Feb 24 • 8M

Teller's Most Infamous Quote About Magic

Just how far can we push the idea?

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Rory is a magic writer and producer who’s consulted for performers like Dynamo, Justin Willman, Neil Patrick Harris & more.


Magician Teller from Penn and Teller

I genuinely remember the first time hearing Teller discuss this. In a lecture he had given about magic, recorded and shared to YouTube back when recording anything and uploading it to YouTube was an impressive feat in itself.

Admittedly, I was only watching to hear Teller’s voice. He speaks throughout the lecture, which felt both alarming and comforting. Something he said has been quoted elsewhere and repeated by magicians and professionals in other industries:

"Sometimes, magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect." —Teller

He’s right.

Most magicians usually realise this for the first time when they pull off a complicated sleight that took weeks to master. It’s easy to realise that the effort you put in leads to the trick being fooling. If the spectator knew you’d spent hours and hours and hours practising one particular move or memorising the deck, they might be able to figure out the trick. They don’t, though. Their minds don’t even go there.

You’re operating beyond the limits of the expectations of the audience.

Understanding expectations is critical, and when you appreciate how you can use this to your advantage, you will begin exploiting it in everything you do. I will write about narrowing an audience’s expectations in a future post. Which is as important, perhaps more so, than exploiting their existing expectation limits.

I watched Matt Pritchard’s lecture at Blackpool, and I stood up with everyone in the room to applaud at the end. I enjoyed him revealing the secrets to his tricks. There is a part of me that wishes he didn’t. I’m fairly confident I have a possible working method for the latest trick he posted online.

Now that I understand the lengths he is willing to go to pull off a trick, I found it easier to figure out possible methods. I could feel myself drawing lines with my eyes and gleefully smiling at the idea of Matt going to the lengths to pull off the potential methods.

Back when I was posting a new trick on the internet each day in the hopes of landing a job in telly, I would often exploit the limited expectations of the viewer. One time, I spread a deck of cards all across the table into a big fat mess of cards. I paused, then I snapped my fingers, and every single card on the table moved towards one another until they made a squared up deck of cards.

The trick so fooled people. Many thought it was reverse footage. I think I got more messages about that trick than any other I posted in my 298-day conquest for a job.

I drilled a hole in the kitchen table.

That was the method.

I spent hours weaving thread through two small holes in every card. Then I drilled a hole in the kitchen table. When I pulled the line, the messy deck on the table perfectly squared up and ended sat neatly above the hole. It didn’t matter how messy I spread individual cards across the surface—the thread would pull them into order, and the two lines of thread allowed the deck to square up perfectly.

People didn’t expect baby Rory to drill a physical hole through the middle of a table for a ten second Instagram magic trick seen by a few hundred people. The method feels obvious when you know the lengths I was prepared to go to accomplish the trick. It is obvious. It's the method anyone would consider before deciding it would be too silly to drill a hole through a table for one little trick. 

The close friends with whom I shared the method for this trick were rarely fooled by any of my tricks again. The limits of their expectations had forever broadened.

"Sometimes, magic is just someone spending more EFFORT on something than anyone else might reasonably expect." — Rory

The above is how I first interpreted Teller’s quote, and I have since come to realise many of my friends did not interpret it similarly. I probably felt this way because I’m not a performer, I do not practice sleights, and because there are far easier ways performers can exploit the limit of people’s expectations beyond time.

Let’s look at five options today…

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