Any number of adjectives could be used to describe my old friend Jay Sankey - intelligent, creative, funny, unpredictable -but even I would have to stretch to get to "children's entertainer." Nothing in his past, his performances, or his surgical use of profanity would suggest a predisposition for kidshows. And yet, despite this, he is now the creator, producer and host of a brand new Canadian television series called Spellz that's dedicated to teaching kids about the art of magic. Naturally, this opens the door to a variety of questions, like "is this one of the Seven Signs of Armageddon?" While Biblical scholars research the latter, let's explore the former via this interview conducted six weeks after Spellz hit the airwaves.
DAVID ACER: First of all, I have to start by asking you if you realise there's a spelling mistake in the title of your new educational kidshow.
JAY SANKEY: [nods] I think, as more viewers watch the show, they'll get comfortable with both 'L's.
DA: Is this the first TV you've ever done? JS: [laughs] There's a leading question. No, it is not.
DA: What else have you done? JS: [pauses to think]
DA: I remember there was that episode of Matlock.
JS: [laughs] Well, when I used to do stand-up comedy I taped a few different one-man shows up here in Canada. DA: "Up" relative to the U.S. JS: Up relative to the Earth's core. I also had a bizarre weekly character on a national talk show called Friday Night with Ralph Benmurghi. I played this weird guy up in a corner of the studio who was called... I forget what he was called. I was a character who was apparently in control of all the sound and lights in the studio. Sort of like Radar O'Reilly, but a cyber-guy. DA: How long did that last? JS: Too long. DA: And that would be. JS: I think about three, four months. DA: But you didn't do magic in that. JS: No. No magic in any of that stuff. DA: What about magic on television? JS: The usual collection of, probably, twenty or twenty five spots over the years. Everything from breakfast television to telethons to talkshows as a magician, then later I did many of those same shows as a comic. These are four or five minute walk-on spots where you're doing a little magic or a little comedy. DA: So when every magician with the means is approaching broadcasters to get a David-Blaine style show on the air, you decided to pitch a kid's show.
JS: That's after pitching a David Blaine style show. And a magic documentary show, and a let's-get-to-the-basis-of-wonder documentary/psychology/sociology show, trying to look at what is people's experience of wonder. When they find a goose in the newspaper box they open that morning and they know there's no way that goose should be there, what do they do with that? So I pitched all these shows. And even the kids show - I mention it to magicians and they go, "Oh yeah, that must have been an easy sell." Nope. That wasn't an easy sell either. DA: So how did it finally sell? JS: My dear friend and creative partner in this show, David Peck, he's always saying, "well you know it comes down to relationships", and of course there's more truth to that than not in my opinion. And the proof of that would be that he approached a few different production companies and when he approached GAPC he got a good vibe off them, then he worked very diligently over many months developing a relationship. DA: Did he approach them initially about this series in particular, or about doing a series in general, then, through his relationship, came to shape a series they would be interested in? In other words did the relationship evolve from the series or did the series evolve from the relationship?
JS: The series evolved from the relationship, because the first thing we used as a calling card was my Amazing Magic Anybody Can Do [a DVD on beginner's magic that Jay put out for the public]. They were impressed with me on camera and thought I would be good with kids. DA: So they wanted to develop something for kids about magic.
JS: Right. And the rest of it was really about brainstorming. That's where we got the mix, which in retrospect seems so obvious -historical segments, teaching segments, wacky magic segments. Different kinds of things. So it was very much a collaborative effort creatively, and it began with David watering the relationship. DA: How many episodes did you shoot? JS: In the first season we shot 13 half-hours, which, after previewing, they decided to whittle down to one thirty-second spot. [both laugh]
JS: No, they decided to cut them up into 26 11-minute shows.
DA: That's an odd format. Do they have other 11-minute shows, or do they pair you up with a really long shampoo commercial? JS: GAPC and the broadcaster - TVO - have other segment shows. Short segment, fast-paced, for kids. That's a style they've developed. DA: Who's Bridget?
JS: Bridget is my 16-year-old co host, and
Pictures from left to right:
1. Early promo shot.
2. Performing at an outdoor corporate gig for the Labatt's Brewing company, 1989.
4. Working the streets in Toronto, 1980.
5. Lecturing at the U.S. magician's convention 'Close Encounter of the Magic Kind', 1983.
she's very much a co-host, because maybe 80 percent of the show takes place with Bridget and me on set. The remaining 20 percent is either me or Bridget alone. DA: What's the show's demographic? JS: Fetus to sophomore. DA: Are there a lot of fetuses watching? JS: There's a new kind of cable hook-up. DA: Why have a co-host? JS: We all seemed to agree that a young, female co-host would help attract female viewers, but also bridge the gap - excuse the pun, because her name is Bridget - in age. DA: So instead of teaching the viewer the tricks, you teach Bridget and the viewer learns with her.
JS: Repetition is a big part of helping kids learn and make an emotional investment. There are three or four different kinds of segments in every show. It's not like we spend the whole show teaching tricks. I show Bridget a trick. Bridget is impressed by the trick. The second part is I teach Bridget how the trick is performed. i.e., where you hold your hands, when you look someone in the eye, what you say and why you say it. Then we cut to black-and-white footage, like old-time movie footage, kind of grainy and scratchy, of the Amazing Bridget, and she now performs the trick for the camera. DA: What if it's a colour-change? JS: [stares stone-faced] DA: Okay, what kind of tricks do you teach? JS: Standard beginner tricks we all learned from Uncle Moses - two straws that melt through each other, bending a spoon against a table, rubbing a coin on your elbow and it vanishes, the wobbly pencil. Tricks that are visual, simple. Also, what's clever and is going to appeal to the imagination of a nine-year-old.
DA: The wobbly pencil is a whole trick?
JS: Totally. The segments are fast. When I perform a trick, it can be as short as 20 seconds but no longer than 45 or 50 seconds. They're single, quick effects, and only one per episode.
DA: What's the difference between teaching a trick and exposing a trick? JS: Oh, everything. The difference between educating and revealing is in the spirit in which you do it, and it's also in what the viewer takes away. If the viewer takes away knowledge of the methodology of a trick, but no increase of respect, no increase of comprehension, no sense of how to perform the trick, it can only hurt magic. DA: How do you stay true to that? JS: We have historical segments where we talk about the history of magic and I, my god, was asked to act - I'm Dai Vernon, I'm Houdini, I'm Malini. And there are also 30-second segments where it's just me talking about things like patter, timing, practicing -real psychology aspects of performing magic for people. It's very comprehensive and extremely respectful of magic. DA: Did the producers ever do, or shoot, or ask for anything you vetoed? JS: One of their cool ideas was to ask a whole lot of kids in the Ottawa area to come in and show us some tricks, and they taped them. So they've got these total amateur, sweety-pie, awkward, funny, overly serious kids doing these tricks at the end of every 11-minute episode. Now if they flub them we don't use it, but on one of them a kid used a thumbtip, but for two seconds, you could see it, and it took us a long time to get the production company and the network to understand that that could not be kept in at any price, that I would literally leave the show. That's an example of exposing without education.
When they find a goose in the newspaper box they open that morning and they know there's no way that goose should be there, what do they do with that?
DA: My experience with young kids and magic is, once they learn a trick - any trick - they tend to think they know all tricks. Given that, do you think you might be making the job of kidshow magicians in Ontario harder? JS: They asked me to do a promotional thing for the show at a book festival here in
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