The taping for the upcoming tenth season of “Penn and Teller: Fool Us” is about to begin. The longevity of this show, in this fickle time and age, is quite impressive!
For those unfamiliar with the show, it follows the format of popular competition shows like “X-Factor” and “Idol.” Magicians of all kinds perform for Penn and Teller, aiming to deceive them. After each performance, Penn and Teller share their best guess on how the tricks were accomplished.
Although the goal is to fool the duo, many participants take a lighthearted approach and showcase their favorite pieces instead. And while one would guess that Penn and Teller would reveal too much when describing their hypotheses, they talk in ’code’ that obfuscate the explanations. All in all, considering the nature of the show, it is a lot more pleasant and respectful than all the other competition shows. In fact, The New York Times dedicated a column called “Letter of Recommendation” to highlight this unique aspect, in which the author noted:
”Who would have guessed that magic’s most recognizable buddy pair would produce the classiest reality show on television?” and commended the show for so clearly displaying their love for the subject matter.
However, it wasn’t always this way. The first season, produced in the UK, had some format issues. At times, it was delightful, but it occasionally felt aggressive, abrasive, and needlessly exposed the participants’ work. Thankfully, significant improvements were made before the start of the second season.
An invitation to Las Vegas
By the time I participated, in Season 6, they had got the approach down to an art and science. My piece aired August 19, 2019. You can watch it here (sans the introduction video):
It wasn’t at all obvious that I would take part in the show. I’m not too attracted to the idea of designing work explicitly to decieve colleagues. Now, some of my work happens to accomplish that, but that have always been more an unintended sideeffect of having done the work properly, rather than the result of a clearly defined goal. Also, I had heard that the producers wanted younger artists, so I didn’t spend any time considering it. Whenever I was asked to submit something, I recommended other performers instead. But then, in October 2018, Michael Close came to Sweden. In the years since we last met, Michael had become the technical advisor for the show, and after having seen me perform my piece “Quantum Logic”, he became quite invested in the idea of bringing it, and me, onto the Fool Us show. I’m afraid he had to work quite a bit to convince me, since I’m somewhat stubborn. I had many years prior decided that it wasn’t for me, and I rarely backtrack to change past decisions. But in the end, and I’m not sure how, he managed to convince me to go to Las Vegas to tape my piece. The decision was probably aided by the fact that I do like Michael and his work, and that I admire the work of Penn and Teller.
Penn and Teller – origins
Penn and Teller began working together in 1975, in a three man ensembe named “Asparagus Valley Cultural Society”. They themselves said “we saw the possibilities of using musical, vaudevillian, and carnival skills to realize a great range of funny and frightening ideas” and they soon got noticed. They left Philadelphia to do a show in a theater in San Francisco for two or three months, and it ended up running almost three years.” Several media outlets declared the show to be “The Funniest Show in San Francisco”.
One review read:
“Who would suspect three madmen with collegiate senses of humor to sustain audiences for an entire night, let alone a year and a half. But Penn Jillette, Wier Chrisemer, and Teller are still yukking it up as the Asparagus Valley Cultural Society, a zany, brainy evening of juggling, wierd music, and marvelous magic acts. These goofballs are an insult to our intelligence and an asset to our community, keeping vaudeville alive and well at the Phoenix Theater.”
By 1981, the third guy, Weir Chrisemer, dropped out of the ensemble, and Penn and Teller formed “Buggs and Rudy Discount Productions”, and began testing new material. They briefly staged “A Spook Show” they’d written called “Mrs. Lonsberry’s Seance of Horror. It was a show based on years of their research into methods used by phoney mediums and psychics, combined with their own writing and inventions. They even referred to it as a “screamingly Atheist project” during an interview at The Amazing Meeting 2012 (an annual celebration of science, critical thinking and skepticism). Turns out that the third member, Chrisemer, who was the son of a Lutheran minister and a very religious man, had them walking on eggshells during their time together, which might have been the real reason they got inspired to create this show. Not long after that, they began appearing at the L.A. Stage Company Theatre in Hollywood, as “Penn & Teller, The Bad Boys of Magic”, which formed the basis for their first TV-special, the Emmy Award-winning Penn & Teller Go Public (1985) and the rest is History.
I don’t know Penn at all, but I have had infrequent correspondance with Teller since around 2010, when I tried to bring him to Sweden as a guest teacher at a 5-day workshop that my friend Peter Rosengren and I arranged in Svalöv. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out due to scheduling issues. But later, in 2015, I managed to convince Teller to be a guest lecturer at “Magic 1”, an university course that Johan Ståhl and I arranged at the Stockholm University of Arts. His talk held the class spellbound, as he delved into all the work and passion that had went into his creation “The Red Ball“. Inspiring and invigorating on many levels.
