But that does mean that when magic shows do come on television then magicians like me flock to them desperate to be entertained. We hunger for the opportunity to see something new and different, to see something that might challenge us or inspire us to engage.
Well, I’ve got some good news and some bad news.
The good news is that there are two new shows on television for magicians to enjoy. The bad news is that you’re only going to enjoy one of them.
Well, that’s what I think anyway. And if you are anything like me, you want the bad news first so you can get it out of the way.
So, The CW is airing a show called Masters of Illusion. What a disappointment. In truth I only heard about this show at all because one of my mentors (Jeff McBride) will be appearing on it, so he announced it on his Facebook feed. I have watched four episodes so far and I have yet to see an episode where he appears but I am dreading it. Not because Jeff will be bad, far from it. In point of fact my feeling is that many of the magicians appearing on this show are probably quite brilliant.
The problem is the editing. It’s terrible.
Allow me to explain. Magic as an art requires at least a small amount of time for every magician to establish themselves and their character on stage. This can be done relatively quickly or it can take a bit longer, especially if you have information you want the audience to know before you start performing the effect. We need that time to establish the storyline and to create the right mood to build the effect.
Some years ago for about five years running at Thanksgiving a magic show aired called Worlds Greatest Magic (which was, by the way, the first time I ever saw Jeff McBride perform). This show would feature about 8 magicians and would take an hour to run. There would be a host and even some magic taught to the viewing audience. But because the format was as long as it was all of the magicians were given a decent slice of time to not only establish themselves and their act, but to be properly introduced and lauded for their accomplishments (winner of this award or that award, voted best magician by this group, etc, etc, etc), so that the audience could truly appreciate who these performers were and what they had accomplished in order to be considered among the “Worlds Greatest”.
The editors at The CW seem to think that they can take the same basic show and cram it into half an hour. No lessons, almost nothing in the way of introductions, no chances at all for the magicians to establish themselves or their acts on stage. Every aspect of the show is rushed and as a result nothing is particularly entertaining.
It’s clear that these are some talented magicians for the most part (okay, yes, a couple are really surprisingly bad from my personal perspective). And I’m sure that given a more reasonable amount of time they could, in fact, be vastly more interesting than The CW seems to be willing to allow them and that is a real shame.
Magic as an art form, as an entertainment can be one of the most satisfying not just for the performers but for an audience that really is drowning in the vast mediocrity of television options. Little would have to change right now for the show to be improved ten fold. Make the show an hour long and give those same magicians a nicer slice of time and they will do the rest. Guaranteed. The CW would have a winner on its hands.
But I did say there was good news too, didn’t I? Well there is and it comes in the form of yet another Penn & Teller show called Wizard Wars.
Competition shows have become a pretty solid mainstay of television fair right now, and SyFy has come up with a number of them over the years that have been just eccentric enough to win them some solid ratings. Well, SyFy has taken a chance on magicians this time with Penn & Teller at the helm.
Wizard Wars is a competition show where two teams of magicians come in, are handed a stack of random everyday objects and told “Go make a magic act using all this junk.” Then the teams come back, compete against each other for an audience and a panel of judges consisting of Penn & Teller and two other judges. The winning team moves on to the next round where they will compete against two of the four “Wizards” to create yet another original piece of magic with a whole new pile of random objects.
If the competitors win they get $10,000.
All of this takes place in a nice comfortable hour long block were we get to see each of the four “Wizards” do a little something, we get to learn about the competitors and what they do, we get to see four full acts from start to finish, and we get to learn a little something from Penn & Teller as well.
There has only been one episode of Wizard Wars to date and already I am totally blown away. And I think that the magic I’ve seen in Wizard Wars is significantly better than what I’ve seen on four episodes of Masters of Illusion.
Okay, so I don’t have a lot of options to watch magic on television, and I’ll keep watching Masters of Illusion because I’m fairly certain that The CW knows that my lack of choice guarantees them at least some audience share. But Wizard Wars wins this war in my opinion hands down.
BONUS: Penn & Teller ran a show over in the UK for the past couple of years called Penn & Teller: Fool Us which was another competition type show. Performers came on, did their acts and if they were good enough to fool Penn & Teller, then they got to come to Vegas to open for Penn & Teller in their theatre.
All those episodes are now airing here in the US. Yes, I watched several of them on YouTube, but they are here now on broadcast television, so one more option for my magic viewing pleasure!
As a general rule there really isn’t much magic on television. In a sense this is both a good thing and a bad thing.
It is a bad thing because it starves a lot of magic fans of entertainment that they want to see.
It is a good thing because it doesn’t glut the market or dull the potential audience to possible entertainment options.
So, when something comes on that I wasn’t aware of I try and catch as much of it as I can and “Magic Man” on the Travel Channel is the latest bit of television magic I have found. The magician is guy named J.B. Benn. He is billed as one of the worlds most famous close-up magicians. Which naturally means that I’ve never heard of him.
The general premise of the show is that he goes to some destination spot and he does street and bar magic. I have very mixed feelings about the whole show honestly. I have watched five or six of the half-hour long episodes and it seems like it kind of misses the mark both as a show featuring a destination spot and as a show featuring a magician.
They never really tell you very much about the spot he is in. Not even as much as you would likely find out if you simply did a quick Google search on the location in question.
The magic he does is solid in terms of being entertaining and extremely skillful. But they have virtually nothing to do with the location he’s at. He doesn’t seem to take the time to create presentations that take real advantage of where he is at for story telling or background purposes, except in the most perfunctory ways. In fact, of all the magic I have seen him do so far, about 90% of it is material that I am aware of as being popularly available in the 90’s. I could literally sit there and tell you effect by effect what he was doing and from what magician it was marketed.
Now, the truth is that I myself have been feeling the pinch of my current repertoire becoming stale. And knowing that I have a pretty substantial library and magic collection it makes sense that I should dive into it in order to find “new” things for me to do. Everything old is new again.
But I have to admit to a significant amount of disappointment in seeing things that this “world famous” magician was doing which barely deviated from the store bought directions and “patter.” Yet here he is with his own TV show. So clearly he is doing something right, even if it is just selling himself successfully to The Travel Channel.
I guess the lesson is that while “Everything Old is New Again” seems like a good foundation, it isn’t going to be artistically satisfying without a healthy dose of personalization and personality. And I’m okay with that.
Below is a clip from the show. It is one I selected as being pretty indicative of everything I’ve seen so far. I won’t give anything away, but let me just say that the effect you are going to see is almost exactly as I learned it from one of the magicians who was a very early on formative teacher of mine in the mid 90’s.