the fan club of knowledge

The Modern Fanclub: David Mamet on 30 Years’ Talk With Ricky Jay

Jay and Mamet in 2013. Photo: 2013 Amanda Edwards

Being an author involves, unfortunately, a certain amount of “writing things down.” This is a periodic and irksome interruption of a day spent in either arrogant or self-loathing indolence.

Hemingway wrote, “It is always a mistake to know a writer.” Too true, as it can only lead to a revolted disillusion — for any writer of worth (and I will except Oscar Wilde) on acquaintance, can only be found stunningly less interesting than his work.

Moses came down from the mountain to find the Jews worshipping a golden calf. He asked his brother, Aaron, whom he’d left in charge, to explain, and Aaron said, I don’t know … they took this gold and threw it in the fire and a calf came out.”

Such, finally, is analogous to the “process” of the writer: “I dunno. I did this and that, and this occurred.” We all know it, and, so, do not associate with those who share our vile secret. We are, if you will, like acquaintances encountering each other in the corridor of a low bordello, wisdom suggesting to each a strategic denial of recognition.

But enough about me.

What does one actually do, sitting there all day every day? Brood, scheme revenge upon those who did not endorse our pretensions, envy the more successful, nap, read, play solitaire, jot things down.

It seems to occur to those whom ability or fate has graced with a long career — one may also avoid work through philosophizing. This is to the aging writer as is golf to the retired football player: It’s something like that which he used to do when he was energetic and young, and it probably doesn’t hurt anyone.

One may philosophize on the subject of writing, all well and good, but one knows it’s not quite the same thing after all; one cannot eat a cookbook, however well-written. And we aging authors, as we Shuffle Off to Buffalo, see to our increasing horror that we certainly did our most important work when young.

The now aged-in-grade might, if fortunate, discover a community of minds bound by interest in the same subject, which interest might lead to a deeper understanding — to a gratifyingly simple reduction of diffuse and disturbing perceptions and thoughts into a sort of system. This reduction, street-name “philosophy,” not only enjoyable but, arguably, meritorious would be, in effect, a “Fan Club of Knowledge.” Such, I believe, was, within living memory, the putative task of the University.

My particular club was composed of Shel Silverstein, myself, and Ricky Jay.

We three were goofy about an unnamed and unnamable discipline composed of (to name a few) jokes, magic, and Drama. I note that Sandy Koufax, the greatest pitcher of all time, philosophized about the kinetic underpinnings of his art. It makes fascinating reading, but is actually useful only if one happens to be Sandy Koufax.

Our philosophers club adored trading the tips we felt we had been born to understand. Sled dogs, similarly, love only one thing more than running, and that is running in unison.

We gagmen took the greatest pleasure in taking the thing down to the bare metal: “Geese fly in a Vee. Why is one arm always longer than the other?” “More geese,” is the world’s greatest punch line. “Because it has more geese,” is a tragedy. Why? There is more distance between the setup and the payoff. Comedy-room writers refer to their job as “shaving syllables.” That is also the job of the dramatist, and of the poet he might have been if that Bad Fairy had been at the bris.

The magician learns never to repeat an effect. Why? Because, the second time around the mark is trying to catch you out; the first time he was just wondering what happens next. He is, now, using a completely different network of synapses; like the bull who’s been taught, that, although not sure where the matador is, he is reasonably certain he is not behind the nice red cape.

Critics talk about form and texture, artists talk about turpentine; pilots call it “hangar flying.” It is pulling the sled in unison.

Our gang met frequently, and spoke every day, sharing jokes, fixing jokes, discussing the similarities between card effects and Tragedy, and right thrilled not only to be enveloped in the warmth of the club, but ennobled by our — however amorphous —mission.

The mission was “getting the Gag right.”

We three did a movie together, Things Change (1988). Shel and I wrote it, I directed it, and Ricky starred, with Don Ameche and Joe Mantegna. It was shot in the Cal Neva Lodge, a gambling joint on the border of those two estimable states.

Rix and I were living in Lake Tahoe, as guests of Harrah’s. He was well-known to the casino folk, as a card manipulator, magician, illusionist, and authority on deception.