Yes, I do admire the work of Penn and Teller. There’s a lack of proper education in the field of magic, and unfortunately too many rely on plagiarization in order to learn the craft of conjuring and showbiz. Therefore it is a joy and relief to see how consistently Penn and Teller have managed to, decade after decade, come up with brand new, unique, and original performance pieces. A highly viceral reminder that it is possible to break new ground and not steal the material of others. Even in the few cases they build on existing material from others, they always manage to put their own unique spin on it – although I must admit that I became surprised and concerned when Sonny Hayes told me that they hadn’t obtained his permission to use his original, and brilliant, Knifethrowing routine. There must be some kind of misunderstanding at the bottom of that, and I sincerely hope that gets sorted out.
Quantum Logic – idea to reality
The background to Quantum Logic is quite different from how I usually create material. Towards the end of 2008, Richard Kaufman, the editor and publicer of Genii Magazine, an international trade magazine for magicians, talked me into becoming a regular columnist for the magazine. I had completely free hands, he said, to write about anything I could think of. It was flattering, and also a little worrying. I had seen how columnists in the past had started their run very strongly with brilliant thought-provocing articles, and then, after 6-7 columns they seemed to have found a “formula” or “template” that allowed them to crank out article after article with basically the same content, reiterated with different words.
Well, I didn’t want that to happen with me, so already before my very first column, I wondered how I would recognize it, if I started to write according to a formula? The only sign I could think of was that if it suddenly became easier to come up with topics and to write the articles, then I probably had found a formula. So I made an oath to continue with the column only for as long as it was difficult, and promised myself to stop as soon as it begun to feel easy. And then I felt somewhat assured that my contributions wouldn’t become pointless.
Of course, trying to make the writing as challenging as possible didn’t help me with the deadlines. Can’t tell you how many times Kaufman told me that my tardiness would give him a heart attack and that it would be my fault that his children became fatherless. He’s been quite vocal in labeling me as the worst columnist he has ever worked with. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. The quality of the content have been my only grace.
“Make it difficult,” sounds simple, but how do you ensure that in practice? After some pondering, I decided to give myself an unofficial theme for each year. This was meant for me alone, no one else. So for the first year, 2009, the theme was magic from the vantage point of the creator. How to keep the focus on the effect and avoid getting side-tracked, how to keep a notebook, how to infuse the work with honesty and personal truths. 2010, the theme was how to produce a full-evening show. 2011 was all about work inspired by cognitive science. One year I was thinking about how important and inspirational it had been for me, when I was a young amateur magician, to see photos and stories about older legendary magicians in action. All male magicians, so I began to wonder what would have happened if I had been a young female magician instead? Would I still have continued on my path, or would I have dropped out due to the lack of rolemodels and representation? I didn’t have an answer, but for a year I removed myself from all photos, and replaced me with various female performers in my role, just to see if it would change anything.
And then, for 2014, when I searched for a theme, I recalled a special anniversary issue of Morris’ & Goscinny’s Lucky Luke that I had read as a kid. In it, as a tribute, various comics creators drew each others comics. I remembered how exciting it was to see Jean “Moebius” Giraud draw a realistic Lucky Luke, while Morris drew a cartoonish Blueberry. I fantasized about how cool it would be, if all the Genii columnists for one issue took over someone else’s column. Then, after realizing how impossible that would be to make that happen, I then decided that would do it on my own. That the theme for the year would be to attempt to make pastishes of other known creators.
A “pastishe” is an imitation of style and taste, rather than content. It’s not a parody, as it pays homage to the style it imitates. And, to make it even more challenging, I decided that the attempt was to imitate not only the various creators’ taste in effects, but also their taste in methodology, their taste in illustrations, and their taste in writing. And so I did. I did a Max Maven pastish, where I attempted to create a new magic effect according to his taste in effects, coupled with his taste in methodology, his taste in illustration style and I also tried to emulate his terse and effective prose. I even made my byline photo look like his (see images to the left). I think I did quite well! The pastishe of Ali Bongo was also great fun. Likewise with the combination of serious children’s psychology and silly magic in the David Kaye pastishe.
