What’s the Trick to Fooling Penn & Teller?: Part Two
The Process of Fooling Penn & Teller
So… as I mentioned in my last blog post “What’s the Trick to Fooling Penn & Teller? Part One,” I was booked to appear on Penn & Teller: Fool Us on the CW Network to perform my trick Unshuffled. The problem was that Penn and Teller already knew the secret to how the trick works. How was I going to go about fooling Penn and Teller? There was no way I was going to fool them with a trick they already knew… unless I threw in an unexpected twist. That became the plan.
I was two weeks away from the taping date in Las Vegas, and I needed to get some additional input on the performance of the new effect. So far the idea looked good in the mirror and on video, but often a performer can miss details that are obvious to everyone else. I needed some fresh eyes on the new ending to see if it would really work in fooling Penn and Teller.
Fooling Penn and Teller – Take 1
I rehearsed the routine about 50 times and then began to video tape each performance. Once I had a smooth looking performance, I posted it on a private YouTube Channel and sent the video link to about 10 friends. This included some of the top sleight-of-hand magicians in the country. My request to them was that they view the video once and only once then tell me if it fooled them. The reason for the request that they watch the video only one time is… that’s what Penn & Teller would have… one shot, one viewing, and then they would have to figure out the method. I also selected magicians who already knew or performed my trick Unshuffled, magicians who would not be fooled by the trick itself. But I was hoping if it went as planned, that I just might catch them off guard with the new kicker ending.
I sent off the YouTube link and one by one the results came back… not one of them had any idea how I did what they saw on the video. I was ten for ten, with 100 percent of the focus group either guessing the wrong method or saying they were totally fooled. Now I knew this idea had potential… but that meant hitting a perfect performance on the show in one take, with a live audience, nine cameras surrounding me, and Penn and Teller sitting front and center. With almost 100 years of combined magical knowledge between them, they were going to be a tough audience to fool. And I was pretty sure that they were not going to give up that FU Trophy easily… especially not to someone who was doing a trick they already knew.
I performed the trick Unshuffled a number of times before on national Television including HBO, That’s Incredible, and other magic specials in England, Spain and Japan. I had even performed Unshuffled about 29 years ago on my first of three appearances on NBC’s Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. From all those appearances, I knew that Unshuffled was a difficult trick to do on TV, but Fool Us added another element.
In most magic shows, if a trick fails, there is a strategy magicians follow… you end it as fast as you can and then quickly move onto your next trick. But on Penn & Teller: Fool Us you are there to perform ONE… and only ONE trick. And if that one trick fails… there is nowhere to go. With this specific trick, if you are even one card off on any of the three required shuffles, the trick fails in a very obvious manner. With this trick, you are essentially working without a net… there is no way to correct a mistake and pretend nothing happened. You make one mistake and it’s all over. If I hit it perfectly, it just might fool them, but hitting it perfectly with all those cameras, was not going to be easy to do, and I knew it. This meant rehearsal–and lots of it.
When I’m working on a new trick involving serious sleight-of-hand technique, I have a process I use for practicing that I like to follow before performing the trick in public. First, I make sure I have mastered all the sleights and moves associated with the trick. Mastering an individual sleight or technique itself may take anywhere from a few weeks, or months, to a full year depending on the difficulty level of the sleights involved. Once I feel I have mastered all the required sleights, then I write the script and block out the physical handling of the routine from beginning to end. When I have that completed, it is then time to practice… and for that I have a number and that number is 300. It’s the number that I used years ago when I created the Finger Ring on the Hourglass for my FISM competition act, and I still use it today. I like to practice a new routine at least 300 times before I’m comfortable going out and doing it in public. I find this level of practice important for a new routine, even if I’m not going to perform it on national TV. Of course, it’s also important that the performance does not look like it has been rehearsed that much… that is your secret. To the audience you must appear “in the moment” like you are doing the trick for the very first time… that is much easier said then done. But that is what I did to prepare to fool Penn & Teller: Fool Us, I began to run Unshuffled along with the kicker ending with the goal of doing it 300 times over the next 10 days.
During the early phases of these long practice sessions I began to video tape the rehearsal and occasionally forward a video to Mike Close who would send back his notes with a word change or a suggestion for me to try. His suggestions were extremely helpful as we played with the scripting and searched for the right words and best way to tie the existing routine with the new kicker in a seamless fashion.
The most challenging part of this process was when Mike called and said he had some “notes” from the director. The director who was also viewing the videos wanted me to keep my left thumb across the edge of the deck during the performance hiding the marks as they formed the words UNSHUFFLED, 4 and then 2 times while I squared up the cards. Then after the words had formed, he wanted me to slowly remove my thumb and reveal the words. I normally let the audience see the words magically appear as I square the deck, but the director wanted to keep that magical looking moment for just the final phases of the routine. Remember this is a routine I have been doing a specific way for more than 40+ years and now I was being asked to change some of the handling. This was a major change to break 40 years of muscle memory… and in fact I almost forgot to do it on the first shuffle as you can see if you watch the video closely. You can see me adjust the position of my thumb to do it the way the director wanted at just the last moment. Those old habits are hard to break.
It was during these practice sessions that I also began getting calls from the Fool Us production team, confirming details of hotel and flight schedules and the logistics of the trip. The calls also included a number of the phone and email conversations with the “story producer”, the person that would be in charge of producing the opening 45-second package that is played to introduce each performer on the show. The packages are handled by a separate producer who interviews you on the phone with the goal of finding an angle they can use for your “story.” While you have some input on this part, based on what you tell them, they made it very clear that it was not going to be a “45-second commercial” which they said many performers were angling for. Instead they wanted it to be a way to connect the audience to you on a personal level if possible. Once they heard me mention that it was my father’s homemade 8mm movies that inspired me toward a career in magic… and that those films still existed… my story was set. My siblings and I were thrilled at the thought of Dad’s homemade movies being played on national TV, and the end result was a beautiful tribute to my father, a Pittsburgh steel worker who in another lifetime, or with access to more education would have been making movies in Hollywood instead of working in the steel mills of Pittsburgh. In a way, my 45-second “package” brought my dad’s short life, his creative side, and his story, full circle.
Over the next ten days, I ran the full 5-minute routine with all the changes another 150 times (hitting the 200 mark) and I was feeling pretty good about it, but I had to take a break. I could feel my hands starting to cramp from doing too many Faro shuffles and that was the last thing I needed. I was only two thirds of the way toward my goal of 300 practice performances, but since Unshuffled is a trick I estimate I’ve done over 100,000 times (I do it 20 times a day at a trade show) I figured I could cheat a little, since I was only changing the last five seconds.
Besides it was looking pretty good… and I was running out of time.
Next week in Part Three (our final chapter) of “What’s the Trick to Fooling Penn and Teller?” we finally go behind the scenes and spend three non-stop crazy days in Las Vegas. Can Penn & Teller be fooled with a trick they already know the secret to? Stay Tuned.
Fooling Penn & Teller Blog Series