Part 2 of Penn & Teller: Fool Us…Take 2
A new direction…
I had just been tossed a curve ball in my second attempt to fool Penn & Teller. After having spent three weeks of very long days designing, engineering, building, scripting and rehearsing what I thought would be a killer ending to my Cups and Steel Balls, the legal department of the CW Network shot it down. I could not use a Budweiser beer can as part of my act. In fact, I could not use a beer can of any kind.
After a number of emails back and forth with the producers they said they might be able to get approval to use a can of Coke or Diet Coke on the show. They suggested I could say I poured my dad a can of Coke as part of my act. My initial reaction was that my dad was a steel worker from Pittsburgh… steelworkers drank beer NOT Coke. And my dad, who was a very large guy, definitely did not drink Diet Coke. Substituting Coke for beer was not going to work.
But sometimes when faced with a problem, you have to decide which battles to fight and which ones you will let go. This was a battle I was not going to win… they had lots of other magicians who wanted to be on the show. So the next step was to find the most flexible element, the one that is the easiest to change. While the decision of the legal department was not going to change, my storyline could. I played with the scripting and discovered a solution that I felt was even better than the original idea. I would talk about how my Dad poured himself an imaginary beer and poured me… a glass of Coke.
I told Mike Close that I wanted to take the legal department up on their offer to attempt to get the rights to use a can of Coke on the show. And a few days later the email came in: “He is approved by the network to do a can of Coke (not Pepsi)… and no beer.”
While that was great news, it also meant I now had to figure out if the design of a Coke can would work as well as the design on that Budweiser beer can did. It would also mean that all the work I did on the beer can would have to be redone with a can of Coke. I also had to go and tell my friend Jimmy at Demetris Liquor and Gifts that his can of Budweiser Beer would not be the star of the show.
Fortunately, all the prototype work done with the Budweiser cans really paid off. I was able to quickly make the switch to a Coke can and redesign the effect. Better yet, the design of the solid red Coke can visually looked even better than the can of beer… and if I wore a black outfit, the can of red Coke really popped when it appeared. With the Coke story line I was able to add a comical element about “the day my dad and I shared a drink together after work.” The switch from beer to Coke was without question better than the original. I’ve seen this happen often in magic where a problem that initially appears to be a major roadblock in the final analysis indirectly becomes the motivational impetus to find an even better solution. So never view a challenge as a brick wall… it just might be the universe pushing you to a more elegant solution.
Within a few days I had a supply of Coke cans ready to go, and I moved into the formal rehearsal process with about three weeks to go before flying to Las Vegas for the taping. I ran the act 100 times, taping each performance. The only thing I did not do each time was pop the top and pour. Without getting into exact methods, this trick was similar to my trick “Ring on the Hourglass” because it was actually a consumable prop like flash paper or throw streamers. Because I am literally opening a new can each time once the Coke is opened (or the hourglass is broken)… that prop is dead. So I was saving my supply of engineered Coke cans for the final rehearsals in order to get a good video to send to the producers.
Once I felt the performance was looking good, I began to “pop the top and pour,” and I immediately ran into a major issue regarding the liquid. Let’s just say the liquid was not cooperating, and it was very obvious on the rehearsal videos. This required a redesign of the can with another idea that came about as a result of a dreamstorming session. With the design changes and a little helping of sodium polyacrylate from my granddaughter’s diapers, I finally got the video I wanted. I had a clean performance from start to finish that I could share with the producers and prove that I had what I promised in my original email… a kicker that might fool Penn & Teller.
The producers were very happy with what they saw, and I got notes from Mike Close about clearing the stage for the Coke can production, Mike also had a brilliant idea for the scripting and prop management for the production of the Coke can and the extra red balls. With all the work he has done on this show, Mike has become a master at fine- tuning a magic trick for the eye of the TV camera. My wife Kathryn and Jamy Ian Swiss also provided valuable input… they both agreed that the final load sequence was clunky. They insisted that I rework my hand movements to make it flow better and to insure that the loading sequence was as invisible and as fast as possible. When you are in the middle of a big project, it’s important to get input from other people that you trust, especially on the smaller details. It’s so tempting to ignore the smaller details and fool yourself into believing: “It’s good enough!” Kathyrn and Jamy were not buying it and pushed me to fine tune the ending to make it the best it could be, and I’m really glad they did.
And the curve balls keep coming…
After a few weeks’ rehearsal with about ten days to go before the taping, I sent off another video to the producers with all the final notes worked into the act. They liked it a lot, but their email reply had a rather odd request:
“The Legal Department would prefer that you only say the word Coke once during your act.” I said the word Coke twice on the video I sent them. But it was their second request that surprised me. They also wondered if it would be a problem to change the can to a generic can that just reads Cola instead of using an actual can of Coke!
