This is what a great magic act looks like!

Many readers will be familiar with the TV show Penn & Teller: Fool Us, hosted by famed Las Vegas headliner duo Penn & Teller. Now in its 10th season, Fool Us is probably the best magic-themed show in the history of television, having featured the world's top practitioners of the art. Here's a recent example of what great magic looks like: entertaining and deceptive, brilliantly designed and delivered, and conceptually intriguing. If you like magic and want to understand more of the "real secrets" behind the curtain, watch this video and then keep reading this post—you might appreciate this act even more.

Jonathan Steigman on Fool Us

The Art of Magic

Let's be honest. Sad but true, the perception of magic and magicians in most people's minds is surrounded by an aura of triviality, and not without reason. Though it might ruffle some feathers, most people who call themselves "magicians" are amateurs and hobbyists. Nothing wrong with pursuing magic as a hobby, of course. However, the "hobby" of magic has an unusually low threshold of access compared to other arts or crafts, which is very democratizing but it also makes it easy to perform magic badly. Hence, the generalized low opinion of magicians and magic as an art form.

Another reason for such a sorry state of affair is this: many magic tricks—even from the repertoire of professional magicians—are totally detached from any meaningful context. They are often an end in themselves, used as tools by navel-gazing magicians to show off some (real or ostensible) skills, in a mostly agency-oriented "look what I can do" approach, without dramatic depth or meaning.

Of course this is not always the case. In fact, the most successful and brilliant practitioners—be they professionals or amateurs—are those able to actually intrigue a contemporary and savvy audience, entertain in intelligent ways, and do things that ultimately mean something.

Criticism and Magic

Another piece of the conversation about magic and its status as an art form has to do with the practice of criticism. Lawrence Hass, PhD is a world-renowned magician, author and former philosophy professor. He wrote:

One concern I have about the magic subculture from my former perspective as a teacher of the arts is that we are lacking what I would call a culture of criticism. (…). When I say "criticism," I am not referring to "snarking" and grouching about this or that going on in magic, and I am not referring to a negative review or opinion (…) Instead, when I say criticism I am referring to a widely acknowledged kind of journalism that rigorously explores the meaning, value, and significance of specific artworks. We find criticism about films, paintings, television, novels, fiction, poetry, theater productions, dance programs, and even comics in leading international media: in newspapers, magazines, and online in words and videos. Criticism is an important type of writing that organizes, interprets, and evaluates the art works that surround us. Criticism is like air: it's everywhere. Except that it's only rarely present in the magic subculture, which strikes me as a big problem if we hope that magic performance will come to be more widely understood and appreciated for the art form it is. (Dying to Change, Vanishing Inc., 2018).

The few exceptions to the almost complete lack of criticism in the world of magic are the occasional articles in mainstream publications devoted to shows that break from the subculture and become widely known, such as Derek Del Gaudio's In And Of Itself and Asi Wind's Inner Circle.

Penn & Teller: Fool Us has been playing a crucial role in shifting the perception of magicians in people's perception. Showcasing the most brilliant and innovative performers, the show highlights magic as the complex and sophisticated performing art it can be. Also, thanks to Fool Us many performers—who were formerly known only within the limited magicians' community—have received a much wider and the well-deserved critical attention. A number of contestants, such as Shin Lim and Piff the Magic Dragon, now have their own Las Vegas shows.

I felt this long introduction was necessary before offering a few critical thoughts about Jonathan Steigman's Fool Us act, why I loved it and why I think it's a valuable template for a great magic act. Without my claiming any ownership on the absolute truth, what follows is clearly my opinion. You may or may not agree with my ideas—which is exactly the point of having this kind conversation.

[Full disclosure: Jonathan is a personal friend and collaborator.]

The 50/50 bet

I found Jonathan's performance engaging and engrossing for at least two reasons.

1. The disarmingly simple opening premise: a coin toss. Everyone instantly understands what this is and what it means. Who has not tried, at least once, to toss a coin to make a decision? Audiences often have a hard time even describing or summarizing what the magician just did. In this case, the simplicity and clarity of the premise is one of its strengths.

2. The structure of the act: starting with such a basic premise, the performance unfolds by exploring the evolution of a magic trick, which mirrors Jonathan's evolution as a magician over the years. People often ask magicians how and when they started doing magic, or what's the first trick they learnt, which makes this presentation inherently interesting and meaningful for an audience.

And so, as the performance unfolds, we see the method evolving from simplicity to complexity: each stage of development transcending and including the method that came before. This self-referential and evolutionary approach has a distinctly metamodern sensibility and aesthetic; it offers the audience a refined intellectual journey into the evolution of a magic trick, as well as progressively closing the doors to the understanding of the method of the trick, for the final punch. In the opening "package", the video that introduces him and his story, Jonathan openly references the evolution of consciousness—something that doesn't go unnoticed to Penn, who replies riffing about acid, Timothy Leary, and Borgesian forking paths… that's a very interesting and witty piece of conversation right there.

Jonathan has been doing magic for most of his life, has performed at the famed Magic Castle in Hollywood, and is an active member of the San Francisco Bay Area magic scene. He worked in the film industry for many years, and is a co-researcher and the Director of Communications for the Integral Cinema Project. Given his personal longstanding interest in evolutionary and integral metatheories, Jonathan intentionally crafted his act to represent his personal evolutionary journey in the world of magic. In his own words:

By crafting a plot hinging on the continual evolution and improvement of a magical method I hoped to give the audience a sense of magic as an evolutionary process throughout a lifetime, as opposed to a more direct, "I learned a trick, here it is" lens.

For those of you in the LA area, you might catch Jonathan's next run at The World Famous Magic Castle from April 29th to May 5th.

If you've been reading this far and what you've read makes any sense, it's time to to go and rewatch Jonathan's performance again to see if anything new and interesting jumps to your attention. And maybe you might enjoy this act even more!

Previously: Teller on how magicians "alter your perceptions"