On Demolishing Theories


I was just looking at an old Penn & Teller video on YouTube where Penn apparently runs a 30,000 pound truck over Teller. They spend a good 15 minutes illustrating alternative theories of what the method might conceivably be (trick truck, trap door, reinforced armor), and then they demolish each theory one by one, leaving the viewer open-mouthed. By demolishing all theories first, they have greatly heightened the impact of the effect.

The question on some Internet forums is, is it all right that P&T exposed other methods in order to strengthen their own?

I feel the disproving of alternative solutions is absolutely necessary in magic. If a substantial number of audience members has a theory—even if it’s the wrong one!—you have no magic occurring. Now, how you decide to disprove alternate theories is the big question.

First off—do you disprove before or after the effect?

I’m a big believer in the idea that disproving has to happen before or during the effect. If you disprove after the effect (“See, it was just an ordinary quarter”), as you hand it out afterwards, you may be creating a nice puzzle for the spectator, but you haven’t created the experience of magic. As long as they have an emotional and intellectual out during the performance, that’s where they will go. They will only experience the skepticism of their own theory. You cannot change the emotion of what was experienced during the performance by disproving afterwards.

Let me try to make this idea a little more clear. Say, for example, that your spouse thinks that you drank the last beer in your refrigerator. S/he gets boiling mad. You then prove that you didn’t drink it; in fact, the beer is still there, hiding behind the Organic Non-Fat Cabbage Juice. Okay, so s/he apologizes. But you can’t change the fact that s/he experienced anger, and that your spouse’s body went through those physiological changes associated with anger. In the same way, you can’t go back in time and make an audience member experience the physiological changes of feeling magic by disproving a theory afterwards. You can induce puzzlement, but not magic.

Next important point is: do you disprove explicitly or implicitly? My feeling is that in close-up, with a very small audience to influence, it’s almost always better to suggest implicitly than present “an absolutely ordinary deck of cards.” It’s more powerful if they come to the conclusion on their own, say, that the deck is ordinary because you casually thumbed through the deck face up.

I think there’s more leeway to be explicit in a big illusion. And the bigger the illusion, the more explicit the disproving of alternate theories can and should be. I have no problem with running a hoop around a levitating human being, or handing out Linking Rings to be examined. I’m not sure why I think explicit is better with large illusions, except that with the big illusions, there’s usually one big theory that must be addressed right off, and you must be sure everyone clearly gets that that solution has been disproved, or the trick will seem transparent—even if it’s not.

Okay, next question is, when you disprove an alternate theory, how much are you exposing/ruining it for other performers? Which was the question in the first place, and so by indirections find directions out.

For the most part, I think magicians can talk of methods to an audience in a general way, if it’s obvious that a lay audience would be thinking about those methods anyway. An audience doesn’t come in with a blank slate. They have theories even as they walk in the door of the theater. So I don’t think it’s bad to explicitly mention mirrors, trap doors, duplicates, sleight of hand, and switches to an audience as possible theories, because any audience with a pulse has those theories anyway. But I wouldn’t say, “Now this card trick could theoretically be done by using the R and S principle, but I’ll show you it’s not!” because no lay audience has the slightest conception of the R and S principle.

One final comment. If you’re working mentalism (not mental magic), then of course you have to make everything implicit. Any explicit disproving (except for “This is Test Conditions”) smacks of trickery, the one thing you don’t want to be accused of during a mentalism performance.

The wonderful magician Pop Haydn has said that a magic trick is actually an intellectual construct that surreptitiously seeks to subvert the chain of logic. Part of the magician’s weaponry is the blowing up of other possibilities, leaving only magic as the last remaining possible answer. It’s the magician’s job to use every weapon possible.

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