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Magicians and Mentalists On TV

Magicians on TV. The good and the bad.

Magic is best experienced in-person, but magicians have been featured on TV for over 60 years, with differing success. In most formats, the magician or mentalist performs for a television host or the studio audience, and those at home feel the value and strength of the performance by witnessing the in-person spectators’ reactions.

Seeking ever greater on-screen audience reactions, some magicians have succumbed to the pressure of to use audience stooges or trick photography/editing. In the magic business, we frown upon these tactics. But in most cases, the magicians and mentalists you see on TV are not cheating in this way. Another challenge with TV performances is the time frame allotted. Few programs give magicians and mentalists more than a couple minutes to perform, forcing the entertainer to edit the routine to the bare bones, often cutting out the nuance and character development.

Despite its drawbacks, television has greatly shaped the direction of magic, most notably with David Blaine’s advent of “street magic.” David Blaine was a Los Angeles magician who popped onto the scene in the 90s with a special where he performed close up magic on the street for groups of pedestrians. It seems odd to think about it now, but that just wasn’t done before him. The casual nature of the format, the apparently low-budget production (typically he’d simply have a deck of cards in hand, dressed in a tee shirt and jeans), helped nudge magic away from large stage sets and flamboyant productions and towards a more streamlined experience. It was similar to what Apple did to the concept of technology. Derren Brown, a UK mentalist, had similar programs, but with a mentalism presentation. Rather than being purely about audience reactions, the shows tended to have a topic to explore, such as influencing choices, in which Brown used mentalism to expose the limitations of freewill. 

I’ve performed on television in the Fox series Masters of Illusion as well as in specials about the Magic Castle and Los Angeles magicians more broadly. And I’ve been a hand double for actors, performing sleights on their behalf. My favorite part of performing as a magician at an event is exploring the relationship between magician/mentalist and audience. Due to the confines of the medium, TV magic rarely replicates that dynamic. So though I can appreciate the occasional magician or mentalist on TV, I prefer to perform in the real world….