What? I thought we had already been though this! I had gotten approval to use the Coke brand weeks ago! I decided that for the integrity of the trick… this was the battle I was willing to fight for. So I emailed the producers a note explaining my position.
“I fully understand that using a name brand on the show can be problematic from a legal standpoint and that manufacturer approvals are needed. Last year we obtained the manufacturer’s approval so that I could use the Phoenix Brand of playing cards on the show. I had also been told three weeks ago that I had approval to use a can of Coke. The illusion will NOT work if it is not a recognizable brand. A generic can with a label that says: “Cola” will simply look like a FAKE can of soda. If I cannot use an actual can of Coke in the act then I can leave that part out and I can perform my classic routine and simply end with the large steel balls.”
The next day the word came back from the legal department: “You can use the can of Coke… but try to only say the word Coke once during your show.”
Excellent! We had a final approval, and I promised my wife that the crazy part was almost over. Somewhere in those six weeks of very long days, I squeezed in three trade shows, a last minute magic lecture, and packing for a twelve day lecture tour of Japan that would begin three days after the Fool Us taping. When I got back from the last trade show, I rehearsed the Fool Us act for three more days and then packed it up and got ready to fly to Las Vegas to try and fool Penn & Teller for a second time. By the time I was done designing, building, scripting and rehearsing I had spend 600 hours to add the final fifteen second kicker that I hoped would fool Penn & Teller.
Performing on Penn & Teller: Fool Us
This time performing on the show actually ended up being the easy part… mainly because I did not have to do any perfect Faro Shuffles. I was familiar with the drill and really enjoyed meeting all the other performers who were there to do the show. We did the initial interview and the b-roll footage for the introduction and the pre-show production meeting all on the first day. At the pre-production meeting the producers thought it would be funny to have me remind Penn & Teller that I fooled them last time… they wanted me to open my act by bringing a Fool Us Trophy out from behind the table setting it firmly on the table and saying: “Remember Me?” They thought it would add some comedy to my set. It felt a little uncomfortable, but I wanted to please them and agreed to give it a shot. The second day I had a full day off and rehearsed the act and tried to add the new “Remember Me?” opening that the producers wanted… but it really felt kind of awkward.
The third day I had my dress rehearsal and performance/taping that afternoon. I told my wife the new opening the producers suggested just did not feel right. I had rehearsed it but just did not feel comfortable delivering such an arrogant sounding line: “Remember Me?” It just did not sound funny coming out of my mouth. Kathryn agreed and said, “Then tell them you don’t want to do it.” and that is exactly what I did during the dress rehearsal. The producers were fine with my decision, but I’m willing to bet we see at least one Fooler use that line if they are invited back next season. It would be hilarious in the hands of the right performer but trying to play arrogant just did not fit my style.
When it was my turn to step on stage they wanted to have me already sitting at the table with the cups in front of me as I was introduced. I was sitting there as Penn & Teller came from the green room back to the theater, and when Penn saw me sitting there with the three cups he looked at me and said” “Oh no… Teller looks who’s here.” Then he motioned up to the ceiling and said “Just give him the trophy… bring it down… just give him the trophy.” It was just what I needed at that moment. Penn’s silliness made me really laugh and put me at ease… I knew I was among friends. As soon as Penn & Teller were in their seats Alyson introduced me and I started my show.
During the performance everything worked and the Coke can appeared right on cue. The multi-load production of the red balls did not explode as quickly as they had been doing during rehearsals (perhaps hot TV light were a factor) but it was a minor issue, and I was very happy with my set and especially with the pace of my performance. At the end of my act Penn tossed out a few clues and when Alyson asked if they know what I did… I said: “I think so.” I had been hoping Penn would go down the road of mentioning the names Norm Neilsen or Tom Stone in which case I would have won a second Fool Us Trophy. But as I had discussed with Mike and Jamy, if they kept their guesses fairly general “sponge balls compress” and did not get into the exact details of the mechanics of the kickers, I would probably have nowhere to go, and that is exactly what happened. At the very end Penn did surprise me by saying “Look Paul you got us last time… we got you this time… We’re tied… Season Five… kick our ass.” As soon he said that, Alyson whispered to me: “He just invited you back!” (her line did not make the final edit) and I immediately knew my best bet was to quickly wave to the crowd and make my exit. That is exactly what I did.
Will I get a chance to break the tie next season? You never know… I kind of doubt it, because no one has been on the show three times. But if they are looking to add some drama about breaking the tie…. it could happen. The decision to bring me back a third time would be made by the producers, and they have a lot of great magicians to choose from who have yet to be on the show.
But just in case I get the call–“I have this new idea… and it just might fool Penn & Teller………”