When I was 8, my parents brought a magician to my birthday party to do some tricks. I guess their rationale was, keep the kids busy so they won’t demolish the apartment.
The magician was alright I guess. I had no frame of reference, of course. He used cheap magic-shop tricks that made us go “ooohhhh” with wonder, and everyone got one as a party favor.
My friends loved it. Me, not so much. It was my party and this magician guy was stealing my thunder.
Growing up, I was as unenthusiastic about magicians as I was after that birthday party. It’s not like I held a grudge against every magician in the world because poor what’s-his-name stepped into my limelight when I was 8. There’s just no real magic culture where I live. No magic shows in theaters, no street magicians (that I know of). I just never really thought about it, and never had any provocation to start doing so.
As a graduate student in London, between classes and partying, researching papers and nights of debauchery, I was introduced to David Blaine’s street magic dvds. Blame it on the occasional joints if you will – the impact was huge! My friends and I were transfixed. We hadn’t seen anything like that before (therefore had no idea if this kind of performance was unique among magicians) and marveled at the idea of someone levitating before our very eyes.
That was probably the last time I watched any type of magic for the next few years.
Then, somehow, I forget exactly who and why reccommended it, I binge-watched Bullshit. It was a Penn & Teller show, but this meant nothing to me at the time. I didn’t know them from Adam; I just knew this odd pair did a fantastic show about debunking common theories, habits, beliefs that are prevalent among Americans. They were outspoken (well, one of them anyway; Teller doesn’t speak in public), controversial and completely fascinating. I devoured all eight seasons. While not necessarily agreeing with all of their ideas, I couln’t help but appreciate their point of view. Naturally, I wanted to see more of them.
This is how I ended up watching my first TV magic show: I found the first (and only) season of the UK show “Penn and Teller Fool Us”. I watched the episodes back to back, then watched it again, then hunted for more P&T magic tricks on youtube. I soon realized that debunking – whether it’s religion, recycling, nudity, guns or magic tricks – it their thing. They do it consistently, and they do it well.
These guys really know how to put on a great show. Which, I suppose, comes as no surprise to anyone who’s been to Vegas and realized they have their own theatre at the Rio, putting on the longest-running show in magic.
The premise of the show is brilliant: magicians come on the show and perfrm for Penn, Teller and a live audience. If P&T can figure out how the trick was done, the magicians go home, content to have performed for the biggest names in magic, on national television. If they manage to fool P&T, they get a trip to Vegas to perform on the Penn and Teller show. Not a bad deal. At the end of each episode, Penn and Teller perform one of their signature tricks.
Their tricks are different. They are different. They’re not the old-timey type of pulling-rabbits-out-of-the-hat*, flamboyantly dressed, pompous weirdos we tend to associate with magicians. They respect their audience, they don’t underestimate their intelligence, they deconstruct magic and they readily acknowledge the simple fact that they do illusions, they rely on slight-of-hand, they prepare and practice intensively , and they do it all with good humor.
Despite the show’s success, it was never followed up by a second season in the UK. Luckily, 4 years after the first season, the show was broadcast on US television, and got picked up for a second season. The hilarious Jonathan Ross was back as the host, magicians from across the US had the pleasure of performing at P&T’s namesake theater at the Rio, and some of them even managed to fool the two magicians.
It is an utterly enjoyable show. To my thoroughly untrained eye, the magic is solid, Ross is funny, Penn & Teller’s tricks usually end up stealing the show (although, I do have a small gripe: the more the season progressed, the more P&T’s tricks seemed like throwaways, rather than the big-production numbers we saw earlier in the season, or during the show’s UK run).
Penn’s quick wit is impressive; and, despite his constant proclamations that Teller is the brains of the operation, in my humble opinion Penn’s own brain functions on a frequency well above the median.
As with most things I enjoy, I decided to dig a little deeper. I read up on the magician duo, I watched their older shows, I read one of Penn’s books, I listened to his Sunday podcast. Contrary to my experience with other performers, this did nothing to lessen my admiration for the guy. I’ll say it again: Penn is impressive.
He never finished high school, never went to college. This does not mean he is uneducated. He is eloquent and well spoken, and anyone who’s taken the time to follow his podcast or read his writings will tell you he is obviously well read.
He and Teller have been at the top of their profession for decades, but nothing about their attitude suggests arrogance or conceit. They don’t look down on anyone based on how much they make or what they do for a living. But Pen will tear a new one out of those deemed too ignorant, too self-righteous, or just plain stupid – and that’s not a bad thing.
They are, like all performers, two professionals whose livelihood depends on being not just good at what they do, but also liked enough by the public to fill a theater, night after night. The fact that they have a theater named after them doesn’t absolve them of their responsibility to their audience; if anything, it makes them more accountable, not only to the audience, but to the producers and the hotel itself.
This fact would make any performer self conscious about what ideas they choose to express in public: the more controversial their opinions may be, the more likely the are to lose fans. Yet that simple truth doesn’t deter Penn in the slightest. He is a libertarian atheist who has no qualms about not only defending his beliefs in public but also speaking out about everything that catches his fancy.
At the same time, he is not dogmatic. He will listen to your arguments, he might even change his mind if presented with enough logic and facts. He doesn’t try to force his ideas down your throat. Unlike many atheists, he doesn’t come off as superior. He doesn’t rag on christianity or other religions. Similarly, he doesn’t attack the political system (at least not without merit) just to show you that his own views are a cut above the rest. He believes in freedom and exercises his right to it, but always with the oft-forgotten disclaimer: that his freedom ends where yours begins.
That might seem simple in theory, even a given. But it’s no easy feat: when your religious stance is based on logic rather than belief, when your political views have not really been tested in practice (therefore theoretically unflawed, or at least not yet hurt by scandal and corruption or even just bureacracy), it’s easy to be critical and condescending, and even easier to talk down to people.
I could go on and on about what makes Penn the brilliant vocal half of an amazing double act, and what makes Fool Us a fascinating show. But I urge you to see for yourselves instead. The second season of Fool Us was completed last week, and Penn’s Sunday School podcast airs every Sunday – perfect timing for binge-watching (and binge-listening)!
*in a recent episode of Fool Us, Penn explained that also the rabbit out of the hat trick has become a cliche in magic, few magicians actually perform it, and proceeded to show us their own version. Here is the duo performing the trick for Jimmy Fallon.