Is Fool Us Ruining Magic?
What Do Magicians Think of Penn & Teller’s Fool Us?
Every week, Penn & Teller host the hit show “Penn & Teller: Fool Us!” Aspiring magicians and magic veterans attempt to fool Penn & Teller for the opportunity to star in the conjuring couple’s Las Vegas stage show.
The series is popular but is it good for magic? Some magicians feel it’s good for magic but others disagree.
Is it good magic? Is it good for magicians?
The magicians I know who have been on the show fall into two camps—the “Berts” and the “Franks.”
Magicians Bert and Frank both start as unknowns in the public eye. Both Bert and Frank share a strong belief that they are great magicians. This belief is kindled by feedback from friends, family, and even polite strangers.
Bert gets on Fool Us and is overjoyed when he fools Penn & Teller; but, surprisingly to Bert, that doesn’t do jack for Bert’s career in show business.
On the other hand, Frank gets on Fool Us and does not fool Penn & Teller (for the camera, Frank pretended to care about fooling magicians). Frank’s “humiliating” appearance on Fool Us catapults Frank’s career.
How is this possible?
Exposure can be good for one performer but not for another performer.
Visibility without credibility is a liability.
In this way, Fool Us is similar to American Idol. It draws performers with confidence in their abilities, regardless of their ability.
Unfortunately, like our thoughts, our feelings are often inaccurate. After all, a drunk driver has the feeling of self-confidence, but you don’t want that person behind the wheel!
So appearing on Fool Us can be good (for a good magician).
But is “Fool Us” good for magic? I think it is. It gives a platform for good and bad magicians to exhibit their magic. More people see more good (and bad) magic, and so refine their taste for it.
Here’s what other magicians have to say:
“My basic problem with the show is that I always considered magic to be the creation of mystery—not the attempt to ‘fool’ someone. I think it totally demeans magic as an art form.” -Richard Osterlind (not well-known to the public as a performer, but a prolific creator of mentalism)
“‘Fool Us’ is a great showcase for acts that have a solid piece of magic to entertain any audience—whether they win or lose is beside the point. Whether Penn & Teller are foiled relates little to how successful an act might be afterward. Piff proved that. Mac proves that. Some tricks that fool Penn & Teller are poor tricks and some that don’t fool them are fantastic for the audience at home and in the theater. I’d prefer if fooling Penn & Teller were not the goal, but that’s still an excellent hook to attract viewers.” -Paul Wilson
“It exhibits excellent magic, as well as bad magic. It includes but also excludes good performance. Fooling is easy, but can you do it with class, great execution, great performance, and confidence?” -Cody Nottingham
“Magic on television will always take a backseat to the experience of seeing it live. That being said, as long as magic on TV is presented in a positive light, giving talented practitioners the respect they deserve, it’s a win for magic in general. We all win in the long run because the public is exposed to great magic (for the most part) right in their living rooms.” -Scott Alexander
“Having worked behind the scenes for the latest four seasons, the thing that I think makes ‘Fool Us’ so good is that the team cares about making great magic, and what the acts want often takes precedence over what the producers want.
