In all honesty, my introduction to Harry Anderson was watching Night Court. It was good enough for the sort of giggles you’d expect from competent (if unremarkable) late 80s sitcoms, and if it weren’t for a lucky break catching him on an episode of Cheers playing Harry the Hat, I’d have likely been introduced to Harry as a magician somehow through the magic community, and that would have been a shame.
It’s such a strange thing growing up knowing about guys like Anderson, Steve Martin, Johnny Carson, Neil Patrick Harris et al and after you feel like you’ve known them a long time, only then learning that they’re into magic. It’s a strange thing, both exciting and discomfiting — exciting because it lends credence to the legitimacy of magic as an interest and calling, but discomfiting because magic isn’t the reason why anybody knows or cares about these guys.
It’s not like any of these guys ever abandoned magic entirely or anything. Martin had his great Flydini act, Carson was generous in giving magicians guest spots, and Doogie’s serving on the Magic Castle’s Board of Directors, but I can’t help but wonder — how much the public perception of magic would be lifted if these guys had done things the Ricky Jay way, cashing in on some of the celebrity capital they’ve got, revisited their roots, and really embraced the role of the magician?
Anderson, for his part, did his share. His conman character on Cheers echoed those magicians out there playing the part of the trickster, he put on television specials dedicated to his brand of shenanigans, and he even lifted the needle-through-arm trick from a stunt into something that’s synonymous with him. Many magicians have signature pieces, but (with just a few exceptions) I can’t think of many that have basically taken a trick, embraced it completely and worked with it for so long that they basically mark it as their own territory. The Mike Caveney book seemed to put it best — the way people would talk about it was something like “You’ve got to see this guy. He takes a giant needle and shoved it through his arm, and he thinks it’s funny.” If Dai Vernon’s assertion that a good trick is something that can be expressed in a simple sentence, then here we’ve got an extension of that, where we get a succinct description of both trick and performer. I wish I had that, and I can think of many other magicians who either also wish that, or should be wishing that.
I suppose, if I were being responsible, I’d spend more time talking about his magic, but to be honest, what really gets to me about him is his character. I wish I could find the Magic Cafe thread where this was written, or remember the guy who wrote it, but the key idea that a guy put up there was this: no illusion that happens up on-stage is nearly as important as the magician — the magician is the illusion we need to create and make compelling. Obviously, there’s more than one way to do this well, and if we spent more time focusing on that than on the individual tricks, we’d have more examples to draw from.
But at least we do have Harry the Hat. Look at the cover of Hello Sucker, at that sourpuss expression, the cigarette dangling from his mouth, looking run-down like a motel on the bad side of town, and pretending that you’d never heard of the guy, tell me you don’t want to see him do something. Tell a joke, do a card trick, stick a needle in his arm, whatever. If I had to sum up what “commercial” means to me, it’d be something like that. There’s something being promised there, and we don’t know what, but we want to find out.
Copied and Pasted from Ye Olde Magick Blogge, May 8, 2011. I have nothing to add except to say that you’ll be missed, Harry.