John Walker's Electronic House

The Phenomenon of Phenomenon

by on Nov.02, 2007, under Television

A Brief History of Rubbish Magic

It’s funny how magic has come full circle. After the naivity of the 70s and 80s, the 90s saw us get all cynical and want to know how it was done. As Paul Daniels fell from grace, and Penn & Teller rose to popularity, it was, appropriately enough, the illusion of being told how tricks were done that appealed to us. P&T really gave nothing away, but everyone giggled with the pleasure that they thought they might be. This then went to the next stage, and “magic’s greatest secrets” were revealed. The only room for primetime magic was ruining it. And you’d think, if anything, we’d have gained some sort of maturity from this.

Of course then everyone went a bit Derren Brown. (I continue to think Brown is a fantastic magician, and I still wish he’d stop using deceit to achieve his excellent effects. While he has thankfully abandoned pretending there’s any reality to NLP, he still maintains nonsense about hypnotising and still lied about not using stooges. I’m also really pleased that his act has gone toward disproving hoaxes, but I wish he would take an honest position like James Randi’s to do this from.) We started believing all over again, because the patter changed. In America, this took the form of Criss Angel – an incredibly carefully crafted persona that taps into every zeitgeist theme imaginable for winning over a decent chunk of the cable audience. Oscillating between emo and goth, on Mindfreak he freshened up American magic while simultaneously making it unwatchable to anyone over the age of 15.

The Old School

So it’s with a confused face that I discovered NBC’s new Phenomenon wasn’t further post-millennial illusions given primetime space by a confident network executive, but the most dated, tired old routines dressed up as some form American Idol style show. But it gets weirder/worse: the audience aren’t asked to vote on who is the best magician – in fact the word “magician” only appears once in the episode, with the presenter practically trying to shout over it – but who “amazes you the most”. We’re being asked to believe in these acts. Oh, and of course, MAGICIAN Uri Geller is a judge.

But so is Criss Angel, which didn’t strike me as such great news at first. The ponciest opening credits imaginable have Angel prancing around in the desert, floppy shouldered and shouting disaffected muted cries, along with MAGICIAN Uri Geller staring at the camera looking really rather cross. And having tried to watch Mindfreak in the past, Angel always came across as a self-important moron. Which makes me pleasantly surprised to find out he’s a properly decent guy, who promised Randi he’d tell the truth on the live show.

Two episodes have aired now, and I’ll admit I started writing this after the first and was then distracted by a bee. And it’s got a whole lot more interesting. So I’ll say what I was going to say, and then get onto the FIGHT!


Angel stayed true to his word, and scoffed at those who tried to pass off really poor tricks as Real Life Magic. Remember, this is a programme that refuses to use the word “trick” or “magician” (probably because MAGICIAN Uri Geller’s head would start spinning around like a mad top), so after a particularly pisspoor performance where a man claimed he could cause people to feel like they were being touched when they weren’t, through mystical mind power, Angel responded by naming both the trick, and the man who invented it, and added that it was a rather average demonstration of it. This was hilarious, and if the show wasn’t live, would surely have been cut. But then even better, Geller gets his turn where he praises the performance, and states that the man was proof that there really are mystical brain powers at his behest. After Angel has named both the trick, and the trick creator.

Of course, things don’t go so entertainingly when someone does a trick Angel has bought and performed as well. After a particularly dreadful rendition of the Russian Roulette trick Derren Brown made very famous – this time done with weedy nail guns, one loaded, five not – Angel can’t immediately point out how poor it was, and how it was a simple trick, because it’s something he’d done on his own show with ludicrous over-hyping. So instead he praised NBC for being brave enough to air the trick (admittedly, Channel 4 did have to jump through all sorts of hoops to show the Brown trick, including filming it outside the UK), and then pointed out that he did it better on his own show, but added that therefore he understood the risks that were involved. i.e. none at all, but he couldn’t say that without making his own pomp look a little silly.

