vulture investigates

Ask a Magician: How Hard Is It to Make It in the Illusion Game These Days?

(L-r) STEVE BUSCEMI as Anton Marvelton and STEVE CARELL as Burt Wonderstone in New Line Cinema’s comedy “THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
(L-r) STEVE BUSCEMI as Anton Marvelton and STEVE CARELL as Burt Wonderstone in New Line Cinema’s comedy “THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo: Ben Glass/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc

It’s no secret that Hollywood loves magic, but that love is typically expressed in the guise of Harry Potter–esque wizards or Oz-like witches. This weekend’s Incredible Burt Wonderstone, however, takes the profession to its goofiest extremes, using magic’s cheesier elements to portray a caricature of an industry that is already, to some, easily mocked. Set in Las Vegas, the flick tells the story of cornball magician Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and his partner Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), who rise to fame with a casino-headlining act that crumbles around them when they try to update their stale routine. All the while their rival, street performer Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), continues to climb the magic ladder.

And though the film used magicians like David Copperfield, Penn Jillette, and Criss Angel as consultants, we decided to do some of our own fact-checking, with Jon Armstrong, the president of the Academy of Magical Arts’ Trustee Board. As a “close-up” magician (i.e. a magician whose act specializes in sleight-of-hand, mostly card tricks) currently working a Crystal cruise off the coast of Thailand, Armstrong spoke to us via phone and e-mail to help us put to rest some common misconceptions about what the magic industry is really like in 2013.

In the film, Steve Carell’s character has a hard time finding a replacement gig after he has to leave his cushy Vegas job. How hard is it to make a living as a magician in this day and age?
A movie like this is going to have to make it seem like you are either headlining Vegas or slumming it doing nursing-home shows. In reality, there’s a vast number of places to work in between the two. Cruise ships, comedy clubs, arts centers, trade shows — where the magic is used as a way to draw crowds and promote a product — other convention and corporate shows, casinos outside of Vegas, kid shows, private events, college shows … it’s not easy, but it’s like any small business: If you work at it, and have a strong act, you can make a decent living and never step foot in Vegas.

But are there fewer jobs out there now for magicians than there were, say, twenty years ago? Or has demand generally stayed the same?
I would say the demand has grown a bit, in fact. The entertainment industry seems to [rise and fall] in waves, and magic seems to be on a bit of an upswing at the moment. When venues and certain types of work close up, other new markets always seem to open up.

The Steve Gray character in this movie is a clear parody of Criss Angel and his Mindfreak show. Gray is the bane of Wonderstone’s existence. Is that sort of rivalry real? Is there an unspoken tension between old-school magicians and newer “illusionist” magicians?
There is, always has been, and always will be tensions between the older generation of conjurers and up-and-coming performers. I’m sure this is true in any field.

Has there been a shift in what audiences will accept and label as “magic” — feats of endurance versus sleight-of-hand-type skill?
That really hasn’t happened. There was a shift to more magic on TV being shot in less formal environments. This had been the case since [David] Blaine and his first Street Magic special. But the endurance stunt really goes all the way back to Houdini, though David Blaine brought that element into modern times.

I still don’t think that people think of it as “magic,” though. These [tricks] are usually just stunts to promote a show that has actual magic in it. Chris Rock jokes about them; he calls Blaine a “trickless magician.”

Does the existence of Google and YouTube, places where you can basically look up how any simple magic trick is done, make your job harder?
The answer to that is in your question. Simple magic methods have been exposed throughout the history of magic. One of the first books on magic was an exposé on witchcraft, showing it to be fake. As long as there has been illusion, there’ve been people who think all that matters are the secrets. The art is ever-changing, but its best thinkers are able to keep many steps ahead of these exposés, no matter what forms they take.

So it’s far more about the skill level of the magician than it is about people knowing how the trick is pulled off or not?
Exactly! Skill in both performing, connecting with the audience, executing the method, and, in some cases, coming up with the effect in the first place, is what makes a “real” magician.

Do you and/or other magicians still get people heckling you in the audience, as they would have in times past?
Unless they are drunk, you don’t have many total jerks just yelling out things unless the act they are watching is poor in quality.

Does your routine have a trick that wins over even the cynics?
In my act, it’s really not just one routine but the whole thing that wins people over. The best magicians, like the ones you see at the Magic Castle, they understand that winning people over is important. Magic doesn’t always have the best reputation, and making sure that whenever anyone sees magic, they see it at it’s best is not only good for business, it’s good for the art.

What are the pros and cons of the different “attitudes” magicians can take on when they’re constructing their onstage personas? For example, a smooth, cool-type magician like Steve Gray (or Criss Angel, if you will), versus a goofier type like Burt Wonderstone?
I think the style of performance is very important to how that performer wants the audience to perceive them. A magician isn’t doing himself any favors if he doesn’t look in the mirror first before choosing a persona.

How hard is it to get invited to become a member of the Academy of Magical Arts? It seems like an AMA stamp of approval is the key to any type of magician success at all.
Any magician, pro, semi-pro, or hobbyist is welcome to become a member. Passing the audition, on the other hand, is a whole other matter.

Sounds intense. What does that entail?
They do at least ten minutes of magic before a group of AMA members, magic experts, and professionals. They’re asked about their interest in magic, how they came to the craft — it can be intense performing for some of the people in that room. [Editor’s note: The current AMA president is Neil Patrick Harris, so — yeah, pretty intimidating.]

Does a goofy movie like The Incredible Burt Wonderstone make magicians look bad?
I don’t think it makes us look bad; it’s just parody. Dog shows and rock and roll seem to still be going strong after Best in Show and Spinal Tap.

In my opinion, and I really have no idea, but the people who made this movie seemed to like, and maybe even love, magic. I performed for [Wonderstone star] Olivia Wilde at the Magic Castle, and she really seemed to be enchanted by the whole place and was truly interested in what life as a magician was really about.

Are there any movies or TV shows about magicians that enrage magicians pretty much across the board?
I’m really racking my brain on this one … which I guess means the answer is no. I mean, a show like Arrested Development that lampoons magic (and even the Magic Castle) is pretty much beloved by most of the community. I even know a magician that did a Gob act at a magic convention performance contest and won.

Wait, I know a TV show that enrages magicians: Mindfreak.

Aha, so magicians’ blood really does boil at the mention of Criss Angel.
Yeah, but for many reasons I don’t care to mention here.

How Hard Is It to Make It As a Magician Today?