This is a good week for magic. Our beginners and semi-pros are going to be more visible practicing their art, and our pros are going to feel the pride and purpose the art gives us. The reason is pretty simple, actually: David Blaine has a new show debuting Tuesday on ABC.
Called “David Blaine: Beyond Magic,” the show description from ABC promises magic performed for celebrities from Johnny Depp to Emma Stone, from Patrick Stewart to Dave Chappelle. Here’s the pretty words ABC’s press release uses: “Blaine returns with his most revealing performance yet. Two years in the making, Blaine pulls the lid off of his signature brand of street magic, sparking reactions that will awe audiences and defy all expectations.”
All that descriptive text is not necessary to appeal to magicians. The only words you need are these: “David Blaine is performing magic.”
What “Rent” is to theater geeks, what “Half-Life” is to video game players, what “Firefly” is to sci-fi TV show fans — that’s David Blaine to magicians. He is highly revered and heralded by those who devote energy to the performance of magic.
Perfect example: I used to work for one of the internet’s biggest online magic instruction websites, and Blaine programs were big events to anchor promotions around. We could watch the web traffic and see the search results for ourselves: Blaine inspired many to be curious about magic, and many others in how to perform it. Heck, I’m feeling it firsthand. I’ve been shuffling my cards a little bit more lately, feeling the urge to go perform and possibly line up some gigs.
Reasons why David Blaine is magic
Why doesn’t this happen after Criss Angel shows? Why don’t magicians get crazy inspired after watching episodes of “Penn and Teller: Fool Us”? Why don’t any of the other street magic shows get magicians fired up to show their art to people? The reasons deal with exactly why Blaine is so compelling and inspiring:
• BLAINE POPULARIZED CLOSE-UP MAGIC. Also referred to as parlor or strolling magic, close-up is exactly like it sounds: Up close and personal. The stage is anywhere a crowd is, and can be as small as a spectator’s outstretched hand.
Most of the big names got big because they performed on stages for big crowds. But for viewers, the bigger the stage and the more controlled the environment, the more actual doubt and shock get pushed aside a bit. And history is filled with outstanding magicians who made their reputation on small stages. When their talents were discovered and introduced to mass audiences, TV angles and other considerations were bent toward focusing on that small miracle.
Here’s the key difference between the two: Close-up magic looks more real. The phrase “how did they do that,” spoken from an audience member in a theater, takes on a very different meaning when something magical happens in someone’s hands, right in front of their eyes. Magicians see this for themselves. That’s why we LOVE performing close-up: The energy we get from a single spectator can be just as fulfilling and intoxicating as a roar from a crowd.
• BLAINE CREATED STREET MAGIC AND REVOLUTIONIZED TV MAGIC. That’s not technically accurate, and my fellow magicians will love pointing that out (we love getting picky, and we’ll hash it out on internet magic forums). What Blaine created, however, was a form of magic that increased attention on a spectator’s experience.
Keep in mind that magic is the only form of entertainment that does not require suspension of belief. Quite the opposite, actually: Magicians challenge their performers to witness something that is impossible. Blaine’s brand of performance featured in 1997’s “Street Magic” challenged people just living lives, going about their day-to-day. These people weren’t stopping for a busker on the streets, or buying a ticket to a show.
And when you watch Blaine’s first shows, you recognize the spectators as part of the show. Magicians also have immense respect for David Copperfield, but when’s the last time you saw him get less camera time than the crowds? Blaine and his producers deliberately turned the cameras on the audience and made us feel the magic through their reactions.
Seriously. Watch one of his latest performances to Jimmy Fallon and the Roots. When you’re done, you got the biggest charges out of those guys’ reactions. Blaine created the blueprint that most other magic shows now follow.
• THE LATEST SPECIAL FOCUSES ON MAGIC. While Blaine is respected and admired for his magic performance, we magicians got a little sick of him in his TV heyday for a key reason: His specials became focused on stunts. Future shows featured him standing on a pole, standing in a block of ice, being buried alive, holding his breath underwater, etc. Impressive physical challenges, sure. But they weren’t magic.
Every second spent standing on a pole was a second he could have been biting quarters or reading minds. And it wasn’t just the stunts — the shows were filled with so much talking about the stunts. So much introspection. So many shots of Blaine. That’s not why we watched. Give us spectators.
The stunts wore thin for his 2008 show “Dive of Death,” which featured him hanging upside-down not-exactly-continuously, then ending the show with a landing that was not exactly stuck. So magicians were thrilled to see “David Blaine: Real or Magic” in 2013, because it focused on nothing but performance of magic. “Beyond Magic” appears to be more of the same, albeit with more of a “Fear Factor” flavor.
• THERE AREN’T MANY OUTSTANDING MAGIC SHOWS ON TV RIGHT NOW. Right now, the best magic show on TV is CW’s “Penn and Teller: Fool Us” (and it ranks among the finest TV magic shows of all time, by the way). We had Syfy’s “Wizard Wars” a couple of years ago. And that’s basically been it. It’s taken two years for Blaine to come up with 90 more minutes. So we’re going to savor it like a fine brandy.
So yeah. Magicians are stoked a little more than usual. We’re hoping it’s filled with incredible magic and even better reactions. We’ll try to break down amongst ourselves how he did a few of those effects (only a few of them, because we’ll probably instantly recognize a lot more). We’ll look for the names of insiders in the credits. And we’ll hope that he doesn’t spend a lot of time on that bullet catch bit.