“Magic is the only honest profession. A magician promises to deceive you and he does.” ~Karl Germain
Misdirection is a form of deception in which the attention of an audience is focused on one thing in order to distract its attention from another.*
What is it we love so much about being fooled? It’s fascinating to see a talented magician in action. He makes a coin disappear right before your eyes. “How did he do it?” The coin re-appears under your dinner plate. How did that happen? You write your name on a dollar bill and he makes it disappear. Later you find it in your pocket. Or inside an uncracked hard boiled egg. Or some other impossible place.
I can’t tell you how it was done, or I’d have to kill you. What I do know is that misdirection is a central ingredient in all magic performances. The past few years I have enjoyed being in the Duluth Dylan Fest circle not only because of our shared appreciation for the music of Bob Dylan, but also because of our shared fascination with the magic of the late John Bushey, who hosted KUMD’s Highway 61 Revisited for over 26 years. Whether at a private party, or riding the rails on the annual Blood On The Tracks Express, it was not uncommon to find John with his “bag of tricks” and with some guaranteed-to-delight entertainment offered at some point during the evening.
That entertainment break was a form of theater. It was especially thrilling because of the intimacy of the occasion. There’s nothing quite like being three feet away when a master magician is at work. Before going any further, I am going to ask you to select a card. Think of that card. Write it down if you need to. Remember it well.
Misdirection uses psychology and neuroscience to control peoples’ perceptions. Here’s a short TED Talk showing misdirection in action. You will see the four principles of misdirection outlined: eye contact, confidence, a big action, and good story telling. (The TED Talk is actually here.)
One good thing about this trick is that I’m not going to pick your pocket. When we’re done here today you will still have your wallet, your watch and your jewelry.
Are you still thinking about that card? Was this your card?
Here’s an example of Penn & Teller doing a trick using misdirection. (Do not try this at home.)
A lot of people don’t know that Steve Martin began his entertainment career as a teen doing magic at Disneyland. He quickly learned that you have to be entertaining in order to stop people in their tracks long enough to watch the show. You can’t do misdirection if you can’t first get their attention. Here’s Steve Martin in his role as The Great Flydini on the Tonight Show.
In his autobiography Born Standing Up, Steve Martin wrote that he had been on the Tonight Show 17 times before a single stranger said, “Aren’t you that guy who was on the Tonight Show?” Fame is not something that happens overnight.
Watching The Great Flydini brought to mind for me the old Banana Man routine that Captain Kangaroo used to do way back when. Note how both these entertainers rely on the unexpected to keep our attention. For many of you this is way before your time. Amazing how much history has been preserved for us now on YouTube.
Originally published at pioneerproductions.blogspot.com
Illustration: An Invisible Man, by ennyman. Used with permission.
If you’re into magic and are curious about how some of it is done, check out
An Introduction to Gaming Cheats from the Wild West to the 21st Century: The Magic Kingdom of Terry Roses which I posted here on Medium earlier today.