“Illusion, Michael. A trick is something a whore does for money”: 20 inept magicians in pop culture

“Illusion, Michael. A trick is something a whore does for money”: 20 inept magicians in pop culture



1. GOB Bluth, Arrested Development (2003)
Over the course of three—soon to be four—seasons, Arrested Development has fantastically documented the douchey ineptitude of illusionist George Oscar Bluth, a.k.a. GOB (a never-better Will Arnett), whose confidence and ego lie in reverse proportion to his skill. During the show’s initial run, GOB lost an old man via the Aztec Tomb, failed to escape from prison, blew up a yacht instead of making it disappear, lost his fingers while pretending to be a magician’s assistant, freed a seal that subsequently bit off his brother’s hand, killed a dove, failed to produce any number of flashes while trying to look impressive, and too many other buffoonish antics to list here. Even when he did a trick—sorry, illusion—correctly, it didn’t work out, as with his failure to use Alliance Of Magicians-approved assistants in the “sawing a woman in half” trick. He did, however, succeed in ensuring no one will hear Europe’s “The Final Countdown” the same way again.

2. Burt Wonderstone, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013)
Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) isn’t a bad magician per se, he just doesn’t understand the changing conditions of his profession. He’s skilled, but his penchant for bad wigs, terrible dancing, and using the same tricks over and over has turned his once-popular act into a laughingstock. Determined to stay relevant, Carell tries his hand at “extreme magic” in the Criss Angel or David Blaine mold but fails miserably, not realizing that if you want to trap yourself in a plastic box for days at a time, you might want to prepare a little. The disastrous trick ruins Carell’s career and loses him his partner. Only when he loses the kitschy costumes (and lack of interest in other people’s welfare) does Carell manage to regain his prominent place in the world of magic.

3. Milhouse The Magician, The Simpsons (1993)
Poor, loveable Milhouse. Ever the brunt of the jokes, the nerdiest of Springfield’s many hapless nerds falls victim to a particularly Milhouse-ian situation when he tries practicing magic in the fifth-season episode “$pringfield (Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Legalized Gambling).” Setting up shop in Bart’s Casino (located in the Simpson family treehouse), Milhouse The Magician attempts to jam a cat—presumably Snowball II—into “the box of mystery.” Meeting resistance from his feline assistant, the stunt backfires, another cat pops out from under his top hat, and both begin clawing at his face—to applause from all the kids gathered watching. Milhouse should have learned his lesson after suffering an abdominal scar at the hands of fellow amateur illusionist The Great Bart-O. But learning lessons isn’t a very Milhouse thing to do. 

4. An unnamed magician, Grey’s Anatomy (2013)
Doctor shows always feature the weirdest maladies, and Grey’s Anatomy is no exception. It has featured patients with one-in-a-million heart problems, babies with their brains trapped on the outsides of their faces and, in season nine’s 22nd episode, a magician who somehow managed to almost saw his wife in half. The unnamed illusionist apparently didn’t notice that the trick wasn’t set up before he set his chainsaw roaring and kept on sawing even when both his wife and his assistant yelled the group’s safe word, “Titanic.” His julienned wife did eventually make it, but not before undergoing some pretty dicey surgery for some substantial internal and external injuries. 

5. Barney Stinson, How I Met Your Mother (2005)
Although most of his tricks work, Barney is an incompetent illusionist because of when he performs them. Over How I Met Your Mother’s eight years, Barney has usually pulled out his assortment of handkerchief tricks and close-up sleight-of-hand out of desperation, either to bag a girl or in order to drive home one of his points, with maximum flop-sweat, while talking with the rest of the gang. Because Neil Patrick Harris has studied magic for many years, he’s especially adept at flailing around as a way of showing Barney’s vulnerability, and it’s a good shorthand for the writers to demonstrate that before Barney suited up, he was a nerdy as his buddies Marshall and Ted were when they were younger. 

6. Professor Hinkle, Frosty The Snowman (1969)
Failed magicians always make the best villains, especially in kids’ shows, because a) they’re creepy, and b) they’re so desperate to hold on to whatever tricks they have, they’ll go to any measure to ensure their professional survival. Such is the case with Professor Hinkle, the inept magician who tries to entertain some kids but ends up having his rabbit run away with his top hat. The kids he was trying to entertain find it, put it on top of the snowman they’re building, and it wakes up and says, “Happy birthday!” The rest of the 1969 Rankin-Bass classic, based on the classic Christmas song, is spent with Hinkle scheming to steal the hat, which he now thinks has powers that will make him the best magician ever, back from those no-good, sweet little brats. The kids take Frosty all the way up to the North Pole and Hinkle follows; everyone gets their way when Santa tells Hinkle he’ll get a new hat for Christmas, and Frosty ends up residing with Santa, where he can be preserved so he can “come back again someday,” or at least in time for the sequel, 1992’s Frosty Returns

