Steven LEVITT: I’m not sure why, but as an adult, I’ve come to have a deep appreciation and admiration for magicians. I rarely actually see magic performed, but when I do, I typically leave amazed. How in the world did the magician do that? I’m used to being able to make sense of the world around me. That’s how I spend my waking hours: analyzing data to understand patterns and solve puzzles. But when I see magic, I’m like a little kid. After a performance, only half-jokingly, I’ll ask my wife whether she thought maybe that was real magic and not just an illusion.
Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt.
LEVITT: My guest today, Joshua Jay, is one of the most impressive and thoughtful magicians on the planet. Not only is he a successful performer, he’s also a leading historian of magic and even a pioneer in the academic study of magic. I’ve only met Joshua once when he came to give a lecture at the University of Chicago. Simply put, it was the best academic lecture I’ve ever seen. I can’t wait to hear what he’s got to say today.
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Steve LEVITT: Joshua. I’m so happy to have you here today.
Joshua JAY: I’m so glad you asked. It’s an honor, really.
LEVITT: One thing I’ve noticed about your magic is that you almost always have one or two or three points where the audience thinks the trick is over, and it’s just the beginning of the trick. That’s obviously something you’ve cultivated. And it’s very powerful.
JAY: In magic, we call it “kicker endings,” but the broader term is just storytelling. I mean, I feel like I was in a room with the lights out, just feeling my way around magic for so long, long after I developed skills and started performing professionally. But it was only three or four years ago that I sat down, and I wrote down a sentence. And the sentence is my core promise to my audience. The core promise is simply this: I want to deepen people’s appreciation for magic.
It’s unfulfilling for me to do a trick in which the reaction is, “Wow,” or “I have no idea how you did that,” or “That’s amazing.” I mean, that’s relatively easy. Humans are so, so easy to fool. Magicians have every advantage. We have skills that people don’t know about. We have the ability to control attention. We have secret methods. We have secret apparatus and technology. It’s easy to fool people.
But to move people with a story, to make people understand that magic isn’t just some silly little diversion, but it can actually be meaningful, it can actually be used to communicate a story or a skill or a point of view — that’s my core promise to the audience.
LEVITT: Do you like magic or is it just a job for you, a way to pay the bills?
JAY: You know the answer to that. I’m obsessed. It’s a total obsession. From the moment I get up in the morning till truly 2 a.m., the only thing I’m doing is something related to magic. Even if I’m reading a book about the human anatomy, I’m reading it to find information that I can use about how the eye processes information for magic. It’s a total obsession, a healthy and an unhealthy one, but I never get sick of it.
LEVITT: And what do you love best about it?
JAY: When I started, it was the performing. It was that rush. And I think now it’s almost entirely creating new material. That’s what drives me the most. I think that people get into magic for the same reason, but they stay in magic for different reasons. So, I think every little kid or adult gets into magic because they want to show their friends something amazing, or they want to get onstage, or they want to fool their friends. Those are all ego-based reasons. Those are all look-at-me type reasons, things that bring attention to you.
But very quickly — I’m talking by age 12 for me, younger for some people — that becomes hollow and unfulfilling. And that’s coincidentally when a lot of people get out of magic. But those of us who stay with it, stay with it because we’re much more intrigued on an intellectual level. We’re much more intrigued by the thrill of the chase.
LEVITT: It’s interesting you talk about the ego reasons for getting into magic, because as a child and now I hate being the center of attention. And I’ve literally never performed a magic trick in my entire life because my worst nightmare is having people look at me and running the risk of being embarrassed. But the joy that I’ve seen on the faces of amateur magicians is really unparalleled.
JAY: I’ll tell you, Steven, truly — I mean most of the best magicians in the world, from the standpoint of creativity and technicality, like actually being able to do amazing things with a deck of cards — most of those people are amateurs. Those are people who would get nervous if you asked them to do a trick casually in a restaurant over a beer. That’s how little they perform.
Because the skill sets are so different, right? Sitting alone, as I do many nights at my desk with a notepad and a deck of cards and brainstorming and thinking of possibilities and pathways and mathematically elegant methods, that is a skill that has nothing to do with being engaging and outgoing and storytelling and being funny. That’s just a math problem.
LEVITT: I absolutely loved a book called Magical Mathematics, written by Persi Diaconis. And rarely have I been so energized about math. Do you think there’s an opportunity to bring magic into the school curriculum to get kids excited about math or science or psychology? And have you seen that done at all?
