Towards an empirical theory of performing Tenyo tricks and other magic gadgets

For decades, the Japanese magic trick company Tenyo has delighted amateur conjurers with their little magic gimmicks, which can be very clever indeed, but which are nearly guaranteed to fall flat when performed for friends and strangers.

The deficiency in Tenyo tricks is the core problem with magic: situating it in the wider world. Is the performer claiming to have supernatural abilities? Are they challenging the viewer to spot the gimmick? Are they showing off their cleverness (and if so, how clever can you claim to be on the basis of having bought a gadget?).

Andy from The Jerx (previously) advocates for an "audience-centered magic" that tries to resolve this conundrum, and while he's generally scathing in his critique of Tenyo gadgets and those who employ them, he's just published the result of a small study on the best way to perform these gimmicks, based on trials with three different audiences.

The first group saw "a standard walkthrough of the actions of the trick"; the second got "something special…the first magic trick I ever learned" and the final (and most successful) group got a show where the presenter "actually didn't know what it is myself, so this will be something of a surprise for all of us."

Andy hypothesizes that the third approach was so successful because: "The less you take responsibility for what is occurring, the more inherently interesting/entertaining a trick is likely to be."

From watching the performance I could tell people were interested in the idea of seeing his "very first magic trick." Who wouldn't be? People's first anything is usually an interesting or at least a cute concept. And, as magicians we think, "I've justified the prop! It looks like a toy, so I'm saying it's a toy." And that's true, but that's also only the beginning. You have to play out the whole thing. At the end of that presentation, I think you have one of two scenarios. Either they believe you, in which case they're likely thinking, "I was just fooled by something an 8-year-old was performing from a magic set?" Or they don't believe you and that's much worse. That's like low-level emotional manipulation. "He pretended to share something emotionally relevant from his youth so he could show us some stupid trick."

That's not a great look.

You might think I'm taking it all too seriously, but imagine you were dating someone and they said, "I want to cook you something tonight. It's a traditional family recipe. And it's the first recipe my grandmother ever taught me when I was a little girl." And then sometime after dinner you find the recipe on the back of a soup can and they're like, "Oh yeah, I was just goofing around so you'd be into it." You'd think they were a psychopath.

Tenyo Trio Trial
[Andy/The Jerx]

(Image: World of Magic)