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Blog with Paul Gertner

What’s the Trick to Fooling Penn & Teller?

Fooling Penn & Teller: Part One

Penn & Teller Fool Us logo

One of the hottest shows this summer has been Penn & Teller: Fool US, which is now in its third season on the CW Network. I had the pleasure of appearing on the show this season. I was assigned the task of fooling Penn & Teller…with a trick they already knew.

If you have not had a chance to view my recent appearance on Fool Us, you can go to my YouTube page and click on the Penn & Teller Video Link to watch that performance video before reading any further. If you do, this Blog Post will make a lot more sense. You can also link to the video from my website.

Back in February I was contacted by Lee Terbosic an excellent magician and good friend from Pittsburgh who said he had an opportunity to appear on the TV show Penn & Teller Fool Us. But the tricky part (pun intended) was that they wanted him to perform my routine Unshuffled and he was contacting me to get my permission to perform that routine on the show. (As a side note to magicians reading this: That was a very professional thing to do. Unshuffled is a published routine and Lee was under no obligation to do that, but he’s a pro.)

I have to admit, I was a bit surprised that Fool Us wanted someone else to do my trick because to me that show is all about original inventions… or at least magicians adding their own unique presentation to a trick and seeing if their performance was clever enough to fool the Bad Boys of Magic: Penn & Teller. I told my friend Lee I would think about it and I contacted Mike Close, one of the magic producers on the show to see what was going on. Mike explained that the executive producers of the show saw and loved my trick Unshuffled and they wanted to have it on the show. But the shows demographic is 18-35 and they like to have the magicians on the show that are close to that age range as well… I have not been in that age range in quite a few years. Mike also explained that one of the challenges the show faces is finding magicians that can actually FOOL Penn and Teller, because to do that it takes experience… and getting experience… takes years… and years means… well, you get the idea.

Fortunately, the two magic producers on the show, Mike and Johnny Thompson, encouraged the executive producers to look at some of my videos and two days later I got a call saying they wanted me on the show, and I was booked for early April. My friend Lee understood the situation and was very gracious with the turn of events. We are currently working on some ideas so he can go on and fool them next season.

But this is where the story gets interesting. You see Unshuffled is a clever trick… in fact it’s my favorite card trick to do. But once I was booked to appear on the show I knew for a fact that it was NOT going to fool Penn and Teller.

How could I know that? Well, the answer to that question dates back 40+ years.

Penn & Teller’s History with Unshuffled

You see I met Penn & Teller 41 years ago in Atlanta in 1975 when we were all young magicians at the beginning of our careers. At the time, they were called The Asparagus Valley Cultural Society and they were a trio, which included a third partner who was also a musician. They were performing a small theater show in a church basement and I was performing at one of my very first trade shows. I went and saw their show and after their show I met them for coffee where we all did a few tricks for each other. One of the tricks I did that night was Unshuffled and apparently it made quite an impression. About 25 years later I got an email from Penn saying he wanted to buy my book, Steel & Silver so that he could learn the trick Unshuffled because he thought it was one of the best magic tricks he had ever seen. In fact, I actually saved and framed Penn’s e-mail because by that time they were already rather famous.

Email from Penn Jillette asking about Unshuffled

So the challenge was to go on Penn & Teller: Fool Us, and Fool them with a trick they already knew the secret to. Wow… that would be quite a trick, but I like a challenge.

I spent the next 10 days on a California beach vacation (that had already been planned) just thinking about the trick and what I could do to change it just enough. As I was lying on a beach in Dana Point, listening to the ocean waves I had this strange idea. I thought I might be able to perform the trick exactly the normal way it was done… but add an extra unexpected ending that would catch everyone by surprise in the last 5 seconds.

I knew magicians had gone on the show and fooled them by using a slightly different method than is normally expected and technically if Penn and Teller guess wrong then you have fooled them. But I did not want to go that route. I did not want to fool them by getting them to guess the wrong method, or by using a red herring and intentionally leading them down the wrong path. I wanted to fool them with a new effect not just a different method. I wanted them to be fooled just as badly as they were in that coffee shop in Atlanta in 1975  when they saw this trick for the very first time. That was my goal. And I thought I just might have an idea that would do it.