JAY: I’m the most biased person to ask. You’re asking someone who’s dedicated their life to magic. Do I think that magic should have a bigger role in school? Yeah, like eight hours a day I’m thinking maybe we can cram in some gym time, maybe a little writing, but mostly magic. I’m all for it. Just as a way to teach life skills like public speaking, like following through, self-confidence, reading skills. I mean, these are great things for kids to do.
Magic really teaches you to see things from different angles, to think outside the box. It teaches you to communicate ideas in oblique ways. Not to just say what you’re thinking, but let the audience come to that conclusion. And most importantly, it teaches empathy. You cannot do magic unless you’re thinking like your audience. And I contend that you can’t be a great salesman unless you’re thinking like your audience. You can’t be a great teacher unless you’re thinking like your students. These are really important skills.
LEVITT: One thing about the profession of magic is that there are no barriers to entry, so unlike the bar exam or medical licensing, anybody can be a practicing magician. Do you see this as a problem?
JAY: I often say when I speak to other magicians that the original sin of magic is that it’s inherently interesting. It doesn’t take much in the way of charisma or presentation or practice to fool people. Fooling people is fundamentally pretty easy. You can walk into a magic shop and spend $30 and walk out with three or four truly fooling tricks that you could walk into any group and fool people with.
Now, that’s problematic from my angle, because the barrier to entry is so low. You can’t do that if you’re a dentist. You don’t get to do that with singing. But because magic is the art of concealing our skill, anybody, truly anybody, can be pretty good pretty fast. And it’s the difference between pretty good and true artistry that separates a magician who’s been in it a year with no practice from a magician who’s been in it 60 years with practice every day.
LEVITT: I used to hang out with a prostitute who we wrote about in Freakonomics. Her most thankful moment every day was the fact that prostitution was completely illegal, which meant the barriers to entry were really, really high. Her greatest fear was the legalization of prostitution because that would get rid of her local monopoly that allowed her to create lots of profit. And interesting that magicians have not succeeded in any way, shape, or form in creating a guild or a union or anything that prevents regular old people from doing magic.
JAY: I mean, they’ve tried, but it doesn’t work very well. There are societies of magicians, and there are clubs in every town. And these are magic clubs where you can go and learn magic. But again, it doesn’t prevent just anybody from doing magic. There was a TV special some years ago and the whole premise was a magician is paired with a celebrity and that celebrity learns to do magic. I can’t think of anything worse for the optics of magic than going, “Hey, everybody, magic is something that David Hasselhoff can learn in two nights.”
Speaking of our industry and ways that we create or don’t create a barrier to entry, I mean, what’s to stop somebody from seeing my signature trick and ripping it off? You might think that the solution is patenting it. But actually, there has never been a single example of a magician who’s been able to successfully patent and defend a trick. The closest was Teller in a freak case. Teller of Penn and Teller was able to defend one of his tricks that had been stolen. So, why then are there relatively few thefts in magic?
And the answer, interestingly enough, is that magic is a self-policing industry. In other words, Steven, if you get into magic and you steal my closer, there is really no legal recourse for me to stop you. And there’s nothing to stop you from marketing it and putting a video out on it and doing it on TV, but what would happen if you did that is the magic organizations — The International Brotherhood of Magicians, Society of American Magicians — would probably kick you out. Agents who book magicians would not want to book you because I wouldn’t be on the same roster as an unethical magician. You would be ostracized from coming to conferences.
The fear of the punishment keeps people mostly in line. That’s not to say magic tricks aren’t occasionally ripped off and there isn’t some ugliness. But magicians want to avoid the public humiliation of being ostracized by their peers. And so, without any legal recourse, without any rules or guild, magic keeps a pretty tight ship.
LEVITT: Really what you’ve described is a community. And it’s surprising. We think about communities as being local. But what you’ve just described is a worldwide community of magicians. And the nature of community is that it allows for policing. It’s interesting; it works at that scale.
JAY: It’s one of the many, many ways that I believe magic has changed more in the last 10 years than in the previous 100. And that is this global community that has been opened up mostly by the internet. You don’t think of the internet as changing card tricks, but it has. It’s changed everything in our industry.
After our interview, Joshua did get back in touch with me to slightly amend what he had said about patents and magic. Because it turns out that there was a magician who succeeded in getting a patent, his name was Horace Goldin, and he did it back in 1923. And what he patented was the device that he used in the now-famous “Sawing a Lady in Half” illusion. Now, Goldin did manage to get that patent, but ultimately it failed to prevent theft in two very different ways.