They invited us up to the Eye in the Sky, the observation center hidden above the casino floor. We discussed crime and illusion with their security chief, and he rewarded us with the tape of a very large recent score.

A woman who’d been drinking too much started screaming. As she walked across the floor she climbed upon a crap table, and tore off her clothes. The security crew took her away.

Down in the corner of the screen, discovered later, were two men, one in a wheelchair, who switched out the blackjack dealing shoe. The woman screamed, all the attention went to her, the men took a counterfeit shoe from the wheelchair, swapped out the real one, and took off the casino for five hundred grand.

Ricky commented that pickpockets know you can’t steal a guy’s money while he’s thinking about his money.

I said, well, that’s interesting, as that’s the same way that a drama works. The woman baring her breasts and screaming is involved in an operation that partakes of both Magic and Drama. Perhaps the two terms, then, are interchangeable.

This led to a 30-year-long discussion.

Iago, it occurred to me, is performing a magic trick. He is faced with the impossible challenge, to convince Othello that his beloved wife is untrue.

He does so through suggestion, misdirection, and constant affirmation of his belief in her purity.

The punch line is that Othello has been manipulated into using his own reason, to step-by-step, arrive at a conclusion not only absurd, but cataclysmic. Iago has employed Othello’s reason to lead him to absurdity. He has, in effect, performed a magic trick.

It’s the same mechanism as Drama. We are given all the variables and assemble them to reach the wrong conclusion. In the Tragedy we are appalled, in the joke surprised, and, by the magic trick, delighted.

The magician says “take a card,” and we are so involved in remembering and “watching the progress” of the card we chose, that he can perform a manipulation. He is controlling our attention exactly as the matador does with the bull — giving it such confidence in its own abilities that eventually, it is content to stand where he wants it, and be killed. We humans do not react well to direction, but respond magnificently to what we think is our own volition. The tragedy and the trick’s conclusion reveals to us the folly of our faith.

Prior to Things Change, we made House of Games. It was my (and I believe Ricky’s) first film. It is about a confidence game, which is a magic trick designed to steal someone’s money. As such, it must be crafted so that each step is so logical and engrossing that the victim cannot wait for the next; and, at the moment of truth, is not only willing, but eager to hand over the cash, in an act he realizes, only in retrospect, was the point of the preceding.

It became clear to us that the confidence game the film crooks were putting over on the mark and the one we were performing on the audience were, of course, identical. The film about a confidence game was a confidence game. The crooks wanted money, and we wanted belief. Forever? No, like the thief, just long enough to let us get offstage.

Ricky and I schemed and refined the plot till alternatives were exhausted; but I was uncertain and troubled by the moment when the mark in the film is actually relieved of her cash.

I knew that imperfection on my part would lose me the audience. “Dave,” Ricky said, “at some point, you just have to ask for the money.” That’s wisdom that has aided me since: At some point, after there is no more information, it’s time for a little initiative and, in effect, it is for that same leap that one is preparing the audience.

Well, Shakespeare, then, was teaching the audience, in order to ensure their enjoyment of the spectacle. He begins Hamlet with the appearance of a ghost; and, as we accept that, he has set the terms of our collaboration.

Shel said, people might read the Bible and say, “It’s impossible to part the sea”; but if we say “two walruses walk into a Laundromat,” the audience will nod and say “… yeah … okay …”

The confidence game, we then concluded, is mechanically identical both to the Tragedy, and to the Joke. Their execution depends on an understanding (conscious or not) of the nature of human perception.

What fun. How much better than “jotting things down,” this 30-year-long discussion.

Shel passed away 20 years ago, Ricky died last week, and I alone am (for the moment) escaped to tell thee, the last surviving member of our club. How must that feel?

Consider the Irish Triplets: Though living far apart, each, on their mutual birthday, would go into a bar, order three shots of Irish whiskey, and drink them down.

One year, one Irishman went into his bar and ordered only two shots. “Ohmigod,” said the bartender, “did one of your brothers die?”

“No,” said the man, “my doctor told me I had to give up drinking.”

The Modern Fan Club of Knowledge: David Mamet on Ricky Jay