Over the next 10 days, I visualized many possible solutions in my mind … not even knowing if the actual idea would work. It would still be almost 2 weeks before I could do hands-on rehearsals. I was supposed to be on vacation, not working…. but of course as my wife Kathryn suspected… in my mind I was already back in the workshop testing out ideas and visualizing possibilities. But, I did try my best to stay in the moment as we took a trip up and down the California coast.

Before flying out of San Diego I went online and ordered all the materials I thought I would need to create this new ending, or at least to begin the R&D portion of the project. I wanted to make sure they would all be there ready and waiting once I got back to my office in Boston.

I arrived back in Boston on a Monday night and I had promised Mike Close I would send him a video of my new idea by Friday… that gave me four days to see if this would really work. The next four days were 18-hour days of building, testing and reworking a five second trick. The other challenge was that this new trick had to be totally blended together with an existing routine I had been doing for about 43 years. The very first prototype gave me hope that I was on to something… but it would take about 4 more handmade prototypes before I became convinced I had something that just might work.

There are times when designing a magic trick where the idea you visualize in your mind is basically impossible to create in real life. For it to work the way you visualize… it would require REAL magic. That’s why it’s called Magic.

This time however, just the opposite happened. What I visualized on the beach in California actually was now in my hands and when I did it in the mirror or on video… I was shocked… it actually worked… and it looked pretty damn good.

Finally after four long days I send a demo video off to Mike Close and his reply came back: “Well, that looks F______ Great. I think this will work, and it will kill Penn (and every other magician watching).”

Great! So after two weeks of thinking and four days of building, we just might have something here. But now it has to be tested before a focus group, worked into a routine, and rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed some more. My shoot date to tape the show was scheduled for April 12th in Las Vegas which gave me exactly two solid weeks to add this new ending and try to Fool Penn & Teller. I was so glad I had some open days on the schedule, I was really going to need them.

Stay tuned next week for Part Two of “What’s the Trick to Fooling Penn & Teller? … and find out what goes on behind the scenes at Penn & Teller’s: Fool Us.

Fooling Penn & Teller Blog Series

What’s the Trick to Fooling Penn & Teller? Part Two

What’s the Trick to Fooling Penn & Teller? Part Three

Paul Gertner is nationally recognized speaker and corporate magician, whose honors include multiple Tonight Show appearances, performing at a presidential inauguration, and winning three international competitions. He can be hired as a trade show magician or keynote presenter. For more information, visit gertner.com.

 

Posted in Magical Thinking, Magicians Only on September 17, 2016 by Paul Gertner.

31 Responses to What’s the Trick to Fooling Penn & Teller?

  1. John Johnson: September 17, 2016 at 2:41 pm

    Looking forward to the next installment. I find your thought and development stages inspirational!

  2. Paul Gertner: September 17, 2016 at 5:39 pm

    Thanks John, glad you enjoyed the Penn & Teller Blog Post and found it interesting.

  3. Jim Krenz: September 18, 2016 at 2:32 am

    Fascinating insights into your creative process Paul—thanks for writing and sharing them!

  4. Paul Gertner: September 28, 2016 at 12:51 am

    Jim, Glad you enjoyed the post. I hope to have Part Two up either today or tomorrow.

  5. Betty Fabbroni: September 20, 2016 at 1:06 pm

    Wonderful read. Can’t wait for the next installment!

  6. Paul Gertner: September 21, 2016 at 1:30 am

    Betty, Glad you enjoyed it. Post Two will post next Tuesday. Take care, Paul

  7. Eric Meredith: September 20, 2016 at 2:46 pm

    Is it me, or does that whole 18-35 demographic thing get more challenging the older I get? I should have bought stock in Grecian or Clairol. Great insight Paul, thanks!

  8. Paul Gertner: September 21, 2016 at 1:29 am

    Eric, Glad you enjoyed the Blog Post. Hey I remember when we were both in that demographic. Good to hear from you.

  9. Nick Maggio: September 20, 2016 at 2:58 pm

    Paul,

    You were my first exposure to what a truly talented and professional corporate magician should be. Back in the mid-80’s we met at a trade show in Philadelphia. Working as a representative in a trade show booth can be a long and tedius assignment. Taking a break and watching you work made the time fly. Since then, your progression in the magic business has been on my radar. Your appearance on Fool Us is just rewards for the efforts and quality you have put into this profession. Something tells me there is a lot more to come from Paul Gertner.