First, think of how many thousands of magicians have performed “Sawing a Lady in Half.” It’s arguably magic’s most iconic illusion. So in the long run, that patent doesn’t really seem to have done Goldin any good in protecting his trick. But the second and more fundamental way in which that patent didn’t protect theft is that it turns out he didn’t invent the trick in the first place. He actually stole it from another magician named P. T. Selbit. So he actually got a patent on intellectual property that he didn’t even own in the first place.
LEVITT: I know you’ve written about how the magic world used to be regionalized. In Spain, they did one thing, and in Russia, they did another.
LEVITT: Tell me about that.
JAY: So, my first tour, I was 17-years-old. And I did a tour of 16 countries opening for another magician. And on that tour, of course, what do you do every night after the shows? You hang out with other magicians. You jam the way jazz musicians go and jam with their heroes in whatever area. I would go to Buenos Aires, and I would hang with the great magicians in Buenos Aires. And then, I would go to Germany and Japan.
And the magic styles in every place I went were totally different. The way they shuffle cards in France is slick and beautiful and fluid and fancy. The way they shuffle cards in Germany is neat and tidy and without ornament. The way they shuffle cards in Japan is slow and methodically. The way they shuffle in New York is rough and hard. And in L.A., it’s smoother.
So, the reason they looked different was because magic communities were different. The magician that everybody looked up to in Spain was Juan Tamariz. The magician that everybody looked up to in Japan is a guy named Shigeo Futagawa. And because they have different idols, they have different flavors of the way they perform. The internet now has localized everyone. Now, everybody is learning card tricks from the same video tutorials, the same five or 10 or 50 teachers, no matter where you are. And in some ways, it’s really sad because on my last tour of Japan when I would go hang with magicians afterward, they would show me my own tricks that I had taught online.
But there’s a flip side. I mean, this a prediction now, but I feel very confident about this. The next great magician, the next David Blaine, is going to be a female from Mumbai or a kid from Nigeria, because no longer are there huge advantages to growing up a block from The Magic Castle or in New York in a magic club that has 10 of the best magicians in the country. Now, you are one click away from tremendous tutorials and great resources, and all magic books are available as eBooks now. Truly, the next great magician can come from anyone who’s willing to put in the time and has the creative energy.
LEVITT: So, there’s a quote in the movie Monsters Inc., where Mr. Waternoose laments, “Kids these days. They just don’t get scared like they used to.” I would suspect that a parallel quote about magic would be true, that people these days, they just don’t get fooled like they used to. Is that accurate, or is that wrong?
JAY: I would say that there is a kind of atrophy to mystery, I suppose you could say. I used to always begin performances by saying, “How many people have seen a magician before?” It would surprise you how few people had ever seen a magician in person. But one of the great things about technology and more magic on television and more magic out in the world is that most people don’t have a first magic experience with me.
The biggest hurdle, though, is that people are trained by Twitter and TikTok and Instagram to have such short attention spans that they’re missing out on really, really wonderful magic tricks that take six or seven minutes. I think magic has come to mean a visual change of a card or a coin that can happen in the blink of an eye. But magic’s so much more than that. I want people to see magic as a form of storytelling, to see magic as so much more than just a card that changes in the flick.
LEVITT: When you perform, are you nervous?
JAY: I’m not, typically. I’m of the belief that nerves don’t come from a big audience or a theater full of people filing in or television cameras pointed at you. They come from uncertainty. And part of good training in magic is knowing every outcome front and back. So, let me give you some insight that magicians may not be happy I’m sharing. But I’m not sharing tricks. I’m sharing tools.
There’s a thought process in magic called “outs.” And outs are impossible to figure out. I mean that because you are not seeing what you think you are seeing. You are not seeing the only ending of the trick. In other words, if I said, “Steven, I want you to point to any object on my desk right now,” and you point to a picture frame, and I turn over the picture frame and show you it says, “I knew you would point to the picture frame,” and you look at all the other picture frames and all the other objects, and there’s nothing written on them, you are totally and completely fooled.
But the solution secretly is that if you point to the water glass on my table or the telephone or the lamp, I have a different ending entirely that I’ll use, which means that no matter what you are saying, I’m going to do something differently. And outs are used in magic over and over again. So, if I’m on stage and I mess up a trick, I have a plan B and a plan C and a plan D and a plan E and F.
