Before it was a Hulu special, In & Of Itself was an off-Broadway show in which Derek DelGaudio, a two-time Academy of Magical Arts’ Close-Up Magician of the Year, used his craft to tell a personal story and explore the nature of identity. Part memoir and part philosophical contemplation, the theatrical experience is now available on screen with a filmed version directed by Frank Oz (also known as the puppeteer behind Yoda and many of the Muppets). DelGaudio and Oz joined The Gist’s Mike Pesca to talk about the creative choices involved in bringing In & Of Itself to the screen—and the problems with labeling it. Here’s an excerpt from their conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.
Mike Pesca: Derek, you had a long tweet thread about how you decided to tap Frank Oz. I was thinking about the connection between you two and probably 90-something percent of it is as artists and as storytellers. But there is the element of physical, literally manual manipulation of material to achieve a desired effect, a story to wow people. Frank, have you ever contemplated that? And do you think about that connection ever?
Frank Oz: No, I don’t think so. You’re saying I’m a puppeteer, he’s a magician. The show is actually about that, the idea that we label each other when actually there is more to us than one thing. The idea that I’m a puppeteer is only one aspect of me. The idea that Derek is a magician is only one aspect of him. But to answer your question, no, it never occurred to me.
And I know that that’s part of it, Derek, the nature of identity and how, when we say magician, perhaps that connotes something like liar, someone who can’t be trusted. This show is using the skills that you have and the tradition that you have to a little bit explode the box of what the labels mean.
Derek DelGaudio: It’s an attempt but only in the sense that I need it to actually say what I need it to say. It’s difficult to convey what I want it to convey if people think that I’m trying to deceive them. So the title magician just tends to conceal the things I’m trying to reveal.
I guess my question is: I’ve read a lot about you, and I’ve watched old interviews, and you have such a reverence for the tradition and the craft. Do you chafe at being called a magician? And in doing so, what does that say about what I know to be your reverence for the history and tradition of that craft?
DelGaudio: It depends on who’s saying it. If people have an understanding of what it means to me, then no. But if they understand it as they understand it and it has nothing to do with how I see the world or how I see my role or what I do, then yeah, it’s difficult to let that stand. So it really depends. It’s not so much running from it as it is wanting to make the things that I want to make without having perception of others get in the way of it.
Oz: Yeah. Derek, I think that’s true for both of us. I don’t have any problem with people calling me a puppeteer, and I think Derek has no problem with people calling him a magician if they actually know what we are doing. And their perception usually is that they don’t. The perception is rather limited and often pejorative and condescending. Their perception is not pleasant, not the names we call ourselves. Right, Derek?
DelGaudio: Yeah, that’s exactly right.
Yeah. The connotation, or what maybe is, like you said, the common perception—
DelGaudio: No, I was just saying, for instance, starting a conversation on this note, talking about these things is already a distraction from what the show is actually about in terms of what it is the dialogue that I’m trying to have. It sidetracks us from the things that actually matter, that really genuinely mattered to me.
Oz: I’ll just throw in here. Mike, you’re an interviewer, right?
Yeah. It’s one of the things I do. Right.
Oz: No, that’s all you do. You’re an interviewer, right?
I know what you mean. Yeah.
Oz: So you’re an interviewer, and that’s how I see you. And so I get it. That’s all you do is just when you wake up, you get some coffee, and then you talk to people. That’s it. Right? Right.
The publicity team says, “Don’t call it magic.” I’ve done hours and hours of research into what you do. I have this reverence for the art of what you’re doing. Why should it be an insult? I understand you’re trying to market an exquisite work of theater that says so much about human perception. But if you don’t have that label on it, maybe I can convince some percentage of the audience to sit down and watch this thing that you don’t even know what it is.
Oz: I think the intrigue and mystery of not knowing what it is will get more people in.
DelGaudio: I know from experience the difference between someone thinking they’re going into a “magic show” and someone going in just being told they have to see this. And the expectation of seeing a magic show is much more disappointing and confusing than not having any preconceived notions. It’s an inescapable truth. There’s nothing wrong with the craft of magic or puppeteering or the art of the interview, any of these things. But everything comes with some preconceived notion. And some of those fields and crafts have more weight or more pejorative connotations and things attached to them. And unfortunately, magic and puppeteering are two of the lowest in terms of the entertainment world. It doesn’t even matter if it’s Frank. You have the best in the world at something, and it’s still, oh, that’s what it is.
Oz: And I think what they’ve seen is, unfortunately, they’ve seen a lot of bad magic and bad puppeteering. And they don’t understand that there can be something lifted higher than that. That’s all.
DelGaudio: I remember the first time we did The Late Show in 2018. And we had been doing well with the show. Obviously, going on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert is a huge bump in terms of—you get the Colbert bump. And it was true for ticket sales. But what happened, which we didn’t expect, was the audiences that came just hated the show. They heard “magician,” and they heard Stephen Colbert likes it, and they bought tickets. It didn’t matter all the other beautiful things that he said about it. All they heard was “magic show, Stephen Colbert told me to come see it.” And we have a one-star review average on Tripadvisor now because of it, because people were like, “Colbert sent me to this show. There’s not even a magic show. This is ridiculous.” So yeah, it’s a problem in terms of setting expectations.
We’re not being delicate about don’t call me this, don’t call me that. We want to have people go into this experience in a way that is appropriate. And setting the wrong expectation can actually literally destroy what we’ve tried to create for them.
Oz: Yeah. It’s interesting. It sometimes went two ways. One is, “Hey, I came for a magic show. I don’t see any magic here. What’s all this talk?” On the other hand, sometimes it becomes a Trojan horse, and they realize, “Oh, Jesus, this is more than I thought.”
You’re one of the greatest card manipulators I’ve ever seen. At times Frank cuts to your face and we don’t even see the cards. That tells me you’re not necessarily trying to wow the TV audience or the Hulu-watching audience, because you know that everyone could just say, “Well, with camera tricks, you could actually achieve any effect.” There’s no point to even commit to trying to wow them in terms of that. In a way, does the film get to the heart of what you’re trying to do in a different way or more direct way than the theatrical experience did?
DelGaudio: Yes. I think that the film in many ways is more true to the work than the live show was because we have the opportunity to show you what we wanted to show you and say what we wanted to say without knowing that you can’t be distracted by the trivial things, like what are his hands doing or what’s behind the curtain or things like that, that you can’t help but think when you’re in a theater. And so it puts the right issues in the foreground and puts everything else in the background, which is a luxury that we’re fortunate to have on film.
Oz: I think the real difference here and the real help in showing it’s not about tricks is the close-up. The power of the close-up is extraordinary. And that’s what this thing is about, is people’s emotions on their faces. And in the theater, one can’t see that. Even if you’re in the first row, you can’t see a real close-up of Derek’s face and the subtleties. And you certainly can’t see everybody else in the audience. So here’s an opportunity to see all the people in close-up with the human face, which is the most emotive visage in the world.