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TV I’m Watching: Penn & Teller: Fool Us!

By Shamus
on Sunday Oct 15, 2017
Filed under:


Before I can tell you about this show, let me put it into some kind of personal context by telling a meandering story of why I like it.

I wasn’t into magic when I was young. I strongly disliked the dominant magicians of my childhood, which were guys like David Copperfield: A guy in a blousy shirt spins around for five minutes giving intense looks at the audience while he slowly makes showgirls disappear. It’s plodding, it’s boring, the music gets on my nerves, and I generally know what’s going to happen when the trick begins so there’s little suspense or surprise. I guess it’s fun being presented with a seemingly impossible situation and wondering how it happened, but that curiosity isn’t enough to get me through the show. Now, there were a lot of magicians working in a lot of different styles at the time, but I was just a kid. I could only see magic when it wound up on television and the stuff that wound up on television was based around using well-worn tricks as a vehicle for having leggy dancers strut around on stage.

And then Penn & Teller came on the scene, along with the new wave of comedy magicians of the 90s. I warmed up to magic a bit. I saw guys like The Amazing Johnathan and started thinking that this magic stuff was pretty cool. It’s a rapid-fire stand-up routine, but also a magic show, and they do more tricks in two minutes than guys like Copperfield do in an entire hour-long television specialThis is not to dump on Copperfield. He’s beloved and massively influential, but for whatever reason I don’t like his material..

Eventually I discovered Penn & Teller. And I hated them.

Probably their signature bit, they do the ages-old "Cups and Balls" trick, then follow it up by performing the trick a second time with clear plastic cups while explaining the mechanics of the trick.

Probably their signature bit, they do the ages-old "Cups and Balls" trick, then follow it up by performing the trick a second time with clear plastic cups while explaining the mechanics of the trick.

See, Penn & Teller got a reputation for “spoiling” tricks by showing how they were done, and for using lots of ridiculous gore in their act. If a trick calls for the performer to skewer themselves with something sharp or remove a digit, they would take the fiction of that trick to its logical extreme and add spurting blood. The problem was, these two gags – spoiling tricks and gore – sort of came to define them. So when they made a short appearance on a late night show or a guest appearance on a sitcom, this is all anyone wanted them to do. The problem is that these things were usually part of a much longer bit. Cutting right to the spoiling or the gore is like having a comedian come out and tell all their punchlines. It’s great for people already familiar with the act, but for someone in my position it was just confusing and obnoxious. It made it seem like this was all there was to them.

Fast forward to the age of YouTube. Someone uploaded classic Penn & Teller tricks and I got to see their act properly for the first time. I fell in love. Yes, they spoil tricks, but usually only as a set-up for doing something even more amazing, and often they’re doing it to make a point about charlatans and encouraging skepticism. (And even then, they’re usually only spoiling really old material.) Yes, they sometimes have gore, but usually as the punchline to a larger gag and it’s usually exaggerated to seem more absurd than visceral. Also, the gore makes more sense when you include the lead-up patter where they talk about old vaudeville acts and the bloodlust of those old-timey audiences. The blood takes on a satirical tone when you get just how much the duo is opposed to the idea of “real violence and danger as entertainment”. In short, Penn & Teller are best when you consider their work in a holistic sense and it tends to unravel when excerpted.

Left: Tall bigmouth Penn Gillette. Right: Diminutive silent partner Teller. Teller is the more technically skilled and knowledgeable of the duo, while Penn is a natural showman.

Left: Tall bigmouth Penn Gillette. Right: Diminutive silent partner Teller. Teller is the more technically skilled and knowledgeable of the duo, while Penn is a natural showman.

Penn & Teller: Fool Us is part game show, part reality show, part magic showSo, the OPPOSITE of a reality show., and a tiny little bit of magic education. Penn & Teller watch other acts and try to figure out how their tricks are done. After a trick, Penn talks about the performance, comments on what he thought was good, and uses the names of famous magicians and magic books to explain how they think the trick was pulled off without giving anything away to the audience. If the act stumps the duo, then the guest gets a very pointy trophy and a spot in the P&T Las Vegas show.

The show is now in its fourth season, and each one has been better than the previous. The early seasons really leaned into the reality TV / game show angle and set up an adversarial dynamic between P&T and the guests. In the newer seasons this is dialed way down. It’s mostly a straightforward magic show now, with the trophy going to particularly inventive or novel acts.

If you’re interested in watching it, good luck. It’s not available on Netflix or Amazon. The episodes sometimes appear on Hulu, but they don’t stay up long. This weekend I found the full archive and was able to watch the show for free (with commercials) on the CW website. However, I’m willing to bet that CWTV is region-locked.


