Ali Cook: interview
After alternative comedy came alternative magic. Time Out meets one of the wildest cards in the pack.
What was the first magic trick you ever learnt?
'The first real magic effect I learnt was “the acquitment move” from a Paul Daniels magic set. Basically you manage to hide a billiard ball in your hands whilst showing them both to be empty. It's mindblowing. I just didn't know things like this existed.'
Comedians always get asked by people they meet to tell them a joke. As a comedy magician, do you get asked to show them a trick as well? If so do you have one ready to go at all times?
'I always get, “Show us a trick,” so I'm always secretly packing a hidden goldfish.'
Some of your tricks are distinctly disturbing, like your famous razor-blade-eating routine. Has anyone ever fainted watching any of your effects?
'Yes, my first weekend at The Comedy Café. The sight of blood was too much for this massive 6ft 5in bloke from a stag party. There was an almighty crash as he hit the deck; four barmen had to drag him outside to revive him. The best thing about chewing razor blades is that if you're prepared to do this to yourself, it kind of makes heckling look lame.'
What's the most disturbing trick you perform?
'I did a series on Five called “Psychic Secrets” where I demonstrated apparent psychic abilities intercut with Derren Brown explaining the psychology of these alleged feats. I pretended to be a clairvoyant and this woman really thought I was contacting her gran. It's disturbing how easy it is to fake this. I was using simple psychological techniques but she really thought I had psychic powers. To me that's more disturbing than eating razor blades.'
Another unsettling trick of yours involves you doing something unspeakable to a duck…
'I've updated an ancient effect invented by Servais Le Roy: I pull the head off a chicken and a duck then the duck reappears with a chicken's head and the chicken with a duck's head. It's all killer, no filler. As for other ancient effects, I'm currently reading the oldest book in magic: “The Discoverie Of Witchcraft” written in 1584. I'm practising a trick from there entitled “To Thrust a Bodkin into Your Head Without Hurt”. I can't wait to do it at the 99 Club, although it might be a bit tricky. “Err… Does anyone have a bodkin I could borrow?” '
Which magicians and which comedians have inspired you?
'When I saw Penn and Teller, I loved that their poster said “Vegas won't change us.” However, my favourite magician is Juan Tamariz from Spain. He looks like a mental Woody Alllen, dresses like a farmer, but then does incredible close-up magic. They were the first magicians I saw who said they were “just two normal guys who do weird things”. However the main inspiration for me has to be Steve Martin. I first saw him in “The Man with Two Brains” and later discovered his stand-up. The fact that he started as a theme park magician gives us all hope.'
How important is bringing humour into your act?
'I go in and out of different performing phases but for me nothing is more immediate and challenging than stand-up. The crowd actually get to know you, whereas in magic it's easy to hide behind the props. Also I work hard on the jokes so that I can use them as misdirection on the crowd.'
So your jokes distract the punters?
'Always! Always! The minute I say “…then I got off the bus”. Boom! Right there! That's it. It's all over before I started. Watch the hands, not the hack.'
'Monkey Magic' was considered the first 'alternative' magic show in this country, bringing a younger, cooler TV audience to conjuring - has it stood the test of time?
'I hope so. I think it's the only magic series where the magicians didn't take themselves too seriously. It was just mates doing surreal things with weird objects. The two things I hate are pretension and arrogance. Unfortunately a lot of magicians love to exude these qualities to make up for the fact that they were probably adopted.'
On 'Monkey Magic' you attempted to recreate Houdini's 'Water Torture Escape', but nearly drowned - would you ever perform a feat as dangerous again?
'Well, yeah. I'm having a new, less death-inducing tank made at the moment. It's the new closer to my Edinburgh show. I've redesigned the effect so that not only do I escape but I also swap places with my assistant in an instant. I hope she's doesn't read this, I haven't told her about that bit yet. I hope she's not claustrophobic. My plan is to have it ready for Friday Night Freak Show on July 2.'
Ali Cook performs 'Pieces of Strange' at the Edinburgh Fringe, Gilded Balloon at 21.45.