I think we can all agree that magic isn’t about getting trophies, but if that’s what it takes to get 300 unique magic acts on TV over five seasons, then personally I’m a fan.” -Brent Braun
“For me, a magic performance is an ephemeral thing. The only way to truly experience it is by being there while it’s being performed. ‘Fool Us’ was created by two guys who are well aware of this. They try to make magic and the magicians who appear on their show be seen in the best light under the restrictions of the television medium.” Rob Zabrecky
“When I hear non-magicians speak of watching the show, they don’t really remember who won or not. They remember the acts that made them feel something. Yes, the audience needs to weed through acts that magicians would be embarrassed by, but that’s any industry and any show. Most people see only one or two magicians in their lifetime. More people are choosing to see live magic now because they’ve seen ‘Fool Us’ and want to see more. It’s our job as live performers to make audiences understand what great magic really is.” -Kayla Drescher
“I do enjoy watching ‘Fool Us’ as I believe it’s a show that celebrates magic. I actually don’t think the fooling aspect of the show plays any part besides a concept to sell for television purposes and a gimmick to hook the viewing audience. In the end, it’s a show about magic that gets to showcase some amazing performers that most of the world has never seen before.” -Billy Kidd
“I don’t think the show is necessarily good for magic, but I do think that it could be good for some of the magicians who are on it. Many magicians who have appeared on the show have benefited from doing so. Is the magic always good? No.” -Mike Pisciotta
When I was in high school, Ricky Jay had a big show on Broadway and a version on HBO. He was the only card magician anyone had seen. When a person has a band, you get to think, ‘Oh! I know what a band is! I’ve seen bands I like and ones I don’t like. I wonder if I will like this one.’ It’s good for magic when the public has seen enough to have some taste for magic. Some will have tastes we like, others will have crappy tastes. And for magicians who like being the only magic they’ve ever seen, it can sometimes make things a bit more challenging. But if you’ve been working hard at your craft, you only benefit from an informed audience.” -Aaron Fisher
“To me, the show’s not about winners and losers, but that’s coming from a loser (on the show).
Why did I do Multiplying Bottles?
I had pitched an original routine to them and they liked it. But the producers went on my YouTube channel and wouldn’t stop talking about how great the bottles would look on the show. They wanted the energy that this trick creates. So, I decided to do it, knowing that 99% of their audience are not magicians.
Most of the magic that fools P&T ends up being sort of procedural—lots of steps, instructions, exposition—and can have a tendency to appear less energetic and flashy.
The original trick that I first pitched… I believe it may have fooled them. It’s an original handling, method, and a pretty original plot.
But a bonus for me was that the bottles are something I have performed more than anything else. So I knew I would rock it without shaky hands.
It was my choice ultimately to do the routine I did. I chose it because I thought it would make better television than my my original choice.” -Michael Kent
“Every assumption I've made about ‘Fool Us’ over the years has been wrong. I instinctively assumed being fooled or not with a flawed premise for a program. It took a couple years for me to realize it wasn't about that. It was about having a professional venue to showcase your talents to a national audience.
“…I also assumed Penn and Teller would find it difficult, if not impossible, to negotiate the fine line discussing methods in a way only magicians would understand, and that, perhaps, they wouldn't mind crossing that line on occasion. In contrast, they've become incredibly effective Goodwill ambassadors of magic, while making the public aware of the broader palette of talent magic has to offer.
“…Two things in particular worked against my assumptions. First was Penn and Teller, who managed to maintain authentic reactions while giving coded signs that never reveal secrets. But beyond authentic reaction was their enthusiasm tech, egoless support for anyone who walked out and delivered the goods. Secondly, YouTube has given appearances on ‘Fool Us’ and afterlife that is unprecedented in television history.
“…So, while it's flattering to be asked about Penn and Teller and the future of ‘Fool Us’, my track record on these topics has been terrible. Instead, I wish them all the best and then back slowly out of the bar so I can work on improving my attitude.” -Michael Ammar (every mentalist knows the name Osterlind, and every magician knows Ammar; he’s the “magician’s magician”; the greatest teacher of magic ever; I, Jon Finch, have never seen sleight of hand better than Ammar’s)
“If you can find more than a handful of people who had a bad experience, I’ll eat my card clip. Usually when it’s a bad experience, it’s a self-inflicted would that is a result of ego or not being prepared for some part of the entire process. This show is the best thing to happen to magic in the public eye in more than a decade. Yeah, it’s annoying when someone asks me if I can do that trick like Shin Lim, but it’s heartening that a layperson knows Shin’s name at all.” -Erik Tait
Jon Finch is a professional mentalist and magician who performs at corporate and social events. Having performed in over 50 countries (well...counties), he offers extraordinary entertainment sharing his creative brand of magic, mentalism, and comedy with people like you.