Is Imitation the Sincerest Form of Flattery?
We’ve heard the phrase many times that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” and we recognize that this is meant to suggest something along the lines of “well, they are so impressed by you that they want to be you.”
I was told this when I was younger as a way to sooth my ire at my younger brother who, like all younger brothers or sisters, followed their older sibling (me) around and did everything that they did.
It never really helped.
On the other hand I’m very proud to say that my younger brother is a totally awesome person all on his own and doesn’t need to be doing anything that I am doing.
Regardless we still have this idea lurking around in our cliché lexicon and we still seem to find it acceptable so long as it is happening to someone else.
I was disabused of that notion a long time ago, mostly through my years of theater and especially in my years of magic. Why be a copy of someone else when you can be an original you? Why burden yourself, especially as an artist, with a lifetime of being compared to someone you’re imitating to begin with? It simply doesn’t make sense.
One of the men who taught this lesson best to me is Jeff McBride. A truly fantastic magician, someone I’ve studied with, learned from and whom I consider as a mentor and guiding light that informs my artistic endeavors as a magician. When you ask magicians who is a truly original performer, Jeff’s name comes bubbling right to the top of the list.
Not only is Jeff a truly original character but he has sincerely devoted himself to teaching other magicians to being as original as he, helping them find the path to developing their own character and presentational style.
So I, like many of Jeff’s other fans, was totally shocked and disheartened to discover that in Thailand, a place Jeff visits fairly frequently I believe, a young magician had stolen Jeff’s act.
I don’t mean a couple of moves or a couple of tricks or maybe a couple of lines. I mean Jeff’s whole act. This magician took, musically, magically, costume, move for move, step for step, Jeff’s entire award winning act. I sat horrified last night as I watched a YouTube video (which thankfully has since been removed) of Jeff’s act being done by someone who was most definitely not Jeff.
This was, in fact, the very act that introduced me to Jeff in the first place. I had no idea who he was until I first saw this act, but by the time it was done I knew that I wanted to be able to do things like Jeff.
And there it is, isn’t it?
You see, while we here have the cliché of imitation and flattery, from what I can gather it seems likely that in Thailand, someone doing such a faithful and accurate reproduction of your work may actually be a true and sincere form of flattery!
At this point we simply don’t know. Was this an act of theft of a sincere mistake made by someone who thought they were paying a true compliment? While I personally knew that I would never be a Jeff McBride, or even an imitation Jeff McBride, apparently this magician may have genuinely thought it was perfectly acceptable.
Theft in the magic community is rampant. In most cases it’s subtle or even done without any conscious thought at all such as repeating a funny line in a story. In some cases, however, it can be painfully obvious like one magician performing another magician’s routine but with a few minor changes so that they can claim it’s their own work.
And in some cases the copy is so blatant, so “faithful” that it crosses the line from theft and into something so absurd that you have to wonder how it’s even possible to imagine how they thought they would go unnoticed.
There is, in fact, a way in which a magician like me might perform one of Jeff’s routines. It’s a very simple way that has always been available.
Yes, that’s right, magic tricks are for sale. That’s why there are magic shops. And if Jeff, or any other magician out there, puts an effect out for sale they are giving you the effect and the routine that goes along with it in the bag/box/book. They choose what they are willing to let go of their own creations and what they are going to keep for themselves.
In writing my own book on magic, Scrolls, I encountered the problem of what I could and could not explain. I used material that was released by other publishers and magicians but did so with their express permission. When I didn’t have that permission I said “the explanation for this effect can be found from this other published work.”
This is how you do it. This is how you learn material and how you feed your own knowledge.
How you feed your creativity is to watch other performers, or read books, listen to music, watch movies and otherwise experience life with an eye towards taking from it the lessons you need so that you can come back and craft something that comes from inside yourself and is therefore truly you.
Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery? Maybe for someone else it is. For me it is not.
But perhaps a slight alteration to the cliché is in order.
Perhaps it could be “Being the source of inspiration is the sincerest form of flattery.”
A little more wordy I suppose, but for me at least, a better place to stand.
This is a video Jeff’s Act that was copied (the first half), the act that introduced me to his work.