The Too Perfect Problem

All forms of tricks need to avoid being too perfect.

You might notice that a lot of magic performances, certainly these days, rely on doing something that make you laugh. It’s extremely common to see a magician incorporate some form of oafishness or buffoonery into their act. This is tied to the fundamental principle of controlling attention. First, the magician demands attention, and then they use the fact they have demanded attention to subvert the idea that they deserve it.

Then they prove they do.

There’s a lot at work there, though, and part of it is that a lot of magic needs to come at you as a surprise. I don’t know the origin of the term, but I first heard it from Penn Jillette, that you need to avoid the too perfect problem.

You can’t show people the things you say you’re showing them in magic. You can’t do it clean. You need to lead them along with you, and make sure that their frame of reference, the places they’re looking, are very limited, or you run the risk of creating an illusion that is too perfect. An illusion too perfect is something that seems completely real; and then, the viewer, typically, recognising that such a thing can’t be done, becomes disillusioned with it.

The audience needs to think they know what you’re doing, and they need to think they know that it’s a trick. An audience who’s playing along with what you’re doing, an audience who is very confident in their understanding that this is a trick and I see how it works and then is proven wrong is an audience more likely to hold onto the illusion. Oh, sure, they’ll know it’s a trick… but they won’t know what kind of trick.

This is something I touched on when I talked about what forces were. If you force a card four different ways, and reveal it the same way four times, the impression is that they know the trick, because they’re looking at the reveal, not at the force. Again, this is because tricks hide forces, not vice versa, but it also serves to attack that ability of the audience to handle their doubts.

Consider a dice. If I take a dice and roll it six times and it comes up six each time, that doesn’t look like a magic trick. That looks like a cheated dice. If I hand you a deck of cards and let you shuffle it and then let you flip cards off the top and still tell you the card where you stopped, without touching the deck, that doesn’t look like I’m psychic, it looks like a marked deck, even if it’s not. If a trick is too perfect, it suddenly becomes just a trick.

Movies have this problem, in a big way. Movies can – and should – do cuts and edits, but those cuts and edits are the kinds of things real magicians would kill for. Imagine being able to force your audience to only look at your hand or your eyes or see you from one side. That’s a playground. There’s a great video of Penn Jillette talking about this – where they show him a sequence of magic tricks from movies, and he talks about doing them, as if the cuts and impossibilities of a movie special effect are not a meaningful barrier to him.

But he discards one trick – the instantly growing plant – from The Illusionist.

Why?

Because there’s no way to do it that the audience thinks they understand. There’s no way to make the trick work, without making it look like you just made a whole plant appear under a blanket on the stage, and suddenly, the audience’s reaction goes from awe at living splendour to dismissal of just a trick. It is, literally, too perfect.

Does this apply to conspiracy theorists?

Kind of. Or more, conspiracy theorist explanations tend to require something to be too perfect. They require levels of control over messaging that just seem at odds with reality. If you’re dealing with someone whose explanation for how things happened involved multiple shadowy organisations maintaining multiple long-term public projects that include things like real world breakups and messy behaviours and things that require long term institutional memory to express as meaningful human interactions, then you’re looking at a project that kind of requires the control these institutions have as being too perfect.

Conspiracy theorist thinking doesn’t really have a space for ‘too perfect.’ The world ultimately makes sense because of a small number of malicious actors that exert their control over your perceptions. The result is that conspiracy theorists need to believe in too perfect tricks, and that should give you a natural form of skepticism to the needs of these stories.

If you want an example of a magician who’s very approachable and makes the methodologies clear, check out Brian Brushwood (who I’ve recommended before). He talks about how controlling attention and being funny is used to disarm expectations. If you want an example of a magician who is completely unapproachable and makes his methodologies fantastically obscure, check out Lennart Green.

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