Another week, and another solid episode of Penn & Teller: Fool Us. So, without further ado, onto the performers:
Bill Cook: The Invisible Deck is a classic trick, involving a card freely selected by a volunteer, and the performer pulling a real deck out of their pocket with the selected card turned face up. Cook’s version was a better presentation – it cut directly to the predicted card in a way that had more follow-through on the theme of invisible objects. The different style of climax also has the merit of throwing off any familiarity with the method for those magicians who are watching. It may not have been enough to fool Penn and Teller, but it was a good presentation all the same, and a joy to watch.
Wes Barker: It would not surprise me to discover that Barker has spent a lot of time busking. This was a busker’s performance style through and through, keeping the audience engaged by continually bringing new and entertaining elements into the trick (a vital thing when one is attempting to attract passers-by on a street corner). Barker also provided a near-perfect example of how to fool a magician – you take an effect with a known method, and perform it with a different one. Barker’s method looked like a force, smelled like a force, and to a magician the revelation that it was not a force was jaw dropping. He did provide a bit of a verbal flash, though – open any book somewhere in the middle and take a look at the page numbers, and you’ll find one of the keys to his trick (I can’t take credit for noticing this – that has to go to IMDB forum member hoosiersfan2011). Either way, it fooled Penn and Teller, and it was the standout performance of the night…for magicians, that is.
Matt Holtzclaw: This performance had two tricks, and we’ll deal with them separately. The first is a version of the Hindu Thread, which is indeed a beautiful effect. Unfortunately, this time it was a bit of a missed opportunity – by presenting only the effect, Holtzclaw missed out on highlighting the themes the trick presents of unity and separation, and of pain and healing. So, it was beautiful, but it could have been so much more so. To get an idea of what it could look like, watch one of Eugene Burger’s presentations of the trick. The second effect is something we haven’t seen much on Fool Us this year: a carnival-style act. It is a magic trick that looks like a stunt. It is also a great presentation that, through no fault of the performer, is betrayed by the HD camera, which revealed more than it should have. Performed live, it would have been amazing. Holtzclaw didn’t fool Penn and Teller, but it was a solid performance overall.
David Regal: For the first time this season, the title of standout trick of the night has to be shared. Barker may have been the best trick for magicians, but Regal has the best performance for lay audiences. He was energetic, funny, and fun. He also managed to take the idea of selecting a card and turn it on its head so that you didn’t know what was coming next. He wasn’t a fooler, but that doesn’t matter – he was still great.
Penn and Teller: If I had to identify my favourite presentation of the cups and balls, it would be a tie between Ricky Jay and Penn & Teller. It speaks volumes about the duo’s skill, along with the power of the trick itself, that they can do it with clear plastic cups, narrate and show you every single action, and it’s still almost impossible to see the sleights. It is also evidence, if any is still needed, that the true magic lies in the performer instead of the method. I do have one criticism, though – I’ve now seen them perform it with a finale involving a lime, a potato, and a baseball, and the potato really was the best one. The baseball lacks the contrast in both shape and colour of the potato, and isn’t the best way to finish up. But it’s also a classic trick, well done, that everybody knows and is comfortable with… and that brings me to the subject of this week’s commentary.
For most people today, magic occupies a “safe” space. This means that there is no question about whether the tricks are real – they aren’t – and as a result, they are non-threatening. With a few rare exceptions, nobody watching a card trick, or even a stage illusion, is going to come away with the perception that they have just witnessed Satanic power or endangered their soul. Indeed, the first people to step up to debunk somebody claiming psychic or supernatural power tend to be magicians.
What is often not appreciated is just how recent this is. In the long history of magic, it is only in the last couple of centuries that magicians have taken their newly-found legitimacy as a performance art and used it to stand against those claiming real supernatural powers. In fact, it is only in the last century that magicians have fully embraced this skeptical role – for most of the history of magic and conjuring, the conjurers have been among the first to make the claim of real magic.
In fact, the space magic has occupied for most of its many millennia of existence is decidedly “unsafe.”
Prior to the late 18th and early 19th centuries, magicians tended to perform in sideshows. Their attire was that of the wizard, and their performances often channelled alchemy and the demonic. Many tricks felt harmless – the cups and balls has been performed since at least Roman times, and is distinctly non-threatening – but others were considerably more gruesome. One of the standard tricks was an illusion where the magician would have a small boy lie on a table, strike off the boy’s head, and place it on the other side of the table, whereupon it would begin speaking. For that matter, the earliest recorded magic show – the conjurer Dedi performing for the Pharaoh Khufu (c. 2589-2566 BCE) in the Westcar Papyrus (18th-16th century BCE) – involved removing the heads of animals and swapping them around. Having impressed the king, Dedi was then asked to prophecize, to which he obliged.
Is it any wonder that when the witch hunts began in Europe, conjurers were among those burned at the stake?
By the 19th and early 20th centuries, magicians had become quite hostile to claims of spiritual or supernatural power – the career of the great British magician John Nevil Maskelyne (1839-1917) began in 1865 when he stood up during a spiritualism performance by the Davenport Brothers (Ira, 1839-1911, and William, 1841-1877) to declare that he could reproduce the effect, but without claiming supernatural aid – unless it was in their own advertising, where the devil and the demonic were a standard trope. Even family-friendly performers such as Howard Thurston (1869-1936) used advertising in which devils were either subservient to or advising the magician.
This was not limited to the advertising. Many of the larger stage illusions only recently entered the “safe” space. Today the effect is quite bloodless, but the original “sawing a woman in half,” first performed by P.T. Selbit (1881-1938) in 1920, involved the magician sawing away for at least five minutes while the assistant screamed inside the box. Tricks in the early 20th century involving impalement and dismemberment were designed to shock and horrify audiences, with stage hands making a show of dumping buckets of blood and viscera (bought from a local butcher) just outside the stage door.
For the most part, those days are long gone… but not entirely.
Modern magicians are very careful to manage when and how illusions or shows venture into unsafe spaces. Misty Lee performs the Houdini seance at the Magic Castle, where after creating a number of spooky effects, she then returns the audience to a safe space by ensuring they understand that it was just a show, and none of it was real. Penn and Teller perform a sawing a woman in half illusion which appears to be a gory accident, with the magicians dashing off stage as newly-minted fugitives – but they also make it clear that in reality their show has never suffered a serious injury, and that they consider it unethical to perform magic involving a real risk to life or limb.
This unwillingness to leave audiences in unsafe spaces is not universal, however. Only 40 years ago, Richiardi Jr. (1923-1985) was famous in part for managing to rack up a literal butcher’s bill as he sawed his daughter almost in half with a shocking amount of gore in every show, and then left her there for the audience to come up and inspect. His show also involved on-stage immolation and decapitation, without restoring the assistants afterwards.
Today, the question of whether to place an audience into an unsafe place, and then whether to bring them back out of it, is more of an ethical than a practical one. It speaks volumes that the main difference between the modern spiritualists and psychics that magicians so despise and the magicians themselves is that the spiritualists don’t restore the safe space after the performance is done. But the unsafe space is a tool, and in the hands of a masterful magician, it can allow an audience to flirt with horror and the supernatural… making a show truly memorable.
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. If you must talk about a method in a way that might expose it, please use spoiler tags.
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, with Ed Greenwood. His Livejournal can be found here, and he is now on Facebook. He can be reached by email at garwulf at escapistmag.com.