Not finished, but in the works I had pastishes of Charlie Miller and Paul Osborne. All my subjects were distinct and recognizable creators, but then Richard Kaufman said that it would be more cool if I made pastishes on his current staff of columnists instead, and asked me to try. And suddenly an already difficult challenge became overly complicated, since I wasn’t as well read on these peoples’ work. But I had read three of David Britland’s books, incessantly, back in the late 1980’s so I started with him. I managed to come up with a rather intriguing Britland-esque hybrid between his “Cyclic Aces” from 1988, the Elevator Card Trick plot, and The Collectors plot. I was pretty proud of it as well, and made a performance of it for my cellphone camera. When I watched the video back, I was horrified. Turned out that while its construction was interesting… as a performance piece it was atrocious. Unwieldy and clunky as heck. I thought “My god, I can’t put this shit in print! Britland would become insulted!”. The whole thing made me feel like a talentless hack, and then I lost faith in my abilities, and the whole idea, and couldn’t even finish the last two installments.
However, let’s back up a bit, because the reason for this whole text is the fourth installment – the Jim Steinmeyer pastishe. I wasn’t quite sure what to create, but I knew that it had to be some kind of parlor routine, something that would feel that it would fit in his book The Conjuring Anthology (2006). I also knew that I had to give it a pseudoscientific expository introduction. One early idea was named “Run, Schrödinger’s Cat, Run”, but I couldn’t come up with an ending, or a start… or a middle. As I was leafing through my old notebooks, I noticed that I had periodically, with an interval of about five years, made notes about Arthur Emerson’s “Pegasus Page” from Swami (1973). Also, with about the same interval, I had made notes about Arthur Monroe’s “Voodoo” from Annemann’s Practical Mental Effects (1944). As I was looking at my notes, I thought of three things.
One was that both routines were considered to be in the Bizarre Magic genre, and my notes hinted that I didn’t consider myself to have persona and presence to carry any of them off, that none of the pieces would suit my character.
The second was that both of the routines shared a couple of mutual traits, and that it therefore would be unwise to perform them both in the same show. That it would be best to choose only one of the two.
The third thought… was that I got pissed off. Who the heck decides that something doesn’t “fit my character”? No one! It’s just obstacles we put in our own way, and then believe they’ve been put there by others. If I decide to do something, then the act of doing it, makes it fit my character. Also, there’s no need to choose. If two pieces share similar traits, then they can be built together into a single routine.
And the moment I had that last thought, I instantly knew what the routine would be. And just a second after, I realized that quantum mechanics would be the perfect for the pseudoscientific part – i.e. the idea that something can exist in two places at the same time.
The whole routine came together within an hour… the only problem was how to actually do it. I had not come up with any of the sneaky stuff yet. Three weeks later, I had a crude solution, that involved a fake book; like a shell, that could be shown to be there or not, depending on its orientation. And the box was constructed like a large Lippincot box, to enable unloading all the gaffs through its side into a chair servante, to be able to finish clean. Yes, pretty clunky and impractical,
Then, as some point, I described my problems to my friend Peter Rosengren, and exclaimed with frustration “How the hell would Steinmeyer have solved this!!?” And Peter, with calm and wise voice said -“Steinmeyer? Woudn’t he just use something classic, maybe a simple Drawer Box, with some minor adjustments? He enjoys finding new uses for traditional props!” And there it was in all its beauty; the Missing Piece. Of course! A Drawer Box! Within 2-3 minutes, I had figured out how it needed to be designed.
The next step was to write the piece down and to draw the illustrations, in Steinmeyer style. Which turned out to be quite difficult. Steinmeyer’s illustrations are very characteristic and recognizable, often consisting of ‘blocky’ black silhouettes of people, and if I couldn’t emulate that style, the whole thing would be pointless. I remember complaining to Richard Kaufman, who thankfully revealed to me “Oh, didn’t you know? Jim like to use thick markers for his illustrations,” and once I understood why the illustrations looked the way they do, it became a lot easier to imitate it.
Up until this point, it had all been a mental exercise. A pure challenge in creativity, with not a single thought regarding actual performances… but as I was writing and illustrating the piece, I felt more and more strongly that this was something I needed to put into my own performances and magic shows as quickly as possible. I did a false start at building it myself, but quickly realized that it required woodworking skills that I didn’t posess. Happily, I knew that I had a friend who possessed an abundance of the required skills; Andreas Sebring at MetalWriting! Andreas found the routine intriguing and did not only build it for me; he added his own design to it, and also solved countless problems in my original design that I had been oblivious to. Clever guy! Andreas then got the manufacturing and marketing rights to the routine, and are building about 12 sets per year. The routine have been a featured part of my repertoire ever since.
