Penn & Teller Reveal Secrets but Never Lose the Magic

Knowing the secrets behind the magic in Penn & Teller’s show doesn’t lessen the magic and wonder they create.
Penn & Teller: Fool Us

They’ve performed some of the most celebrated and humorous — not to mention infamous — magic tricks of all time. They’ve shot at each other only to catch the bullets in their teeth. They’ve cut apart (and restored) live snakes. They’ve driven semi trucks over each other. They’ve practically drowned themselves in front of live audiences. They’ve fired nail guns into their hands, the same hands that they place into bear traps with seemingly no concern for safety. And perhaps most infamously of all, they’ve gleefully broken magic’s cardinal rules time and again. Consider, for example, this deconstruction of the classic “cups and balls” routine in which they deliberately spoil everything.

I am, of course, referring to Penn and Teller. For four decades, the duo — Penn Jillette is the tall, gregarious one and Teller (yes, that’s his legal name) is the short, silent one — have performed a wildly entertaining blend of magic, comedy, theatre, and carnival sideshow. Their main gig is headlining at The Rio in Las Vegas but in recent years, they’ve ventured into reality TV and game shows with Penn & Teller: Fool Us, which features magicians from around the world trying to pull one over on them to win an opening slot at their Vegas show.

Fool Us has been a favorite show in my household ever since it began airing on The CW in 2014, and it’s not hard to see why. For starters, Penn and Teller are consummate entertainers, even when they’re simply commenting (or not commenting, in Teller’s case) on another magician’s act. Furthermore, the magicians appearing on Fool Us (e.g., Shawn Farquhar, Shin Lim, David Roth, Paul Gertner) are all at the top of their game. Even those who don’t fool Penn and Teller are still more than capable of blowing viewers’ minds with feats of sleight of hand, misdirection, escapology, and mentalism.

What’s more, Penn and Teller are very gracious hosts who always find a way to compliment every act that graces the Fool Us stage, even those they see right through — which, as you can probably guess, happens more often than not. Even better, though, is when they are actually fooled, when a potential fooler’s hands turn out to be quicker than the hosts’ eyes.

What makes this so enjoyable is that Penn and Teller seem to genuinely enjoy being fooled. Or, put another way, they delight in experiencing the sense of wonder that comes as a result of simply not knowing all the answers. Consider, for example, Teller’s reaction at the end of Paul Gertner’s masterful performance:

Or Penn’s reaction to the big reveal at the end of Dan Harlan’s routine:

When a magician suddenly finds the selected card in the deck, plucks a ball out of thin air, or seemingly transports a coin from someone else’s hand into his own, we know on a rational level that nothing spooky or supernatural has occurred. We know that the magician hasn’t made a compact with dark powers or tapped into some eldritch dimension, no matter how impossible the feat may seem to our eyes. At the same time, however, we still can’t see how the trick was pulled off; we’re still ignorant of the truth of the event.

Magic tricks exist on the edge of human awareness and perception, and magicians are masters of manipulating your senses to ensure that you only see what they want you to see and only when they want you to see it. (The usually silent Teller has explained this approach in more detail.) As such, magic can be more than just mere entertainment. It can also be a great lesson in humility, in admitting your own limitations and ignorance — especially when you’re an aspiring practitioner of prestidigitation yourself.

Since we’ve started watching Fool Us, my family has become somewhat magic-obsessed; we’ve often tried to one-up each other with some magic trick we’ve read about or seen on YouTube. Mind you, we have no desire to start a Vegas act anytime soon, but learning even the basics of sleight of hand and card manipulation have given us a modicum of insight into how some potential foolers do their thing.

Interestingly enough, that hasn’t diminished our enjoyment of the acts that come on Fool Us; if anything, it makes us only appreciate more the amount of skill, talent, and excellence on display. Here, too, is cause for humility. While watching somebody like Michael Vincent perform, I understand some of the basic principles of sleight of hand at play — but that knowledge does absolutely nothing to diminish my appreciation and enjoyment of the level of sheer skill on display in Vincent’s enchanting routine.

This is what I’ve come to appreciate most about Fool Us: it constantly challenges you with regard to what you think you know about reality and the truth. Admittedly, it does so under the guise of magic tricks and comedy, so it’s not exactly a heavy-handed philosophical treatise on epistemology. That Fool Us might venture into such territory shouldn’t be too surprising, given that Penn and Teller are themselves ardent skeptics who once hosted a show titled Bullsh*t that sought to debunk, among other things, religious and supernatural claims.

The duo makes no bones to hide their atheism. Penn participated in “The Blasphemy Challenge” and even has license plates that read “nogod” and “godless” — but that rarely makes it into Fool Us. Penn and Teller are, after all, entertainers first and foremost; their primary goal is to wow the audience, not convert them. Even so, I can appreciate the skepticism that underlies Penn and Teller’s act to some extent.

Christians like myself would no doubt disagree with Penn and Teller on most, if not all, supernatural and spiritual matters. And yet, I think it’s fair to say that we’d all agree that truth matters, and that humility is a key component to comprehending and understanding it. Furthermore, that the secret to discerning truth — whether it’s concerning a seemingly silly card trick or something of a much bigger magnitude — is to begin by humbly admitting that you don’t know all of the answers and you’re willing to put in the long, hard work of study and learning. All in the hope that occasionally, such an unpresuming stance will be rewarded by moments of true wonder and perhaps, even illumination.

This entry was originally published on Christ and Pop Culture on .

Enjoy reading Opus? Want to support my writing? Become a subscriber for just $5/month or $50/year.
Subscribe Today
Return to the Opus homepage