Penn & Teller: Fool Us… Take Two
Building the Kicker to Cups & Steel Balls
After performing my trick Unshuffled on Season 3 of Penn & Teller: Fool Us, I never expected to be back on the show in Season 4—there are so many good magicians who still haven’t had the chance. However, when I flew to Las Vegas last October to appear in Penn & Teller’s live show at the Rio, Teller surprised me after I showed him the secret to the Unshuffled Kicker when he said: “We love being fooled by something like this… you should come back on the show next year.” I explained that getting on the show the first time was not easy because I did not exactly fit the show’s target audience, which I had been told was an 18-35 demographic. Teller rolled his eyes, laughed and said: “Just wear a leather jacket.”
I promised Teller I’d at least send a tape to the producers and see what happened. So when they started taking videos for Season 4, I sent in a video of the Cups and Steel Balls, and I got back the reply I expected: “Nice to hear from you. We will certainly consider this, but know that we have a limit on how many returning acts we can bring back. I will pass this along for feedback. Thanks Paul.”
But in addition to sending the video, I had also done something else in the email. I had pitched an idea saying: “I also have an idea for a new Kicker Ending to this routine that just might fool them again.”
At this point the Kicker Ending to the Cups and Balls that you saw on Fool Us did NOT exist. Well, that’s not completely true… it did exist… but only in my mind. I had visualized an ending where I picked up the three cups and out from under each cup would appear a bottle of Iron City Beer (my dad’s favorite beer) and the bottles would be taller than each cup. I would then pick up one bottle, open it, and pour out a glass of beer. But at this point I had no idea if the props could be built or if it would actually work as an illusion. I had always been intrigued by a brilliant dice stacking routine by Fred Lowe where for a finale he lifted the dice cup and produced a stack of 8 dice from a cup that was only tall enough for 4 dice. I never saw him do it, but I read about the effect and the visual of a taller object appearing from under a shorter cup is an image that stuck in my mind for years. I just never had a motivation to play with the concept… till now.
The idea of pitching a magic trick and then having to figure out a method was something that is part of my creative process. I don’t do it all the time… but when working with companies on trade shows or sales meetings over the last 40+ years it was not uncommon to pitch an idea that did not yet exist. There have been many times that I’ve hung up the phone and turned to my wife Kathy and said: “Well they like the idea… it’s a GO!” And she would say: “So how are you going to do it?” And I would say: “I’m not exactly sure… I got to work that part out.” Most memorable was the time I told a client that sold fork lift trucks that I could cut a woman in half while she was lifted 25 feet in the air on two forklifts in the exhibit hall in McCormick Place in Chicago. Of course, the more difficult conversation was telling Kathy that I wanted her to be the woman who got cut in half while high in the air. Kathy agreed… we did it at quite a few shows… and it was a huge success.
Back to Penn & Teller, a few days later I got an email from the talent producer who asked: “Do you have any video of this new Kicker Ending?” Great, I had caught his attention. My response was: “I can describe it… but I have NOT built it yet. Like the Unshuffled ending it would be built just for Fool Us… it’s a little complex.”
After a few more weeks of email exchanges I got an email on December 21st that said: “I’m contacting you to let you know that you are currently in the running to be on season 4 of Penn & Teller: Fool Us.” Kathy and I were out Christmas shopping when that email came in, and I looked up from my iPhone and said: “Looks like Fool Us is a go.” She looked at me and said: “How are you going to do the Kicker you pitched them?” This time I answered honestly: “I have absolutely no idea!”
My plan was that if my idea of the Kicker totally failed, I would be honest with them and who knows, they might still consider having me do my standard routine. But I was determined to give my best shot. I knew the next few months were going to be a bit crazy, but I had no idea of how crazy it would get. I’m well aware that fooling Penn & Teller is not the most important part of doing the show. The main idea is to go on the show and do a good job with a solid performance. As Mike Close tells all the performers before the taping: “The most important thing is to go out, have fun, and do a good job… fooling them is just the icing on the cake.” But I really respect Penn & Teller, and they have fooled me and made me smile many times over the years. And if there was a chance I could return that favor a second time, I wanted to give it my best shot.
My wife and I were scheduled to be on a cruise for the first three weeks of January. We now live in New England and always look for opportunities to get to a warmer climate during some of the winter months. Before we left, I ordered a few props for the project including a case of vintage Iron City Beer bottles from an EBay seller … the exact ones my dad liked to drink. I also took some props with me on the cruise to begin to work on the Kicker ideas I had in my mind.