  10. Paul Gertner: September 21, 2016 at 1:27 am

    Nick, Thanks for the very kind post. I’m glad you enjoyed watching my trade show act back in the 80″s and that you enjoyed my appearance on Penn & Teller: Fool Us. Thanks for taking the time to post on my Blog.

  11. Rob Davis: September 20, 2016 at 4:01 pm

    Thank you for sharing about your creative process. Many people don’t hear about the details of the process, such as 2 weeks of brainstorming and a week of 18 hour days for a 5 second effect, followed by rehearsals. Magic takes planning, not learning a trick and doing it the next hour.

    Thanks, Paul.

  12. Paul Gertner: September 21, 2016 at 1:23 am

    Rob, Glad you enjoyed the Blog Post. I agree… people often think what we do is simple or easy… but the good stuff takes time and effort. Personally that is a part I’ve come to enjoy.. Even a self working trick can be turned into a miracle if it is given the same thought, respect, effort and practice.

  13. joe ferranti: September 20, 2016 at 5:28 pm

    Demographics don’t like us “old” people. Will share some of my touch of grey with you. Seriously…much respect for your friend Lee, it’s not hard to do the right thing…just ask. Regardless of the fact that “Unshuffled” is published, it belongs to Paul Gertner, like steel ball bearings.
    I’m going on next season and performing my routine called “A Familiar Ring”…never mind, I forgot they don’t like old people. ( a familiar Ring is another touch of brilliance from Paul Gertner/David Roth.)

  14. Paul Gertner: September 21, 2016 at 1:11 am

    Joe, Yes it was nice of Lee to check with me first. Glad you like A Familiar Ring… I just did that 5 times today at my show for Engineers. It fried them.

  15. Richard Hatch: September 20, 2016 at 6:29 pm

    Thanks for sharing your creative process! Your performances make it look so easy, thanks to the hard work that precede performances.

  16. Paul Gertner: September 21, 2016 at 1:09 am

    Richard, Glad you enjoyed the Blog Post. Stay tuned for Part Two.

  17. john Wills: September 20, 2016 at 7:28 pm

    CONGRATS PAUL. I remember all the way back to the candle glo days.. Good luck in all you do. You deserve it.

  18. Paul Gertner: September 21, 2016 at 1:07 am

    Thanks John… yes the Candle Glo is going way back. Good memories… it was a great place for the Pittsburgh Magicians back in the 70’s.

  19. Rafael Benatar: September 20, 2016 at 7:16 pm

    An amazing job, Paul. Thanks for sharing.

  20. Paul Gertner: October 3, 2016 at 10:24 am

    Thanks Rafael… Glad you enjoyed it.

  21. Andy Pierson: September 21, 2016 at 2:13 am

    Great back story Paul. Thank you for sharing this. I am looking forward to part 2.

  22. Paul Gertner: September 28, 2016 at 12:53 am

    Andy, you know the trick so well… I cannot wait to hear what you think when you see the method to the new ending. I hope to have it out by the end of the year. The Part Two Blog post should be out today or tomorrow.

  23. Steven McCormick: September 21, 2016 at 3:33 am

    Paul, Great job on Fool Us!. I love unshuffled. I perform this trick all the time. You blew me away with the new ending. I heard they had an age appropriate cutoff due to audience response.

  24. Paul Gertner: September 28, 2016 at 12:48 am

    Steven, I’m glad the new ending surprised you. That was the part I enjoyed the most thinking of my fellow Unsuffled performers wondering where I was going with the last and final shuffle. You will get a kick out of the new method… hope to have it out by the end of the year.

  25. J. David Mudd: September 21, 2016 at 7:30 pm

    I watched the show and enjoyed it but I’ve really enjoyed reading this “inside showbiz” account. All magic effects stand on their own but I’ve always said that if “civilians” knew all of the creativity, cleverness and skill that went into the devising and performing of magic tricks they would be truly amazed. You’ve shared a sense of that in this blog piece. I’m looking forward to part 2.