7. Presto DiGiotagione, Presto (2008)
Pixar shorts are often brilliant feats of silent slapstick comedy—Lifted and BURN-E are two other examples—but perhaps the best is Doug Sweetland’s Tom And Jerry-influenced Presto, featuring the titular arrogant magician struggling to control his hungry rabbit. Presto’s stage show depends on a pair of magical hats that function as a teleportation portal, but when the well-fed magician prevents his rabbit assistant Alec Azam from eating a carrot, the little guy goes on strike, refusing to be a prop until he gets his meal. Presto’s increasing frustration only gets him maimed, electrocuted, and humiliated, as Alec repeatedly outsmarts the magician in hilarious feats of cartoon injury, recalling some great Wile E. Coyote bits. Presto’s defiant pride nearly gets him killed, but Alec saves the performance in such a way that glorifies and guilts his owner into changing his ways. 

8. Sid Waterman, Scoop (2006)
Woody Allen’s late-career European renaissance began with Scarlett Johansson and Match Point. But before he moved on to Barcelona, Paris, and Rome, Allen filmed the murder-mystery/comedy Scoop with Johansson, which turned out to be another lesser work. Allen steps into a role as bumbling magician Sid Waterman, who brings up Johansson to participate in a disappearing trick at the beginning of the film. While in The Dematerializer, Johansson encounters a ghost (Ian McShane), who gives her evidence to suggest that a wealthy British aristocrat is actually a serial killer, a story that could make her journalism career. Although not as compelling as dramas like Vicky Cristina Barcelona or vintage nostalgia like Midnight In Paris, Allen milks the part for the kind of high jinks typical of his late-career mentoring roles. 

9. Neville Longbottom, the Harry Potter series (1997)
Although his skills improve dramatically over the course of the seven novels in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter saga, Neville Longbottom begins his studies at the Hogwarts School Of Witchcraft And Wizardry in a decidedly pathetic fashion. Despite being the son of Frank and Alice Longbottom, highly regarded Aurors (hunters of wizards practicing dark magic), Neville repeatedly displays such an ineptitude at magic—even melting the cauldron of a classmate at one point—that his grandmother begins to grow upset at his inability to master the magical arts. Neville’s confidence remains downtrodden for several years, thanks in no small part to regular verbal abuse from Professor Snape, and it isn’t until several books into the series that he begins to shed his reputation as a shoddy spell-caster. 

10. Bullwinkle J. Moose, Rocky And His Friends and The Bullwinkle Show (1959)
While the antler-laden alumnus of Wossamotta U. has never claimed to be a professional magician, his repeated requests that his longtime companion, Rocket J. Squirrel, watch him pull a rabbit out of a hat confirm his ongoing interest in the magical arts. Alas, these efforts have never succeeded in the manner in which he intended, with a bear, tiger, rhinoceros, and lion variously emerging in place of the anticipated rabbit. Bullwinkle’s frustration remains evident with each failure, regularly grousing, “I’ve got to get a new hat.” 

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11. Aunt Clara, Bewitched (1964)
Among Samantha Stephens’ various magical relatives introduced over the course of eight seasons of Bewitched, one had a tendency to consistently cast spells with a limited degree of accuracy. It’s never clarified which side of Samantha’s family Aunt Clara comes from, but what is known is that she’s well past her glory years and into a realm where absentmindedness is par for the course. Often beginning her visits to the Stephens’ home in unorthodox ways, such as emerging soot-laden from their chimney, Clara’s tendency toward forgetfulness leads to backfiring spells on a regular basis, including zapping Benjamin Franklin into present day or turning Darrin into a chimpanzee. Eventually, Clara’s abilities reach a point where she’s put on trial by the Witches Council and threatened with becoming “earthbound” and turned into an inanimate object. While Samantha saves the day, Clara’s powers remain sketchy at best for the remainder of her appearances on the show. 

12. The Wizard Of Oz, The Wizard Of Oz (1939)
No matter how he came to arrive in Oz and convince its people that he came to save them from the wicked witches of the kingdom, one thing remains consistent from version to version of The Wizard Of Oz: The title character has no actual magical ability. Using technology, the so-called Wizard creates the illusion that he is a much larger and formidable entity, threatening to unleash his wrath on anyone who might dare to offer a dissenting opinion—but his skill at casting spells proves to be precisely nil. Although Baum’s novels gradually provide the Wizard with the opportunity to learn real magic, the 1939 film version sums up the powerless, ineffectual, and decidedly magic-free character with a single word: “humbug.” 

