RICKY JAY

I grew up knowing one card trick. It's a good trick, and I've performed it for students over the years. But it's still only one trick. I say "performing" because the delivery of the trick is at least as much about the presentation as about the actual mechanics of the trick. I can't recall when I first saw Ricky Jay, but it couldn't have been any later than his appearance in the second season of SNL in January of 1977 (episode 12). Perhaps it was years earlier on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, but I just don't recall. I was taken not only by his skill as a sleight-of-hand artist but by his arcane patter, which seemed to be a language from a time gone by. Often those he employed in his tricks looked baffled by his Victorian locutions. In fact, his language was based on the flimflammery of his predecessors in the field. For Ricky, all life is one big con, and the more skilled the practitioner at creating misdirection, the more successful the con game. Sorry the accompanying video is grainy. Let's first look at his skill with cards:

I have to say that it's the crossed wrists, the cocked head, and the just short of smug stare at the camera at the end of the trick that gets me every time!


When I first entered the strange and magical world of Ricky Jay, even his origins were somewhat nebulous. No one knew his real name or very much about his upbringing. I was fortunate to learn that one of my colleagues had gone to high school with him when he was Ricky Jay Potash. I felt I possessed some secret knowledge. Though born in Brooklyn, Ricky was brought up nearby in Elizabeth, NJ; clearly he has done his best to let very little of his background leak out. Back in 1993 the New Yorker did a terrific profile of Ricky Jay, which I have saved all these years. You can enjoy it too: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1993/04/05/secrets-of-the-magus


During the 1980s and 1990s, Ricky hit it as big as a magician/conjurer/card sharp/confidence man can if he does not want to sell out like the David Copperfields and Criss Angels of the world. He wrote well-researched books about obscure sleight-of-hand artists. He appeared in movies directed by playwright David Mamet. He even was henchman to a Bond villain in Tomorrow Never Dies, the best of the Pierce Brosnan Bonds. But before I get to that, perhaps another demonstration of his skills is in order. Here's a blast from Ricky's past. A very young Ricky Jay plies his trade in a variety act from the mid 70s.

Above is an incredible demonstration (if your mouth is not agape you should just find some other entry to read) that was part of one of his Mamet-directed one-man shows Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants, which has been filmed and which I would heartily recommend. I have seen two of Ricky's shows (Along with Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants there was Ricky Jay: On the Stem), and the memories still amaze. I remember ordering good tickets for a group of friends and relatives and finding out at the last minute that 52 Assistants had been cancelled or there had been some mix-up or something--the upshot being that my tickets were no longer valid. I was livid. I was polite but adamant that the theatre should do something to provide restitution. Fortunately, I received a call after a few days and the theatre said an extra performance had been added. Our tickets were now in the front row! We were all witness to many wonderful and mystical moments. It was more than a little intimidating to be in the front row because Ricky occasionally ventured into the audience searching for "volunteers". When he demonstrated his giant scissors expertise, we were inches from the master. Ricky throws a single card ten or fifteen feet away in such a way that it returns boomerang style! I know. I know. Can't be done. Not only can it be done, but he awaits the return holding a pair of oversized scissors--more like garden shears--and cuts the card in two in mid-air as it approaches! Scoff if you will, but I maintain my souvenir of that evening:​

You can see this trick (and the word "trick" is far too mundane for such a wondrous feat) in the full recording further below about 40 minutes in. In case you think Ricky Jay is only dexterous in one area, check out his proficiency in the lost art of watermelon penetration by a playing card! He is the world champ!

I would be remiss if I did not point out all the scholarly research Ricky has done on these obscure art forms and the ephemera associated with their histories. Nor would it be right not to acknowledge the importance of his unique style. These tricks might soon grow tiresome without his erudition and elan. If you thought this was fun or fantastic, check out the full Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants on YouTube as well as the American Masters special about ​him Deceptive Practices on PBS not too long ago. And if you get a chance to see him perform some day--drop everything! Here is his website: ​http://rickyjay.com/

Update: I did get a chance to see Ricky Jay perform one last time last November (2016) at the Sheen Center in Greenwich Village. Three performances only! Verrrry expensive tickets. The audience was filled with New York celebs. I think half the staff of the New Yorker was there. Sadly, Ricky had aged significantly and lost his train of thought at times, fumbled some of his tricks, couldn't remember the start of the poem he was going to recite and waited awkwardly on stage for a full minute before accepting a cue, and nearly had a stroke before he penetrated the watermelon with a playing card. Still, he had banked so much good will over the years with his audience that nobody booed and everyone rooted for him. I prefer to remember his genius with a story from the Deceptive Practices video. Sorry about the small image-within-an-image, but that's how it is posted. Go to the 42:30 mark of the video, where a woman relates an experience she had with Ricky for a BBC show as Ricky discusses spontaneous magic. It's just an amazing tale, and you can see that the woman remains profoundly affected to this day. Two years later, Ricky died. We will never see his like again.