It occurred to me that humorists and magicians have something in
common: they both rely heavily on misdirection.

Disclaimer: I’m neither a magician nor a comedian (as you can tell from my
previous post)
so I may not know what I’m talking about.

Magicians use misdirection in their tricks, to draw the audience’s eye
away from the card being palmed, or to trick the mind into thinking
that the coin was dropped or the ball passed to the other hand.

A lot of humor also relies on misdirection, in that the setup to a
joke establishes a certain mental image of a situation, and the
punchline destroys that image and puts another in its place.

Where it gets interesting, I think, is when the audience knows how
things work. Comedians tell jokes to each other, and I’m pretty sure
magicians do tricks for one another. This brings another level of
difficulty to both crafts: how do you misdirect someone who knows
they’re being misdirected?

I’m not sure what magicians do to impress each other — perhaps
something along the lines of “Wow, while we were watching his hands to
see him palm the card, he was actually distracting us from noticing
that his assistant changed from a white outfit to a black one”. But
I’ve noticed a fair amount of meta-humor in The Simpsons and Futurama.
For instance:

[Fry is being Zoidberg’s Cyrano]
Fry: Start with a compliment. Tell her she looks thin.
Dr. Zoidberg: [calling to Edna] You seem malnourished. Are you suffering from internal parasites?
Edna: [pleased] Why, yes. Thanks for noticing.

Here, Zoidberg’s line leads us to believe that in his bumbling manner,
he has misunderstood what Fry was telling him. But Edna’s line reveals
that no, what he said is actually a compliment on this planet.

Of course, in order to make misdirection work, both the magician and
the comedian have to know how their audience thinks, in order to make
them think a certain way. I know that humor doesn’t travel well at
all: what’s hilarious in one country is merely absurd or
incomprehensible in another. I wonder if magic tricks suffer from the
same thing, or whether they tend to rely more on (presumably)
universal psychological elements, like the fact that an object moving
from A to B passes through all the points in between.

Also, are there types of brain damage that prevent one from being able
to appreciate a magic trick?

2 thoughts on “Connections

  1. I was thinking something along similar lines at an Ahmad Jamal concert a few weeks ago. As I see it, the art of good improvisation in jazz is the art of surprising the listener with something that makes perfect sense in retrospect. You hear a pattern and your brain starts to fill in what makes musical sense to it, and then the performer takes it in a completely different direction. You’re startled, you replay what you just heard, and you realize that it fits just as well as what you were expecting, if not better.

    I’m starting to think that the part of my brain that appreciates those sorts of performances is the same part that likes to be surprised by a clever solution to what seemed like a simple problem or by a good joke punch line that seems simultaneously nonsensical and perfectly reasonable. I have no idea how the brain deals with these things, but at first glance, it seems like we’re stimulating the part of the brain that appreciates the opportunity to learn from its mistakes.

  2. I don’t have the jazz-appreciation gene, so I can’t relate directly to what you’re saying, but I can appreciate the principle.

    The common denominator here seems to be surprise. Maybe we’re just wired to like surprises, because they make life interesting. Predictable things are boring. Maybe this is evolution’s way of saying, “Look, I invested a lot in that oversized brain of yours, so you’re going to use it, dammit!” 🙂

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