Why Penn & Teller’s Fool Us is so fun to watch

December 31, 2017

Here’s the thing about magic tricks: you desperately want to know how they’re done. The moment you see one, your brain is automatically trying to figure out how it happened. You’ll rewind that YouTube video to study hand movements or scan for misdirection, or you’ll try to recreate the trick in your head. But as soon as you know the secret, it’s not really fun anymore – the magic disappears, replaced by regular, boring old reality. Penn & Teller’s Fool Us gives its audience the best of both worlds, making us feel like we’ve just learned secret insider info without actually learning a damn thing.

When you come down to it, magic is just fancy lying. It’s harmless (most of the time) and usually done to entertain, but make no mistake: whether they’re using a deck of cards or sawing a woman in half, a magician is lying right to your face. Penn Jillette and his partner Teller have toyed with the relationship between the deceiver and the deceived throughout their entire career, from their live shows to their (nearly-released) compilation of rigged video games. Sometimes even the truth is a lie, like Penn’s explanation of his nail gun trick:

Obviously, Penn’s little speech on how he performs the trick isn’t true (otherwise Teller’s job would probably be a pre-existing condition for most health insurers). But it’s that explanation that sells the bit, giving us the illusion that we’re stealing a tiny glimpse into the magician’s world, a peek behind the curtain – before the duo pulls out the rug from under us.

Penn & Teller: Fool Us, airing Thursday nights on the CW, is an extension of that, pitting a variety of amateur and professional magicians against the wits of its hosts. Each contestant performs their trick, and it’s up to Penn & Teller to figure out how it was done. The requirements for “fooling” Penn & Teller are purposely vague, allowing them wiggle room in determining which part of the trick is the important bit for judging purposes. In the case of Handsome Jack, Penn & Teller knew how he reassembled a torn playbill, but they couldn’t figure out how he’d managed to hold up the ripped pieces separately.

We never learn the secrets behind each trick. Penn & Teller instead communicate in code or draw diagrams on a notepad that only the performer sees in order to confirm whether or not the jig is up, and any notes are immediately shredded or disintegrated in a puff of smoke to prevent anyone else from learning the truth. This is actually the most important trick the show pulls, and where our own satisfaction-by-proxy comes from. The name ‘Fool Us’ isn’t just a request made by the show’s hosts; it’s a request we’re making, too. Sure, we want to know the secrets, but we want to be fooled just as badly, and to learn a trick’s secrets would spoil the fun.

Take this performance by Misty Lee, whose routine put surprise guest Louie Anderson in (what appears to be) grave danger:

While the trick didn’t fool Penn & Teller, they still talked about how much they loved her twisted performance, along with some of their favorite parts of the trick. It seems like a series of innocent compliments, but it’s here that Penn & Teller reveal that they know exactly how the trick is done by repeatedly bringing up the knives in their feedback. Misty Lee knows that they know, even if we don’t.

It’s those brief moments behind the cracks that gives Fool Us its special sauce. The wonder of magic deflates instantly once you know how that performer apparently vanished, but Fool Us gives us the best of both worlds. We know that someone knows how the trick is performed (and are given enough clues that we could potentially suss out a few details if we really wanted to do some internet sleuthing), but the process isn’t completely spoiled for those of us who just want to bask in the illusion of impossibility.

Even better, the trick feels even more impressive if Penn & Teller can’t figure it out. Because it’s one thing to fool the audience – the average viewer likely won’t know what the hell a riffle pass is, let alone how to do one – but it’s another to pull a fast one on seasoned veterans. Whatever the outcome, we’re still only told or shown exactly what the magicians want us to know, which means it’s working as intended.

Check out this video where blind magician Richard Turner completely fools Penn & Teller with his expert card work:

Penn & Teller do nothing to hide the astonishment on their faces – they’re just as blown away as we are. Plus, since Penn & Teller are part of the audience, we know that there aren’t any fancy camera or editing tricks meant to unfairly deceive those of us watching from home. What Turner is doing is happening right before our eyes, and when Penn & Teller describe how impressed they are by the trick, we can take them at their word.

Because what makes Fool Us work is that the audience isn’t treated like dupes, rubes, or idiots, but willing participants of a series of fascinating cons. We are all invited every week to witness daring displays of deception, to examine them with a critical eye, and to walk away amazed whether or not the contestants win. That Penn & Teller have figured out a way to make us all in on their scheme while not actually telling us anything is perhaps the greatest trick of all.