I’m not nervous because I have outcomes that I’m rehearsed in for every possible outcome. And those outcomes include losing your mic mid-show. I’ve lost a mic in front of 3,000 people. I’ve lost power in a theater on a cruise ship in front of 1,000 people. There are just so many things you have to sweat out and learn along the way, that I would say to you, I’m not nervous. When I get nervous is when I’m doing something new. I’m very, very nervous doing something new that’s unproven that I don’t know the outcomes for.
LEVITT: The only time I get nervous now when I’m doing public speaking is sometimes right before I go on stage, my mind is wandering to what I’m going to eat afterwards or who’s going to win the basketball game that night. And then, I get nervous because I’m like, “Wait a second, you’re about to go on stage in front of 2,000 people and you can’t even focus your thoughts on what you’re going to say.” And then, I worry something disastrous is going to happen.
JAY: The word that I think we’re fishing for here to avoid that is mindfulness. I work at this place called The Magic Castle. It’s this fantastic private club in Los Angeles full of magicians, six different stages, hard to get into, formal place. But when you work it, you do 27 shows a week. I mean, it’s mind-numbing. And you care so little. You get into Groundhog Day so firmly that your mind is wandering mid-show to, “I wonder if I have time to eat between this,” or “I wonder what that Netflix show is dropping tonight.” And then, your work suffers.
One of the ways to achieve mindfulness in magic is to find little benchmarks, little moments that are convincers to the audience that what you’re doing is real, even if it isn’t. And one of my favorites of these is imagine I’m doing a coin trick. You put a coin in your left hand, but you don’t really put it in your left hand. You make it secretly vanish to a secret place that I can’t disclose on this podcast. But the idea is you’re holding in your left fist nothing. But they think you’re holding a coin in your left fist. So, how do you make them believe it’s there? A great magical mind once said, “Check the date.” Check the date.
Now, how can you check the date on a coin that isn’t in your hand? Well, by miming it. You open your fingers just a little bit, and you glance down. Now, you’re glancing down at nothing. But you visualize a coin there. But the coin is probably upside down. So, you have to contort your wrist a little bit and crane your neck. And you just check the date. 1968. O.K. Good.
And now, you open your hand, and you show it’s gone. And if you see a magician who checks the date before the coin vanishes versus one who just opens his fist, you’d be astonished at the difference in conviction of one versus the other because you find these ways to stay with it. O.K. This is the part where I check the date. This is the part where I look somebody in the eye and I really listen to what they’re saying. And I find those helpful.
You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt and his conversation with magician Joshua Jay. After this short break, they’ll return to talk about Joshua’s academic studies of magic and creating illusions for the blind.
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LEVITT: There’s one particular question about magic that I am dying to know the answer to, and I’m almost afraid to ask because it has the potential to offend maybe two billion people, but I’m going to try it out anyway. But before I get into that, I want to first ask Joshua about his academic research on magic.
LEVITT: One of the things that I think makes you really unusual for a magician is that you aren’t just a performer, but you’re active in so many other facets of magic. So, for instance, you’ve been involved in academic studies of magic. What were the research questions you were asking in that academic study? And what did you discover?
JAY: This is such a weird thrill to have you ask me that question. Because when I had the kernel of the idea to do it, to work with the College of New Jersey on this study that would become pretty well-known in the world of magic, it was from reading your books. It genuinely — and this isn’t lip service — came from a place of how come magic doesn’t have its own Freakonomics-like results? How come we don’t have these shocking answers to questions we thought we knew the answers to?
So, because of that, I wrote down questions I eventually wanted answered. The way it happened was I was hired to do a show for the Psychology Department of College of New Jersey. There were, I don’t know, 250 kids in this hall. And they had all been assigned to read a book called Sleights of Mind, which is a book on the neuroscience of magic. And I did my show. And afterward, they were asking great questions. And one, after the next, after the next, I realized, we don’t know the answers to these questions. And so, afterwards, the head of the department, Professor Lisa Grimm, she said, “Do you want to know? Because I’m sure I could find the funding to find out.”
And what happened was about a two-year study that we did, which really changed what we as magicians thought we knew about our audiences. It wasn’t published in academic journals. It was published in magic journals. So, let me give you an example. We tested the effectiveness of introductions for magic shows. In other words, we would show videos of a magician doing a series of tricks. And it was the same video in both groups — exact same video. But in one video, we would say, “Please watch world-champion magician Shawn Farquhar perform the trick that won him the world championship.” And in the second video — which again, same video — we would just say, “Please watch the following video.”
