Don’t Shoot the Magician
Except for a handshake or two at Hollywood’s Magic Castle I don’t know Neil Patrick Harris personally. However, it’s clear to me that he and his team worked hard to put together a piece of amazement for the Oscar’s audience.
There’s been massive criticism about his performance since the broadcast, so in response, I’m going to reveal the real secret behind NPH’s Oscar act. We often look at these events exactly as we would if we were normal audience members – because NPH’s performance was not an official ‘magic show’. But as magicians, we owe it to ourselves to examine his work at the 2015 Academy Awards critically, from the perspective of who we are: fellow magicians.
The more we understand what goes into another magician or performer’s job, the far better equipped we are to do our own. If you want to do a great magic show, or perhaps even host an awards banquet or event, you have something to learn from the 2015 Oscars.
Pick A Great Effect
If you watched the Oscars, you saw the highly talented actor, and fellow magician, Neil Patrick Harris host the show. Toward the very end of the 3 hour and 20 minute broadcast, he performed a version of a classic mind reading magic trick. He revealed a previously sealed envelope to show he had predicted, long before the evening began, virtually every unscripted or truly spontaneous moment of the broadcast.
It’s a great trick when done well and hundreds of performers will tell you it’s a bonafide classic.
Choose Presentation that Fits the Event
As Ricky Jay’s director, leading playwright and dramatic thinker David Mamet once theorized, award shows excite us because they allow us the chance to see our ‘stars’ under unusually human circumstances. Over a three hour event, our normally composed and controlled stars can’t help but reveal small glimpses of their real selves. At least for me, that’s a big part of the drama and fun of the Oscars.
Harris chose a presentation that not only highlighted those human moments, but allowed them to resurface and crystallize in the minds of the audience. Recalling those rare moments of humanity in his presentation of a classic effect was a strong choice.
Never Forget Show Host Rule #1: Show Runs Late; Host Gets Hate
Though I don’t know NPH’s thoughts and opinions, I do know he’s a professional of the highest order. That means he may be disappointed with some of the critics – but I’d say he’s not surprised.
He knows that hosting a show is, by design, a thankless job. It’s the first job you receive when you start out as a variety stage entertainer. All of the greats know this because they lived it well before any of us heard of them. Performers like Steve Martin, Billy Crystal and Ellen Degeneres learned to host, or emcee a show, from the ground up.
The role of the host is simple: facilitate the show. Keep the damn thing moving, and fill time between segments only as needed. The host is NOT supposed to take a lot of time for themselves or attempt to upstage the headliners.
Therefore (and all the pros know): if the show goes well, the host is largely forgotten. If the show runs long, the host receives ALL of the audience’s frustration, boredom and anger. The host represents the public face of the production, despite having little control over the event.
Oscar hosts know well in advance the show will run too long. They know there will be so many cues, commercials, musical numbers, retrospectives, nomination announcements and award announcements, that’s it’s going to be a very long night – and too many bits will be required for anyones taste. By the last hour of the broadcast, people will be begging for Gaga, Best Picture and Bed.
It’s a no-win scenario. And while I don’t have any inkling to Chris Rock’s reasoning on turning down the gig, I bet at least a few of those thoughts ran through his head.
Three Cheers for NPH
NPH had the courage to take an almost impossible gig and play it with style. He had great energy, and used that energy to make sure that magic, the art we all hold dear, played a feature role in the show.
Movies show the magic of modern myth; the wonder and the mystery at the center of the human experience. Movies do this so well that most people feel a great film offers a more magical experience than any magician’s trick.
NPH did an incredible job of representing live magic during a show devoted to the celebration of the moving picture. He reminded anyone watching that there is no substitute for the magic you can experience when a true magician shows you a miracle in real time. He proved that not all magical experiences are made from special effects, bits of film and great music.
Because when a real magician predicts the future, you have to wonder, if just for a moment… “Was that possible?”
I’m hopeful that many young people watching the broadcast saw, for the first time, that a real magician can do something even the most powerful movie cannot: allow us to question the reality we live in and whether or not we can make the impossible possible in our own lives.
Perhaps a few viewers watching the show discovered the seed inside themselves that will eventually result in a rarity: a real magician. To those of us who want magic to thrive, grow and evolve toward its rightful place in this jaded world, that’s what winning looks like.
And to NPH, I’d like to say thank you on behalf of all of us. You did the job with style and talent. To you, Derek and the rest of your team – Bravo!