Fool Us: Penn and Teller

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Magicians Penn and Teller, who have been fooling us for forty years, last night premiered the first episode of the new season of their CW network television show, Fool Us. It’s packed full of magic (and commercials), but it’s certainly entertaining for both magicians and non-magicians alike.  The format of the show remains the same as in the past; that is, several  performers, often well-known magicians in the magic community, perform tricks for Penn and Teller and the live audience. The performers’ goal is to fool P&T about the methods used to accomplish the magic. Teller, in particular, has a vast knowledge of the history and methods of magic, so that’s not an easy proposition.

Now the fun part for the magic-savvy audience tuning in, is that P&T have seemingly painted themselves into a corner: for if they know how the trick is done, how do they prove to the performer that they know the method? They can’t just outright say the method, because that would violate one of the venerable tenets of magic: magicians may not expose how tricks are done without very good reason to do so. So the fun for the at-home magician is watching P&T speak in a coded language that makes it very apparent to the challenging performers that P&T have caught them out. The performers understand right away that they’ve been busted when they hear P&T say, as they did last night, that  “the trick took my breath away” or “we think we’re one ahead of you” and so on.  When the performers hear such comments, they metaphorically hang down their heads, signaling that they’ve been busted; they have to admit to the audience that indeed P&T know exactly how their tricks were done.

So, yes, it’s fun for magicians and hobbyists, it makes us feel like we’re smart and on the inside. In fact, most likely, we are consciously being pandered to. Because at least two of the effects on last night’s show would not have fooled anyone with even the most basic knowledge of magic. There is no way in hell that the performers could have actually thought that P&T wouldn’t know their methods. Really, without exaggerating, the methods of two of the magicians in last night’s show could be found in many children’s magic books. I guess it’s nice for the performers to get national exposure, I’m not knocking them for that, but really what were the producers of the show thinking when they selected them? I can only think that it was to increase the number of viewers who could feel like they, too, were in on the joke.

That said, there were some fine performances. The highlight of the show was Steve Brundage, a very  clever and engaging young man who does a signature routine with a Rubik’s Cube. He tosses a mixed cube behind his back, and when he catches it, the cube is restored to its solved state. A very pretty effect. But the kicker was when he appeared to have failed, only to reveal that the cube was now in precisely the same mixed state as another mixed cube sitting between Teller’s previously closed palms. P&T had no clue as to method, and over here, I’m certainly still scratching my head.

But truth be told, I don’t want to know. It would only disappoint me. Much better to live with that feeling of amazement.

To round out each of their episodes, P&T do a trick of their own, and last night it was the ancient mystery of the “Cellphone to Tilapia’s Entrails.” It’s a classic in the P&T repertoire, but it’s always fun to see them work.

There’s much discussion about the show in the magic community, and the more negative comments seem to center around two things: first, though P&T generally do not expose any magician’s tricks on the air (except their own), they have been known in past episodes to be particularly rough on those who claim to be mentalists. Unless you clearly mark yourself as a comedy mindreader, as the performer in last night’s episode did, you can expect to get skewered—and exposed—by P&T.

The second criticism of the show—which I think is a very fair one—is that by naming the show Fool Us, P&T are inviting potential magic audiences to look upon magic as only a puzzle to be solved. Now there’s much intellectual satisfaction in trying to solve a clever puzzle, there’s no doubt about that. But magic is so much more than “the method.” In fact, a clever method is no guarantee at all that the effect is any good. In magic we don’t care if the method is clever or not—it only has to fool the audience, not Penn and Teller. Strangely enough, there is no correlation between a method’s ingeniousness and how good a trick is. The puzzle is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the performance of strong magic. What a magician cares about is the overall impact that the magic will have on a spectator. If clever puzzles were all that were necessary and sufficient, then magicians could hand out copies of the Sunday Times Cryptic Crossword Puzzle and go home.

But no, Our Magic (that is, stage conjuring) is a branch of the theatrical arts, albeit a very specialized one, and it’s subject to the theatre’s constraints and glories. In a magic performance, there are many other considerations that contribute to the overall effect and impact: acting, pacing, character, staging, music, lights, premise, participation, engagement, scripting, likability are all as important as “method” to the audience’s ultimate experiencing of a feeling of magic. And Fool Us, with it’s emphasis on puzzle-solving, neatly elides all those factors. “The method” is not the method. That’s the big secret. And watching Fool Us, you would never know that. You think you’re on the inside track, only you’re not. But you can be sure that P&T understand that as much as anybody. They show you their empty hands, while their other hands remain hidden. Clever boys, those rascals, Penn and Teller.

7 thoughts on “Fool Us: Penn and Teller

  1. Steve Brundage’s cube manipulations were amazing, but they were, to use a phrase coined by Eugene Burger, the adventures of the props in the magician’s hands. What was the premise? What did the routine tell us about the magician? At the end, I didn’t know how it was done, but I didn’t care. It was fancy eye candy.

    Even though the routine didn’t fool Teller, I thought Jon Armstrong’s Tiny Plunger routine was much more interesting than the cube manipulations. Tiny Plunger has a whimsical premise, a sound theatrical structure, and a progression that builds to a wonderful finish. It’s very entertaining and very mysterious at the same time. Penn started out as a jaded skeptic, and by the end of the routine, Jon had turned him into a little kid who was full of wonder. Now, that’s real magic.

    • Hi, Barry, nice of you to stop by!

      I think that’s a fair criticism of Steve’s performance, but I think the sheer impossibility of the effect was overwhelming. I’ve seen Steve perform his busking act on YouTube, and there you get much more a sense of him as a person; he has a very engaging personality and a really nicely structured act. It may be that his routine on Fool Us didn’t show that aspect of him in the best light. I’ll see if I can post some of his busking video in these comments later on.

      While I liked Jon’s routine with the plunger, it seemed a “minor miracle” with the emphasis on minor. An amusement, a diversion, but impossible magic? For me it packed small and played small. Not a great choice, in my opinion, for national TV. But yes, it was nicely routined, and Jon has a pleasing personality.

      Did you catch the latest installment with Shin Lim?

      • I didn’t catch last night’s installment. (I had to drive to LAX to pick up my daughter who was flying in from Hong Kong.)

        Thanks for the additional information about Steve Brundage. I look forward to seeing video of Steve’s busking act.

        I disagree with your assessment of Jon’s routine as “a minor miracle with the emphasis on minor.” Penn’s enthusiastic reaction is sufficient evidence that the routine hits quite a bit harder than that. On many occasions, I’ve seen Jon destroy audiences with this routine in live performances at the Magic Castle.

      • OK, I saw the segment with Shin Lim. Un-freakin’-believable! He’s done something that’s rare in magic. He’s raised the bar.

        • LOL! I sat next to Shin Lim in a lecture room at TAOM. I had no idea who he was–we just had a conversation about the piano, because he told me he was a pianist. He didn’t even say he was a magician! Then he gets up and blows the room away!

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