Mentalist stage acts: how do they do it?

I watch America’s Got Talent (don’t judge!) and virtually every season one of the finalist acts is a mentalist. The details vary, of course, but a typical act would boil down to: a stooge (usually one of the judges) writes down something completely unknown and random, like: draw a picture of something from your childhood. Then there’s lots of elaborate stagecraft, and the ‘ta-dah’ moment where (for instance) the mentalist picks an audience member at random, who reaches under their seat and finds an envelope that says “Simon Cowell will draw a picture of a cow”. Absolutely correct, of course.

I always fail to be impressed, because it’s so opaque. It’s not like close-up magic where you know that it involves incredible manual dexterity and thousands of hours of practice. Intellectually I know that a mentalist act just hinges on a trick: if you know the trick, it’s easy. (Like, sawing a woman in half.)

So: what’s the trick?

That’s entirely going to depend on the specifics of the trick. Maybe the ‘random’ audience member is an accomplice. Maybe the accomplice sits behind the random audience member to plant the card. Maybe they get knowledge from one of the many, many cameras in the room. Maybe the judge is an accomplice. Maybe it’s an electronic pen that sends a copy of the drawing to a hidden ipad. Many possibilities.

These guys are also really, really good at reading people’s microexpressions and suggestively planting ideas during conversation. It might seem completely random that Cowell draws a cow, but the mentalist is 99% sure that’s what it’s going to be.

Maybe he has a way of knowing what has been drawn and there are a limited number of options. There are multiple envelopes spread across the audience and he chooses appropriately.

I’m with the OP. I’d like to know how in the heck they do it too.

But as far as ATG is concerned, there is no way in hell I will be convinced the target is a knowing accomplice.

It has to be something else.

I once saw a magician do that on a cruise. the trick is he’s pick four audience members to name something, then he had an envelope with a drawing of everything they all talked about inside it.

I saw both acts, he asked the same four audience members in the same seats and they all said the same thing both times.

There’s a Netflix show called “Magic for Humans” in which magician Justin Willman, in addition to more ordinary magic, sometimes does mentalist-style tricks, then explains how he did it. It basically came down to having a conversation with the ‘marks’ beforehand that planted mental triggers in their brains that unconsciously led them to make the decisions that he needed for them to make in order for the trick to work.

Since it’s his own show though, he has the luxury of not using scenes where his marks don’t bite on his subconscious mental plants.

Yeah maybe. Sometimes magicians that go on to explain how a trick was done are doing no such thing.

That’s the thing, isn’t it? You can’t trust these people. It’s the nature of the buisiness.

But it really is what it appears. If there’s no way you can imagine* to do the mentalist trick without shills, that’s how it’s done. And I consider that cheating. It’s acting, not magic.

*if you have a good imagination

Darren Brown, for instance, claims to use that method of subtle suggestion.

Except he actually doesn’t. It’s all just cheap tricks.

And one thing common to all magic tricks: An audience description always leaves out details, and the details are the important part for figuring out how it’s done. I’ve seen threads here where the OP is “How does the pick-a-card-any-card trick work?”. But without any more detail, I can think of at least a couple of dozen different ways of doing “that trick” (which is to say, a couple of dozen different tricks, all of which fall under that same very vague description).

For things like “I can name your family members and where you grew up and what your job is,” that is often hot reading - namely, the producers cheat by doing secret research ahead of time.

But for something like the “you’re drawing a treehouse and I know you’re drawing one” - I can only assume there is a planted stooge there. But if the judge is in on the act, I doubt that - because that would be a massive blow to the show’s credibility if they allowed a judge to do that.

Frankly, I find mentalist acts the utter dregs of magic. Almost never is any real talent or dexterity involved. This one was poorly paced and boring on top of it. (Which no doubt means he’ll be voted through, the audience baffles me.)