[1] This is not to dump on Copperfield. He’s beloved and massively influential, but for whatever reason I don’t like his material.

[2] So, the OPPOSITE of a reality show.

Comments (72)

  1. thatSeniorGuy says:

    Yep, region locked (at least for AUS). Thanks anyway Shamus!

  2. Rick says:

    I really enjoy the honesty in their shows… Instead of using about being amazing and supernatural they just straight up tell you that they’re deceiving you and almost dare you to figure it out.

    • My housemate loves Fool Us and watches it on cable. I also have the dislike for the blousy “I’m so special” type of magic. Magicians like David Copperfield feel like they’re doing magic as an afterthought and the main point of their show is about how amazing and charismatic they are. No thanks. If I want to watch that I’ll go down to a gay bar on Drag Night.

      But it’s certainly fun to try and figure out, if now how they did it, how they COULD have done it.

      • Tizzy says:

        In addition to being passé, the “traditional” magic acts are totally pointless on TV. It just doesn’t translate from the live shows. I don’t need to watch a magic show to see seemingly impossible things happening on my TV screen. It’s not as fun if I have to remind myself constantly that “oh I’m seeing a different kind of trickery than usual. “

      • ngthagg says:

        It’s a shame David Copperfield gets remembered for the offer the top stage magic. He did some other stuff that holds up quite well today. I found a couple on YouTube, search for “banana bandana” and “the vanishing egg”. The first is more comedy than magic, and the second is very similar to a couple of different Penn and Teller routines.

  3. Darrel says:

    You might also want to look into the UK show — they did a couple of seasons over there before it came to the states, and they had some great performances (in particular, you need to see the performance of Piff The Magic Dragon.)

    Penn explained on his podcast that the game show conceit of “win the prize of performing at P&T” is primarily to ensure the integrity of the magic — since it’s being handled as a game show, they can’t use trick camera angles, and they can’t do retakes.

    • Tom says:

      Really? I didn’t think they were ever shown in the UK back in the day. The only show I remember from my youth was the Paul Daniels magic show – which was good, but I suspect the format would probably be seen as too traditional and bore people within a minute today. TO YOUTUBE!

  4. Bloodsquirrel says:

    Cutting right to the spoiling or the gore is like having a comedian come out and tell all their punchlines.

    “I’m Rick James, bitch”

    *Random Monty Python quote*

    Szechuan sauce.

    Yeah, this happens with depressing regularity.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      Sprinkle some crack on him,lemming of the bda,cause Im pickle rick!

    • Dreadjaws says:



      This is how comedy works on the internet, apparently. People mindlessly repeating catchphrases, memes and punchlines and expecting others to laugh. I guess it works at some level when people already are in on the joke, but when someone is unfamiliar they tend to be turned off.

      • FelBlood says:

        Now imagine that Seth MacFarlane came on the Late Show, and this was literally all they let him do for 15 minutes.

        Even if he did the voices for all the characters, it would just be confusing.

        I imagine a lot of people would avoid anything with his name on it after that.

  5. Gnagn says:

    The best part about their cups and balls bit is that they’re so good at it, even once they swap out the clear cups you still can’t tell how they’re doing it.

  6. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Its funny that you put this and archer under “tv”,because both of these I can only watch either by torrenting*,or if I wait a few years to buy it online.So for me,all the tv you are watching is still “stuff I watch on my computer”.

    *Although fool us has its first three seasons on youtube,so thats an option as well.

    • Kizer says:

      The 4th season is also on Youtube. You can’t really find uploads of the full episodes, but you can find the individual acts. This is one of the few shows that makes me wish I had tv service, but they only shoot a season every couple years.

  7. Ilseroth says:

    So I’ve seen clips but never bothered to actually watched the full show before.

    But you directed me to a website and I like P&T so I just watched it. I like the base premise but the part that interests me is the act and P&T’s response, but they have these crazy long intros for each competitor which takes up like, a third of the show. Thankfully on recording I can just skip it.

  8. Theoremancer says:

    My favorite act from this show was Shin Lim. They invited him back a second time. I get chills every time I watch.

    • Thomas says:

      He’s incredible. He doesn’t even have sleeves! I’ve watched some of his videos in close-up at quarter speed and still can’t really see whats happening.

      I’m sure there’s some trickery to his trickery. When a magician tells you hows its done, its only so they can fool you again, so it’s probably not just God-tier slight of hand. But he’s so good, so artistic I’m happy to sit back and believe that it is.

      • Daemian Lucifer says:

        Slowing down doesnt really help if its filmed with a standard camera.Some of the moves these guys do are really faster than the eye can see,and so definitely faster than a regular camera.And if these two cant see his sleight of hands,he sure is lightning fast.

