In addition to a near-45-year-long career performing together, Penn and Teller are deeply serious scholars of magic’s history and technique, writes Brett Martin.
Penn & Teller: Fool Us is a reality-TV competition shown on the CW, which is a broadcast network, which is something like a streaming service that’s always on. It’s also on Netflix.
The show was recently renewed for its seventh season. The only other person I know who watches it is a skilled amateur magician and general magic geek who lives in Chicago.
For him, the show is a chance to be exposed to some of the world’s greatest magicians and get an insight into their arcane techniques.
For me, who doesn’t particularly like magic and has no intention of trying to do it, the show has a different appeal: It makes me a better person.
The formula is simple. In each episode, four or five magician contestants perform tricks in front of a Las Vegas audience that includes Penn Jillette and Teller, magic’s most recognisable buddy pair.
At the end of each trick, the duo confer about how it was done. Usually, they know quickly: In addition to a near-45-year-long career performing together, and a pop-cultural omnipresence on Penn’s part that has threatened at times to approach Charo Penn & Teller: Fool Us By Brett Martin status, they are deeply serious scholars of magic’s history and technique.
When they are stumped, which happens about once per episode, the winning act receives a guest spot in the duo’s Vegas show and a deliberately cheap-looking trophy that descends from the ceiling and is in the form of the letters FU.
All of which would seem to place Fool Us squarely in the schadenfreude-rich realm of reality talent shows. It wasn’t until I watched the show that I realised how deeply the more corrosive conventions of that genre had seeped into my bones.
I expected, first of all, that some portion of the contestants would be picked explicitly to fail, their hubris acting as exculpatory justification for the pleasure of watching a disaster unfold. I could feel my shoulders notably relax when I began to realise the acts are all world-class magicians and nearly always flawless.
I also expected to experience the transgressive thrill of having magic secrets revealed; instead Jillette “busts” the contestants in a kind of ingenious code that communicates just enough to indicate that he and Teller (who is of course silent) have it all figured out, without spilling the beans to the general public.
Jillette has said he calibrates these codes so that a magic-curious 15-year-old girl in Iowa would get just enough information to start down the trail of knowledge. To me, they offer the special pleasure of eavesdropping on master craftsmen, their jargon and shorthand implying an entire world of shared knowledge lying just below the surface.
It’s the same way I feel hearing experts discuss astrophysics, or the nickel defence.
Perhaps my most shameful assumption was in expecting Jillette, who has built a career at high volume and higher dudgeon, to be a merciless and brutal judge, especially of acts that veer into magic’s cheesierprecincts. Instead, he is a fount of praise, respect, and encouragement.
I never feel more chastened than when I find myself licking my lips for a Penn smackdown and he responds instead with: “Beautiful act. Just a beautiful act.”
Fool Us is, in other words, an island of civility and generosity in our cruel, contentious, and otherwise debased times.
It celebrates such unfashionable virtues as expertise, craft,professionalism, hard work, and fellowship with a level of respect and care that makes The Great British Bake Off look like WWE Smack Down. To be fair to me, who would have guessed?
That the duo Jillette likes to describe as “carny trash” would produce the classiest show on television.
That the act that billed itself, way back in the 1980s, as the “magic show for people who hate magic shows,” deriding glitzy illusionists like Siegfried and Roy and outraging the magic establishment by giving away secrets (by doing, say, the classic cups-and-ball trick with transparent cups), would become safekeepers of the discipline’s deepest traditions.
That the pugnacious debunkers of the earlier Penn & Teller: Bullshit! whose scepticism has been prone, on occasion, to curdle into what my daughter’s kindergarten nursery teacher calls “yucking someone else’s yum”, would turn into such enthusiastic, generous, downright sweet yummers of yuck.
When I talked to Jillette by phone, he told me the tone of Fool Us is deliberate.
“I don’t think it’s healthy,” he said.
Jillette is no stranger to a different kind of reality show, notably the fifth and sixth seasons of The Celebrity Apprentice, starring the man who now leads the free world.
“When Trump was elected, I wrote to the producers and said, ‘We know this is our fault,’” he said.
“I called him ‘Mr Trump.’ I pretended to respect him. I knew he bankrupted companies. I knew he was a *******.
I had all that information, and I thought it was harmless.” He was, in other words, one of the countless lovely assistants who helped pull off the least probable presto-chango of our time.
Fool Me, he said, is in part explicit penance — a declaration that he might be fooled but he won’t be fooled again.
“I sat across from Donald Trump and saw the way he treated people and just said: ‘This cannot be done. It must not be done.’”
I suppose that’s what the show has become for me too: A regular reminder that kindness matters in all rooms of our lives, even the TV room, and that while discomfort and cruelty can be fun, the alternative is, well, a kind of magic.