During the cruise, I began to play with the idea of the small red balls appearing under the cup, an idea I planned as a back up Kicker just in the event the beer bottle idea hit the wall. I knew of different published concepts along this line and made short test videos that I would send off to Mike Close and the other Fool Us producers just to prove I was making some kind of progress. Essentially what I achieved on the cruise was to eliminate many different techniques and methods for a variety of reasons. I’ve found discovering the solutions that do NOT work is a very important part of the creative process, something Thomas Edison talked about when he was trying to find the correct filament for the first light bulb. But the bottle production would have to wait till I got home and had some real tools to work with. Then on the last day of cruise I got the email saying I was confirmed to be on Season 4 of Fool Us and that my taping date was set for March 14th. That would give me exactly 6 weeks (less time out for three booked trade shows) to figure it all out and be ready for the taping.
That began a marathon of 15-hour days to design, build, test, and script and rehearse the idea of changing a routine I’ve been doing the same way for over 40 years. One of the first snags I ran into was the size of the cups I was using… they were too small to fit the diameter of a beer bottle. I also had to eliminate the idea of using the vintage Iron City Beer bottles because they had an even wider base, no cups of any kind would fit those. Fortunately I had purchased a set of larger Auke van Dokkum brass cups a number of years ago. I had never used them because to do so would have required me to increase the size of all the steel balls I used in the trick. Scaling up the size of all the props was a minor change, but one that would definitely require substantial practice to relearn the routine with the larger set of props… especially if I was going to do it for the first time on national TV. But if I wanted to add the Kicker with the bottles there was no other solution so I made the decision “I’m switching to the larger cups.” and ordered a larger set of steel balls for the final loads and then I went back to the problem of the beer bottle production.
I had switched to Budweiser bottles and began building prototypes… but it was not going very well. I had some help and advice from one of top glassworkers in the world, Victor Trabucco from Buffalo, New York, who also happens to be an excellent close-up magician. But I could hear the hesitation in his voice on the phone when I told him what I had planned, and I was starting to think I bit off more than I could chew. It was becoming clear I was going to have to punt on the bottle production idea. But then another magician, David Harris, suggested I consider using an aluminum Budweiser bottle if glass was proving too difficult to work with…. something I had never considered. I went to see my friend Jimmy at Demetri Brothers Liquor & Gifts, a beer store in my new hometown of Winthrop, Mass. Jimmy explained that the aluminum bottles are mainly used in summer promotions and that I would not find any this time of the year. Jimmy suggested switching to a can of Budweiser beer… they were the right diameter to fit inside a cup and with no other options that is the direction I went.
At the same time, on a separate track, I was also working on the mechanics of the multiple ball production, and I began building and testing about five different prototypes. I quickly determined that the published methods that could accomplish the effect required two hands to get the balls out of the cup and my wife was insistent that I had to just lift the cup up with one hand and have the balls appear. That proved to be a major challenge, but finally I slept on the problem and came up with a solution. The idea of sleeping on a problem, I call it dreamstorming, was mentioned on the Fool Us introduction and it is a technique I actually use. On this project, there were three distinct sticking points where I used dreamstorming to find a solution. I plant the problem in my mind as I go to bed and meditate on the problem as I fall off to sleep. In some cases I have actually dreamt up an idea that leads to a solution. Other times, when I wake up I stay resting in bed again thinking of the problem and in that dream like state an idea will pop into my head. I’m not sure how it works, but I’ve read about others who used the technique and it’s definitely worth trying. I now had a solution to the multiple ball production so I at least had a back up if the beer bottle/can idea failed totally.
I began spending a lot of money at Jimmy’s beer shop. Fortunately Jimmy was very patient and let me spend many hours in the cooler opening case after case of Budweiser beer cans so I could collect the rare ones that had the pull top opening in the right direction in relationship to the logo on the can. In order to quickly pick it up and open the can of beer at the end of the routine I did not want to have to turn the logo away from the audience and the angle of pull tops is not consistent from can to can… who knew. Only one out of ten Budweiser cans could be used for the trick, and I needed a good supply just for the rehearsal process. I also decided that I would only produce one can instead of three…. I was simply running out of time.
Since the purpose of this blog is more to share the process of putting something together for Fool Us, not to explain the actual magic methods, I’ll fast forward a bit. By mid February after two weeks of literally fifteen-hour days and about ten different prototypes, each solving a different engineering problem, I had a working solution. I made a video of the Budweiser can appearing under the cup and sent it off to Mike Close for him to share with the executive producers to see what they thought.
While I was waiting to hear back from the producers I began writing the story line about me as a kid getting a beer from the refrigerator for my dad after he came home from a hard day’s work. I decided that I might be able to add the multiple ball production as part of the trick if I could script it into the storyline. I began practicing the trick using the larger sized cups and balls adjusting the sleights to the larger sized props.
Surprisingly everything was coming together rather well… and then I got the email from Mike Close. Apparently the executive producers really loved the magical effect of the Budweiser can appearing from under the brass cup… the only problem was the legal department did not.
With three weeks to go I read the last line of Mike’s email:
“This just came in from the legal department:
“He cannot use a can of beer on the show.”
I guess it’s your call how you want to proceed.
To Be Continued…