Ethics Quiz, Special Life Competence Edition: The Embarrassed Magician

Handling oneself in moments of defeat, failure and embarrassment is a core life competence that few of us have mastered. Consider, for a wild, random, out of the blue example, Liz Cheney, whose approach to a landslide loss was to frame it as a badge of honor.

On this week’s “America’s Got Talent,” the live show was filling time by having a previous season’s finalist, Jon Dorenbos, work his magic—literally, since Dorenbos is a professional NFL player turned professional magician. The illusion required judges Simon Cowell, Howie Mandel, Heidi Klum, and Sofia Vergara to pick random numbers out of a box and letters (signifying colors) off a board. The wondrous effect was to be that he would then reveal four football jerseys secretly already hanging in four onstage gym lockers, each jersey with the judge’s name and bearing the color and number he or she had chosen. The jerseys in the lockers for Cowell, Mandel and Vergara were properly amazing, but when Heidi Klum showed her number (8), the magician knew he was sunk. Although the Klum jersey’s color, red, matched the letter she had picked voluntarily, the number was not 8, but 20.

All magicians have illusions go wrong occasionally. (I once did the old “bake a cake in a hat” bit with a fedora belonging to my parents’ guest, and ended up filling the hat with milk because the trick pitcher malfunctioned.) However, TV magic is almost always pre-recorded, so having a magician’s botched routine make it to broadcast is extremely rare: I’ve never seen it happen. It is also a possible career-wrecker.

Here is how Dorenbos dealt with his humialation on live TV, saying,

I thought you were going to pick 20. That’s OK! Sometimes in life it’s OK to be off by one, because guess what, baby? Every time I take this stage, you all make me feel like a rock star! Being part of the AGT team, I love every second. Whether it’s in the locker room or my life, I try to be the best teammate I can be and also bring my A-game, baby. May we all make the decision to be the best teammate we can be in this world!

Your Special Ethics Alarms Life Competence Ethics Quiz of the Day is…

Was the magician’s response to failure competent?

Well, it worked anyway: the audience applauded. Apparently social media users were kind as well.

Dorenbos was using two devices that come in handy when you’re caught in a botch: deflection (“Hey! Look over there!”) and virtue-signaling (“I’m a good person!”) I found his execution a little obvious for my taste, as well as contradictory: Jon didn’t bring his A-game, baby. But he did keep talking and didn’t appear crushed, which are both evidence of some forethought, practice, poise and skill.

He also had a perfect, classic and brief alternative that every magician (and others as well) should have at the ready. In the Arthur Penn picaresque film Western “Little Big Man,” aged Cheyenne chief “Old Lodge-skins” (Chief Dan George), weary of oppression by the White Man, goes to a mountain top, sings a death chant, and lies down to die. When he doesn’t, Old Lodge-skins gets up, shrugs, and tells his adopted grandson Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), “Sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn’t.”

5 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz, Special Life Competence Edition: The Embarrassed Magician

  1. “Was the magician’s response to failure competent?”

    Competent: having the necessary ability, knowledge, or skill to do something successfully.

    Well since his overall audience seemed to accept what he said in a positive way, then yes by definition it was “competent”.


    Since I see everything that a professional magician does as pure deception, then his statement after the failed “magic” trick was just more of the same pure deception.

    • That said…

      He should capitalize on this obvious failure and do this trick the following way from now on.

      He should plan this as an obvious failure again and then when it was completely evident to the entire audience and the magician had failed and had hung his head in apparent shame, the back of his black shirt should somehow disappear and when he turns his back to the audience and it would then reveal the correct jersey to the audience.

      New setup based on an expected failure.

  2. He’s an entertainer – just like actors and actresses are a little bit magician also – they are portraying a non-reality – and when actor’s botch lines they just continue the show.

    His botch is a more obvious version of the same thing. He continued the show and people were entertained.

    Competent response to the botch.

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