In today’s episode, Joshua Jay plays a researcher! (Part 1)
And he doesn’t do a half-bad job. I’ll skip a summary of what his research was about since it’d make more sense for you to just go there yourself, watch the video, and download the PDF.
Let’s move onto the results. Now, I should mention that the results of the data are given in the form of a written report, so instead of making interpretations based on his raw data, we’ve got to make interpretations based on his interpretations, so there may be a bit of a disconnect there. Still, there’s just enough good stuff in there that it warrants taking a look.
“How much do people like magic?”
Spoilers: We beat snuff porn! Yeah!
In all seriousness, this was a bit of a wake-up call. We lost to movies, live comedy, and live music. Movies and music I can understand, but losing to live comedy is a bit of a slap in the face. Now, I say that less as a criticism of live comedy (which I love) but rather as an indictment as to the power (or lack thereof) in magic performance. I suppose the major saving grace is that while most people have watched a ton of movies and seen their fair share of music concerts or live comedians, they probably have seen very few magic shows, if any, so I think this might be more about them imagining an idealized magic show. I wonder how the data would read if we were able to match up against excellent performers in all the various genres, and have audiences compare them upon viewing. I think it might even be possible to have multiple metrics to check, such as rewatchability, or likelihood to refer to friends, etc.
Also missing from the list, despite “magic on television” being there, was just plain “television” itself. I suspect we might not like how we’d have fared there either.
Now, we did beat “going to a party”, “attending a play” and “seeing the dentist” (who the hell are those 3.4% of people who want to see a dentist?!?), but I don’t think this looks good for us. At the very least, we ought to step up our game a bit.
“Where are people seeing magic?”
Apparently the internet is the big winner, another reason why I’d be interested in taking a closer look at the raw data from the first part. Also interestingly, when people were given the choice of watching a supermarket prank, a levitation, a record-setting fast car, or rare footage of a leopard, magic came in a close second to the prank.
There’s two different ways of looking at that. The first is that magic almost came in first! Awesome! The second is that magic beat out things that are very close to what people have already seen before. It’s hard to know how much of a factor novelty is. Of course, that’s still valuable information for prospective performers.
“What do people love (and hate?)
Pre-emptive TL/DR: Love = surprise. Hate = when magicians do the same old tricks.
Surprise beating amazement is neat. Unfortunately when it comes to the data I think it’s possible for there to be a few different gradients of amazement, and that some of the other survey options (“not knowing how it’s done”, “enjoying the mystery of magic”) could conceivably be how some people verbalize the way they experience “amazement”, but whatever, we’ll give Jay’s research team the benefit of the doubt. Even if we simply compare magic to other art forms, apart from the usual “we’re the only ones who can help you get in touch with the awe and wonder you might not have felt since you were a six-year-old etc. etc.”, “surprise” is something that we really can offer that other art forms can’t as easily. Like, even in the case of movies, if you’ve got a story that has a great surprise ending in it, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you want all your movies to have surprise endings, if for no other reason that it would stop being a surprise after a while. On the other hand, surprises feature quite prominently throughout a magic show, and assuming the show was good, an audience would go to another one looking for more surprises.
I also think this is something that highlights a problem with a lot of the more pedestrian magic performances out there. Leaving aside guys like Derren Brown (who could play the harmonica for four hours and people would still think it was genius) a lot of meh magic performances lack the basic notion of surprise. It’s also a good analysis of what differentiates magic for regular folks vs. magic for magicians — magicians, knowing so many methods, get their surprises in different ways than regular folks, who have only generalized ideas (ie: “He switched ’em!”). This is also one reason why I think play-by-play patter gets a bad rap sometimes. Yeah, it’s boring to listen to if you’ve listened to a lot of it before, but at the same time, making sure people understand the state of affairs is vital to making sure that they’re caught off-guard when situation A becomes situation B.
It also adds some nuance to the idea that magicians should tell audiences what they’re going to do until they do them. Usually this is considered good advice to make sure that audiences don’t get ahead of you on the idea of method, but it also has the benefit of being able to heighten the surprise factor of a trick.
Now, it’s possible to take this too far and render one’s entire show free of texture, which would be akin to having only love songs in a concert, or only car chase scenes in a movie. There was actually an interesting review of Nolan’s “Dark Knight” in this article from the New Yorker that talks about the film being in constant climax, which is an interesting problem. Honestly, when I watch it, I know that the final scene with Batman and Harvey Dent is the climactic one, but the high point of the movie honestly feels like the escape of the Joker from prison. Not to belittle the film, which I think is pretty good given that it competes with the like of Bay’s Transformers or whatnot, but this element that the reviewer describes as constant climax can serve to potentially dull the audience somewhat. It’s almost the storytelling equivalent to what Billy McComb said about how you can only really hit an audience over the head once.
That said, even if we don’t want to indulge in too many surprises, we don’t want to abandon the concept entirely. I think this is where something like Oil and Water could be a bit of a problem for audiences that aren’t already magic aficionados. Imagine, for instance, that you should the cards are alternating red and black, and then you said to the audience, “How many of you would be surprised if I could separate the reds from the blacks?” I don’t think all that many spectators would be surprised if you could. That’s not to say that Oil and Water is a bad trick, per se, or that repetitions can’t strengthen it, but rather that I think the based effect might not offer as much surprise potential as others. In any case, it’s interesting to think about.
Regarding “magicians always doing the same tricks”, we already got a taste of this from an older article that you might have seen, and it certainly seems to logically follow from the “surprise” element that the people surveyed found so important to their enjoyment. I think there’s actually tons to be said on this particular question, and I’ll save that for later.
“Can I get a volunteer?”
Good stuff here. I won’t spoil it for you at all — best to download the PDF at the website linked to above and read it yourself. We already kind of knew that it’s a bad idea to sleepwalk through audience selection, but this really highlights the importance of it.
Conclusion to Part 1
I’ll come back to the rest of Joshua Jay’s research at a later date. Sorry, I’m still trying to get back into the swing of things from a writing standpoint, and it’d be bad to burn out early. In the meantime, assuming you haven’t already, hit that link at the top and read it yourself, there’s good stuff in there.