For someone who “hates magic” as much as Penn Jillette, he’s certainly made a hell of a career out of it. March 5, 2018 marks the 63rd birthday of the Penn half of the world-famous magic duo Penn & Teller, and to celebrate his body of work and the awareness and popularity he’s brought to the art of deception, we’ve compiled ten of our favorite videos starring the foul-mouthed illusionist.
Penn’s usually a pretty amiable guy in his performances and in interviews, but Director’s Cut turns him into a real evil so-and-so. The film is a strange meta-narrative about a weirdo who abducts the cast of a B-grade crime procedural and proceeds to splice in his own recorded footage to create his “director’s cut”. It’s as wildly bizarre as that description, and the trailer above, makes it sound. It’s made the film festival circuit over the last couple years, but it should finally see wider theatrical release sometime in 2018.
Learn about how Penn got his start in magic, what inspires him, and more in this fantastic biography of the iconic duo.
Penn’s a smart cookie, and he used his brain to win $50,000 for charity a few years back on Celebrity Jeopardy. Watch him almost pass out with exhaustion when he nearly phrases one of his responses incorrectly.
When he scrutinized David Garrard’s performance on Fool Us, he wasn’t expecting his own daughter, Moxie, to leap out of the box on stage.
Penn Jillette has a, uh, let’s say twisted sense of humor, and you can see it in full effect in this performance from Late Night with David Letterman. The crew wheels out a “dummy” of Teller, and Penn proceeds to cut his tongue off, then saw him in half. It’s hilariously demented, but let’s also say that it’s not for the faint of heart.
Another macabre bit from the duo. This time, Penn finds a chosen playing card. Well, he doesn’t find it; the live rats stuffed into a cage covering Teller’s head does.
This special has it all: audience participation, bear traps, sensual fire eating, live bees, and much, much more.
In addition to performing magic and winning on Jeopardy, Penn also plays a mean upright bass. Penn noodles away to some cool jazz while Teller performs some incredible sleight of hand with a cigarette.
In an Comic-Con 2010 panel with Penn & Teller, Penn talks about the inspiration behind Desert Bus, one of the most notoriously tedious video games ever made. Penn describes how it was created in response to Clinton administration’s fear that video games were too violent, so they helped design a game where players would drive from Tucson, AZ to Las Vegas in eight real-time hours, with a single point as their only reward. Desert Bus’ infamy lives on, thanks to a yearly charity drive called Desert Bus for Hope and a free modern adaptation built around virtual reality.
In our last pick, watch as Penn takes a nail gun, loads it up with a randomly-generated sequence of nails, and proceed to alternate trigger pulls between his hand and a block of wood. I mean, you know he’s going to be fine, but you can’t help but wonder what would happen if he messed up somewhere.
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.
Everyone who fools Penn & Teller on their weekly CW magic show Fool Us wins the opportunity to appear in the duo’s regular Vegas show. David Parr was one such fooler, and GeniiOnline got a chance to follow him around backstage and chat before he performed his show-winning ‘follow the leader’ routine for Penn & Teller’s audience. We talked about how he practiced before the show, what happened to the trophy, and why Fool Us is a special treat for magicians and fans alike.
Stay tuned throughout the week for more videos from our trip to Vegas, including interviews with the hosts of Fool Us, Penn & Teller.
Inspiration can strike anywhere. For David Parr and the idea behind his prize-winning Fool Us routine, it all started with an antique desk bell he’d had lying around his house for years. In an interview with GeniiOnline, Parr describes how he then developed the trick around the bell and the method he’d use to pull it off, how it evolved through practice and performance, and whether anyone’s figured out how he’d done it.
While a lot of variety shows have hosted magicians over the years, none have shown the level of restraint and professionalism when it comes to honest critique quite like Penn & Teller Fool Us. In an interview with GeniiOnline, the two discuss why they wanted to create a different kind of show, and why the duo focuses on the success or failure of the moment rather than making sweeping predictions or judgments.
Be sure to watch the rest of our interview with Penn & Teller, where the two talk about the origins of the show. Or go backstage with David Parr as he performs his prize-winning routine.
Whenever magicians meet, they’re likely to start showing off the latest tricks that they’ve learned—not out of competition, but out of professional camaraderie. It’s that feeling of sharing something intimate between two magicians that Penn & Teller find themselves drawn to, and GeniiOnline got a chance to discuss what it’s like sharing that feeling with a global audience, along with how the duo came up with the judging process for the show.
Be sure to check out our behind-the-scenes with Fool Us winner David Parr, as well as our continuing interview with Penn & Teller.
There’s no real criteria for winning on Penn & Teller Fool Us, mainly because even well-established routines can be impossible to detect with enough skill. Eric Mead’s performance on last week’s episode is a perfect example of this.
Before beginning his routine, Mead takes great care to explain that he’s going to perform coin magic—one of the oldest tricks in the book—and that while Penn & Teller may know how 90% of the trick is done, it’s the last 10% that will stump them both. By explaining the rules in this way, he then puts the onus on the hosts to abide by his own terms. It’s a pretty stunning bit of verbal misdirection… and then the trick starts.
Even if he didn’t win, Mead’s coin magic employs god-like sleight of hand and enough linguistic gymnastics to win an Olympic medal. Take ten minutes to watch his performance and wonder to yourself all day how the hell did he do that?
David Parr created and refined his Follow the Leader trick while he was laid up for three months with a broken leg. It was clearly time well spent, given how completely he fooled Penn & Teller. (The bell is a particularly nice touch.) It’s a sublimely elegant bit of card manipulation that leaves us wondering how the hell did he do that? No, seriously, we need answers. HOW.
There’s a lot that could’ve gone wrong with the underwater escape that Matt Johnson had planned for his appearance on Britain’s Got Talent. He’d waited for years for the chance to dazzle the judges, but a freak accident sent him home before he’d even hit the stage.
As he tells Vancouver’s Breakfast Television, his tank cracked during rehearsal, flooding the BGT stage with 200 gallons of water. Not only did that put the kibosh on his dreams of winning Britain’s Got Talent, it also put his upcoming spot on Penn & Teller’s Fool Us in jeopardy. An escape act with nothing to escape from isn’t going to fool anyone.
Johnson managed to get a new tank built in time for Penn & Teller, but there was a small problem: The new tank wasn’t built correctly, leaving Johnson scrambling to make it work in time for the show. He tells the full story in the video above, and you can catch his performance on Fool Us in the video below.
The torn paper trick is one of the most common illusions in the magician’s handbook: rip up a piece of paper to shreds, wave your hands, and presto – it’s back to normal. Beginning performers learn it as a way to practice their deception, and skilled magicians have fun by tweaking it in a variety of different ways. Hell, even Penn & Teller themselves have performed this trick multiple times across their decades-long career. And on an episode of their CW show Fool Us, Handsome Jack completely faked them out.
The trick begins normally – Handsome Jack takes a playbill, rips it up, and puts it back together. Easy. Then, he starts getting goofy, showing a mechanical device in his jacket containing the ripped up paper. He takes the ripped paper, shows each individual piece to the audience, then proceeds to put that paper back together and hands it off to Teller to close the trick.
It’s in that moment that Penn & Teller were completely fooled. Had he not shown the audience the separate pieces of paper, they’d have known exactly how he’d done it. Instead, Handsome Jack won the right to perform with Penn & Teller on stage in Las Vegas.