Trapped: Penn & Teller



Last year, Penn & Teller performed this little stunt from their classic repertoire on their television series, Fool Us; it’s still a knuckle-biting performance.

But for the purists who remember the original version, here’s a clip from twenty-five years ago, back when Teller took a few more hair-raising chances . . .

Thanks to YouTuber secretSociety40

Smoke and Mirrors


In 2013 I attended my first magic convention. I was very enthusiastic, and I got to all the events a little bit early. I was also kind of lonely, not knowing anyone, so I was happy to strike up a conversation with the young man seated next to me in the auditorium. We exchanged pleasantries and then got into an interesting conversation. He told me that he used to be a concert pianist, and that he had also tried his hand at film making. What he did not tell me at that time, though, was that in a few minutes he would be up on stage performing!

It was only then that I learned that his name was Shin Lim, and that he was one of the most amazingly creative card magicians to come along in this decade. He soon became very well known among magicians, and went on to fool Penn & Teller on their television show, Fool Us.

The act that he used to fool Penn & Teller was the same one I had seen back in 2013. Stick with the routine until the end—you may think you know how parts of it are done, but I assure you that by the end you too will be amazed.

Hands of Gold


We usher in the New Year in with my favorite piece of Mr. Teller’s magic, his brilliant re-imagining of a classic. He gives it what so many miss—a beautiful visual ending.

Here’s wishing you a very Happy New Year.

Thanks to YouTuber penntellerfan – formerly My You Tube Channel

On Demolishing Theories


I was just looking at an old Penn & Teller video on YouTube where Penn apparently runs a 30,000 pound truck over Teller. They spend a good 15 minutes illustrating alternative theories of what the method might conceivably be (trick truck, trap door, reinforced armor), and then they demolish each theory one by one, leaving the viewer open-mouthed. By demolishing all theories first, they have greatly heightened the impact of the effect.

The question on some Internet forums is, is it all right that P&T exposed other methods in order to strengthen their own?

I feel the disproving of alternative solutions is absolutely necessary in magic. If a substantial number of audience members has a theory—even if it’s the wrong one!—you have no magic occurring. Now, how you decide to disprove alternate theories is the big question.

First off—do you disprove before or after the effect?

I’m a big believer in the idea that disproving has to happen before or during the effect. If you disprove after the effect (“See, it was just an ordinary quarter”), as you hand it out afterwards, you may be creating a nice puzzle for the spectator, but you haven’t created the experience of magic. As long as they have an emotional and intellectual out during the performance, that’s where they will go. They will only experience the skepticism of their own theory. You cannot change the emotion of what was experienced during the performance by disproving afterwards.

Let me try to make this idea a little more clear. Say, for example, that your spouse thinks that you drank the last beer in your refrigerator. S/he gets boiling mad. You then prove that you didn’t drink it; in fact, the beer is still there, hiding behind the Organic Non-Fat Cabbage Juice. Okay, so s/he apologizes. But you can’t change the fact that s/he experienced anger, and that your spouse’s body went through those physiological changes associated with anger. In the same way, you can’t go back in time and make an audience member experience the physiological changes of feeling magic by disproving a theory afterwards. You can induce puzzlement, but not magic.

Next important point is: do you disprove explicitly or implicitly? My feeling is that in close-up, with a very small audience to influence, it’s almost always better to suggest implicitly than present “an absolutely ordinary deck of cards.” It’s more powerful if they come to the conclusion on their own, say, that the deck is ordinary because you casually thumbed through the deck face up.

I think there’s more leeway to be explicit in a big illusion. And the bigger the illusion, the more explicit the disproving of alternate theories can and should be. I have no problem with running a hoop around a levitating human being, or handing out Linking Rings to be examined. I’m not sure why I think explicit is better with large illusions, except that with the big illusions, there’s usually one big theory that must be addressed right off, and you must be sure everyone clearly gets that that solution has been disproved, or the trick will seem transparent—even if it’s not.

Okay, next question is, when you disprove an alternate theory, how much are you exposing/ruining it for other performers? Which was the question in the first place, and so by indirections find directions out.

For the most part, I think magicians can talk of methods to an audience in a general way, if it’s obvious that a lay audience would be thinking about those methods anyway. An audience doesn’t come in with a blank slate. They have theories even as they walk in the door of the theater. So I don’t think it’s bad to explicitly mention mirrors, trap doors, duplicates, sleight of hand, and switches to an audience as possible theories, because any audience with a pulse has those theories anyway. But I wouldn’t say, “Now this card trick could theoretically be done by using the R and S principle, but I’ll show you it’s not!” because no lay audience has the slightest conception of the R and S principle.

One final comment. If you’re working mentalism (not mental magic), then of course you have to make everything implicit. Any explicit disproving (except for “This is Test Conditions”) smacks of trickery, the one thing you don’t want to be accused of during a mentalism performance.

The wonderful magician Pop Haydn has said that a magic trick is actually an intellectual construct that surreptitiously seeks to subvert the chain of logic. Part of the magician’s weaponry is the blowing up of other possibilities, leaving only magic as the last remaining possible answer. It’s the magician’s job to use every weapon possible.

Fool Us: Penn and Teller


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.