Penn Jillette: Why I Believe in Honest Magic

Penn & Teller: Fool Us - Penn Jillette, Jafo, Teller
Jacob Kepler/The CW

Penn Jillette has been performing magic and comedy with his partner, Teller, on stage and then TV since the mid-1970s. The duo has hosted a number of series, including Penn & Teller: Bulls–t, which debunked anything deemed misleading or harmful. Currently, they’re judges on The CW’s Penn & Teller: Fool Us. On the show, magicians perform tricks that they hope will stump the headliners. Acts that fool the duo get to open for them at their Las Vegas show. Penn, who also plays bass and is a prolific author, explains his love for magic and why fans enjoy the art of trickery.

Penn & Teller: Fool Us, Penn Jillette, Alyson Hannigan, Teller

Penn & Teller: Fool Us — “Penn, Teller and a Mind Reading Chicken” — Image Number: PEN401_2286.jpg — Pictured (L-R): Penn Jillette, Alyson Hannigan and Teller — Photo: Jacob Kepler/The CW —

When I was 12, I started juggling, which is the opposite of magic, because when you juggle you try very hard to make it clear exactly what you’re doing. After I learned a bit of magic in the late 1960s and early ’70s, I saw some unscrupulous people on TV pretending to have psychic powers and do scientific research while doing tricks. I was repulsed. I thought, “Magicians are all in the business of lying to people.” I was already good at tricks, especially manipulating cards; I just wouldn’t do them.

I met Teller a few years later; then we met the Amazing [James] Randi, who’s kind of our mentor. He taught me that you could do magic morally. You had to make it very clear to the audience that you were doing tricks. The idea that you could be honest performing magic was fascinating to me, and one that I’ve been exploring with Teller for 43 years.

There have been two schools of magic since the book The Discoverie of Witchcraft was published in the 16th century. One school says, “I’m going to do tricks, but I’ll disguise them as something else.” All that does is insult the audience. The other school says honestly, with a big smile, “We’re doing tricks.”

Kindness is another element for us. There’s often a confrontation in magic that I don’t like. Jerry Seinfeld once said magic is, “Here’s a quarter. Now it’s gone. You’re a jerk. Now it’s back. You’re an idiot. Show’s over.”

That all enters into how we do Fool Us. We give the audience an opportunity to see wonderful performers, and Teller and I never make negative comments on how successful they’ll be or not. We’re just there to answer one question: “Did you fool the two of us?” I like magicians, I like magic, so I’m going to enjoy these acts.

Audiences like magic, I think, because one of the most important things people do is figure out what’s real. Magic allows us to take that very serious issue of what’s true and make it playful and fun. Trying to ascertain whether the president met with a hostile foreign power can be scary, but figuring out how a playing card someone chose ended up in an orange is fun.

My favorite magicians include David Copperfield, who does the best stage illusions, and Piff the Magic Dragon, who was a huge hit on the first season of Fool Us and a finalist on America’s Got Talent. I think Johnny Thompson, who’s the judge on Fool Us, is the greatest magician alive. He’s a general practitioner, meaning he can do stage magic, mentalism, close-up, cards, coins and doves.

The problem with magic on TV is that you’re competing with all the scripted shows that use special effects so viewers expect you to tamper with reality. So when magicians state, “We’re not doing camera tricks,” most adults know they’re lying. But on our show, viewers can trust that we’re seeing the trick only once and there can be no camera cuts. They also know we’re not playing along with the act.

In fact, one of the goals of the show is for fans to know if they listen closely to what we tell the magicians when the trick is over and are willing to do some research, the information about how the trick works is available for them to find.—As told to Ileane Rudolph

Penn & Teller: Fool Us Thursdays, 8/7c, The CW