The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

July 12, 2013

Joe Hadsall: Journalists clueless in covering magicians

By Joe Hadsall
Globe Features Editor

JOPLIN, Mo. — As a journalist and as a magician, it really bothers me how journalists have generally no idea how to cover magicians.

Entertainment journalists around the world can get into the heads of movie stars, musicians, TV personalities and authors just fine. I've read so many insightful interviews featuring some of my favorites in entertainment -- deep, probing reports that get to the heart of why they do what they do, what inspired them, etc.

But when it comes to magicians, the same entertainment journalists turn into bubbling, effervescent kiddies who get geeked out at the thrill of maybe learning a secret or two, completely forgetting everything about the character of the person who performs those miracles.

I've read some good stories about magicians -- some reporters get it. And the reporters who get it are usually working with words. TV reporters are so focused on the visuals of tricks that they spend all the time on those, without getting into the story behind the artist.

Look no further than late-night entertainment as proof: If you see a magician interviewed as a guest, that magician will always perform, and the majority of the performance will be magic.

Musicians will sing, true, but half the time they'll get just as much time to talk. Authors won't be asked to read their writings. Actors are never asked to re-enact scenes or say famous lines, unless they are Mandy Patinkin.

Yet, for magicians, it's all about the magic. Forget about the background. You'd think that magicians would take more advantage of this lack of serious introspection and use it to further their acts. And many entertainment reporters probably assume that this is exactly the case, and play along.

But magicians are more than happy to tell you about their inspirations, influences and idiosyncrasies. They just don't want to explain how their tricks are done. So stop asking.

Yet for some journalists, trick revelation is all that matters.


How'd he do that?

Dynamo is the latest big-name magician to see this happen. A few weeks ago, the British magician engineered a publicity stunt with Pepsi Max: He rode through town levitating alongside a double-decker bus.

The spectacle was pretty cool. The pictures and video looked great -- holding onto the side of the bus with one arm, Dynamo floated and dangled his feet. Pepsi got its money's worth.

But a group of entertainment journalists moved quickly and got to the bottom of the illusion by that dirty, sneaky Dynamo, trying to convince people he was actually levitating. They quickly pointed out things that were fairly obvious, then proceeded to reveal how the stunt was done with a fervor that makes me wish they would cover U.S. policy over the banking industry. Seriously, that needs major revelation.

The same thing happened to Criss Angel a few years back. For his "Mindfreak" show, he filmed himself escaping from a hotel being demolished. During the show, cameras made it appear that Angel had problems with the handcuffs and that he was lost in the exploding rubble, only to emerge smoky and dusty a few minutes later.

TV magic is simply not as convincing as a live performance, so you probably already have a clue about how that illusion was crafted. But a Tampa TV station had a helicopter filming from behind the hotel, and they caught footage of Angel escaping out the back during a time he allegedly had handcuff issues.

And David Blaine experienced a pretty spectacular failure during his "Dive of Death" special in 2007. Journalists were quick to dog his hanging upside-down stunt and took pictures of him "taking breaks." Then the finale of the TV special failed -- instead of  jumping down and disappearing, cameras captured him just floating away at the end of a helicopter tether.

The finale was such a bomb that Blaine appeared on some morning talk shows and apologized for the stunt.

Secrets are tricky

Did any of those three magicians care about how their tricks were revealed? Difficult to say.

Of course, magicians don't want the secrets of sleights spilled so casually. It's not like magic tricks are like movies with great twists -- the only time people will actively avoid knowledge about how things unfold. A lady sawed in half is nothing like "The Sixth Sense," after all. But in those three instances, I'm not so sure the magicians were really bothered.

Dynamo's bus stunt got him coverage, and the revelations added to that coverage. That's kind of the point of a publicity campaign; he and Pepsi are pretty pleased, I imagine. And that also makes Watch Network, the British channel that broadcasts "Dynamo: Magician Impossible," pretty happy.

In a similar manner, Angel was probably pretty happy with the extra attention given to "Mindfreak." He was in Springfield last month filming a bit with disappearing elephants for a new Spike TV series. And while he would frown on the exposure of his specific method, it's pretty easy to find books on how to make elephants disappear -- especially on how Houdini did it.

Blaine is a little different, because of his apology, and because most of the criticism dealt with a stunt, not a magic trick.

More than tricks

I understand magic is a little different than all other art forms, because it is the only one that welcomes disbelief as an end result rather than asking for its suspension. Most of you have no problem enjoying "Man of Steel," although you all know that having Superman's superpowers is impossible. We all love stories, from the horror of "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," to the historical fiction of Bill O'Reilly's "Killing Lincoln." (Zing!)

Yet, when a magician does a trick, some people go into puzzle-solving mode, where they try to figure out the trick. As a magician, I love those kind of people: They are some of the easiest to fool.

Part of that is on the magician, who needs to perform those illusions in a way that fill people with awe and mystery, not trying to figure out a puzzle.

But the people performing those incredible illusions have stories that they want to share. Unfortunately, journalists don't probe for those stories until the magician gets to be as big as Blaine.

There are so many incredible magicians out there. One of them, Michael Kent, will be performing at MSSU on Sept. 17. Trust me, you want to see him perform. Kent is brilliant and brutally funny.

I'll be hounding him for an interview closer to his performance, mainly because I've interviewed him before. I know about how he got into magic and his unique presentation.

"Oh sure, Joe," you might think. "You just know his story because you already know how he does all of his tricks, so, of course, you don't care about that."

Kent is a stage magician, and I've stuck to the world of close-up. I have no idea how Kent does some stuff, and I don't care, because the story of how he got into magic is pretty interesting. How seriously he takes comedy is fascinating.

And that's the catch about magic: So much of it is about the presentation, not the trick. No one goes to a David Copperfield show because they want to see the trick with the slow-motion goose. They go because they want to see David Copperfield.

If journalists could grasp that basic fact then reports about magicians would get much better.