And so there’s a problem. Angel, being a particularly pompous and overproduced performer, is rather stuck with his own exaggerated claims in his past, and doesn’t want to diminish his own effects. So if someone were to reproduce his walking on water, or disappearing in the desert on the show (I’m not sure how either would be managed on the stage, but you know), he won’t be groaning and saying, “That’s easy – any idiot can do that trick”. Meanwhile, MAGICIAN Geller will be furiously masturbating in excitement because someone else claimed to have powers while doing shitty parlour tricks, just like him.

I’m thinking of a number between 3 and 5…

Pathetically, they’re giving MAGICIAN Geller a slot to demonstrate his psychic abilities each week. In the first episode he showed five ESP symbols, picked one (the star, because EVERY TIME HE DOES IT HE PICKS THE STAR) and forced it into our minds with his brainrape. The phonelines opened, the internet voting began, and the viewers let them know during the live show which symbol he’d inserted within them. And guess what – like it always does, because for whatever reason people are more likely to pick the star, it won! By a whopping 1% over the second place circle. 27% to 26%. So damn close. Of course this was claimed as a clear victory, and proof of MAGICIAN Geller’s actual real-life magical powers that he definitely does have. Good grief, in a couple of episodes he’ll be resorting to one of those “and take away the number you first thought of” tricks. Seriously – YOU TAKE AWAY THE NUMBER YOU FIRST THOUGHT OF – OF COURSE IT’S GOING TO LEAD TO THE SAME NUMBER. Sigh.

Fight! Fight! Fight!

So in the second episode, this got a whole lot more interesting. Something Angel had specifically promised Randi was that he’d not allow anyone to claim spiritualism powers on the show, and if they did he’d debunk them immediately. And so, sure enough, there was the most atrocious performance of a sealed envelope trick you’ve ever seen, with the ‘psychic’ in a trance bordering on convulsions, as a pre-recorded video of him narrated what was happening – with remarkable timing. He was channelling the dead spirit of someone-or-other, and it was causing him great pain and effort. And what for? So he could write down the name of an object someone who used to be on The Cosby Show had chosen from a collection of 100, off camera, before the show, and then sealed in a box. Because all spirits are retarded, the writing came out backwards and spelt wrong, but fortunately he just happened to have a mirror set up on stage to show the audience the results. And wouldja believe it? It matched! So he basically did the same trick as pretty much everyone else on the show – picked the number/word/object that was sealed in the envelope/box, but this time with an epileptic fit.

MAGICIAN Geller did his usual half-asleep ramble about how the man convinced him that he had a spirit guide, and that therefore he must be a real psychic too, and not a MAGICIAN who has been debunked and shown to be a fraud on live television numerous times. Then Angel reached into his pocket and pulled out a couple of envelopes, declaring that if either the idiot on stage, or Geller, could name the words written in the envelope, or even allude to them, he’d give them a million dollars of his own money. At which point the performer suddenly recovered from his exhaustion and began calling him a “bigot”. And then tried to punch him, as Angel kept repeating his challenge. Sadly Angel, who is clearly a bit of a twit, started squaring up to the guy, leading to the hilarity of watching former Blue Peter presenter Tim Vincent and Geller break the two of them up before going to commercial. And you can watch it all here:

Hilariously, this is uploaded by someone supporting Callahan (or indeed Callahan himself), claiming at the end to demonstrate Angel’s hypocrisy – which appears to boil down to his presenting his tricks as remarkable feats on his own show. I don’t doubt Angel has gone too far in the wah-wah bullshit in the past, but it’s hardly a defense of a psychic to point out that another magician lied.

It does look a bit staged toward the end, but I’ve got a feeling that it’s not. Something about Vincent’s Alan Partridge-like panic, and the fact that those involved are all puff-chested performers anyway, suggests to me that were they to get into a fight outside a pub over who was looking at whose girlfriend, it would appear just as scripted and set up. But that’s not really important anyway, since the final score goes in favour of the skeptic, fake or not.

So, kudos to Criss Angel, even though he can’t spell his own name.

1 Trackback or Pingback for this entry

  • Cross Over Network Cable

    Common Mistakes When Building Network Cables…

    When building network cables people often get confused about what’s important. It’s not hard to see why though. With the money spent in marketing the cable industry most manufacturers want you to think that one particular quality or another that they…