On a rooftop in downtown Los Angeles, some time ago, the conversational topic for some reason turned to magic. That is, magic the performative practice and not magick the occult practice. I bumblingly wondered out loud why magic wasn’t incorporated more widely into contemporary culture-making, or why its methods weren’t used outside of strictly “magical” performances. Lauren chimed in and compared it to comedy: a perfect comparison. While there’s a more specialized sphere we call “comedy,” stricto sensu, in almost every corner of culture-making, you find the broader sense and use of “humor”— one of the basic elements of experimental culture since the late 19th century. However, unlikewise, if we consider stage magic a similarly specialized sphere, we don’t really see culture-makers borrowing its sense and use of marvel (unless we’re talking about techno-marvel, which has an almost opposite effect, further fastening our beliefs in the modern world rather than radically disquieting them). I don’t get why this is the case. Let’s read comedy or humor as an assault of our social assumptions; Henri Bergson described it as a revenge upon our societal automatisms. Magic has the same potential to be an assault on our physical or folk-physical assumptions of the world around us— assumptions that have mostly gone unchallenged since early childhood. So where did magic go wrong? Are we just too turned off by the wienie-ness of its practitioners?
Who knows, but comedy is hardly faring any better. A good comedian is even rarer than a cool magician. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been shooting the breeze with a stranger when suddenly he—and it’s always a he— informs me that he’s a stand-up comedian and then immediately begins to hone his routine on my attention span. Comedy clubs are Hell. Everyone on stage is trying to be funny and everyone in the audience is trying to laugh. But nothing is worse than “funny” comedy. The highest, bravest, best comedy doesn’t try to be funny; it often tries to be not funny, to reach beyond funniness to something that sears and wholly outrages us. Andy Kaufman, Lenny Bruce, and Richard Pryor are exemplars of comedy burning at seraphic heights. Imagine the relief: a comedian taking the mic and deliberately sailing through their act without a sound from the crowd. Or explaining right off: “Don’t laugh if you don’t feel it. Please! I’m going to say some things up here and you might feel compelled to laugh or you might not. But if I hear one fake laugh or pity clap, I’m going to single you out in front of everyone and ask you WHY!” Most comedians just grope for the yucks-button. Let’s contrast “yucks” with “laughter.” Yucks: laughter that has been severed from its deep relation to the whole, to truth and meaning, to social assumptions and automatisms, to the vehement moral force of all true humor. Yucks are produced with the fake brick backdrop in mind. They are “about comedy.”
The following is a clip from a 1977 episode of the Richard Pryor Show (ostensibly a sketch comedy show), entitled “Gun Shop”…
I leapt when I saw this— and not because of any embedded political message (that’s not what I mean by “moral force”). What got me was how the form itself chastises us, the viewers, for our expectations: “what are you laughing at, motherfucker?” In the clip, perfunctory giggles quiet after thirty seconds and give way to a skit that is actually surrealist in the way Breton sets out in the manifestoes and actually black humor as he sets out in the intro to his Anthologie de l’humor noir. Talk about a “superior revolt of the mind.” Talk about being “the mortal enemy of sentimentality”— who could enact this revenge, this catharctic realness, better than Richard Pryor? Breton even cribbed a joke from Freud that seems straight out of a Pryor routine:
and bemoans “What a way to start the week!”
What is the point of going to a comedy club, where social expectations should be sacrificed upon the altar of humor, only to sit through forced laughter and false emotion for hours at a time? Stage magic loses even more in this specialization. By prepping the witness with here-let-me-show-you-a-magic-trick, the magician safeguards our cognitive integrity from any real threat. Instead of making us question our deepest categories about how the natural world works, our bafflement merely transfers onto the performer and their cleverness: how-did-they-do-that? Confession: I briefly dabbled in magic in junior high, but not as performance. I hated all the vanishing Statue-of-Liberty stuff. Instead whenever I got my claws on a new book, I flipped straight to the chapter on “impromptu magic”— magic that uses unprepared and everyday objects on unprepared and everyday witnesses. The dissolution of the stage. The permeation of specialized spheres. Imbuing perfectly natural objects— dollar bills, utensils, tumblers, jacket sleeves— with supernatural qualities. Less “tricks” than “cognitive interventions.” David Blaine, douchey demeanor aside, became a minor hero of mine when I first saw his early TV work, roaming neighborhoods in St. Louis, New Orleans, and Haiti, levitating, reading minds, snapping the heads on and off chickens. In Blaine’s case, the magic was so advanced that the marvelous turned mindblowing and somewhat satisfied my need to see magic unloosed in the quotidian— especially when the cameras held on the witnesses long after the trick, and I got to see them hurled into their own private moments of “revolutionary science.” Still, he told them he was a magician. Why?
In a half-star motel on the outskirts of Philadelphia, two months later, I was gorging on trashy, psychotropic late-nite-TV when I came across a relatively new show called The Carbonaro Effect on TruTV. The Carbonaro Effect is a “new hidden camera magic show,” starring a squeaky-clean magician or performer named Michael Carbonaro who poses as any number of stock characters that populate our daily life: a pet store clerk, a co-worker at a temp job, a cleaning person, a chatty guy at the laundromat. Thus, the witnesses experience the magic not as a performance, not as stage magic, but as a glitch in reality itself. The hypercheesiness of the show makes it no different than shows like Candid Camera or America’s Funniest Home Videos that smuggled in and prefigured a number of radical cultural notions, from the Stanley Milgram experiments to the era of user-generated content. In one clip, Carbonaro convinces a customer that teleportation is now a retail technology. In another, an innocent is made to think life is caught in a loop à la Groundhog’s Day. In yet others, cars vanish, live frogs are produced from green paste, and bowling balls are mailed in packages no thicker than two or three inches. Carbonaro often feigns as much astonishment at the glitches or coincidences as the witnesses, or plays dumb. This is key: the witnesses can never look to Carbonaro as the cause or explanans. They are left to wonder. Left to fill in the gap. The show isn’t a masterpiece, but it does share this with masterpieces: that its truth is the mediation of a contradiction. Nowhere is this truer than in comedy or magic, where the strength of the work depends so fully on the strength of that contradiction. Blaine and Carbonaro are great, but I’m still waiting on the one whose shoes they are not fit to latch: some magician— and some more comedians, frankly— that will let the contradictions run through at the sacrifice of leaving us entertained.