Instant Stooging

People are really helpful.

In magic performances, the stooge is a person who seems to be unaffiliated with the performance, but who secretly is. You might also know this kind of performance, where an audience member or seeming bystander is roped into the performance, as one that uses a plant. This extra character is super useful — there’s a lot of different magic tricks that need this kind of tactic, they can be useful for setting up puzzles or even just introducing a prop that wasn’t there before. There’s a lot you can do with an extra pair of hands.

There’s also a thing where these days, with the prevalence of phones, and the potential for a trick to involve things like dialing a number, having someone who can pick up a dialled number is important too. There’s stuff you can do with recordings, but really, it’s just easier to have an accomplice who can answer or call some thing, right?

Stooge techniques open up a whole range of possible performances, but it’s not uncommon to see magicians and performers quietly disdaining stooging. I know the hypothetical argument against stooges when doing street cons is typically that you’ve halved your take – after all, one other person involved is someone else who can get caught, someone who can tell the police, someone who can get beaten up and interrupt your scam. It’s just a point of failure. This carries through to stage magicians, where the margins can often be extremely thin, and paying a plant is a meaningful cut of your earnings.

I don’t think it’s entirely economical, mind you. I don’t like using plants or stooges, because it’s hard enough to find someone who wants to see a magic trick, let alone someone who might want to collaborate on one. Also, just… it seems less clever? It’s a different skill axis, and that skill definitely deserves attention and respect, it’s just it’s not the skill I like developing.

Some magicians like to refer to stooging as a cheat, which I think overstates it. That creates the classic magical gatekeeping problem. It’s just that if you’re focusing on skillset A, for effect B, introducing skillset C just isn’t what you want to do. Magic cares about methodologies, after all.

This method, though, also introduces a really interesting piece of social engineering.

When you have a cohort in the crowd you use to make the trick happen, that’s stooging. But you can grab someone, out of the audience, and when you pull them up, you can just tell them to do things, and they will, usually do it. And I don’t just mean ‘come here, stand here,’ I mean you stand there, and you whisper in their ear stuff like ‘just say schnapps’ or ‘there’s a secret panel in the back of the box, press it.’ And … they’ll do it? They won’t stand there and go ‘hey, this guy is asking me to cheat,’ or ‘hey, I thought this was a magic show!!’ or stuff like that.

This is known as instant stooging, and it’s really wild, because you’d think surely that wouldn’t work.

You can do it a lot of different ways. Some classic magicians were fond of using kids in their acts because hey, a kid is innocent, they couldn’t be a conspirator, of course. What was happening, though, was the magician was, once the kids were close, threatened the kids and that kept them behaving in accordance with the trick. Which is a novel stunt, but also, wow, fuck you buddy.

Instant stooging has a problem in that when it fails, it tends to fail catastrophically, but good magicians are also catastrophe planners; lots of tricks are designed with a ‘get out’ clause to make a failure funny or to make it look like a setup for another part of the set. It also scales up in weird ways; if your show has props or sets that require containment, you might not want someone on stage who might be unpredictable, after all. When you have a really small audience, like three or four people, stooging one of them might be hard because when are you going to have the other people distracted?

Ultimately, though there’s a simple truth for why this tends to work: People are helpful.