I don’t know what magic secrets exposure means anymore

By Paul Osborne

Exposure. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? When I was a lad [picture me walking up a hill carrying a bread loaf while Dvorak’s New World Symphony is playing – now there’s a reference for the teenagers] magic secrets exposure was an easy concept to understand. From my very first magic book – How to be a Conjurer by Robert Harbin – the rules of magic were clearly laid out: Never tell anyone how a trick is done, the author wrote.

However, even in those dark days before the internet, the waters were sometimes muddied. I remember Paul Daniels being criticised for including tricks such as the Chinese Linking Rings and the Rice Bowls in his magic sets, with some magicians saying that Paul was exposing these classics of magic to children.
And then, a few years later, those “bad boys of magic”, Penn and Teller, crashed onto the scene. Most of you will have noticed, in my opening line, the nod to Teller’s sublime smoking routine where classic sleight-of-hand moves are explained to the viewing audience. As a teenager, watching their first TV special, I thought, “well, this will annoy a lot of magicians, but, what the hell. I love it.”

Teller has often spoken about the duo’s approach to exposure: that most of their audience probably had a magic set as a child, that most people know what a “palm” is, and that, sometimes, a routine can still blow your mind even if you’re in on it. Check out their version of the cups and balls using clear plastic cups for proof of this. (Dai Vernon witnessed them perform this effect live and laughed his head off, according to Teller; The Professor ‘getting’ what they were doing.)

Today, social media is awash with magicians and hobbyists performing tricks and then exposing the method, and many have been criticised for doing so. But I think the argument is more nuanced than it seems.

Mentalist Spidey, who puts out many magic tutorial videos on YouTube, addressed some of his critics on the Magicians Talking Magic podcast. He said: “There’s a difference between magic secrets exposure and teaching magic. I see a lot of YouTube videos with a child who learned a trick last week, barely knows how to hold the cards, and is exposing the secret to the trick. And I don’t like that.

“I teach magic. Everything on my channel is either something I created, or something I adapted, or something that’s so old-as-the-hills that nobody could claim ownership to it. My videos, on average, are 14 to 18 minutes, and you’re learning one trick. And by the time you get to the tutorial, we’re about eight or nine minutes into the video. My average view is six to seven minutes. So most people have left the video before I even get to the secret.

“It’s all by design. It starts with me talking about the trick, then I do the performance, then I talk about the history of the trick, and then we go into the tutorial which is taught slowly and effectively. I want real students, not someone who is looking for a quick secret.”

The flipside of a tutorial though is the video that’s designed for entertainment by magic secrets exposure. One famous YouTube magician was brutally criticised by Craig Petty on his Magic TV channel for exposing illusion bases, a principle that many stage performers use in their shows.

I think most of us can agree that giving away secrets that aren’t yours is wrong. If Murphy’s Magic brings out a new product from a particular creator, and then someone immediately reveals the method on YouTube, that’s not right – and they should be called out. But for tricks that are many years old and not owned by anyone? This is where I get confused. Is a wannabe magician seeking out the Three-Card Monte trick on YouTube any different to someone visiting a library and reading the trick’s secret in a magic book? OK, for the former, you don’t have to physically leave your chair but you still have to invest time in searching for it online.

So maybe the ‘what does exposure mean?’ answer lies in how much time and effort it takes to discover that secret. A wannabe-magician spending 20 minutes watching a Spidey video, listening to his explanations and watching a performance, is very different to a layman channel surfing, coming across a repeat of the Masked Magician on the TV show Breaking The Magician’s Code and being spoon-fed classic secrets used by working magicians.

And talking of Three-Card Monte, in 1994 John Lenahan became the first magician in 85 years to be thrown out of The Magic Circle after explaining the sleight-of-hand used in the trick on the BBC show How Do They Do That? His website’s bio states: “The trick is no more than a gambling con, but I took the rap and enjoyed the publicity.” And today, happily, he’s now a Circle member again.

I contacted The Magic Circle to find out the club’s current position on magicians who give away secrets on YouTube, and also whether Vegas legends Penn and Teller would, today, be allowed to join the club.
President Megan Swann said: ”We have a committee which considers each case individually. It is complicated and often depends on the intent of the magician and what the trick is. Generally, it’s safer to avoid YouTube exposure videos though, as it’s hard to control who sees them.  
“As to whether Penn and Teller would be allowed in – now that’s an examination which would fill our theatre!”

So did programmes such as Breaking The Magician’s Code do much long term damage to magic? Hopefully not, but it certainly showed non-magicians that a lot of secrets are simply ugly and mundane. Remember Julius Dein’s appearance on Good Morning Britain when the camera picked up the invisible thread used to make a pair of spectacles move on a tabletop? It was actually quite amusing reading his fans express their outrage on social media. Did they really think he had magical powers? Or did they think the method would be more elegant than it was? Into my head popped the headline: ‘Magician uses secret thread shock!’

With great card magicians, however, even if you know the moves and sleights you can still appreciate the performance. When an expert such as Michael Vincent executes a side-steal – you may know what he’s doing, you may know roughly when he does it, but you can’t see him do it. And therein lies true magic.
But let’s leave the final comment to seasoned performer Doc Dixon, who beautifully summed up the Masked Magician TV show – in that Atlanta bar-room drawl of his – with one simple down-to-earth line:
“All I could picture in my head was the guy who’d just spent two grand on a Zig-Zag the week before.”

Let us know what you think about YouTube ‘exposure’ in the comments below.

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