Tommy Wonder on "failureffects": why no cautionary comments in DVD?

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Postby Suresh » 11/01/11 12:21 PM

I'll start with some background information:

In his Books of Wonder, Tommy Wonder writes extensively to caution his readers on the negative impact on the participants of effects which lead the participants to think that the magician has made a mistake such as revealing his secret move or having failed to perform his secret move correctly. He refers to such effects as "failureffects", and categorizes 4 kinds of such effects. In this categorization, the one that is most damaging to the response from the participants is the one in which the magician not only leads the participants to believe that they have seen his secret move but also leads them to think that he has failed to make that move successfully (first type, under Tommy Wonder's categorization).

Consistently, in his Visions of Wonder DVD (produced after the Books), he indicates that he is not too happy with the start of his cups of balls routine which involves having the participants conclude on their own that they have seen him take the ball from each cup but he is not trying to get them to think so (second type). The remarks in the DVD are consistent with the writing in the book.

The book starts the description of the routine "Here and Not" as follows:

Having discussed the difficulty of presenting failureffects properly, I will now give an example of a routine I used to do that contains elements of faux faux pas. I have, with some reluctance, abandoned this routine in recent years, finding that there are still some neggative aspects to the presentation that I have not been able to circumnavigate without scraping the presentational bottom. I am describing the routine, nevertheless, with the hope that it contains some interesting features and the possibility for a presentational solution for another performer. It also serves as a good example of how one constructs a presentation capable of achieving a believable failureeffect. The construction here does not of course eliminate the need for convincing acting. However, good construction is vital in creating a believable environment that fosters credible acting, as I hope to show.


The DVD has a presentation and explanation of "Here and Not". In the explanation, Tommy Wonder talks about what it takes to convincingly present a failureeffect. However, in the DVD, he -- strangely -- does not make any cautionary comments about failureeffects.

Questions: In explaining "Here and Not", why did Tommy Wonder omit all of his cautionary comments on failureeffects? Had Tommy Wonder changed his views on failureffects? Had he brought back "Here and Not" into his active repertoire?
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Postby Tom Stone » 11/01/11 12:40 PM

I'm pretty sure that he had not changed his mind.
It's just that the repertoire often are a few years behind where you are in the mind.
And it is difficult to drop a piece that consistantly get good reactions, even when you've realized that it is crap.

The book shows where he wanted to be, and the DVD showed where he actually was. So trust the book.
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 11/01/11 12:51 PM

if I understand your question correctly, it could be rephrased as "Did Tommy Wonder want to perform as a character which used feints?"

His book makes it clear that he understood what a feint could do for a routine (good and bad) and from his performances on the DVDs it seemed (to me) that he did not want to perform in a way that risked putting the audience on the wrong side of a feint emotionally or cognitively.
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Postby Ivanovich » 11/01/11 02:07 PM

Tom Stone wrote:And it is difficult to drop a piece that consistantly get good reactions, even when you've realized that it is crap.


And herin lies a HUGE problem with many of our routines, and why we don't always progress as we feel that we should. Because, for the sake of what you KNOW is right, you go from having something to having nothing .

I once ditched my ENTIRE show because it was the right thing to do. And I can't tell you how many times I've tried Bank Night in various forms and had to drop it because it plays horribly on me. Or routines that I've spent weeks or months on, but then found that they just weren't right for my performance character.

In the end, we're better (I hope) for making those changes. But getting to that point is more than a little difficult. Tommy Wondwe knew...
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Postby Ross Hironaka » 11/01/11 11:09 PM

Suresh wrote:
However, in the DVD, he -- strangely -- does not make any cautionary comments about failureeffects.



Tommy Wonder does talk about faux failures on his VISIONS OF WONDER DVD during the explanation of "The Tamed Card."

- Ross
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Postby Bill Mullins » 11/02/11 05:16 PM

Tom Stone wrote:And it is difficult to drop a piece that consistantly get good reactions, even when you've realized that it is crap.


Duke Ellington said (in reference to Jazz music, and other kinds, I suppose) "If it sounds good, it IS good."

