Editor’s note: come for the episode recap; stay for the wonderful insight into the world of magic.
From the last season alone, Fool Us is a show that creates high expectations, with great talent given the space to show Penn and Teller, as well as the world, what they can do. Happily, last night’s season premiere did not disappoint. In fact, I could not wish for a better selection of performances to demonstrate the various attributes that make for great magic.
Jon Armstrong: Let’s call his routine “delight.” His little magical plunger was a masterpiece of whimsy, and beautifully deceptive. It may not have fooled Teller, but it certainly fooled me. Most important of all, it felt so marvelous that the fact that it fooled me did not matter – by the time the trick was halfway done, I had stopped caring about the method and just wanted to see more of the little plunger. I feel like my life is a bit richer for having seen it, and that’s something the best magic will do.
Xavier: If Armstrong was “delight,” Xavier’s routine would be “wonder.” Xavier’s illusion with the magic mirror wasn’t really all that deceptive – but it was beautifully choreographed, pulled us into Xavier’s world, and created a real sense of magic, which is the important thing. One of the themes that Fooling Garwulf is going to keep coming back to is that deception is part of the magician’s toolbox, but not the desired end result. This is a case where the fact that the key points in the method can be discerned is irrelevant – I think Xavier’s inspiration, Georges Méliès, would be proud.
(Georges Méliès, 1861-1938, was a magician and a pioneer of film. He’s most famous for his movie A Trip to the Moon, but before he transitioned into making what we would consider proper motion pictures, he was one of the many magicians – and probably one of the best – using film to create illusions via camera effects.)
Greg Dow: Here we have “showmanship.” Dow’s performance is a perfect example of what I said about patter in our previous installment. His trick is a fairly basic mentalism trick (the most I’ll say about the method is that it requires multiple predictions to work, and there is some flash regarding the envelopes). But he presents it with so much personality and character that it is a joy to watch, and entertaining and funny throughout. This showmanship may have actually backfired a bit – by forcing the 3 of clubs at the end (Penn and Teller’s favourite card to force), any suspicions they had about the method were probably confirmed. Or, in short, the tip of the hat to Penn and Teller tipped off the trick.
Steven Brundage: In a word, “escalation.” Just about every book on performance talks about how any given routine should escalate in intensity, from the least spectacular tricks to the most spectacular. Brundage managed to do this to perfection with Rubik’s Cubes, moving from the unlikely to the impossible to the absolutely jaw-dropping, and remaining baffling throughout – I think I may have figured out how the part with the paper bag was done, but for everything else I don’t have the beginning of a clue. Brundage was the only magician this episode who fooled Penn & Teller, and he earned it in spades. His routine was amazing.
(Disclosure: Steven Brundage and I are both participants on the Magic sub-reddit.)
Finally, Penn and Teller: Surprise and the unexpected. One of the things that a great trick will do is go somewhere unexpected, but still within context. You know that the phone will reappear somewhere at the end of the trick, but there’s no way to see the fish coming. And, the audience has an expectation that they’re in on the trick with the phone going into the bucket – an expectation that is turned on its head the moment it rings somewhere else. It all makes the illusion unpredictable, and that makes it better and more suspenseful.
By now, you’ve probably noticed that Penn and Teller (and this feature) are quite cagey when it comes to discussing secrets. Regardless of their caution, Fool Us is a contentious show among magicians, in part because of how close it skirts to exposing the methods of its competitors. It is a mixed blessing for lay audiences – while there is an intriguing peek behind the curtain, the reality is that most methods are simple to the point of disappointing, and knowing the method can spoil an otherwise spectacular illusion. I’d even go as far as to say that unless you can take joy in the cleverness of the method, you probably should not even bother looking any further to see how it is done – and if you can take joy in the cleverness of the method, you might want to consider picking up magic as your new hobby.
Exposure has been controversial among magicians for a very long time, and often with just cause. The time we live in is called the “information age” for a reason, and the secrets to untold magic tricks lie a mere Google search away. Many magicians have had the experience of performing in a restaurant or on the street, only to discover members of the audience looking up the methods to their tricks on their phones during the performance itself.
(And if you are somebody who would do such a thing, don’t. Seriously, DON’T – it shows a staggering level of disrespect to the performer in front of you, who probably spent years learning their craft.)
