TV Tropes for Magicians: 5 TV Magic Stereotypes

What are the types of magicians and illusionists you see on television? From tricksters to stunt people, let's break it down.

Michael Carbonaro
Michael Carbonaro

Magic has never been more popular than it is right now. With shows like Penn and Teller’s Fool Us on its ninth season, America’s Got Talent in its seventeenth (with three magicians winning in the past nine seasons), and Justin Willman’s smash hit Magic for Humans on Netflix; it’s easier than ever to see magic on TV. But magic specials aren’t new (after all, David Copperfield’s first special was in 1977).

So, what characters are you likely to encounter on magic television?

1. The Playful Trickster

Carbonaro and Willman have perfectly threaded the needle between prank and unforgettable trick. While Carbonaro’s viewers don’t know they’re seeing magic (his show The Carbonaro Effect uses hidden cameras to capture Carbonaro doing magic tricks in real life, like selling people self-tying shoelaces in a shoe store or convincing people that a paper phone actually makes calls at Best Buy).

While Willman’s audiences know they’re seeing magic, he themes each episode around a central idea like “Self-Control” or “Terrifying Tech” and uses interesting locations like a marijuana dispensary or a nudist pool to capture people’s attention. Carbonaro and Willman are experts at coming across as likeable while also being highly fooling, which is much harder than it sounds.

Finally, while currently known for their hit show “Fool Us,” Penn and Teller consistently push the envelope on memorable, cheeky magic with a message. They famously revealed the cups and balls, one of the oldest magic tricks in history, by performing the trick with clear plastic cups. They’ve burned American flags, made a cell phone appear in a fish, and once did a trick on Saturday Night Live while they hung upside down from their ankles. For Penn and Teller, artfully revealing a trick, and then later fooling the audience with it, is part of their tongue-in-cheek style. Their utmost respect for their audience's intelligence sets them apart from most magicians.

2. The Stunt Person

Often characterized by responses like “Did he really do that?” And “It’s cool, but I think it’s fake,” these magicians truly take magic (and their bodies) to the next level.

David Blaine has set the tone for physical stunts in the two decades. In 2017, he performed a real bullet catch where he caught a bullet in a specially-made metal cup lodged in his jaw. The bullet struck his mouth so hard, he actually thought he died. The stunt prompted prominent members of his team, like Asi Wind, to threaten to stop working for him unless he stopped performing the stunt.

Derren Brown is also known for high-stakes but primarily psychological stunts, like predicting the lottery. But he’s also flirted with danger, like when he played Russian Roulette on live television, or convinced someone to kill a cat.

Finally, Criss Angel has consistently pushed the boundaries of TV magic, performing stunts like escaping from a straight jacket in Times Square, sawing himself in half, and walking on water.

3. The Explorer

Perhaps the opposite of Criss Angel is Nate Staniforth, a man who, instead of dressing in all black and chains, looks like he grew up in rural Iowa–because he did. Staniforth hosted the Discovery Channel’s Breaking Magic, where he would perform tricks, and explain the science behind them. Staniforth is also known for a youtube series where he performed magic on the streets of India as part of an attempt to rediscover “real magic.” Staniforth is humble and plainspoken, but performs powerful magic.

Likewise, there’s Steve Cohen, also known as “The  Millionaires Magician.” He’s usually found performing in a tuxedo in a suite at the Lotte New York Palace. However, in 2017, Cohen performed on the History Channel’s “Lost Magic Decoded,” where he traveled around the world to talk about famous magic tricks, like the Hindu Rope trick and the Bullet Catch.

4. The Man of Mystery

A lot of magicians have performed on TV, but few have capitalized on a specific show the way Dan White has. He’s made over a dozen appearances on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, consistently performing hard-hitting tricks that capitalize on Jimmy and The Roots’ hilarious and often outrageous reactions. White uses his appearances to promote his live show, The Magician, which runs in New York. Contrary to his last name, White typically dresses in all-black, specially tailored suits and uses sparse scripting to make it feel like a wizard just walked into the room.

Few would put DelGaudio and White in the same conversation, as their styles differ dramatically. DelGaudio is one of the most reclusive famous magicians, and White is very much in the public eye. But, DelGaudio's hit Hulu special, In and Of Itself (a filmed version of his live show by the same name), asked more questions than it answered. DelGaudio broke the magic genre with his innovative approach to storytelling and magic, and is one of the most mysterious magicians alive today.

5. The Legend-Maker

No discussion of TV magic is complete without David Copperfield. He belongs in a category by himself. Copperfield is responsible for some of the most epic tricks in magic history, including vanishing the Statue of Liberty, walking through the Great Wall of China, making a train disappear, and flying. And for anyone who dismisses these for being mere television stunts, they must simply see his live show, where he makes a UFO and life-size animatronic T-Rex appear on stage.