Does not the same principle apply to magic? "If it plays good, it IS good."

How can a piece that "consistently gets good reactions" be "crap"?

Shouldn't the reaction of the audience be the primary measure of how "good" a routine or effect is?
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Postby Brad Henderson » 11/02/11 05:32 PM

Tamariz has some amazing thoughts on how failure effects AFFECT an audience - and it relates to the biochemical nature of emotion.
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Postby Tom Stone » 11/02/11 06:49 PM

Bill Mullins wrote:Duke Ellington said (in reference to Jazz music, and other kinds, I suppose) "If it sounds good, it IS good."

Sounds good to whom?
I'm pretty sure that Ellington spoke from the musician's perspective.
Does not the same principle apply to magic? "If it plays good, it IS good."

No. That's fastfood thinking.
How can a piece that "consistently gets good reactions" be "crap"?

That's simple. Remember when you first got interested in magic? I guess you consistently got good reactions from doing the 21 card trick? Is it still a part of your active repertoire today? Or did you realize, despite the good reactions, that it was a crappy trick and evolved?
Shouldn't the reaction of the audience be the primary measure of how "good" a routine or effect is?

Godness no! Can't let them dictate the contents of a performance. They'll hold you back, prevent you from evolving and you'll never rise higher than fastfood performances.
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 11/02/11 07:11 PM

Quality as the word applies to fast food is not very close in its measures/objectives as the word applies to Art. Perhaps to "entertainment product" though not to Art. Art (notice the capital letter) is about context and expression while craft (or art with a lowercase "a" as shorthand for artifact and those who make such - artisans) has objectives closely related to those of our fast food industry.

The effects of perceived failure are studied (experiments/measures) in various branches of psychology. No need to reinvent the wheel just because you have a pack of cards in your hands - being a magician need not be cognitive or educational handicap.
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Postby Bill Mullins » 11/03/11 01:49 AM

Finding oneself in disagreement with Tom Stone on a point of magic theory is a scary place to be, but here I am.

First of all, while Duke Ellington spoke from a musician's perspective, it was also the perspective of an Artist, and one who was at the top of his field. The considered opinion of a genius is always worth study. And in his case, the reaction to the art has to be from the listener his statement makes no sense otherwise. So for the magician, the reaction of the audience has to be paramount. (And I'd point out that Ellington's application of his rule did _not_ lead to "fast food" music.)

The 21 Card Trick has become a clich for bad magic. What constitutes this clich is not a trick, but a method. This method is often presented by unskilled magicians, or wrapped up in a bad presentation, and then it becomes a bad trick. But when presented by someone skilled, in an engaging presentation in which the method is not transparent (or at least obvious), it can be a good trick. I've seen it presented that way, and I'd be surprised if you hadn't as well. And when I saw it so presented, I had to smile when I realized that I had been fooled and entertained by a trick that is often one of the first things a budding magician learns.

I'm not suggesting that the magician let the audience dictate the contents of a performance. A craftsman or artist should be in control of his own craft or art. But if he doesn't allow the reaction of his audience to be a determining factor as he makes his choices, his craft or art starts moving away from performance and into self-indulgence.
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 11/03/11 07:55 AM

Bill Mullins wrote:
Tom Stone wrote:And it is difficult to drop a piece that consistantly get good reactions, even when you've realized that it is crap.


Duke Ellington said (in reference to Jazz music, and other kinds, I suppose) "If it sounds good, it IS good."

Does not the same principle apply to magic? "If it plays good, it IS good."

How can a piece that "consistently gets good reactions" be "crap"?

Shouldn't the reaction of the audience be the primary measure of how "good" a routine or effect is?


The above (taken as regarding "art") presupposes a constancy of culture and context. Not so many folks would sit for a proper recital of Beowulf - as classic and self evidently "good" as it might be. Of course it got consistantly good reactions. Same for Shakespeare as performed by his players.

Somewhere there's a balance between behaviorism (their responses shape our performances) and pandering (our seeking the best responses shaping our works) - which avoides the lowest common demoninator or "empty o".
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Postby Tom Stone » 11/03/11 09:19 AM

Bill Mullins wrote:Finding oneself in disagreement with Tom Stone on a point of magic theory is a scary place to be, but here I am.