Taping the show
So, In March 2019, I went off to Las Vegas to shoot my performance. The venue was inside a truely depressing place called Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino. The hotel room was just mildly depressing, and it was quite nice backstage, since the Fool Us staff was really friendly, nice and helpful… but every time I had to go from the production, through the hotel casino, to my room, I could feel my will to live drained away. If I was forced to live there, I would most likely commit suicide within 5 days. A horrid horrid place, reminding of the madness inducing “psychetecture” of the dystopian Radiant City in Jaime Hernandez’s “Mister X”
But backstage was nice! It was good to see Michael Close again. The staff had got production down to a science, and it ran like a clockwork. The only part of the production that I didn’t enjoy was making the presentation part. Not the fault of the crew, they did the best they could, but I just couldn’t figure it out. They didn’t want me to be private, and not to be performer… it was pretty clear that they wanted me to be someone else than “me”, but couldn’t communicate who they rather wanted to have there. I saw the end result first when it aired; it was awkward and embarrasing.
I have a weird relationship to sleep. I really don’t like the “floating” part where you are about to fall asleep, but still are half-awake but can’t really control one’s thoughts. Too many nightmares as a kid, I suppose. So, I tend to stay awake until I simply pass out – to make that transition as short as possible. But I’m also able to sleep in self-defense. If I get stuck at a boring or bad show, without being able to sneak out at the back, I’m able to protect my brain by instantly falling asleep.
And if I need to wait just before an important gig, and I feel confident that I am fully prepared, it is not uncommon that I take a nap to cover the waiting time. Michael Close took the photo above, 3-4 minutes before my performance at Fool Us would begin. Catching me like that seems to have become a sport among “friends”. My buddy Katie Tricket shot this video of me, a few minutes before I was to speak at a conference in Beijing, China.
Getting onto the stage was a delight and a relief. Finally some normalcy after all B-roll discomfort. The film crew were fast, efficient and very friendly, and I immediately felt at home the instant I walked out on stage. There have been theories claiming that the whole show is rigged, but it isn’t. Teller looked genuinely surprised to see me, when I walked out. The crew had some preparations left to do, so I couldn’t begin at once. It wasn’t quite a full audience there, I would guess about 800 people, so for the next 3-4 minutes they looked at me while I mooched around to keep the energy up. Then suddenly, I got green light, and the video at the top shows what happened next.
My piece didn’t fool Penn and Teller. I’m quite proud of the routine, the way it is composed and layered. But there’s one moment that rely on an exact synchronization of movement and gaze, in order to go unnoticed. When I time it right, the deception is watertight. But if I miss the timing even a fraction, it becomes possible for a knowledgeable person to unravel and extrapolate everything that follows. And I missed that timing. Thankfully, it isn’t as noticeable on the video, as it was from Penn and Teller’s angle. Afterwards, they were almost apologetic, and repeated over and over “That is a gorgeous routine!”, and I have to agree – yes it is.
And then that adventure was over. All that remained was to pack up and go to the airport. Of course, not before the hotel hit me with some extra charges for being in the hotel. I explained that the Fool Us production paid for my stay, and they said that the production only paid for the room, and not the extra fee for being present in the hotel. Guess the hotel couldn’t let me leave before once again reinforcing how horrid the place is.
From Las Vegas, I went directly to Las Vegas and Hollywood, to perform a week at The Magic Castle.
Eventually, in August 2019, my segment aired. I have friends in the US, whose appearance on Fool Us have been huge career defining moments. But here, on the other side of the globe from USA, the appearance had no measurable effect at all, career-wise. But I did get a lot of very flattering comments on the youtube clip! Over 95% of the comments are extremely positive. But strangely, it is the negative ones that amuses me the most. There’s some random examples above, but the funniest so far have been “Horrible performer. He’s known as FartBox Stone.” It never fail to make me laugh. I even had to make a business card mock-up with the legend.
Another good thing with youtube videos is, besides the amusement of negative comments, that you can get statistics on the amount of interest and attention throughout the video. For a magician, this is very useful. If there’s a sudden spike in the curve at a point when nothing remarkable is meant to be seen, than it is a sign that some sloppy technique have been noticed, or that there is some unclarity there that the viewer believe the trick is dependent on. And if there’s a spike at a point where an effect happens, then it means that the effect is pretty cool. In most cases, the curve falls very rapidly. A steep slope during the first 30 seconds, and then it tend to flatten out around 25-30%. A curve without a steep slope is rare. A curve that is over 50% after a minute is rare. So the curve of Quantum Logic (to the left) is remarkable. I have never seen a curve that flat before, nor have I seen one that remains at around 80% for that long. The only way I can interpret it, is that people really enjoy the performance, despite that it is performed by a FartBox.
All in all, weighing the good against the bad, it was definitely more of the good. My expectations were reasonable, I didn’t expect it to make any difference at all for my career, and it didn’t. The interesting parts of the experience were quite interesting – the location and the taping of the introduction decidely less so. If I had to do it all over again, I would probably do. If only to see Michael Close and Teller again.