Friday, December 17, 2004

Magicians and Plants

A word now on magic acts.

Anyone else out there like a good magic show? No? Well too bad. That's our topic for today. I like a good magic show. I like the oohs and ahhs and the howd-they-do-that puzzling during the drive home. Vegas has a lot of magic shows and I've seen a bunch now.

But here's a big word of warning to the magic world at large. Having your "volunteer from the audience" be a plant is just not acceptable. I think we should ban the audience plant.

Take the Cirque du Soleil show "O" here in town. It's technically not a magic show, but there is a little bit of that. Specifically, 3 times during the show they came into the audience and drafted a volunteer. And to make a long story short, with each of the three audience volunteers, the "O" crew does an amazing trick, involving the life-or-death peril of the audience member. And each time, we ooh and ahh. And then each time, a-ha! The audience volunteer is revelaed to be part of the show, a skilled acrobatic performer.

Not once. Three times. That is so lame. The third time the seemingly uncooperative audience member had to hand his coat to his wife and get pulled onstage by a clown, I'm thinking "They're not going to do this AGAIN, right? He's not going to be a plant, right? They wouldn't go for this cheap, unearned nickel & dime surprise for a third time, right?"

And then a-ha! Presto! He was a cast member all along! Just like the other two times! Let's have a hand!

That's just one example of how cheap it is to use plants. Consider a Sigfried & Roy performance I once attended. (pre-mauling of course) Toward the end of the show, right before the big finale where they make an elephant disappear, my eagle eyes noticed men and women sneaking in to the audience from the back and qiuetly taking seats. About 15 people secretly entered from the back and took empty seats while the audience's attention was distracted on stage. I felt triumphant. When these people were eventually used for a trick, I alone would know the secret. But then the show ended - without Sigfried and Roy using the plants. Huh? Why were they there then? They were obviously part of the show.

But the secret was revealed when Siegfried and Roy came out for their bow. The 15 plants, scattered through the audience, initiated a standing ovation with practiced coordination.


But the more general problem with audience plants is that they have the capacity to ruin any trick. Take Penn & Teller's magic bullet trick. (The trick they've been closing their show with for years and years) The trick has worked so well for so many years because it really is unfathomable. Two volunteers from the audience write their initials on two bullets, which are loaded into guns - the volunteers inspect the guns and the bullets for authenticity - then the guns are fired across the stage into Penn & Teller's mouths - and then Penn & Teller spit out the bullets - at which point the two volunteers confirm that yes, those are the actual bullets they signed just moments ago. Ta-da.

Now if those audience members were plants, then there was no trick. "Yes, Penn, that was indeed the bullet that I just signed. How did you DO that? Whoops, sorry, have to run, Siegfried & Roy need me to generate a standing ovation."

There's just no way of knowing if those guys were plants. Anytime I see a trick using a volunteer, the easiest explanation for the trick is going to be "The volunteer was a plant. He's in cahoots with the magicians. The trick therefore is childishly simple."

So this is why I think plants should be banned. I don't really suspect that Penn & Teller were using plants for the bullet trick, but then again I don't know for sure. And if plants are used, then that's really, really cheap. Your magic act sucks if you use plants.

A general proclamation or sign would suffice. "This show does not use audience plants. All volunteers are 100% legit. We would not jerk you around in that sorry manner. Thank you."


Anonymous said...

For the magic bullet trick the volunteers aren't plants. Check out this blog of a volunteer

Stephen and Blair Ritger said...

Either the volunteers are plants, or the prop is manipulated after the relevant info is gathered. Psychic powers don't exist.