The Definition of Magic: Stooging

December 29, 2017

A mentalist claims they can read minds, and calls upon an audience member to say the first word that comes to them. The mentalist pulls out a slip of paper with the same word on it—impressive, right? After the show, you catch a glimpse of the mentalist giving the supposedly random audience member a wad of cash. Turns out, the the mentalist was stooging you the whole time.

Stooging is the act of using another spectator, either temporarily or permanently in the magician’s employ, to drum up excitement for a magician’s act, or to even trick an audience into believing that the act is genuine. Stooges can also be referred to as confederates, shills, or plants—the fact that there are so many different colloquial terms to refer to the same thing shows how prevalent stooges can be, not just in magic, but in a variety of showbiz schemes and confidence tricks.

In fact, many instances of stooging are considered illegal in order to protect innocent people against fraud, especially when it comes to gambling or selling products. Hiring a person to pretend to win a game of three-card monte in order to trick passersby into parting with their money is a form of stooging that could land you in jail. However, planting confederates in an audience to applaud (thus causing the rest of the audience to react more positively) is generally considered legal, even if it’s morally gray. (Claques, as they’re known in theatre circles, have been around since antiquity and are used in everything from stage plays to tech conferences.) Casinos also use legally hired shills to keep card games going in case there aren’t enough people at the table for a full round.

Interestingly, many magicians are divided on the practice of stooging. Some see stooging as especially dangerous because reputable magicians stake their livelihood on their ability to dazzle audiences with skill that often takes years of training. When a magician who uses stooges is exposed, the general perception of the ability of all magicians can decrease: “If this person is using hired plants to make their tricks work,” the public wonders, “maybe the rest of them are, too.” It’s especially problematic now thanks to video and computer technology, where entire routines can be exposed as fake thanks to clever editing or camera work—hiring stooges on top of that just adds insult to injury, and can serve to make people think that even honest volunteers are in on the trick.

On the other hand, some magicians merely see stooges as another tool in their bag of tricks. Stooges can often act as ‘performance insurance’, used only as a last resort against hecklers or to improve a failing routine. Some magicians use stooges for comedic effect—a juggler asking for random objects from the audience can make their performance much funnier if one of them just ‘happens’ to hand them a watermelon. And some routines are basically impossible without the use of stooges. For instance, the ‘shirt trick’ masterfully performed at the end of this video by pickpocket and comedian Bob Arno requires a confederate to ‘set’ the trick backstage for it to even work (otherwise, it looks like this). In those cases, the performer must weigh the risk of discovery against the impact of the effect.

Ultimately, the burden is on the performer to stooge audiences responsibly. As long as no one is hurt and everyone is entertained, stooges can help sell tricks that otherwise wouldn’t work. However, if the con is discovered, a magician’s credibility can vanish in an instant. 

There’s more to magic—and how to describe it—than just calling everything a ‘trick’. That’s why we’re highlighting and exploring important terms, concepts, and ideas every week with The Definition of Magic on GeniiOnline.