For those who didn’t see it: The mentalist had four ‘ordinary’ sealed food cans sitting on a table. Each was wrapped in a paper label of a different color – red, yellow, blue, black. He said three cans held some disgusting ‘treat’ that was bits of cut-up pig snout/face, and the last can held pineapple. He got one of the judges up to be the guinea pig who would have to eat from the selected can, while Simon Cowell would pick which can, and supposedly he could influence Cowell to pick the pineapple can – or maybe the idea was supposed to be that he would predict what Simon would pick, and thus put the pineapple into the can destined to be chosen. He hinted at both at various times.

And, of course, that’s the way it worked out. The girl got the pineapple. It was an extremely simple to explain trick. In fact, I think he foolishly gave it completely away when he announces to the audience that he ‘sealed his prediction’ in a different can for the final reveal.

Clearly if he has the ability to seal cans, he can seal them with whatever he pleases inside, yes? So take four cans, and put a barrier inside each of them half way down, creating two separate compartments. Then fill one end of each can with pig bits and seal it. Then fill the other side of each can with pineapple, and seal that too. Then wrap each can with solid colored labels so there’s no way of telling if a can is upside down or right side up. Set the cans up on a table with the pork side up. Let Simon do his pick a can and swap over and over. It doesn’t matter at all. Proceed to eliminate cans, popping open the top to reveal, yup, pig bits, I’m not lying.

Until you get to the can you plan to force on - was it Heidi? Anyway, unlike the other times, you don’t simply open the top of the can as it sits on the table. No, this time you casually pick it up and while doing some distraction bits with getting Heidi to pick up a fork and grip it properly, you TURN THE CAN OVER.

That’s it. The entire secret. He didn’t need to ''predict" which can would be fed to the judge, it didn’t matter at all. Every one of the four cans would have given her the yummy pineapple, just so long as he flipped the can over first.


Thank you! That’s exactly the kind of information I was hoping to get. (Of course, the details will vary from trick to trick.)

My favorite example of this was a friend from college who was an accomplished magician. We were hanging around and he does the pick a card trick, and rather than pull the card out of the deck, figures out the card by reading the person’s facial expressions, how do they react to a black card vs red card, face card vs number card, etc. He successfully guesses the card, and is challenged to do it again. He figures out the card the next time, and agrees to a third round, which is where I caught him.

Because we picked the 8 of Spades three times in a row!

Neuro linguistic programming. Pseudoscientific claptrap.

And what’s annoying is Leverage used it as a “fact” and a tool to do the con in more than one episode. Biggest load of bull, except for Hardison’s magik EMP gun, on an otherwise great show.

What do magicians do when they guess wrong? Just shrug and laugh nervously?

Some methods, there’s no guessing involved (though I suppose they could still screw up, just like a singer could forget the lyrics or something).

Some methods aren’t guaranteed, just high probability. For those, you can turn it into a joke, or you can give some patter that blames it on the audience member, or you can have some “out” prepared that makes the wrong answer work anyway, or you can just quickly move on to the next trick. And of course, the ability to recover smoothly from something like this is one of the things that separates the skilled entertainers from the unskilled.

It’s a good thing Ianzin is not around anymore to see this badmouthing of mentalism.

Re How Tricks Are Done

Penn and Teller did a special with several card tricks- a trick involving a giant deck of sheet metal cards, a trick where Penn had to name the picked card before Teller drowned, and a trick they showed the audience how to do at home. In all the card tricks, the chosen card was the three of clubs. Being a fan, I believe they did NOT use stooges. They gave the card picker the illusion of choice, but arranged for them to pick the 3 of clubs. This is known as ‘forcing a card’.

In their book, they gave a few methods for forcing any card, but said they always used the 3 of clubs. They gave out a phone number in the book that went to an answering machine that would just say “Your card is the 3 of clubs” and hangup, for you to wow your friends.

What!!? I’ll have to go find that. I have exactly one sleight-of-hand card trick that involves a card force, and now I’m going to have to do that. :sweat_smile: