Even Bad Magic is Magical

For the first time ever, a magician won America’s big summer talent show; America’s Got Talent.

SC_003Judge Howard Stern has been campaigning for more than three years on his morning Sirius Satellite radio show for America to vote more for variety acts than singers. Like me, he is disturbed that a gigantic talent show featuring lots of acts in a wide range of talents, seems to still favor the singers. There are so many singing talent competitions on TV these days, he really wants a non singer to win the “anything goes” show he works for.  Stern continuously makes the reference that singers have it easy by comparison.  They have an obviously great voice,  and they come on stage sing somebody else’s words. They evoke emotion, and people fall in love with them.

Tonight I watched magician Mat Franco smile and impress the judges and audience with close up magic.  By the end of the episode, he received the most votes,  and won the million dollar prize. Everyone was happy… except maybe the other magicians.

magicI was seriously into magic in my teens for 5 or 6 years. It was a great hobby for me, shared with my best friend at the time. My interest faded away as I got a job and started my adult life, but he continued and made it his career. I’ve maintained my love for magic through my life, and watch it whenever I can, both live and on the Internet or TV.

It’s hard for me to know how magic feels to the average person with less exposure. It was normal for me to understand what magic is, and feel for the magician more than the spectator. As a novice magician, I see it differently and although I will admit to not knowing how a lot of amazing stage magic is done, I still understand the basic concept.

Matt is a good example of a good performer. He has a nice smile that doesn’t scare the audience. Many magicians base their acts on an edgier performance, using flame and danger. Matt is more an everyday performer, opting to not wear a costume or flashy assistants. He’s more like you and me, and his magic seems more real because of it. He’s likable, and he makes us want to enjoy the show.

His choice of trick for the first finale performance was the cups and balls. As I noted above, I’m not an expert on how the general public perceives magic on TV.  Having said that, I’m still fairly confident that a great percentage of Americans and the world have not only seen this trick done before, but may even know how it’s done. Penn and Teller have performed their version of the cups and balls on TV numerous times. They use clear cups, so you can see how it’s done. I’ve seen them perform this on multiple shows many times.

If anyone you know ever bought you a magic kit at any time in your life, it would have included a deck of cards,  red sponge balls, a fake thumb,  and the cups and balls. You can pick up a set for $1 at the dollar store.

As a former magician myself, watching a new fellow prestidigitator perform their version of the trick is like watching your favourite band play their take on a famous Beatles tune. It’s familiar, but different every time and even though you know the tune, the creativity in making it their own is entertaining. Every magician has their own take on the cups and balls. I’ve seen some amazing interpretations. I’m biased, but my high school buddy Jay Sankey had one of the coolest versions I’ve seen.

It surprised me to see Matt’s version of the cups and balls was not very good. I would say almost horrid. He performed a very basic unimaginative routine, pretty much like the stock patter listed in every magic book you could find. He did it poorly, attempting to distract his skill level with a complex rhyming poem about the judges and America’s Got Talent.

Even if the premise of the trick wasn’t known by many before he started, his moves and loads were bordering on horrid. It was quite possibly the worst cups and balls routine I’ve ever seen. In the span of my lifetime, I’ve seen a lot. Hundreds of times.  He was worse than 13 year old Allen Berman, who performed it at his best friends Bar mitzvah, and he was worse than Robby the clown at the Acton fall fair, that I saw 5 years ago. If you didn’t know how the cups and balls was performed before Mat’s routine – you did after he was done. There was nothing spectacular about it. Nothing worthy of a million dollars.

Still, Matt impressed the crowd and some people even stood up to clap. To be fair, they already fallen in love with him based on numerous previous appearances. This was the final, and he’d impressed and baffled everyone before. Most people had already made up their minds which one of the final six they were going to vote for. In an odd way, the true miracle of Mat’s magic was that he got everyone to love him with style and performance rather than actual magic skill.

SC_002His second effect of the evening impressed me more. Like the cups and balls, his second trick was also a common store bought routine. By coincidence it was a trick I loved, and I’ve been showing my friends the same trick since I was 16.I actually remember the very first time I saw it, and bought it. It’s called The $100 Card Trick.

In this case however, the trick was personalized, and Mat’s interpretation was much more his own.  He took one of the most impressive card tricks, and made it big.  He combined the close up aspect of a card trick, with the big stage, and multiple people. he added audience members holding gigantic playing cards, and involved two judges in the effect.   It worked well for the close up judges and the big TV audience.  I loved it. 

I’m not actually 10% certain, but I think he made a vital counting mistake on this trick too, but covered it up well.

spellzMatt’s magic is a testament to how much people love magic and to be fooled. I underestimated America’s love for magic. Since I was young, I’ve watched all the TV magic I could find. I sat through every episode of Kreskin and watched all the Doug Henning specials.  Later, I caught every David Copperfield and David Blaine show as well as others. If it had magic in it, I was watching it, including series shows from Canada and the UK. My buddy Jay that I mentioned earlier even hosted his own children’s magic series (Spellz).  Magic has always been a part of my life, and I suppose I assumed it had been for others too.

What I am learning however is the opposite. Most Americans don’t see magic. They’re not exposed to it in their day to day lives, and may only witness a single effect once a year or less. They see a trick on America’s Got Talent each summer for 90 seconds. The average Joe citizen may have never seen a good card trick.  As hard as it is for me to believe, much of the audience may never have seen the cups and balls. It’s new magic.

Magic is awesome. It turns a frown into a smile more globally than a joke or a song, and follows up with the bonus emotion of wonderment and confusion, and if done well, respect.

The thing is, bad magic does too, at least when well performed.

Not everyone in the audience takes pleasure in ruining a trick by figuring it out, or ruin the mood by telling you they’ve figured it out. Some people do feel this need of course, and they’re found on YouTube posting in the comments about how everything is done. YouTube and the Internet are filled with spoilers who crave that, but most people are happy to have been fooled, and smile. In this way, magic can appeal to everyone for different reasons, but they’re still finding joy, either as a happy participant, or a bragging dickhead.

I congratulate Matt. He’s done well. He’s won a competition where many have tried and failed. We wasn’t the best, but he had a  broad appeal, and perhaps better than anyone is probably showing the world that magic is a good hobby choice. An art you can learn and be good at, or at least good enough at. His profile pieces show his growth, and compared to learning how to master an instrument or other skill, magic has everyday appeal and wonder. When you watch a guy doing acrobatics you can be impressed by his skill, but you don’t feel the emotion. Magic creates a different kind of awe, and you can perform it with a salt shaker at the dinner table.

I suspect many people will look at magic as a hobby this year.

The first trick they’ll learn is the cups and balls.



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