And then, afterward, we would ask questions about how much they enjoyed it. How were they fooled? If they had to take a guess as to how the trick was done, how would it be done? And the results were shocking. People enjoyed the same video about 50 percent more when they felt they were watching an expert. Can you imagine that? Just from somebody saying they won the world championship and you’re about to see something that is peer-selected by other magicians as high-caliber work. That made people enjoy the same video up to 50 percent more.
LEVITT: So, absolutely, that has been my experience. Whenever I’m going to go on stage, I try to make a prediction as I take the stage of whether the presentation will go well or go poorly. And one of the most important factors I put into that is the introduction, how the person who introduces me introduces me, but also the audience’s reaction to it.
I’ve historically put a lot more weight on the reaction the audience has to the introducer. But since I stumbled onto your study, I’m much more precise about how I get introduced. It’s really what we want academics to do, which it almost never does. You did this very narrow study to try to answer a question that you were interested in. But I was able to take that result, and in a completely different domain, I now use that to my benefit.
JAY: So, tell me about this. How do you do that now? Do you carefully craft the words of the introduction and then give it to somebody to read? Or do you go over it with them?
LEVITT: It used to be if someone said, “How do you want to be introduced?” I would just say, “I don’t care, whatever you have.” Now, I point them in the direction of, “Oh, here’s something that somebody used before that worked out really well.”
JAY: What was interesting was, the people who watched the clip with the introduction guessed less accurately as to how the trick was done than those who didn’t. In other words, we were forced by the numbers to come to the conclusion that having an effective introduction made people figure out the tricks less successfully.
And the only thing I can hazard a guess on is: if you feel you’re in the hands of a true expert, a wildly wonderful magician, then you submit to them. You say, “I’m not going to even try to figure this out because it’s not going to be of any use because this person is really good.” Whereas if you just say, “Please watch this magic trick,” a lot of people go, “O.K., hit me with it. Let me see if I can figure this out.” And your guard is up. But isn’t that fascinating, that just an introduction makes people guess less accurately to how the tricks are done?
LEVITT: So, I live that every day. There was a time not too long ago when nobody knew who I was. I relatively quickly went from being a total unknown to being kind of notorious. And my thinking process and my insights did not change at all in that short period of time. But how people reacted to me changed dramatically. I got 100 I.Q. points smarter overnight by virtue of Freakonomics being public and everybody anticipating that what I would say would be brilliant.
I was at a wedding maybe 10 or 15 years ago. And I was sitting at dinner. The person across from me was so intellectually disrespectful of me. I mean, they treated me like I was a moron. I was so angry because I’ve gotten used to being treated with so much respect. After about five minutes, my anger turned into pure joy. I thought, “This is amazing. I am getting the opportunity to be treated like a total loser.”
It was so much fun that I actually followed this person around the entire wedding and just got berated by this person over and over and over. And since that time, I’ve sought out opportunities where people don’t know who I am so that I can actually get good feedback on how dumb the stuff I say is all the time.
JAY: We have this saying in magic — unwilling suspension of disbelief. It’s what Teller calls the difference between what you see and what you know. So, you’re seeing something on stage, you’re seeing a ball floating, and you know balls don’t float. And therein lies the magic, that you’re forced to suspend your disbelief. A willing suspension of disbelief is when you pretend. You play pretend. You see Peter Pan floating in the play. And you know you see the wires, but you choose not to see the wires because you want to be swept away in the narrative.
I think that in magic, only the first couple beats of the show are an unwilling suspension of disbelief. So, that’s why my show starts with a production of a wine bottle from nowhere and then a production of an orange, and then a couple other quick magic things that are just out of nowhere. And you have no choice but to hopefully be fooled and appreciate them.
But then, I’m implicitly asking the audience to come on a little bit of a faith journey with me where they have to just go with it because I need them to pretend a little bit. And I’ll tell you, if I jumbled up the order of my show, it would be a lot less effective. I know, because I’ve tried. Because if you want people to go with you and stick their neck out, they’re not willing to do it until they’ve been fooled and intellectually beaten into submission, so to speak.
LEVITT: Now, you have tried to develop tricks for the blind. Can you explain why, how, what your thought process is behind that?