Actually, that is a good place to be - sooner or later, everyone ends up in that place. I even disagree with myself at times. :)
Disagreement and heated discussions are good for the art - means that you are passionate about it. (Also, see 15'th line in Lodestones, february 2009)
First of all, while Duke Ellington spoke from a musician's perspective, it was also the perspective of an Artist, and one who was at the top of his field. The considered opinion of a genius is always worth study. And in his case, the reaction to the art has to be from the listener his statement makes no sense otherwise.

It makes sense if the advice is given to someone who is beginning to find their own "voice" in their craft, who is concerned over "but the masters did it in a different way - how can I be sure that my way is any good?" A comforting answer would be: Trust yourself, if it sounds good to you, than it is good.
So for the magician, the reaction of the audience has to be paramount. (And I'd point out that Ellington's application of his rule did _not_ lead to "fast food" music.)

I'm pretty sure that Ellington could make an audience satisfied already in his 20's. I know I could reach that goal when I was around 25 (late bloomer). If the reactions of the audience are paramount, there would have been no need for Ellington to evolve and no need for me to evolve.
Once you reach the basic goal, satisfying an audience, where do you go then? Do you stay there, with traditional material and stocklines, or do you find new goals beyond satisfying the audience? If the latter, then the reactions of the audience becomes a rather ineffective measuring scale - when they applaud just as much for the material that you in your heart know is crap, as they do for your new and unique material that really excites you...that doesn't tell you anything. At that point, when evaluating the material, you are on your own.
The 21 Card Trick has become a clich for bad magic. What constitutes this clich is not a trick, but a method. This method is often presented by unskilled magicians, or wrapped up in a bad presentation, and then it becomes a bad trick. But when presented by someone skilled, in an engaging presentation in which the method is not transparent (or at least obvious), it can be a good trick. I've seen it presented that way, and I'd be surprised if you hadn't as well. And when I saw it so presented, I had to smile when I realized that I had been fooled and entertained by a trick that is often one of the first things a budding magician learns.

If you was fooled, then I guess it wasn't the 21 Card Trick but a more advanced emulation of it. And I guess that the person who performed it didn't have it in his regular layperson repertoire.
Being able to perform crap in an entertaining manner is more a side effect of being a good artist, than it is a testament to the quality of the piece itself.
I'm not suggesting that the magician let the audience dictate the contents of a performance. A craftsman or artist should be in control of his own craft or art. But if he doesn't allow the reaction of his audience to be a determining factor as he makes his choices, his craft or art starts moving away from performance and into self-indulgence.

Once you've reach the level where you consistently can entertain an audience, then you have only two choices on where to go: To stagnate or to become self-indulgent.

When stepping off the trodden path, you have nothing to guide you except your own vision. You must trust your own instincts over the reactions of others. When you try out one of your own creations for the first time ever, it is very likely that it will get rather lousy reactions compared with a standard piece+old stocklines. Should you listen to the audience and give up, or should you trust your vision and persist in the knowledge that the audience is wrong and you are right?
The highlights in my own performances all got lukewarm reactions in the beginning. Had I not forced myself to be self-indulgent, I would not have those highlights - I would still be performing stock material with stock one-liners.
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Postby Q. Kumber » 11/04/11 07:30 AM

Tommy Wonder, on his DVD set, speaks about not letting the audience invest much emotion in an apparent failure. If they invest much emotion, feel sorry for you and then find that was your plan all along, they will feel used and let down.

There is a big difference between playing with your audience and using them. And that big difference it can be as wide as a thin line.

John McCormack, world famous Irish tenor (1884 - 1945) said he sang three types of songs in his concerts:

1) Songs he likes to sing
2) Songs audiences like to hear
3) Songs that should be sung but normally aren't

Based on his advice, consider for the third part choosing a couple of tricks from old books that are no longer performed. And the second part of his advice will allow you to do sponge balls without any guilt.
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Postby Tom Stone » 11/04/11 08:44 AM

Q. Reynolds wrote:John McCormack, world famous Irish tenor (1884 - 1945) said he sang three types of songs in his concerts:

1) Songs he likes to sing
2) Songs audiences like to hear
3) Songs that should be sung but normally aren't

Based on his advice, consider for the third part choosing a couple of tricks from old books that are no longer performed. And the second part of his advice will allow you to do sponge balls without any guilt.

