Since they first got big, Penn and Teller have been known as the bad boys of magic. Their acts did away with, and in many cases explicitly rejected, the familiar patter and psuedo-mystical trappings so common with magicians up until that point. Originally loathed by fellow magicians (irritated by the duo’s habit of revealing some of their craft’s secrets on stage), in the thirty years since becoming a break-out act, they’ve graduated to the top ranks of illusionists.
Magic is a lie. Stage magic, that is, relies on sleight-of-hand artists and tricksters who exploit bugs in how human visual processes work and how the brain lies to itself to cover it up. What you see isn’t the real world, it’s at best a barely-good-enough approximation, sufficient to keep you alive and that’s about it.
Magicians know this, and take thorough advantage of it. Stage and street magic—card tricks, coin tricks, sawing the lady in half, and on and on—depend on your eyes missing most of what’s happening and your brain misinterpreting what you did see. They practice and practice until they get skilled enough or fast enough that your eyes can’t catch what they’re doing, or they distract you into looking at the wrong place while they’re doing it, whereupon your brain constructs the illusion that it never really happened in the first place, and you’re left wondering just what the hell is going on and how did that charlatan on stage move coins from one guy’s hand to his own without ever touching him or the coins? You know a trick happened, but if the magician’s good enough you have no idea what it was.
There are many, many ways to fool your eyes and your brain, and magicians work for years to discover and perfect just one trick, then wrap an entire act around it and head out to entertain audiences. They work on cruise ships, theme parks, and even Vegas stage acts. Which brings us to Penn and Teller.
Since 2001 the two have lived in Las Vegas, supporting themselves with their world-famous act at the Rio All Suite Hotel and Casino. (What a name.) They also form the core of a fascinating television show called Penn & Teller: Fool Us, broadcast from the Penn & Teller Theater at the casino.
In the show, a series of magicians perform illusions for P&T (and a live studio audience) hoping that the seasoned magicians—well versed in nearly every form of stage magic and illusion—won’t be able to deduce exactly how they performed the trick. If Penn and Teller can’t figure out how it was done, the magician wins an opening slot for the duo’s magic act.
The show is kind of like American Idol, only there’s no attempt to embarrass anyone. Penn compliments each guest, even those who don’t Fool Them, and the duo are always excited and delighted to see yet another display of skill and talent (even when it makes them angry that they got fooled).
The concept behind Fool Us is genius. Like two foodies convincing the best chefs in the world to fly to their kitchen and make their greatest dishes for them, Penn and Teller get to stay in their home town, the best magicians in the world come from all over to perform for them, they get to see new effects, new methods of producing old effects, or old methods repurposed in new and entertaining ways (in effect, people compete to teach P&T how to be better magicians). If they win they’ve been entertained and if they lose they gain a new opening act for their Vegas show (whereupon they make more money). Genius.
Now this is a review, of sorts, and I don’t want to make it more complicated than it is. I watched a lot of segments from the show over the last week—searching for “Penn and Teller fooled” on YouTube brings up enough hits for a substantial evening’s entertainment—and they were without fail entirely entertaining. Only the best magicians get on the show, and the entertainment value of catching their acts is fairly high.
There are many, many acts, all of which are just as good or maybe even better. Well done magic evokes a sense of awe and wonder, and the best magic can be truly beautiful. Certain acts on the show (like Shin Lim’s) definitely qualify.
Lots of people—crazy, crazy people—might not like stage magic. If you’re one of the sane people who do, Penn & Teller’s Fool Us is a good time, mixing the best parts of a game show and a magic act. Check it out.