JAY: So, it started because when I first moved from Ohio, where I was born and raised, to New York, my apartment was and still is right across the street from the biggest blind center in Manhattan. And because of that, sightless people are everywhere in my neighborhood. I see them getting coffee. I see them at the donut shop. They’re at every crosswalk. And in our neighborhood, you get used to assisting people crossing the street and chatting with these people, and you come to know them.
I just realized one day that a sightless person never gets to experience magic. And that just struck me as so weird and so tragic that it’s just one of those things, like looking at a painting or watching a sunrise, that a blind person will never get to do. And as a creative challenge, I wanted to try to devise a trick that could be experienced by a blind person. So, the first realization is that, O.K., if they can’t use their sense of sight, they have to experience magic in a different way. And that could be tactilely, but it could also be intellectually. We could fool their mind.
With that as a starting point, I devised a trick that would become what I call “Out of Sight.” For a long time, it was my closing piece. And when I performed for a group of blind people I constructed a whole show. And I learned a lot that day about what works and what doesn’t work. But it was incredible. I don’t mean to get dramatic, but some of the facilitators — it was at a school — were crying because they were saying, “Magic is just not something in the landscape for these people. It’s just not on their radar because they were never able to experience it.”
And to have them holding coins and count the coins from hand to hand and be amazed by that was something new to them. I took this trick onto a show called Penn & Teller: Fool Us. And I was performing it for Penn and Teller, who obviously have the use of sight. But I was able to tell this story, which is a cool awareness presentation, and I fooled them with it.
LEVITT: So Penn and Teller, of course, are a famous magical duo, and on their TV show, magicians are invited to perform their magical acts and then Penn and Teller try to guess how it was done. And only about one in 10 people who go on that show are successful in fooling Penn and Teller. Did you expect it for them or were you surprised?
JAY: It’s funny. In the reality television sphere, they do such a thorough job of programming you not to try to care. I must have heard the phrase, “The show’s not about fooling them. It’s just a great showcase for you and great magic.” But, it’s a little bit like the coach telling the high school basketball team it’s not about winning. It is about winning.
And I will tell you, I love Penn and Teller. So, of course, I was surprised and flattered. But I thought I had a really good shot at it because — I mean, I don’t want to give away too much for your listeners. But if you go and watch the clip it’s a card trick that starts the same as any card trick. But in the end, something happens that doesn’t happen in any other card trick. And then, I give the deck away. And that’s the part that’s like: well, wait a minute, if you had a trick deck, maybe somehow. But I give the deck away, and it’s totally examinable.
LEVITT: This is a crazy question. I once heard it argued that perhaps Jesus was a really talented magician and had pulled off many of the miracles in a magical sense. Have you ever thought about that?
JAY: That’s a crazy left-field question; I love it. I took a class at university: The Founding of Religions. And we read this book, The Kingdom of Matthias, about alternate messiahs in and around the time of Jesus Christ. And they all practice tricks. I mean, I don’t want to offend anybody here. They all practiced tricks that can be simulated by conjuring tricks in contemporary times.
In other words, water to wine is a trick that would have been used in basically all civilizations at that time. Walking on water — I know they say that it often can be the illusion created when walking in a desert. When they create that oasis of hot air rising, it can look like ripples in water. I don’t have any specific insight as to whether Jesus was really good with a deck of cards, but what I can say is a lot of the so-called miracles he became known for are contemporary conjuring tricks.
LEVITT: Yeah, no comment. I don’t want to get into trouble by making any comment, but, wow, can you imagine the implications? Obviously, there’s no way to prove it one way or the other. But imagine if it were proven. I wonder what the implications would be for modern society.
JAY: Well, and remember, if you fast forward just a little bit in history, there is a demarcation point when we separate so-called black magic from white magic. So, you separate demonic magic, spells, hexes, ordaining of the gods, from conjuring tricks. And in the West, we put that at the year 1584 with the publication of a book called The Discoverie of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot. And this was a book published that exposed magic.
But he had the ultimate great excuse for exposing magicians’ tricks, because he said implicitly, “I don’t want to have magicians burned at the stake.” In 1570s, in England — in Elizabethan England — you could be burned at the stake for doing a trick like water to wine. You could be burned at the stake for doing conjuring on the street because they didn’t separate that from witchcraft.
