s job is to eliminate all possible causality between the two conditions, and to conceal the one remaining possibility, the actual method, so that an audience has no way of comprehending how this was possible – hence the fact that the most common audience response to a magical effect is to go “No way!” He then goes in-depth into the psychology of cause-and-effect, and the way in which the mind connects them to create a plausible narrative, and the way in which magic has to acknowledge and overcome this.
The Comic Effect
All this got me thinking about comedy. We talk a lot about “comic effect,” but what is the comic effect? Is it possible to quantify it or theorise about it in the same way Ortiz is able to with the magical effect? Ortiz says that magic is unique in art-forms in the effect it’s able to produce, in that it makes an audience believe in something they know to be impossible. But is there an effect that comedy is unique among other art-forms in being able to provoke?
Comedy, like magic, is founded on surprise. A listener is perhaps just as likely to exclaim “No way!” in response to a well-told funny story, or to a particularly ridiculous sight-gag, as they are to a seemingly impossible illusion. But comedy, even so-called alternative or absurdist comedy, doesn’t deal with impossibilities, it deals with things that are entirely plausible and familiar and real. A common heckle used by online trolls in response to stories told online is “Didn’t happen” – the implication being that the less plausible and likely a funny story is, the less successful it is in achieving a comic effect. Audiences surely know that embellishment and invention are tools used by comedians, just as deception and misdirection are tools used by magicians, but if we get the feeling that something has been entirely fictionalised, then we start to feel cheated somehow.
Radio comedy producer Ed Morrish has defined a punchline as being “the least logical logical thing” – if a punchline is too logical, too obvious, then it’s not funny, it’s just a reasonable response to the set-up. But if a punchline is too illogical, too random, then the comic effect is also lost, because the set-up is made to be completely redundant and we’re just given a frustrating non-sequitur. Taking this previous thought into account, and trying to parse what I’ve taken so far from Ortiz’s book, I’ve been trying to come up with my own idea about what the “comic effect” is, in contrast to the magical effect’s revelation of the impossible:
I think the comic effect is the revelation of something we have never previously considered, but in the moment of its revelation, we know to be possible.
If a comic idea centres on something we already know and think about, we shrug and go “Yeah, obviously.” And if a comic idea centres on something we know to be impossible we go “Nope. Didn’t happen.” The comic effect is created when the thing being revealed by the comic is something which we know all too well can happen, but we’ve never entertained the idea of it happening before.
The more granular detail of how this relates to causality in the same way is stuff I’ve not thought too much about yet – is it, for instance, a comedian’s job to create enough causality between Condition A and Condition B for it to be satisfying, while simultaneously disguising causality enough for it to be surprising? I don’t know.
This is getting quite long, anyway, so I’ll leave it there for now, but with one final thought from Steve Kaplan’s The Hidden Tools Of Comedy. (I know, I said I don’t love comedy theory books, but human beings are messy and conflicted and full of contradictions, and Kaplan’s book is actually very good). Kaplan has his own theory about what comedy is, which feels like it connects to my own thoughts above, so I’ll share it here. Kaplan differentiates comedy from other art forms as follows:
“Drama lets us dream about what we can be. Comedy tells us the truth about what we are.”
As ever, I love hearing your thoughts and takes, so let me know if this ignites any interesting thoughts with you!
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to plug something of my own in here this week. At the start of November I’m doing a very early work-in-progress stagger-through of a new show called Blink which I hope will become a full, proper show in 2022, at the Bill Murray in Islington. If you’re in London and would like to come and see me explore some new ideas, I’d love to see you there! Tickets are available here.
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – Everything Jurgen said on Bake Off this week. The guy is the king of my heart.
Book Of The Week – Designing Miracles, obvs.
Album Of The Week – Caught A Black Rabbit by Phoria. Phoria were at one point a band that met in my shed and played Radiohead covers, with my brother on piano or something. Found them quite annoying. Anyway, my brother quit, they continued being a band, eventually became Phoria and released a bunch of really great EPs and an album through the 2010s. I thought they’d broken up, but it turns out they (I say “they” but I think the band is just Trewin Howard on his own these days) released this really beautiful instrumental album last year. It’s really, really, really lovely. I forgive them for all the “Fake Plastic Trees” covers drifting up the garden throughout my teens.
Film Of The Week – The Sparks Brothers, Edgar Wright’s excellent documentary about the band Sparks. My awareness of Sparks was pretty limited until watching this, and oh boy, they’re funny. Gonna listen to a bunch more of them now.
That’s all for this week! As ever, if you ever wanted to send this newsletter onto a friend, or encourage others to subscribe, it’s hugely appreciated. Have a great week, and all the best,
PS Here’s a nice picture of a sunset I took in Kensington Gardens the other week.