Penn Jillette Believes Season 7 of ‘Fool Us’ Has ‘the Best Magicians By Far’
The Las Vegas shows may have temporarily shut down in recent months, but that hasn’t stopped the magic for Penn Jillette. The famed magician joined his longtime partner Teller for a CW at-home special in May. Fans of the duo bummed they can’t see them do their thing at The Rio will be happy to know the seventh season of Penn & Teller: Fool Us is also around the corner.
The competition series hosted by Alyson Hannigan sees them attempt to uncover the secrets behind the tricks from emerging magicians. Those lucky enough to stump Penn & Teller earn a snazzy “FU” trophy and a gig, taking the stage as part of their headlining residency in Sin City.
We caught up with a hunkered-down-at-home Jillette to talk about the show’s success, and why one upcoming episode terrified him.
How do you think technology and social media has impacted the magic world?
Penn Jillette: The reasons we’ve gotten such better magicians is technology. Everybody knew when the internet came about that there would be huge changes in science and sex. All big breakthroughs in technology always affect science and sex. I don’t think anyone predicted it would be this good for magic.
Magic has been for hundreds of years a boys’ club. The Magic Circle in London did not allow women on the property until the ‘90s. Previously, when you wanted to learn magic you needed the codes to get the proper books…With the internet, you can see any magic trick, and with a little bit of digging and typing, you can find out the technology and psychology and theatrics behind that magic trick. This has opened up magic to women and non-binary and whatever kind of race. It has opened up magic to everyone. What we are seeing on Fool Us, we pushed very hard to try to be inclusive. It really paid off.
Pre-pandemic, we’d meet everyone after our shows. There was always for the past 40 years, about three times a week, a boy. Probably 12 to 18, they would come up and show us a magic trick. It was probably once every two years that a girl of that same age would show us anything.
It was then getting to be three or four girls a week, more than boys. That is huge. We watched comedy being taken over in a wonderful way by women and that sensibility. I believe we’re going to see that in magic in the next 10 years and 15 years…In magic, I think we’re running about 20 years behind.
The show has been a great platform for aspiring magicians. Is there one past performer you’re especially impressed with how they’ve done since appearing on the series?
The biggest success was probably Shin Lim and Piff the Magic Dragon. They went from our show to having their own shows in Vegas. Don’t allow me to lie about this. They both had a stop off on America’s Got Talent. They credit Fool Us as a huge stepping stone. Almost everyone that comes on sees their business go up tremendously. We had five women in the last year or two who were on, not as assistants or partnerships or not dressed in a cartoony role. Not as a witch or dominatrix.
Nobody noticed this, but of those five women who were on Fool Us, five of them fooled us. A hundred percent. The general rate of fooling Penn & Teller is 12 percent…The fact these women who have found their own way in magic were able to fool the living f—ing s— out of us is a testament to magic broadening out.
What do you think is the key to a good magic trick in 2020? Is there a common thread between those who do fool you?
One common thread is card magicians from Spain. If you’re from Spain and can work a deck of cards, we pretty much just bring down the trophy. That’s not superstition. Juan Tamariz is a Spanish magician and created a whole culture in Spain of people taking magic seriously. He is such a brilliant performer, and also so generous with his time and information. He made it so if you’re Spanish and can do card tricks, you were the best in the world.
There is this woman from Australia [Helen Coghlan] who has fooled us four times. Her father is an escape artist. She just has a way of thinking that is very foreign to us. Pretty much, if the magic you’re doing is not out of magic books or part of the culture, you have a better chance of fooling us.
We’ve seen so many bands and acts have broken up over the years, but Penn & Teller remain strong after all these years.
Teller, I think, is one of the best magical minds alive. I’m not, as many people have said on the show. The show is really ‘Fool Teller.’ I’ve had my moments, but mostly what I do is synthesize what Teller has figured out and find a way to say it.
My way of saying it, Teller and I have been saying for 40 years with nobody listening to us that the secrets of magic were not important. Knowing how a magic trick is done is no different than knowing where every track from a rap record is from. It’s fascinating to know where the samples are from. But it doesn’t take away from the idea. Although you don’t want a magic trick to be laid out in your face, if you’re interested enough to go find out about it, it doesn’t hurt anything.
So when I talk about how magic tricks are done on the show, I speak in a rather specific type of code. The code I’m working on is whatever we as performers and writers have in our head, what the audience is aiming for. When you’re writing, you know who you’re writing for.
I know who I’m talking to. My daughter just turned 15 and is very into magic. When I speak, I’m speaking for a 14-year-old girl in Nebraska who has an interest in magic but does not have part of the culture. I know if she listens carefully to what I say and Googles every word of it and follows herself down that rabbit hole, she’ll learn that trick. But if you’re a family who wants to be fooled and have fun, you’re not going to bother digging around there. I believe that is where magic always should have been.
What makes Season 7 stand out to you?
This season we had the best magicians by far. When we first started doing Fool Us, a lot of the pros really didn’t trust us. And for very good reason as they didn’t know what the TV show was going to be. There have been some really s—-y magic shows on. But after six seasons, magicians started to see they are being treated with respect and the show would be shot well. That they would have an opportunity to show off in beautiful ways. We had Dee Snider and one of the Property Brothers Jon [Scott] came on. We had this season what I’m excited about and most nervous about, almost to the point of physical illness.
I went behind Teller’s back. So one of the Fool Us people is me trying to fool Teller. The terror I experienced. My empathy for those on the show has always been strong, but it rose to the level of ridiculousness. When I came out with my deck of cards, I was actually trembling. I was terrified. It was a complete and utter surprise to Teller. Teller was shocked out of his mind. It was successfully done. All of the rehearsals. All of the production. You really see Penn versus Teller in a very real and honest way.
Penn & Teller: Fool Us, Season 7 premiere Monday, June 22, 9/8c, CW