13. The Great Wooley, The Geisha Boy (1958)
Over his long, long career, Jerry Lewis has proved inept at various professions: bellboy, scientist, caddy, etc. In 1958’s The Geisha Boy (tagline: “It’s a laugh deluge as Jerry goes Oriental!”), Lewis is a down-on-his-luck magician who can’t get booked in America, so he heads over to Japan for a USO gig. His personal goofiness gets more laughs than his magic act, and he can barely keep his co-star—Harry Hare, a rabbit—in line. Eventually, though, Lewis’ big heart wins the day, and his magic even gets better. 

14-15. Laurel And Hardy, The Hollywood Revue Of 1929 (1929)
The Hollywood Revue Of 1929 was less a full-length feature than a variety show set to film, with no plot to speak of. (Still—big stars singing and performing, and they could be heard, that was a big deal in 1929.) For their segment, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy do a six-minute magic act that starts bad and ends even worse, with tricks poorly performed and accidentally revealed. That’s the point, of course: Nobody wants to see two of the funniest guys in history turn a banana into an egg—they’d rather see them fail hilariously at it. 

16-17. Karl Allen and Harry Kane, Magicians (2007)
The stars of Peep Show attempted to make a jump to the big screen in 2007 with a tale of two magic partners turned enemies, thanks to a disastrous and deadly performance. David Mitchell and Robert Webb play Harry Kane and Karl Allen, two rising magic stars who fall from grace after Mitchell catches Webb having sex with his wife. She also happens to be their lovely stage assistant, and just after Mitchell catches his partner and wife entangled in one of their magic boxes, Mitchell accidentally decapitates her on stage with a guillotine trick. The two attempt to reunite and reclaim some of their former glory, only to become bitter rivals all over again. Mitchell’s new assistant tries to convince him to enter his guillotine trick in a competition—with her head on the chopping block—without learning the fate of his last assistant until it's too late. Webb attempts to turn himself into a hip psychic/mentalist with the prospect of a TV deal, but he begins to have second thoughts when his “psychic abilities” win the heart of an impressionable studio assistant. 

18. Steve Martin, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1967)
The Smothers Brothers gave Steve Martin his first big break in 1967 when they hired him as one of their regular writers—part of a crop of new comedic talent that included other soon-to-be-notable names such as Rob Reiner, Carl Gottlieb, and Bob “Super Dave” Einstein. Martin had done magic from a young age, when an uncle gave him a few store-bought magic tricks. He eventually brought his talent for making things disappear into his comedy act, oftentimes as a bumbling magician who would inadvertently wow audiences by making something disappear and immediately giving away how the trick was done, or taking something as mundane as pushing his tongue through a napkin and acting as though he had just made a Bengal tiger appear out of thin air. 

19. Matzoh Hepplewhite, The Ernie Kovacs Show (1954)
The late TV comedian Ernie Kovacs loved to use camera tricks and elaborate props to create comedy that played with television. A fumbling magician who couldn't pull off a magic trick to save his skin became a perfect fit for Kovacs’ cast of zany characters, which included Percy Dovetonsils, Miklos Molnar, and the famed Nairobi Trio. Unlike other magic/comedy acts that used bad magic or magic gone bad to make audiences laugh, Kovacs’ “curse-caster” and conjurer performed spectacularly bad tricks that even the most gullible rube could figure out, like turning on a lamp with a wand in one hand and the other hidden in the shade, or the classic sawing a woman in half in a box twice her length. And as with all great Kovacs characters, he and his crew would find new and funny ways for to sneak drinks into the act. 

20. Miles Federman, Tales From The Crypt’s “Well-Cooked Hams” 
This HBO bit, based on the EC comic, features Billy Zane as a struggling, conniving conjurer who can’t seem to make what little magic he knows work for him. So he steals rival magicians’ tricks (including former teacher Zorbin The Magnificent, played by Martin Sheen) then bumps them off. The big trick that leads to his undoing is known as The Box Of Death, in which he steals from a mysterious magician known as Kraygen (also played by Sheen), involving a large coffin that impales its occupant with steel spikes and spills a bowl of acid atop of the poor sap’s head. One of Zane’s former assistants helps Kraygen/Zorbin exact bloody revenge by rigging the trick so Zane experiences the true effects of The Box Of Death before a stunned audience.