Every year, my home town of Melbourne is descended upon by an army of comedians in town for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Literally hundreds of sketch comics, clowns, mimes, stand ups, comedy magicians and other rib ticklers all stage shows in theatres, clubs, pubs and bars.
I’ve performed in the festival many times over the years and can attest that performing comedy is addictive. It is pure magic to have an audience in the palm of your hand, hanging on your every word.
It’s no wonder that humour is a valuable tool in the professional con man’s tool box. There are few things in the world that build trust and camaraderie more than a shared laugh.
A few years ago I was in San Francisco when a homeless man shuffled up to me with a proposition.
“I bet you you ten bucks that I know where you got your shoes?” “Where?” “You got ’em on your feet.”
The ten bucks was out of my pocket and in his hands before I’d stopped laughing.
Because that’s what laughter does.
Comedy is disarming. Being doubled over in laughter prevents you from thinking straight. As a comedy magician, I’ll often tell a joke right when I’m about to palm a card or whatever piece of dirty work I need to do to make the magic happen. It’s all but impossible to spot sleight of hand at the moment. Your eyes close, your head is thrown back and your rational brain shuts down.
Comedy magician Tommy Cooper used laughter to distract from his terrible magic.
When we laugh, our body releases oxytocin, the hormone responsible for bonding and trust. It’s also released during childbirth and breast feeding. Along with dopamine, serotonin and endorphins, oxytocin is one the chemical building blocks of happiness. If a con artist can make you laugh, you’re far more likely to trust him and like him.
A good laugh breaks down social barriers and allows for inappropriate behaviour. Ever got the giggles at a funeral? You monster! But it also allows you to do things you wouldn’t normally do. Like get involved in a crooked game of chance on the streets like Three Disk Monte.
So the next time you find yourself laughing at a salesperson or a comedy magician or a dodgy character who’s got a deal that seems too good to be true, see if you can spot what they don’t want you to see.
Nicholas J. Johnson is a Melbourne comedy magician, author, entertainer and collector of scams.