Fooling Garwulf – Reviews and Commentary on Penn & Teller – Fool Us

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Confession time: I am an amateur magician – my specialty is card tricks. The show that got me to finally take the plunge, pick up a deck of cards, and find a mentor was Penn & Teller: Fool Us. So, with the help of an intriguing pitch and a not small amount of hypnosi…er…tasty cupcakes, The Escapist is allowing me to run a series reviewing and commentating on Fool Us‘ new season, which debuts on the CW at 8:00 PM on Monday, July 6th.

So, what is Penn & Teller: Fool Us? In a nutshell, magicians perform a trick or illusion in front of Penn and Teller, in the hopes of fooling them. The prize for success is the chance to perform in Vegas on their stage. After each trick, Penn and Teller (well, mainly Penn) talk about the trick, and if they did figure it out, give a hint as to what may have been involved in the method, without actually exposing it.

It’s a great introduction to magic, and possibly the best of the magic shows currently on television. With all respect to shows like Syfy’s Wizard Wars, Penn & Teller: Fool Us is the one that managed to capture lightning in a bottle and hold it. So, in this space every week (for as long as The Escapist will let me), I’m going to talk about the show – not just the performances and tricks, but also about magic in general, teasing out some of the theory, complexity, history, and issues that arise. Think of it as Garwulf’s Corner for a magic show.

And herein lies the difficult part – in order to cover this show with any level of intelligence, I need to be able to talk about magic… without exposing the secrets. I am, after all, a member of my local area magic club, and would like to remain so – thus, like Penn and Teller, I will exercise discretion when discussing what goes into somebody’s trick. I may talk about many of the mechanisms, psychological and otherwise, that might go into a method, but I will not reveal the specific method used in any given trick.

Penn and Teller: Fool Us

(Yes, “walking a tightrope” is the correct term for what I’m doing.)

First, though, I need to explain how a magic trick works, at least in general. At the risk of sounding like the opening of The Prestige, any magic trick has three basic parts:

1. The effect. This is the end result of the illusion, or more important, what the audience is supposed to see. When the magician saws the assistant in half and pulls the two halves away from each other, this is the effect.

2. The sleight. This is a secret move used to make the trick work, and something the audience is not supposed to see. For example, there is a well known card trick called “The Ambitious Card,” which involves a selected playing card repeatedly returning to the top of the deck. This uses a number of sleights to carry out, none of which the audience should ever glimpse. An important point, however, is that the sleight by itself is not the trick; it is merely the tool used to carry out the trick. If a trick doesn’t use sleights, it is called a “self-working” trick. If part of a sleight is accidentally revealed, it is called a “flash.”

3. The patter. This is how the trick or illusion is presented. This is also, perhaps, the most important part of the trick. The best illusion can be rendered dull and lifeless by poor patter – and the simplest trick can cause wonder and amazement with great patter. It is also in the patter that misdirection tends to exist, with the patter drawing the audience’s attention away from the sleight when necessary.

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So, what makes for a great trick? The illusion itself is not enough – it has to connect with something more, and create the sense of the extraordinary. Like any good story, it has to answer the question of “why should I care?” Consider, for example, the old classic of sawing somebody in half: if this trick is performed as just an illusion, it will be boring. If, on the other hand, there is a proper sense of danger – a feeling the trick can go horribly wrong, or has indeed done so – then the audience remains on the edge of their seats, and the trick becomes breathtaking. It’s no coincidence that two of the most spectacular versions of this illusion – Penn & Teller’s accidental sawing a woman in half (above, right) and David Copperfield’s “Death Saw” (below, left) – use real death as their motif.

For close-up magic such as a card trick or the cups and balls, this principle still remains. A great trick will connect with the profound or the mysterious. It will feel like a revelation. I once performed a trick at the local magic club that began with a card being selected. Once the card had been memorized, I placed it back in the deck, and blurt out a realization – I forgot to perform the sleight, and the card was well and truly lost. So, I explained, I’ll just have to use a quantum physics approach: to find a needle in a haystack, you machine gun the haystack until something ricochets. I snapped my fingers, and suddenly all the cards were turned over save one – the chosen card. As I completed the reveal, I overheard one of the other magicians exclaim, in awe and realization, “machine gun the haystack…” – the effect had successfully connected to the concept described in the patter, each reinforcing the other.

Another good example is Ricky Jay’s cups and balls, aka “the history lesson.” As he moves through the cups and balls, he presents the entire history of the trick, leaving the audience with a profound sense of historical connection – each step of the trick supports and is supported by Jay’s narration. This is a basic principle for any magic trick (and, for that matter, good storytelling in general) – when the effect and patter connect with the greater theme, even the simple act of revealing a signed chosen card can be powerful enough to bring tears to the volunteer’s eyes.

And thus ends our introduction to the mysteries of sleight of hand. Next week, we’ll take a look at the first new episode of Penn & Teller: Fool Us, and see just what there is to talk about.

Author’s Note: Since this is a feature about magic, we must ask for discretion when it comes to discussing methods in the forums. For the sake of preserving the mystery for those who do not want to know how the tricks are done, as well as to avoid accidentally exposing the hard work of some very talented magicians, please avoid revealing methods in the discussion threads, and if you must talk about a method in a way that might expose it, please use spoiler tags.

Author’s Other Note: There are some people who deserve recognition for donating their time and experience to helping make this feature as good as it can be – I like to call them “Team Fooling Garwulf.” They are: my friend and mentor Robin Dawes, who taught me almost all the magic I know and pointed me to where I could learn the rest; Misty Lee, a professional magician in Los Angeles who, among other things, performs the Houdini Seance at the Magic Castle, and who was able to fill in a number of gaps when it comes to stage magic; and, last but not least, my wife Johanna, whose eye for methods is keener than my own. Many thanks to all of them.

Robert B. Marks is the author of the new and revived Garwulf’s Corner on The Escapist, as well as Diablo: Demonsbane, The EverQuest Companion, the original Garwulf’s Corner, and the co-author of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Agora. His current fiction project is The Eternity Quartet, and his Patreon-based magazine experiment, Garwulf Speaks, can be found here. He can be reached by email at garwulf at


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