Penn & Teller: Fool Us is a TV talent show that is filmed in front of a live audience (or, virtual audience during the pandemic). Oh, and we can't forget to mention that Penn and Teller are there too -- they're the judges!
During each episode, four magicians perform a magic act for Penn & Teller which, at the end of each act the magician-comedian duo try to deduce how the trick was done. In very articulate speech, Penn -- as Teller remains characteristically silent -- commends the magician on a job well done. If the magic act fooled Penn & Teller, they win a sweet Fool Us trophy and a trip to Vegas to be the opening act for Penn & Teller's show!
I want my opinions below to reflect those of a spectator who just saw a performance live. To achieve this, I've only watched this episode once. In real time - no pausing. No slow motion. Once through, with commercials and with my kids enjoying it with me too. Did I remember everything I saw? Did I see everything that happened? Do I remember the exact words that were said? Maybe, but likely not -- which means if I over-portray an effect below then it was just that great of a trick. If I under-portray it, well, yeah. So let's see what this episode's got in store for us!
Card magic, magic with money, and quick change acts! What's not to love?! This episode of Fool Us brought routines from all of these categories and ended with some clean fire eating - what a great way to spend a Friday night.
The fooler of the night's episode was David Corsaro. His promo reel touted psychology and hinted at using mentalism techniques to be able to fool Penn & Teller. He did a fun subliminal training skit with a bellhop's bell and then showed a dry-erase board with a few words written on it. Penn, Teller, and Alyson each chose a word from the board which, when the letters of each word were counted, pointed to a specific card in a deck.
This was, in completeness, an A Card At Any Number (ACAAN) routine. Everything else was just bells and whistles... pun not intended. Unfortunately, it was also one of those routines which gave off the vibe that Corsaro added in these extra bells and whistles to explicitly throw off Penn & Teller. He stated in his promo that he was going to use psychology to trick them. And yet, there was no psychology in the trick itself. It was a standard deck flip. The psychology was that it was too obvious that it was a card switch so it "must have been" the extra stuff he added in. The only possible extra would've been the word-lengths, which they went with. And, as we now know, led to him being the fooler of the night. Ugh. Maybe it was different being there in-person, but when he didn't ring the bell the one time he said "fool", at least on the TV, his hand flipping was pretty clear. I guess that was the psychology part -- misdirection via conditioning.
Don't get me wrong, it's an okay trick. It's something I would do with friends -- not with my name written on a card, but who knows. This thing is published in dozens of books, if not more, and there are just as many videos with it too. I'm actually upset that this won. At first, I felt this way almost out of anger that such an easy routine that had "extras" added in just to trick P&T won, but thinking about it more it's because it wasn't an original trick. It's a common type of trick that most magicians learn right when they're starting. I thought that Fool Us was supposed to be for magicians to show what they're made of, to show off their skills and creativity. Not to read Card College Vol. 1 and get a trophy...
Moving on though, the first performer of the night was John Fitzsimmons. This routine fooled me, I'm not gonna lie. He had all three -- Penn, Teller, and Alyson -- select a card from a freshly opened deck. Then he slipped on a whacky looking helmet with lights and antennas and a knob. Wouldn't you believe it, he was able to discern all three selected cards!
You can watch John's super whacky helmet trick on YouTube here!
It couldn't have been marked or forced cards, the spectators had the deck in their hands when selecting a card and they hid the card from view the whole time. Even though I work in tech and, more ironically, have done my fair share of research and testing on this exact technology, I actually ruled out RFID immediately due to thickness and stiffness concerns too. However, the act did not fool Penn & Teller. Whether they know the exact method or not, they guessed that there's some special way that the helmet itself tells Fitzsimmons what the cards were, and they were right. The only way this could happen is if there's a scanner that's able to read the cards...
Now, this leaves us with the idea that either the selected cards were scanned across the table or the remaining cards in the box were scanned. With RFID scanning, all of the above can be done pretty quickly. However, my concern is that the thickness of the cards would be discernable to Penn & Teller, magicians who handle cards daily... for years. This is one of those routines where I'd love to be able to hear what they discussed, I feel like there's a lot I could learn here!
First up there was a whacky helmet. Now with Bentley Burns, there's a friggin robot! A pretty neat idea though, a robot that shreds things and the spectator gets to choose what's shredded.
The routine was straightforward enough. A bill is signed by Penn and stuffed into an envelope. Then, it's mixed it with other envelopes and Alyson chooses them one at a time to be shredded. The remaining envelope -- you guessed it. It has the signed bill in it!
I have no doubt that this could be a really great trick, and I don't want to demerit Burns here but I feel like he could have practiced it more. His handling was very rough and felt off during the performance. If he's a performer, it shouldn't be stage fright... though, performing in a competition in front of Penn & Teller would definitely warrant it I guess.
He never drew direct attention to the "tool" being used, but because of the unnatural handling of everything, it was pretty clear that it was in use. The final bill load too was just rigid.
Diego & Elena
One of the best performances that's been on Fool Us was on last night, the act of Diego & Elena. I don't really know how to describe it too much. It was an acrobatic quick change act that featured lightning fast changes right in front of our eyes. Quick dashes behind a curtain, hanging from a rope, twirling on stage. Wow!
I loved the appearance out of thin air of Elena too, it was just so clean! To this day, I don't know how these appearances are done. I'd love to guess "mirrors" but let's be real, I've seen them done on stages like this and even in public parks. My mind's blown every time and I kind of hope I don't ever figure out the secret -- it's one of those pieces of magic that is just so magical.
I wish I could write more to really encapsulate the beauty of this routine, but it was just beautiful art. One where you sit and watch with awe and clap at the end. I'd love to see it in person because I feel like it would bring it up to the next level being that close!
Penn & Teller
Penn & Teller ended the show with the closer to their live show in Vegas. It's not quite a magic performance, but it's great nonetheless. Fire eating!
Penn speaks for a solid three minutes at least about the art of fire eating, and then performs a demonstration of it. My youngest kid, who's attention span ignored the entire speech, watched the performance itself and said "now that is real magic!" and he was transfixed! So perhaps my statement of it not quite being magic is wrong because, as a magician, that is the reaction that we all dream of.
This episode felt like it flew by for me, time-wise, and that means that it's entertaining. The producers definitely had to have purposefully combined the whacky helmet and robot into the same episode because, why not right? I also love how they pick-and-choose what commentary to keep in because when Alyson was speaking to Corsaro, the fooling act, she definitely tipped off that she knew what he did. "The easier routines tend to be harder for them" -- she definitely saw the move!
I'm still waiting for the day when we see multiple foolers in a single episode, but seeing acts that are beautiful and acts that fool me are amazing too. I am rather disappointed with the act that fooled them, and shocked at one that didn't -- but hey, it's all magic right?
Either way, I'm excited for the next round of magic!