Too Perfect is a theory in the world of performance magic that if a magic trick is too perfect and flawless, it will paradoxically become less impressive to the audience. In some cases, this is because the trick seems easier than it actually was, and the magician is not given credit by the audience for their skill and trick design. In other cases, this is because the gimmick behind the trick becomes glaringly obvious.
For example, if you pass a cigarette slowly and clearly through the center of a quarter under brightly lit conditions, and then do it again back the other way, your illusion might be completely flawless, but it is also too perfect. The audience will be forced to conclude: "nice, a gimmicked quarter with a hole in it." Likewise in this video clip from the television show Penn & Teller: Fool Us, magician Mike Super performs a trick that co-host Penn Jillette accuses of being "too perfect" - Super randomly selects members of the audience who randomly write numbers on balloons, and then these numbers perfectly match the numbers on a lottery ticket that Super bought months before. There is little sense of mystery here, because there are only two possible explanations - either something completely and truly supernatural happened, or else there was a tiny printer concealed in the box that held the lottery ticket, because there really aren't any other options. Either way, Super doesn't come across as a very impressive magician, and the audience is deprived of that delightful sense of mystery and feeling not quite sure what happened. And Super didn't even pretend to offer up a supernatural explanation, so in the end we are really only left with the printer.
In modern stage magic shows designed to be performed on television, if a trick is "too perfect" the viewer at home will simply assume that film editing tricks were used or that the "random" members of the audience were simply plants (and in many cases these assumptions will be correct).
Most performance magicians have intuitively understood the concept of "too perfect" for centuries, but the theory in its modern form was first propounded by American magician Rick Johnsson in an article he published in the card magic trade magazine Hierophant in 1970, expanding on earlier ideas first suggested by the legendary Canadian magician Dai Vernon.
In practice, there are numerous ways to avoid falling into the trap of a "too perfect" illusion. Some of them include:
1. Make the trick seem less impressive, also known as "roughing up" the illusion. Using our earlier example, if you pass the cigarette through the quarter quickly and perhaps in low light conditions, such that the audience is not really sure exactly what they have seen, they might be less inclined to immediately assume a gimmick.
2. Make the trick seem harder than it actually is. You commonly see this tactic at work when stage magicians talk up the extreme danger of the trick they are about to perform, or in memorization tricks where they play up how seemingly impossible the memorization would be. The magician makes it seem like they are doing something that requires great skill and or precision, when actually there is a simple trick. American illusionist David Blaine is a master of this tactic, especially in his endurance tricks, where he emphasizes the dehydration, injuries, or other negative impacts on his health that he allegedly suffered, when in fact his tricks rely on illusions and he was never actually in danger.
3. The false mistake. Somewhat related to 2) above, the magician pretends to have made a grave error and makes it seem like the trick didn't work out, only to do something even more amazing than originally promised.
4. Red herrings. A classic tactic is for the magician to build into the trick gestures to possible ways the illusion may have been achieved, when the actual trick is in fact none of these. The audience starts to build up some suspicions about how the trick is being done, but then is amazed when the finally realize that it couldn't have been any of those things. In the video cited above, Penn Jillette calls these red herrings "outs." A magician should strive to suggest to the audience multiple "outs" - possibilities for ways in which the trick might have been achieved - before systematically eliminating their possibility. In the illusion above, if Mike Super had built into the trick some additional dialogue and gestures that seemed to eliminate any possibility of a printer, even if he actually did use a printer in the end his trick would have been more impressive (and less "perfect"). He also could have played up his supernatural powers to give the audience an additional "out."
5. Show part of the gimmick. The magician actually shows the audience part of how the trick is done, such that the audience thinks they know what is going to happen, but then the trick goes beyond the revealed gimmick to achieve something seemingly impossible to do within the scope of the gimmick that was revealed. In extreme cases, the magician might reveal the whole gimmick, explaining exactly how the trick will be done in advance, but then proceeds to perform the trick so expertly that the audience still cannot detect the gimmick in action. The audience will then be left wondering if the explanation of the gimmick was really true after all, and in any case will be extremely impressed.
In all cases, the point is to leave the audience with a sense of awe and wondering if they really saw what they just saw. If they know *exactly* what they just saw, there is no sense of wonder, and the magician has not impressed anyone. Worst of all, he didn't even entertain.