Are Mutilation Illusions a Tough Sell?
As this season's "America's Got Talent" inches towards the finals, Dan Sperry's latest routine, an amputation illusion, encountered a critical judging panel.
I don't intend to simply recap each show, but continually comment on the show's depiction of magic. Like or hate the program, "America's Got Talent" is currently the largest outlet for our art that is presenting magic in millions of homes. And the comments by the judges can provide a look into the reactions of lay audiences as well as non-magic, entertainment insiders. This season, the show has featured: Dan Sperry, Murray SawChuck, David Grasso, Antonio Restivo and more
The difficulty of the show's weekly format - presenting a single routine for the judges - makes magicians come out on stage without the benefit of developing a character through a formal show. The problem is, audiences don't get to know the performer and week by week, each appearance has to present another potential opener or closer - it's all big stuff. Front of curtain material, or slower, more intimate moments that allow a magician to connect with an audience don't exist.
Restivo has done a great job of maintaining a high level of entertaining, large-scale magic that's loaded with fire. I understand the need to continually play it big to impress the judges, but an actual evening show with Restivo presenting large and smaller, intimate moments would create balance as well as highs and lows. And we would care about him when he's placed into seeming danger in his show. You can watch his performance here.
Keeping in character, Dan Sperry presented a creepy amputation effect where he appeared to cut off and tattoo host Nick Cannon's arm. I don't fault Sperry's presentation - I think it was a clever idea that was complementary to his twisted character - but I think the comments by the judging panel say a lot about what lay audiences are thinking when it comes to mutilation-style illusions: sawing in half, decapitation, sword through neck and more.
When lay audiences see a mutilation style routine, they instinctively know that the magician isn't actually harming an assistant or volunteer. As a result, the audiences immediately search for the method. This is regardless of how good the presentation.
When I first saw Kevin James perform his "Reanimator" routine with the disembodied arm - years ago before I was a magician - I immediately figured out the secret but enjoyed the light-hearted presentation and admired the smooth transitions. Interestingly, James performed "Reanimator" when he was a contestant on "America's Got Talent" in season one, and it was heavily criticized by judge Piers Morgan, who also reacted in a similar manner to Sperry's routine, calling it "one of the most pathetic tricks I've ever seen."
When it comes to mutilation effects, are we magicians fooling ourselves when we think an illusion that is presented well can compensate for an effect that the audience figures out?
You can watch Sperry's routine here.
Based on Morgan's remarks, mutilation routines have to be visual and difficult to explain, and, I'll add, if you can surprise the audience, it's even better. I'd call the overdone twisting of the head illusion as one that's visual and hard to explain. And the best of the mutilation style routines in my mind include: Kevin James' "sawing," as well as the classic "sawing" by Richiardi.
In the end, both Dan Sperry and Antonio Restivo were eliminated. It's now up to David Grasso and Murray SawChuck to carry the magic torch to the finals. My money is on Murray.
Dan Sperry's Showstopper on "America's Got Talent
Dan Sperry Talks About Las Vegas Magic and Lance Burton
Jeff Hobson and Kevin James Talk About Las Vegas Magic
Murray Sawchuck Delivers on "America's Got Talent"