That's a good ratio, and good advice.
Although, in my experience, it is very seldom that I hear an audience say before a performance "Oh, I really hope he'll perform the sponge balls tonight." or "I hope he'll do his rendition of Max Maven's SEAK". I seldom get requests for specific pieces (except from people who has seen me before).
So, I think that category 2 is of less concern to us.
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 11/04/11 09:16 AM

Think of the person watching your act for the second or third time.
Mundus vult decipi
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Postby Q. Kumber » 11/04/11 09:56 AM

I agree that audiences generally don't make specific requests, though I regularly get asked to do my 'Five Minutes With A Pocket Handkerchief' routine.

For category 2 I mean routines, like the sponge balls, that get a great audience reaction, but to us magicians appear somewhat hackneyed.

Eugene Burger has frequently commented on his love/hate relationship with the sponge balls.

Tom, I'm looking forward to seeing you again at The International convention. Your lecture at TAOM was superb.
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Postby Tom Stone » 11/04/11 10:35 AM

Q. Reynolds wrote:For category 2 I mean routines, like the sponge balls, that get a great audience reaction, but to us magicians appear somewhat hackneyed.


Yes, I understand. However, the John McCormack quote can be interpreted in more than one way.
2) Songs audiences like to hear
That can mean songs to which he had a relationship to. Like, hits from his previous consert tour, or the songs he first became known for. In a Prince consert, those songs might be "Purple Rain", "Sign of the Times" and "1999". For another artist, it might be completely different songs.
2) Songs audiences like to hear
Or it can mean researching the various top10 charts, list over the most popular songs from the 1900's, to find out what songs an audience like to hear. Like going to a Prince consert and hearing him present songs like Maroon5's "Moves Like Jagger", Garth Brook's "The Fever", Lady Gaga's "Poker Face" and Frank Sinatra's "My Way"...And then you go to a Madonna consert, to hear Maroon5's "Moves Like Jagger", Garth Brook's "The Fever", Lady Gaga's "Poker Face" and Frank Sinatra's "My Way"...

Which interpretation do you think McCormack had in mind? Which interpretation does the Sponge Balls fit in?

Tom, I'm looking forward to seeing you again at The International convention. Your lecture at TAOM was superb.

Thanks! Likewise! :)
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Postby Q. Kumber » 11/04/11 10:43 AM

In McCormack's case, I've no doubt he was referring to songs he was well known for and associated with, his signature tunes, but possibly ones he was fed up singing.

We associate Judy Garland with 'Over The Rainbow' and Pavarotti with 'Nessun Dorma'. Quite possibly they were fed up singing them but their audiences demanded them.

Very few in magic are well known eonugh among the public to have routines associated with them, but there are routines that always go well with audiences. The Lyle Hat Tear is another example.
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 11/04/11 10:50 AM

Q. Reynolds wrote:...Very few in magic are well known eonugh among the public to have routines associated with them,...


You've hit a nail on the head there. Let's tap it again - not so many in magic take the trouble to get routines working well enough that audiences will associate them with their work. Some have gotten so far as their props (large cats, parakeets, purple gloves) to have the start of brand association though. It's a start.

Still - to have specific routines folks want to see done... seems appealing.
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Postby Tom Stone » 11/04/11 12:14 PM

Q. Reynolds wrote:In McCormack's case, I've no doubt he was referring to songs he was well known for and associated with, his signature tunes, but possibly ones he was fed up singing.

We associate Judy Garland with 'Over The Rainbow' and Pavarotti with 'Nessun Dorma'. Quite possibly they were fed up singing them but their audiences demanded them.


Exactly! That is one of the backsides with becoming known for something. But I guess that those songs started out in category one "Songs he likes to sing" before eventually ending up in category two "Songs audiences like to hear".