And when he published this book, he said, “Look, it’s palming. Look, it’s just the anatomy of a chicken. It looks like the head comes off, but it really doesn’t.” And that started this separation of conjuring as entertainment instead of conjuring as a method of controlling people.
LEVITT: For two decades, you’ve been performing hundreds of shows a year. And I presume you haven’t performed at all since lockdown. What’s that been like for you?
JAY: Weird. Really weird. It’s actually not even entirely true. Magicians were among the first to pivot to virtual shows. And I’m one of those people. I could list 100 things I don’t like about it, but I can list a few that I really do like about it too. For about five months I didn’t do a single show, which was the longest I’ve ever gone since I was seven-years-old without being in front of an audience. And I missed it.
But it was also a growing experience for me because I always live every single night with that futile feeling of going to bed going, “Oh, if only I wasn’t tired. I would love to work on this new idea. I would love to build this prop. I would love to try out this new trick. I’d love to practice for three months this slight to get it perfect.” And finally, for the first time in my life, at 38-years-old, I had the ability to do those things.
LEVITT: So, tell me about virtual magic versus in-person magic. You’re highly analytical. How did you approach the change in venue? And what do you do differently?
JAY: The way I look at it is simply this: these cameras are little windows into our world. And I told you at the beginning of our chat today that my core promise was to help people deepen their appreciation for magic. And one way that I have an advantage in my core promise to people over an in-person show is that I’m filming it here in my Manhattan apartment.
I can show them Houdini‘s straitjacket, which is an item from my collection. I can do tricks with the 1,000 magic books that form my backdrop, where they pick any page in any book and I make something appear there. I can talk about great magicians that nobody’s ever heard of like Cardini and Chung Ling Soo. I can talk about the creative process and show a trick before and after. These are ways I can deepen people’s appreciation for the craft that I can’t do on a stage but I can do it when you’re here with me in my apartment in Manhattan.
LEVITT: Do you have any public shows coming up where people could experience that?
JAY: I do, indeed. Thanks for asking. So, March 3rd I’m doing a public performance of a show called “How Magicians Think,” which is part magic show and part just the sort of stuff we’re talking about today — creative process, the history of magic, the psychology of magicians.
LEVITT: So, the last question — you have followed your passion for 20 years with an intensity that’s almost unbelievable. Do you have advice for someone with passion for an activity that is a nontraditional career path which won’t lead to riches or fame for them?
JAY: My advice is just two simple steps. The first one is the test. And the test is: is it a white-hot burning desire in you that you have to do this every day? Is it a compulsion? Is it an impulse? Is it the lens you see the world through? If the answers to those questions take you less than one millisecond and it’s a resounding yes, then you can move right to step two. And you know you need to follow your passion at whatever cost.
I jump out of bed in the morning to get back to whatever I was doing at 2:00 a.m. That’s how much I love whatever I’m working on. If you love what you do and you have that passion, then the only question is: how can you live a fulfilling life with it? And for me, I could never be fulfilled as a performing magician. For me, what makes magic the ultimate career is that I get to write about it and publish books. I get to speak at universities. I get to invent tricks for other magicians. I get to consult on film and TV I get to perform my show. I get to make toys with magic principles.
There’s an endless amount of things that I’m working on at any one time that make it such a cool job and a three-dimensional job. And I would just hope that whether it’s collecting puzzles or painting or whatever it is you follow, that you’ll find a way to see it in three dimensions.
LEVITT: Young people are often told they should find something they love and pursue it with everything they have. I’ve never really liked that advice. The problem is, when you’re just getting started with something, whether it’s magic or economics or even a new relationship, you just don’t know very much about the object you’ve fallen in love with.
And as you get to know it better, what you initially loved often proves illusory or fades in importance. I mean, I still pursue the thing I love over something more practical every time. It’s a great place to start, but it’s only a start. To create a lasting love of something, you have to make it your own. Or as Joshua says, make it three-dimensional.
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People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and coming soon, Sudhir Breaks the Internet. This show is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher. Morgan Levey is our producer and Dan Dzula is the engineer; our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Mark McClusky, Greg Rippin, and Emma Tyrrell. We had help on this episode from James Foster. All of the music you heard on this show was composed by Luis Guerra. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. We can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s P-I-M-A at Freakonomics.com. Thanks for listening.
JAY: When you close your eyes and think magician, I don’t even have to guess. Everybody thinks of a guy. He’s probably in a tuxedo. He’s probably middle-aged. He might have a mustache. And he’s probably got a top hat.