To call Ricky Jay a "magician" is like calling Leonardo a portrait painter. Esteemed among his peers as one of the finest sleight-of-hand artists in the world, Jay is also a recognized scholar in the motley history of illusionists, cardsharps, and con men — or, as the subtitle of his 2003 collection, Jay's Journal of Anomalies, has it: "cheats, hustlers, hoaxters, pranksters, jokesters, impostors, pretenders, sideshow showmen, armless calligraphers, mechanical marvels, popular entertainments." Long a featured player in his pal David Mamet's movies (and in Mamet's current CBS TV drama, The Unit), Jay was last in town in 2001 with the Mamet-directed Off Broadway hit Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants (the "assistants" being a deck of playing cards). He returns next Friday to the Somerville Theatre with A Rogue's Gallery: An Evening of Conversation & Performance.
What about this show is different from past shows?
It's really different — it's a new show. It's an odd combination of visual and historical and magical and autobiographical and improvisational. The improvisation is the one thing that makes it really different. I call on people from the audience not just as participants in the sleight of hand but in steering the direction of the verbal material. Some of the choices will be determined by things I've collected over the years, such as posters. So their choices and those images will determine the material.
You like to do close-up magic, with a degree of intimacy. Do you ever feel that you're competing with a world of special effects?
I like the fact that these shows are smaller and more personal, and I think that audiences — I hope that audiences — will appreciate the difference. Not that there's a high technological aspect, but that there's a direct relationship between the audience and the performer. And six-story-high dragons are not necessarily a part of that. No helicopter will land on the stage of the Somerville Theatre.
In what ways would you distinguish good magic from bad?
Well, there was once a line about [Jay mentor] Dai Vernon many, many years ago, describing him, that said, "In the performance of good magic, the mind is led on step by step to ingeniously defeat its own logic." Which I think is just a brilliant way of explaining what happens when you see something that's really good.
In the first story from Jay's Journal of Anomalies, which is about "the learned dog munito," you talk about someone who kept going back to figure out the trick. And that this is typical behavior.
Yeah, it was Charles Dickens. I think I said, "They walk away thinking they understand everything, basking in the glow of self-congratulation." And what they of course have is just the tiniest part of the whole puzzle. I am really talking about the way people try to analyze these things in the current day.
So why do people like to be fooled?
I think it's one of the great emotions of the world. It's surprise and excitement, just the idea of seeing something other than the way you would normally experience life — which should be pleasant. There are people who react strangely. I've had people who will clutch rosary beads or throw glasses. I mean, it is strange to fool people, and there are some people who mistakenly think that it's some reflection of their intelligence, which is of course absurd. But there are people who get very defensive about it, who don't like it on that level. But it really is kind of a lovely thing, that gasp of surprise, that startled laugh. I guess I must like it, because I've spent my whole life trying to elicit it.
I remember seeing a Penn & Teller show where, at intermission, Penn offered folks a peek inside a large jar with swords running through it, with Teller inside. We could all take a peek for a quarter. At least half the audience — myself included — fished out quarters. And I was disappointed to look inside and see, "Oh. Yeah. There he is."
This is often the case, and it's one of the reasons I don't like gratuitous exposure — because of that disappointment. But I like Penn & Teller very much. I didn't know they were doing that piece. That's actually a carnival blow-off. "If you'd like to come up and take a look, ladies and gentlemen, the woman lives entirely on your tips that you leave in the box!" It was called the blow-off, and you would get extra money from it by dragging people up there to have that look.
I remember Penn himself was collecting the quarters.
I certainly admire that part of it. I admire that enormously.
There we are, we've paid for tickets, but we're paying again to see this trick. Except that as press I didn't pay anything.
Well then, it's doubly good that they got the quarter from you. You know what the con man's adage is: never kick back a score. Get the quarter and keep it.
Ricky Jay brings A Rogue’s Gallery to the Somerville Theatre on April 10