But, to say that exposure is just bad is a massive and inaccurate oversimplification. In the past, the exposure of magic methods has helped make careers, changed the art for the better, and even saved lives.
Arguably the first major exposure of methods in the English language was Reginald Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft, published in 1584. Reginald Scot (1538-1599) was a Justice of the Peace and a Member of Parliament who had become horrified by the witch hunts – which had killed a number of conjurers – and set out to debunk them. In order to do this he wrote the first critical look at the idea of witchcraft, and exposed the methods of a number of tricks to prove that they were not the product of the devil. Notably, Scot was not a magician – for the sections on magic he was helped by a French conjurer named John Cautares. Today, Reginald Scot is an inductee into the Society of American Magicians’ Hall of Fame, while John Cautares is not (in fact, all we know of him is that he was a contemporary of Scot).
While Scot’s book may have been the first serious exposure of magical methods, it was far from the last. Books on magic proliferated, exposing methods to anybody who wished to learn them. Exposure remained – and likely will always remain – contentious, but it would be accurate to say that, when it comes to secrets, for centuries magicians have guarded an empty safe.
But, for many of these centuries, while the books were available, they were often difficult to find if you weren’t already a member of magical society. They were frequently expensive, and produced in limited editions. That is, until an amateur magician named Angelo Lewis (1839-1919), writing under the name Professor Hoffman, shocked the world of magic in 1876 by exposing everybody’s secrets in an inexpensive book for the masses named Modern Magic.
For Lewis, it was an attempt at reform. By 1876, the world of magic had gained legitimacy as entertainment, but had also stagnated. Everybody seemed to be performing the same tricks. By exposing all of the methods, Lewis wanted to give the art a kick in the hindquarters, and force magicians to invent new material. While magicians were shocked and appalled at the book, it had its desired effect – the next half century would often be known as “The Golden Age of Magic,” with a startling level of wild inventiveness. In more recent years, the exposure of methods on television by Valentino, AKA the Masked Magician, had a similar effect on magicians like Misty Lee, driving them to be more creative in developing their own effects.
Lewis was not the only author whose exposure of secrets would change the world of magic. In 1902 an unknown card cheat or magician published The Expert at the Card Table under the name S.W. Erdnase. The book became known as one of the most important books on card handling ever published, in part because of the effect it had on a Canadian named David Verner (1894-1992), better known by his stage name Dai Vernon. Vernon memorized the book, and revolutionized close up magic with the realization that for an effect to look truly magical, the lead-up should appear natural – as though the magician has done nothing out of the ordinary before the effect – a stark contrast to the style of the magicians of his day, who drew attention to what was about to happen with artificial-looking flourishes.
Exposure in the Golden Age was as controversial as it always had been, but also a very complicated matter. Amateur magicians were often more bothered by exposure than the professionals, who in many cases would publish simple magic tricks for the public to promote their brand, a practice that continues today. David Devant (1868-1941) and Nevil Maskelyne (1863-1924) exposed a number of their secrets in Our Magic, published in 1911 and written as part of a bid to increase recognition of magic as an art form. This could take on a more sinister aspect, however – Harry Houdini (1874-1926) was known for sometimes exposing his own tricks to prevent other magicians from using his material. Will Goldston (1878-1948) may be one of the oddest cases. A stage magician and magic shop owner in London, he published a number of magic magazines that became infamous for their ability to publish the methods of large stage illusions, sometimes before they had even been performed. For high-profile magicians inventing tricks, conducting and protecting against espionage was a reality of their business.
Today, exposure is still contentious – there are magicians like Penn and Teller who use limited exposure as a form of audience education, making them more aware and appreciative of what they are about to see. That same limited exposure is a very good tool for drawing in new blood. At the same time, the International Brotherhood of Magicians has an oath against exposure right on its membership application, and magicians like Ricky Jay are opposed to any exposure at all – which, considering how disappointing so many methods are to lay people, is not a position without its own merits.
Regardless, it would be a mistake to think that the current state of exposure is anything new – in the last century and a half, it has been the rule more often than the exception. The only thing that truly has changed is the speed and ease with which somebody can get their hands on a method. The guarded safe remains empty.
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.
Author’s Other Note: Special thanks to Paul Sharke on the Magic sub-reddit, who suggested this topic.
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, his Patreon-based magazine experiment, Garwulf Speaks, can be found here, and he is now on Facebook. He can be reached by email at garwulf at escapistmag.com.