Magic & Comedy From an Audience’s-Eye View
This week I’ve been working with a bunch of incredibly talented geniuses on a very fun, very cool, very secret R&D/workshop project for a magic show. I’m not allowed to say any more than that because we all signed NDAs, but the details aren’t important for the purposes of this newsletter. The point is that it’s got me thinking about the parallels between comedy and magic again, a subject I first became interested in after reading Darwin Ortiz’s brilliant Designing Miracles, and which ultimately led me to write my new show, which explores a combination of comedic and magical ideas.
What’s fascinating about magic is that the overriding feeling it leaves the audience with – “I have to know how they did that!” – is a lie. You don’t have to know. You don’t even really want to. The act of finding out undermines the entire emotional impact of the performance and turns awe into disappointment. Unless you have a built-in fascination for the inter-dynamics of performers and audiences, and how a magical method can be used to play with them in an interesting way, discovering the secret of how a magic trick was performed is inherently underwhelming. The answer is generally “we spent a lot of money building a prop specifically designed to do the thing it does while looking like it doesn’t, and we spent a lot of time rehearsing it so it looked like we were doing something other than what we were doing.” As so perfectly put in the closing words of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, “You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled.”
This made me think about how one of the things you hear most often as a comedian is strikingly similar to the things audience members say to magicians. The thing I hear more often than anything else from people not involved in the world of comedy themselves is “I don’t know how you do it.” The act of standing onstage and trying to turn your lived experience, or your perspective on the world, into something entertaining or funny or surprising for a paying audience seems to hold a similar sort of wonder and disbelief from people who don’t know how it’s done. The illusion of spontaneity, of effortlessness, is much less breath-taking and wondrous, perhaps, but it still frequently prompts the blanket response of “How did you do that?” The comedian Chris Gethard talks in his wonderful book about failure, Lose Well, that he’s become so used to people coming up to him after shows asking him “How did you do such-and-such,” “How did you get started?”, and so on, that he’s gradually deciphered that what people are really saying when they ask this is “How do I do that?” “How could I make a career out of this?” Which is actually just code for “Can I do that? Do I have permission?” To which the answer is always yes. But nobody can give the permission but you.
The same is probably true of magic, I think. When people demand to know how a magical effect was achieved, they don’t want to be told “It cost us fifteen thousand pounds to build the prop and took us ten weeks to rehearse” because they like to imagine there’s a simple secret somewhere that will empower them to also pull off miracles in an instant. Just as magic comes with its own disappointments, I’ve sensed before the disappointment of an audience member when they talk to me offstage and recognise that I’m not a naturally funny, confident, exuberant person, that I’m actually fairly shy, quiet, maybe even a bit dull. For most comedians, the image of someone who can always think of something funny to say and never worries about how they come across is just as much of an illusion as making someone disappear. Maybe it’s even exactly the same trick, but the person you make disappear is a certain version of yourself. I think the fear of admitting to not being as funny as we pretend to be is in some ways one of the great taboos in comedy. I’ve been in so many social situations with comedians that feel like a competition to be the funniest, the most performative, the most false, perhaps, and the friendships I value most with other comics are the ones where we feel comfortable enough to be boring and normal with one another.
Magicians are naturally awkward people, too – it’s hard to dedicate so much time to something so solitary and intricate without it being in some way a mask for feelings of discomfort or unease in social situations. That’s why magicians who also have the charisma and showmanship to hold the attention of a huge audience – your David Copperfields or your Derren Browns – are comparatively rare, and do so well. But ultimately, whenever I get the sense that an audience member wants me to behave offstage in a way that empowers them to believe in a possible version of themselves that never feels uncomfortable or out-of-place and always knows what to say and has total control over how they’re perceived and what other people think of them, I think that the things I could say are almost identical to the things you’d say to an audience member looking for the solution to a magic trick. “That version of yourself already exists. It’s not an impossible miracle, it just involves pretending. It involves directing attention to the things you want the audience to notice, and concealing the things you don’t want them to see. It involves pretending to be doing something other than what you’re doing. Pretending to be brave when you’re scared. Pretending to be effortless when you’ve worked non-stop. The answer is simply that it took a long time.”
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – I hope I’m not in danger of turning this section into a bit where I regularly plug something I’ve done, as it’s supposed to be for cool things other people are doing! But if it’s ok, this week I’d love to pop this thread here, because tickets are now on sale for all performances of my new show over the summer. If you live near any of the places I’m taking it to, I’d love you to come along, or share the ticket link with friends!
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – I saw Alan Partridge live at the O2 this week. If I’m completely honest, it only made me laugh about three times because the O2 is an absolutely appalling venue, especially for comedy, and it’s impossible to find anything funny in that space. There was lots to love about it and it would be a great show in a smaller theatre. However, there was one sight gag that actively played with the absurd idea of watching comedy in an arena where you can’t see anything properly that was absolutely brilliant, and one of the smartest bits of visual comedy I’ve seen in a long time. Almost worth going just for that.
Book Of The Week – No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood. This book is absolutely stunning. It’s a piece of autofiction about someone whose life has been completely dominated and poisoned by her obsessive relationship with the internet. I’ve been searching for the words to express all my fears and worries about how much the internet is poisoning our human-ness for years, and this book expresses them all perfectly. It’s also frequently hilarious, and then the second half punches you in the stomach.
Album Of The Week – Beautiful Freak by Eels. I don’t love this. I’ve been having a go at filling in some blind-spots in my musical knowledge by dipping into genres I have absolutely no frame of reference for, like Beck and Eels. I can’t really tell if I like it or not. I think I need to listen to more stuff like it to work out how it sits in the context of where it came from. I don’t hate it, but I’m certainly not excited by it. Does anybody know more about this genre/period, and want to give me any pointers for finding my way through it?
Film Of The Week – Not seen any films! Soz.
That’s all for this week! Let me know what you thought, and as ever, if you wanted to share this newsletter with a friend, or encourage others to subscribe, I’d hugely appreciate it. Thanks so much, and all the best until next time,
PS Here’s a bad photo of a great painting by an artist from Beeston called Matt Plowright whose exhibition I visited with my friend Emily last week. I absolutely love his work – check it out!