  26. Paul Gertner: September 28, 2016 at 12:42 am

    David, thanks for taking the time to comment on my Penn & Teller Blog Post. There is a theory in magic that if “muggles” understood what is behind a good illusion the respect for our art form would dramatically increase. I’ll be posting Part Two tomorrow.

  27. Denny Gorman: September 26, 2016 at 7:24 am

    Kudos to you my good friend. Beth and I are looking forward to seeing you on the Penn and Teller stage in Vegas this weekend!

  28. Paul Gertner: September 28, 2016 at 12:38 am

    Denny, It will be great to see you, thanks for making the trip to see me on the Penn & Teller Show at the Rio. The tickets will be at the box office in your name. I’ll call when I land in Vegas.

  29. Vansh: September 27, 2016 at 12:06 pm

    This trick was awesome! To be honest, as an engineer with an interest in imaging (i.e. how pixels come together to form an image), I could work out many of the details behind how the main (original) “Unshuffled” trick works. However, the skill needed to do it is just mind-blowing, especially doing it repeatedly without flaw. In my opinion it’s one of the best types of magic — where even if you know the principles behind how it’s done, seeing it in action is no less impressive just because of the physical dexterity and practice involved, like seeing gymnasts do double backflips or pianists play fast piano pieces. Knowing how they do it doesn’t detract from the performance. The other one that comes to mind with a similar quality is Kostya Kimlat’s “instant” reorganizing of the deck into all face-down.

    And then you added the last 5 seconds which was completely unexpected and absolutely killer! I’ve watched different parts of your “Fool Us” section over a dozen times and still don’t know how you managed that part.

    I disagree with the producers — what I want to see on “Fool Us” is *good* magic. I don’t care about the age. Although I’m not purposely trying to stereotype, I find that the younger performers tend somewhat to get more into the presentation aspect (i.e. fancy music, smoke, youthful energy, etc.) which distracts from simple, “clean” magic. Many of those acts are actually somewhat disappointing after you figure out that it’s just a special prop or misdirection with explosions or whatever, with the flashy bits just serving to help cover up (i.e. misdirect) the magic rather than enhance it. The only exception to this offhand is Shin Lim’s routine, where the “extra” non-magic stuff served to improve on the magic. I think it’s something that younger magicians maybe simply haven’t digested enough yet (lack the experience) to think about how all these elements come together to form a routine.

    You mentioned you’ll be on Penn & Teller’s Vegas show on Oct 3. Will you be doing any other shows in Vegas for the rest of that week, or is it only for that one night? My wife will be just stepping off the plane at 9 pm on Oct 3 so won’t be able to make that show, unfortunately, but will be there for the rest of the week (until Friday).

  30. Paul Gertner: September 28, 2016 at 12:35 am

    Van, Glad you enjoyed the trick Unshuffled on Fool Us. I have always said engineers are my favorite audience (once was quoted saying that on the front page of the Wall Street Journal) because they are watching magic on two different levels… and if you fool them they have an appreciation for not only the performance but for the method as well. Your post is evidence of that, thanks for taking the time to write and prove my point. I was very fortunate that the secret stuff I was doing during that last 5 seconds to accomplish that surprise ending hit seamlessly during the shoot… and has stood up to repeated viewings… it all right there on the video but just very hard to detect. If you were getting in Vegas sooner I would have gotten you some comp tickets for the show that night. I’m only performing that one night, and then working at a show at Mandalay Bay called Supply Side West… but that is a closed industry show. In the event you are coming to attend that convention I’ll be at the Colorcon exhibit in their booth. If you want a good show to see in Las Vegas you cannot beat Mac King… you saw him on Fool Us this season.

  31. Vansh: October 2, 2016 at 5:25 pm

    I think it’s probably because engineers work with things that on their face are pretty amazing (airplanes, telescopes, skyscrapers, etc.), and (at least for me) can appreciate the difficulty in getting things to work out. It’s less about the actual outcome and more about the process of achieving it. The difference is that engineers work with objects, while magicians work with perceptions.

    Yes I will let my wife know about Mac King (I won’t be going to Vegas myself, my wife is going with a friend). Unfortunately she booked the flight a while back and it’s one of those non-refundable, non-changeable (without a hefty penalty) airplane tickets. However, I wish you the best in your performance on Monday! It’s one of my favorites out of all 3 seasons of Fool Us thus far!

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