Take Two #69: Eric Mead
In thinking about what makes the subject of this installment of Take Two special and distinctive, I quickly tabulated several facets of Eric Mead’s personality and performance. His work invariably possesses an underlying element of intelligence, which he needn’t go out of his way to explicitly impress upon his audiences—clearly, it’s simply there, an integral part of the person before you.
He also has taste—an exceedingly rare commodity in the world at large; in art in general, and in magic in particular. As I have recounted before, many years ago Teller commented to me that, “Talent is commonplace, taste is rare.” It has become a guiding insight ever since, a thought to which I have returned countless times. Eric Mead has taste.
But perhaps above all, Eric Mead has ideas.
By this I do not mean that he is a revolutionary innovator, an inventor of new illusions and techniques we have never seen before. Nor is he one who values novelty over quality, ever in search of something different simply for the sake of it being so. In fact, his tastes and inclinations are quite the opposite.
Eric has ideas that actually qualify as ideas. He is a thinking magician—perhaps even, The Thinking Man’s Magician. He never puts any performance piece into his show without having thoroughly considered every conceivable aspect, and asking every imaginable question: Why do I want to perform this? What can I bring to it that is distinctive? What will make it worth my audience’s attention? What is the magic about?
These are questions that all truly great magicians invariably ask, and answer, for themselves and their work. They are questions that all magicians—all artists—should answer for themselves. But instead, the overwhelming majority never even bothers to ask. Many don’t even know these questions exist, or why they should be asked, much less how to answer them. And this lack of awareness—this artistic cluelessness—is apparent in their work, typically within the first few minutes at the start of their performances.
Of course, none of this should come to anyone as a surprise. Sturgeon’s Law is as infallible as that of gravity—if not more so—to wit: Ninety percent of everything is crap. (Albeit, Max Maven has proposed that for magic, we should perhaps increase that number.)
The fact that Eric has ideas, however, is a genuinely defining presence in his work, and as well, a characteristic of his nature. And this fact is at least partly an element in our longstanding friendship.
I mentioned recently, in Take Two #68 about John Carney, that while many of the subjects of this series have been colleagues and professional friends, I’ve tried to avoid writing about performers who are both close friends and contemporaries. Somehow the combination of these two factors seems to threaten my carefully preserved and slightly self-deluded sense of objectivity in these essays. Hence, Eugene Burger was a close friend, Johnny Thompson was even more than that, but at least they were not exactly contemporaries. Daryl was a contemporary but not an intimate friend. Tommy Wonder was a good friend and contemporary, but he was no longer present when I wrote about him. Maybe these little details only matter or make sense to me, but there they are.
I admitted to making an exception about Carney, and now, having done that, I’m going to violate all of those constraints, and write about a close friend, and a longtime artistic colleague and collaborator. Part of the reason is because that while Eric has created a career out of having ideas—ideas that are original and substantive, and not only about his work, but also his life—he has also managed to float a bit outside of the mainstream of magic. And this is largely by choice.
It’s not that he’s not known, but it’s taken awhile, and he’s taken his time getting there—never a poor choice, and invariably a tasteful one. In 2007 he wrote a highly regarded book for magicians, entitled Tangled Web, which was sufficiently well received to have seen a subsequent reprint. He was one of two resident Magic Bartenders at the famed Tower Restaurant and Magic Bar in Snowmass, Colorado, along with Doc Eason, for fourteen years until it closed in 2004. Part of the same line of evolution of American Chicago-style Magic Bar that I have referred to elsewhere on Magicana, including in Take Twos about Eddie Fechter, Steve Spill and J.C. Wagner, I had already heard about Eric in Magic Bar circles by the time we first met in the early Nineties. He’s elected to perform carefully selected television work on occasion, some of which you will be watching shortly. And behind the camera, Eric created, wrote, and associate produced two successful magic-themed television series: Magic Man for Travel Channel in the US, and Magic Asia for AXN Network in Singapore.
Although he came up as a street busker and then Magic Bartender—two of the most challenging and streetwise performance arenas a magician can possibly work in, and in which only certain accomplished personalities can survive, much less excel—in later years he has carved out a niche for himself as a highly-paid performer who works in exclusive settings, for sophisticated private events, Fortune 500 productions, or elite conference gatherings. You’ve heard of some of the places Eric has worked; some of them may be so prestigious, that you haven’t.
At The Aspen Ideas Festival, he has designed and facilitated a curriculum of multi-day educational sessions for seven consecutive years. He’s been on the TEDMED stage thirteen times. He’s presented on the stage of the EG conference nine times (where I am also a regular), but he’s also the only presenter in the conference’s thirteen-year history to have been asked to curate his own session. He presented a keynote address for the annual national conference of the Society for Neuroscience for an audience of 10,000 attendees. (Oh, and in another realm of space and time, he appeared in the documentary film, The Aristocrats, about the world’s filthiest joke, where he managed to tell using a deck of cards.)
So the fact that Eric Mead has ideas is one of the key characteristics of his unique profile as a professional entertainer. But he also does more than entertain, because he often creates original speaking presentations that incorporate magic with an eclectic range of themes and subjects. He is one of a very, very small handful of performers who genuinely create and communicate content through the medium of magic.