Very few in magic are well known eonugh among the public to have routines associated with them, but there are routines that always go well with audiences. The Lyle Hat Tear is another example.

Since most of us isn't cursed by having old material associated with us, is it then clever to place ourselves in the same awkward position, with the false justification that the audience supposedly demand certain routines? Isn't it better to just ignore category 2 all together, and focus on category 1? Why perform something you are fed up with, when no one really expects you to?
Imagine how much better sponge ball routines in general would be, if only those who were passionate about sponge balls performed it.
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Postby Q. Kumber » 11/04/11 01:44 PM

Ideally the best thing to do is find effects from category 3, work on them and refine them so they become category 1 and eventually they end up in category 2.

My main feeling for category 2 is routines from your repertoire that you have been doing for years, you can do inside out and in your sleep, but you know, no matter what, will always get a strong reaction.

Buddy Hackett, the comedian, was asked why he started using harsh blue material. His answer was that he knew he could go out and, no matter what, get the audience going and having a great time. This became monotonous for him. So he started using blue material to alienate them and eventually win them back. That became his challenge.I don't agree with his philosophy but I can understand where he's coming from.

It must be very frustrating for those magicians you have found an old forgotten trick, developed a unique presentation, and then find it copied by the great unwashed - who were completely ignorant of the trick until they saw your perform it - and whose excuse is, "Well it wasn't yours in the first place, it was in Modern Magic."
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 11/04/11 05:11 PM

At school an acting student explained that audiences expect you do be able to do what you claim, that's your job, it's the way you go about making it happen that makes a trick interesting.

Making a 'few failed attempts' at an effect is a tough one to script so that later on the audience wants to have their friends see what you do, full well knowing about the setup/scripting but wanting their friends to enjoy the process.

Let's take it as a given that not all magicians want others copying their style or works without personal permission. There an oft cited Ricky Jay story about that.
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Postby Pete McCabe » 11/04/11 07:44 PM

Q. Reynolds wrote:2) Songs audiences like to hear


My impression of this is that it has nothing to do with the audience associating the song with youit refers to any piece that gets a good reaction regardless of the artists own personal opinion of it. It is the Sponge Ballstricks that kill but that you don't (necessarily) enjoy performing or think are great.

I read that Harpo Marx was rehearsing a song for an upcoming Marx Brothers movies, and performed it with an unusual, esoteric ending, as opposed to the standard schmaltzy-glissando ending. Groucho overheard and said something to the effect of, "Is that how you're going to do it?" and Harpo replied, "Don't worryI'll give them the [censored] finish."

My (amateur's) opinion: Try to figure out what makes category 2 tricks so effective, and then apply those principles to your category 1 tricks. McCormack couldn't really do that, but magicians can.
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Postby Tom Stone » 11/05/11 07:29 AM

Q. Reynolds wrote:Ideally the best thing to do is find effects from category 3, work on them and refine them so they become category 1 and eventually they end up in category 2.

Now, that I can agree more with! :)
My main feeling for category 2 is routines from your repertoire that you have been doing for years, you can do inside out and in your sleep, but you know, no matter what, will always get a strong reaction.

Somehow I get the feeling that John McCormack was inclusive in his three types, not exclusive. That is, I don't think it should be read:
1) Songs he likes to sing, but which the audience dislike to hear.
2) Songs audiences like to hear
3) Songs that should be sung but normally aren't, and which are disliked by the audience.
I think the audience might have liked both type 1 and 3 - therefore, I'm rather sure that type 2 referred to specific material of his that his audience had an outspoken desire to hear - rather than just any song that happened to be popular.
I also think it is conceivable that he had pieces in category 1 & 3 in his repertoire that he had been doing for years, that he knew inside out and in his sleep, which he knew, no matter what, would always get a strong reaction.
Pete McCabe wrote:it refers to any piece that gets a good reaction regardless of the artists own personal opinion of it. It is the Sponge Ballstricks that kill but that you don't (necessarily) enjoy performing or think are great.

That is my definition of material that should be avoided at all costs. :)
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