Theft, magic, comedy, shame

by Brian McKim & Traci Skene on September 25th, 2012

Sounds like a Red Hot Chili Peppers album. But it’s just all the elements that ping pong around our heads when we read this article in Esquire, about Teller’s encounter with a magician who ripped off his signature bit, “Shadows.”

In the article, entitled “The Honor System,” Teller’s travails in dealing with the thief leads into a mini profile of magic trick inventor Jim Steinmeyer, who, tired of being ripped off, has pretty much ceased creating tricks and has taken to writing about magic instead.

Along the way, ideas like honor, patents, thievery and inspiration are explored. One of Steinmeyer’s “builders,” Bill Smith, says:

“Things are just out of control,” Smith says. “It’s the world, and it’s getting worse. There have always been thieves in magic, but thievery has never been so bad as it is now. The biggest shame is, guys like Jim– Jim is retreating. I’m sure he has tons of other good ideas, but he’s not making them, because it’s not worth it. He’s writing books instead.”

In one of those books, Steinmeyer writes that “the best tricks are a “collection of tiny lies, in words and deeds, that are stacked and arranged ingeniously.”

Tricks are compared to jokes.

Like jokes, tricks should have little plots with a twist at the end that’s both implausible and yet logical. You shouldn’t see the punchline coming, but when you do see it, it makes sense. The secret to a great trick isn’t really its method; the method behind most tricks is ugly and disappointing, something blunt and mechanical… What matters in magic is the idea– not just the idea, but the expression of the idea.

Steinmeyer expresses some exasperation at the theft.

“A great trick, like a great song, should be an inspiration,” Steinmeyer says. “It should lead you to other things that are also wonderful. That’s what happens in literature, and it happens in music, and it happens in art. But in magic, they don’t do that. They just take it. You would hope that what you do inspires, but instead it just inspires theft.”

We’re compelled to examine the difference between magic and standup. It seems that 50 years or so ago, when, according to our pet theory, comedians evolved into the “singer-songwriter” mode, comics (and maybe their agents and managers) got a little more stern about enforcing intellectual property claims.   We theorize that television may have had something to do with it.  We here at SHECKYmagazine were even quoted in an abstract by two fellows at the University of Virginia School of Law! (Read “Woe To Those Who Violate Our Norms-Based IP System!”)

Magicians, it seems, have never had a “norms-based system of IP enforcement.” Quite the contrary– young magicians start out with a “magic kit,” master certain “traditional” tricks, then shape and mold an act around those elements. All the while, their colleagues seem not to flinch at using tried-and-true tricks. Indeed, they seem to encourage the dissemination of such tricks throughout the community– to the point where, the article’s author points out, “many magicians have convinced themselves that every trick is fair game so long as they’re able to crack its code.”

Yet there are many magicians out there who have gone to great lengths to separate themselves from the pack, to be meta-magicians– much like Penn & Teller, who, the author says, have invented “a ridiculously poetic method” of exposing the trick.  Or, in some cases, inventing a poetic (or comical) method of winking at the audience while doing technically spectacular illusions.

Read the whole article. It’s fascinating.