6 things they don't tell you about being a mentalist
Oz Pearlman prepares for "America's Got Talent" by reading reporter's mind.
Editor's note, 9/16/15: Oz and nine other contestants performed in the "America's Got Talent" finale Tuesday night on NBC. Will Oz win? Tune in to find out tonight at 9 p.m. ET. In the meantime, read our profile of him to find out what goes into making a great trick.
Because I knew what Oz Pearlman does for a living, meeting him at his apartment in New York City's West Village wasn't just a hand shake and a "nice meeting you."
His apartment was a bit chaotic, because he was getting ready for his upcoming debut appearance at Radio City Music Hall for the live rounds of NBC's "America's Got Talent." He may have been keeping an eye on his friendly shih tzu Mico as the dog chewed on things he shouldn't have. But I knew, because Pearlman is a mentalist, he was watching me closely, filing observations about me in his mental vault.
By the end of my time with him, he proved my theory to be correct.
What does a mentalist like Oz (pronounced Oh-s) Pearlman do? He uses observation and sleight of hand, among other techniques, to guess what people are thinking. But it's not as simple as "what am I thinking of right now?" An Israeli native who grew up in Michigan and now lives in New York, Pearlman has been doing this professionally since 2005. He is always in control of the conversation when he is doing a trick, directing you to a point where his guess will more than likely be right... but not always.
What has Pearlman learned in the decade since he left his job at Merrill Lynch to perform full time?
1. Be friendly and disarming
One of the things that I noticed about Pearlman is that he's a chatty, gregarious guy, but he doesn't run you over with words. He gives you room to talk while making self-deprecating jokes about his dual life as a mentalist and ultramarathoner. The friendliness is key to his act.
"I'm approachable," he told From The Grapevine. "I'm not some aloof figure. I present myself as a regular guy who's going, 'Isn't this wild this stuff I've learned how to do?' I'm trying to set up an element of wonder where people go, 'That was nuts! How did he do it?'"
If you watched his first "AGT" appearance, at New Jersey's NJPAC theater, you noticed that he starts by complimenting Heidi Klum and Mel B, the two judges who he performed tricks on in that episode. The compliments put the judges at ease, allowing them to go along with Pearlman as he began his performance.
"Making them feel at ease helps me get into their heads and do what I do, but it also helps them enjoy it," he said.
2. Failing strengthens the act
Pearlman never pretends that he's conjuring up these answers from nowhere. He doesn't call what he does "magic" or say that he's a "psychic." He simply utilizes what he describes as laser focus, a well-honed memory and a keen eye, combined with problem-solving skills he learned as an engineer managing Merrill's UNIX servers.
"So much of what I do is layering different methods on each other, so you never catch what's going on," he said.
A person's gestures, eye level, and other tiny details are "tells" that reveal your thought process in action. Most people do the same things, no matter how unreadable they think they are. He's also in control of the conversation, which is why he can't guess what you're thinking at any random moment.
While he's nailed his brief appearances on "AGT," he acknowledges that he doesn't always guess things right during his 90-minute stage show. But that's more than OK. "People get desensitized" to the mentalist getting it right all the time, he said.
"The moment you're on stage in front of 500 people, someone thinks of something, and you don't get it, you know what that just did? That validated the whole rest of the show. People think, 'This guy's not trying to screw up on purpose. That means all those other things he did must have been real.' If I got it right every time, this would be a magic show."
3. Knowing your 'partner' makes things harder
The longer Pearlman interacts with someone, the better the performance.
"The performance is nuanced, I need to feel you out. I've got to ease into it," he said. During his show, he says he establishes a rapport with the people he selects from the crowd based on his observational skills.
But that doesn't mean that his job is easier on "AGT" because he knows the judges are his subjects.
"The viewers know the judges aren't in on it. Nothing's set up in advance," he said. "It's harder, because in my shows, when I have random people selected out of the audience, you know they're random. If I say something about Howie [Mandel], you can Wikipedia that. I have to think out of the box and be pure in my approach."
For instance, he knew that during his second "AGT" appearance, where he'd have to try to read Mandel and the notoriously skeptical Howard Stern, he'd have to work that much harder to wow them.
"You're really going to have to impress him (Stern) with something he's never seen, so I used a signature item I created, which is cutting a silhouette of a thought-of person. I saved that for him."
4. Running helps hone your act
Pearlman is an ultramarathoner, running in races that have been as long as 153 miles (the race from Athens to Sparta in Greece). The determination needed to get through such a lengthy and punishing race has helped him concentrate during his performances. "Level-headedness, focus, the knowledge that things aren't always going to go well" are what he's learned by running long distances. It's also helped his confidence. "When I get on stage, that's the most comfortable I'll feel. That's my time. That's what I've been waiting all this time for. That's what a race is like."
There's also a side benefit to being a mega-distance runner, though; his long training runs give him an opportunity to work out the logistics of new tricks. "My best ideas come while I run," he said. "People running the other way see me doing hand gestures like I'm psychotic. I'm rehearsing. I came up with two jokes for next week today on my run."
5. You can't use your family to rehearse
Pearlman doesn't practice his act, especially his "AGT" material, by pulling people off the street. That approach doesn't get optimal results because there's no connection between him and the person he's trying to read.
So how does a mentalist rehearse? He certainly can't use his wife, who he said "is brutally honest about what I do. If I can fool my wife, Howard Stern is easy," he joked. "My wife knows my humor. I can play off of her a little bit, but she has biases. I can't get her to think of something because she knows where I'm going with it." He talks to mentalists he admires and they help him brainstorm and refine a trick, but there's no real way he can rehearse.
So, in many ways, he'll be doing the trick for the first time when he hits the famous Radio City stage on the 25th. And he has to get it right, in front of the biggest audience of his life, or else he won't be coming back. "There are nights I can't fall asleep. I'm doing gestures in bed and my wife wants to know what's going on. I say 'I'm rehearsing.' I know what an impact this has on my career. There's nothing else I'm going to do that puts me in front of 12 million people at once."
6. Reporters are surprisingly readable
I asked Pearlman what he observed about me since we met in the lobby of his building, and he gave me some vague terms – he noticed my wedding ring, what I was wearing (rumpled casual mixed with New York City humidity) and the stories I mentioned I had worked on in the recent past.
"How can I use the info I've gathered about you to execute something specific?" he asked. So when I asked him to do a trick with me, he readily obliged.
He asked me to think about a list of people who I'm going to talk with in the coming week who are not co-workers. I thought of a friend of mine, and a friend of my wife's. But then I zereoed in on an interview subject I was scheduled to talk to later in the week. It's no one I personally know, I've never mentioned the person to him, and he has an unusual first name – Jesse. I figured he'd never guess it.
Pearlman put my phone on top of two billfolds. "Don't take the MetroCard, it's unlimited," he joked. He gave me a card with an "x" and a line on it, and asked me to write the person's first name down while he looked away. Then, while still looking away, he told me to fold the card and fold it again. He joked that because I have a wedding ring, "You clearly didn't think of your wife." He guessed that it was a guy because "you'd be more excited if you wrote down a woman's name." Then, still not looking, he helped me rip it up into about a dozen pieces. He then guessed, because I took out my phone, that it would be an electronic conversation, not in person.
Then he tapped my phone, told me to take out his business card from a zipped part of one of the billfolds and look on the back. What he had written there blew away even my skeptical mind:
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