Magic And What Does The Work

“Why did you ruin your rope?!” The IT guy who sat in the cubicle behind me at the day job was aghast.

I had been fiddling with a length of “ordinary rope, like you would find in any magic shop” all day, drilling the (hopefully) subtle move that made the trick work. It was 2016, and I was trying something new as co-host of the upcoming Nearly Naked Nutcracker in Dallas. I was going to do a magic trick onstage.

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Photo by Brandy Lynne Photography

The conceit was simple: Drosselmeyer the Great is a not-so-great magician who enlists a sassy Showgirl to help his magical assistant Clara find her purpose as a burlesque dancer. In the end, Drosselmeyer compensates the Showgirl by filling in as her dance partner in the final act of the show. (We altered the premise slightly for 2017.)

I wanted to tackle a few “cheesy” tricks, including the well-worn cut and restored rope trick. (I say “cheesy” with nothing but respect. If you’ve caught my shtick as Mr. Snapper, you know that I love a little cheese. Further, I know how much effort goes into something as “cheesy” as the cut and restored rope trick.) I asked my magician friends for advice. One of them–I think Funny Eddie–recommended I check out Aldo Colombini. I consumed his Gagbuster video, and used a couple of his blow-offs in the show. But I digress …

I don’t have great hands. So I took to carrying a length of magician’s rope around with me, practicing the move over and over until I could do it without thinking. And so it happened that I was practicing the move at the day job, when one of the MBAs I worked with asked me what the deal was with the rope. A few other coworkers gathered around, and when I snipped the rope in two, they all flinched. The IT guy voiced his alarm.

A terribly simple trick, some confident patter, and I sold it. I finished the trick, and they were suitably impressed. Other coworkers drifted to my cubicle, having heard about the trick, asking to see it. It was like a drug.

It absolutely killed at Nearly Naked Nutcracker, and I brought it back to the show this year, along with another chestnut: the disappearing and reappearing hankie. I’ve been thinking about both tricks, their simplicity, and something occurred to me this morning. The hankie doesn’t do the trick. The scissors don’t do the trick. The thing that you think is doing the trick is not doing the trick.

The hankie thing amazes me. There’s no hiding how it’s done. There are only so many places that hankie can disappear to, and the most likely suspect is sticking out, literally, like a sore thumb. Like a Silly Putty-colored sore thumb. The audience doesn’t seem to notice. (Or they don’t care. Honestly, I don’t know which would be more mind-blowing.)

In magic, as in other artistic pursuits, you have the actual work that creates an effect, and you have the apparent work. All the attention is on the apparent work, which makes the result simply mystifying. “How’d you do that?”

This is true of writing. There are many apparent things doing the work: word choice, ideas, your premise. The actual thing doing the work is structure. Little things like putting the joke phrase at the end of a punchline so you don’t step on your laugh. Huge things like building up expectations that you can knock over at the climax. People think that knock over, that twist is the magic trick, but what actually does the work is everything that comes before it.

“Why did you ruin your rope!?”

I had to suppress a smile as I thought to myself, “Gotcha.”

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