By this, I don’t mean so-called “motivational speeches,” where the performer comes up with a snappy acronym that has each letter stand for some lame pseudo-idea that fits into a “talk” about humor; or how life is like a magic trick; or other such nausea-inducing inanity. I also don’t mean a presentation of unrelated magic tricks thrown together in which a couple of lines of pseudo-intellectual claptrap serve as a desperate attempt to make a few nice tricks or a mentalism feat into the appearance of a TED talk, while babbling about misdirection or influencing behavior.
Rather, I mean the very small handful of performers who, having good ideas about magic, and smart ideas about the world, can create unique ideas that link both together such that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts—and perhaps more to the point, so that very smart and sophisticated audiences can discover genuine content with which to engage.
Such performers are few and far between, and their material, rare as a natural pearl, is hard to come across unless you know where to look; even then, much of it is simply hidden, to keep it safe from thieving copyists.
But I know where to look. I have known Mr. Mead for a very long time, and I am a great admirer of his rare set of talents. And so with this Take Two, while I will be showing you some magic, I will, in particular, be providing a number of Eric’s unique, idea-rich presentations, for your viewing—and thinking—pleasure. This means some of these pieces are longer than the clips that usually accompany these essays. I hope that you will set aside a bit of time to sit down, pay attention, and savor what is to be revealed to you here. It warrants your careful attention.
Eric Mead has ideas. Here are some of them.
I need to say that if you don’t have time to watch some of these excellent presentations, and if you’re only going to watch one, then I confess I think you should skip ahead and watch Eric’s spot on Penn & Teller: Fool Us. I would prefer you work your way up to that, to save it as a climax of sorts, because I believe the order as I have presented it will serve you, and the material, and the artist, best. But I’m including this note because it would be tragic were you to view one or more of these videos only to abandon the rest before reaching the Fool Us appearance. So if you can, take your time, even a few days, and watch them in order, until you get to that spot.
I ask that you settle in comfortably please, to better appreciate and enjoy what follows. You know the drill: expand the browser, put aside the smart phone, and turn up the volume, for each individual presentation. Check your email in-between viewings, not during. Remember: recorded media radically dilutes the experience of magic. Disconnect from other inputs, so you can really plug in with Eric.
This is a 15-minute presentation and performance that incorporates ideas about magic, science and mystery, includes two performances of magic, and an interestingly mysterious science demonstration in between. Ready? Meet Eric Mead.
Take a break, if need be, and then come back for this 10-minute presentation and performance, which served as an introduction to the five-speaker session that Eric curated at the annual EG conference in Monterey. Here, Eric talks about the nature of the art of magic, and presents a mystifying illusion with cards along the way.
And now, a change of pace. In addition to being a superb sleight-of-hand close-up magician, as well as an accomplished stage performer, I should mention that Eric is also one of my favorite and most original mentalists working today. But while I don’t have any of his mind-reading routines to show you, this presentation harkens back to Eric’s early performing years as a street busker. It’s not magic, but you will likely be amazed, and most certainly entertained.
This piece, which I was fortunate to watch live at the TEDMED conference, has more than a million views on YouTube, by an artist who does not focus on view counts or social media. This is wonderful not only because of its very smart integration of ideas and illusion, but because the illusion is not a traditional magic trick, and you may in fact find it shocking and troubling. Strap yourself in.
There is a significant overlap, I believe, between Take Two readers (particularly those who are not magicians) and viewers and fans of the Penn & Teller: Fool Us television series. Take Two is intended as “art appreciation” about magic, and there is an element of that in Fool Us, when Penn comments on not only whether or not he and Teller have been fooled, but rather what makes each act distinct and of interest and artistic value.
Eric’s appearance on Fool Us is more than noteworthy. He chose to perform a particular version of a legendary classic of sleight-of-hand close-up magic, that through much of its history was known to and performed by only a handful of magic’s most skilled and elite performers. This in itself is notable. But Eric also introduced the piece with a brief but thoughtful and provocative commentary that stands out as one of the smartest presentations in all six seasons of the show—not to mention the grace of his careful public crediting.
In the end, Penn Jillette said that Eric’s performance qualified as, “The finest sleight of hand we've seen on the show.” And Penn is far from alone in making this claim. The show’s two magic consultants, Michael Close and the late Johnny Thompson, have both said the same words to me. And I agree.
Truly, Eric Mead has ideas. Pay attention.
I hope you have enjoyed all five performances and presentations I’ve provided. It’s more material than usual, but I trust you have come to appreciate this interesting and distinctive performer, and his uniquely charming, loose, genuine and intelligent manner of performance. I find him to be a breath of fresh air in a world of stiflingly stock performers. I respect and admire him tremendously. (He’s also an excellent cook, and has pretty good taste in wine.)
If perchance your appetite remains whetted for a bit more of Eric, here are two additional presentations.
This is a talk about the link between the historical lineages of magic and filmmaking, and is accompanied by a single performance piece, which you have already seen in a previous presentation, but you now get to see in an entirely different creative and intellectual context.
And finally, here is a very unusual presentation, a conversation and collaboration between Eric Mead and one of the world’s greatest violinists, Joshua Bell (with piano accompaniment by Nadejda Vlaeva). This begins with a beautiful piece of classical music, and concludes with a lovely piece of magic, and between, a conversation between two friends and fellow artists. Enjoy.
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