Mind Theater

How Ricky Jay Tells a Trick | Video Essay

April 04, 2022 Ayo Akingbade Episode 64
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Show Notes Transcript
  1. There’s something special about how Ricky Jay does magic. There’s no doubt that he’s a master of his craft, with several sleight of hand tools at his disposal, amazing feats of memory, and a shaky relationship with fruit as displayed in his propensity for card throwing. But his greatest asset, above all else, when it comes to performing is his PATTER.
  2. Comedians and magicians do it all the time. It’s that memorized speech that rides synchronously to the performance. The carefully chosen words which add character and context to the actions taking place. For the magician one’s patter is so often the tool that separates you from other magicians. The intricacies of picking a card and memorizing it can far too easily become boring to spectators, routine, a tedious formality on the road to getting fooled. Wanna have an audience really remember your trick? Tell them a story.
  3. \What separates Ricky’s patter from most is the 3 dimensionality it takes on. The three lenses through which he focuses his genius. The historical, the humorous, and the hustler.
  4. First is the historical, a domain Ricky has great respect for. His performances are often colored by the deep well of references he draws from, both magical and non-magical alike. The same reverence he has for the great stage acts who came before, whose genius informs so many of his tricks, extends to classic movies and 70s funk hits. But it’s not just about what references he calls upon, it’s the way he talks about them. He’s an orator by trade, and the flowery almost romantic speech that dominates his patter is enhanced by his academic decorum. The stern countenance he wears when dispensing knowledge concerning all things prestidigitation. He chooses words like a chef chooses his knife, which is to say, with precision. 
  5. It’s not just patter that sounds good, it’s patter that aims to teach. So often Ricky Jay stages his magic tricks as history lessons, finding wisdom worth imparting in the most clerical parts of the artform. From making distinctions between the different shuffling methods used in various casinos, to reciting 15th century “canting” poems who’s internal meaning, impenetrable as it often is, can’t help but stir the audience all the same. Of course, when you draw from a well of references so vast and esoteric you know they can’t all land, that would be ridiculous. So when they don’t? Well, that's where his bone dry wit comes into play.
  6. It undercuts the academic decorum, he’s deeply funny. But more than simply being funny Ricky, probably more than any other magician, understands the absurdity of his position. To be a magician is to be an entertainer and as he mentions just like other art forms such as theater or dance , magic is a performance of theatrics, of intense drama and comedy that aim to both enhance and subvert one another. Moreover he finds comedy in the strangest places. In the furrowing of a brow, in the unsheathing of a giant pair of scissors, in a wind up bunny 
  7. It’s within this comedy that Ricky lays a truth bare, for all the audience to see. He reveals the imbalance of power at the center of the magician-audience relationship. We sit there on the edge of our seats, waiting, hoping, expecting to be impressed. This puts a lot of undue pressure on the performer. But rather than evade that responsibility Ricky leans into it, stretching the ridiculous aspects of his personality further than we’re often expecting. The end result is a kind of patter whose “point” is as shocking as the trick that it’s a part of.  
  8. The third thing that underscores Ricky Jay’s patter is his emphasis on creating teacher/student relationships and then breaking them two seconds later. His beautiful blend of honesty and deception. So often in his tricks he positions himself not as the magician, but as a cheater, a swindler, a conman, a hustler, a former card shark now letting you in on the secret tricks of the trade. From fake shuffles and false dealings, to cutting aces and courting queens. His sleight of hand serves as an exercise, a lesson, one you should take great caution in heading. In a room full of spectators these tricks dazzle, they excite, they impress. In a room full of hustlers, gamblers, high rollers and players, well
  9. He’s our friend sure, but he isn’t shy about making a fool out of our expectations as audience members. After all, we want to be fooled.
  10. In his near 65 years of performing Ricky Jay achieved what few performers of any medium could hope for. He was a magician that didn’t just perform, he created environments, worlds that were as rich and detailed in character as they were in history. He understood the balance between meeting the audience at their level and soaring even higher, revealing what a master of his craft is truly capable of. And most importantly he understood the power of words not only to distract, but to enhance. To move an audience from the ordinary, to the extraordinary, to the astounding with a greater force than card tricks could ever hope to achieve. Put simply he was the greatest to ever do it.
  11. Mind Theater is a solo effort produced and written by me, Ayo Akingbade. For updates on the show as well as upcoming episodes follow mind theater pod on twitter, instagram, and tiktok. If you wanna show monetary support, the kofi link is in the shownotes. Thanks for listening, i’ll catch ya next time.