      • ThaneofFife says:

        It’s funny you say that, because in their first or second season, Penn & Teller had someone on who was just performing “god-tier slight-of-hand.” He had won some kind of award for close-up magic. Every move he made was completely smooth, with nothing jerky. It was like the cards were programmed to change on their own. That said, Penn & Teller could tell everything he was doing because he was just doing old card trick moves absolutely perfectly. They had him on again later with an original trick, and he completely fooled him.

    • `Retsam says:

      I only sporadically watch talent stuff; (watched a few hours of Britain’s Got Talent) but what I find odd is that nobody is ever just talented on those shows, it’s always that they’re talented and have some tragic condition or life experience. Like even Shin Lim (who was excellent), his second appearance felt like it was trying to one-up the tragedy as well as the magic.

      I’m not really accusing anyone of inventing sob stories, it’s just an interesting pattern and I’m not sure what the actual truth is: are these shows disproportionately talent scouting individuals with tragic backstories? Or does personal tragedy correlate strongly with exceptional talent? Or is it just a selection bias on my part?

      • Daemian Lucifer says:

        I think those are just more noticeable and stay in the mind longer than others.But theres usually just 1 person per show who has some tragic story to tell,while the others either tell something goofy,or how they met their spouse or something like that.

        • Richard says:

          There’s a definite element of producers looking for the “tragic backstory”, even when one doesn’t really exist.

          “Gave up X to start the career in Y I’ve always wanted” can easily be spun into a tragic backstory, despite being the exact opposite.

      • Supah Ewok says:

        Tragedy equals drama equals viewer interest. In any given reality show, you can have 3 to 20 “players”, but that is only the top of an iceberg of hundreds or thousands of applications to be one of those few players. When going through the selection process, the foremost criteria is “what will make for interesting TV” (provided you’re being generous; if not, then it’s “what will get us the most views”). There are many, many talented people in the world. If even only one in a thousand people could possibly make a good show, that’s still millions of people on the planet. It’s not enough to just be good. You have to be good and interesting.

        So the answer to your question is the first one, although I doubt how you phrased it is how it happens. For one, it’s rare for a given reality TV show to use scouts if it’s big enough, from what I know; all these magicians that get to be on this show get a major visibility boost, which they can leverage in their careers to get gigs and negotiate payment. They go to the show, the show doesn’t need to look for them. When they apply to be on the show, there’s probably some questions like “what inspired you to be a magician”, “what has been your greatest challenge”, etc. Absolutely innocuous questions that are very common in interviews, yet are easy avenues to gauge for “tragedy” if that’s what you’re aiming for.

        The long and short of it is, there is an intentional bias towards “interesting” backgrounds, and there’s nothing sinister about it. It’s just show biz.

        • DavidJCobb says:

          The long and short of it is, there is an intentional bias towards “interesting” backgrounds, and there's nothing sinister about it. It's just show biz.

          I feel like the more they do this, the less interesting those backgrounds become. They’ve helped numb me to it all. :\

  9. Allen says:

    I can never decide which part of P&T I like better – when they tell you how they’re doing the tricks and you’re still impressed at the skill involved (Blast Off For Love or the Nail Gun, for instance), or when they’ve told you how the trick works and you still can’t see it.

    Shamus, if you ever get the chance to see their live show in Vegas, I can’t recommend it enough. Seeing this stuff done live brings it up a whole new level. (Don’t know if they still do this, but the opening trick when I went ten years ago still bugs me to this day, because I *know* I must have missed something and still can’t think of what.)

    • Jason-L says:

      I have to agree – seeing P&T live was a real joy. Having them tell you they’re doing a trick, explain how the trick is done, give all the warnings about distraction and sleight-of-hand, and you’re STILL not able to see how they pulled it off… it’s magic.

      • bubba0077 says:

        Thirded for seeing them live. I know Shamus is unlikely to get to Vegas to see them, given his dislike of traveling and Vegas being an unlikely destination anyway (also, tickets are also fairly pricey). But, P&T do go on tour regularly as well, so a local show is possible (tickets can still be pricey, though).

      • Fade2Gray says:

        Yeah, their live show was a lot of fun. When I went, they both hung out with the audience after the show and stayed until everyone who wanted a photo or signatures got them. They were both laughing and telling jokes (even Teller). They’d take your phone and do a selfie with you. I’ve heard that’s pretty normal for them.

  10. StrongStyleFiction says:

    Their movie, Penn and Teller Get Killed, has the best ending. Incredibly dark and hilarious.

  11. Ani-kun says:

    Imagine my happy surprise when Penn and Teller appeared playing two characters (one of whom, naturally, did not speak) on Babylon 5. Great ep :)

    The episode in question was also written by Neil Gaiman. B5 had a lot of awesome episodes, for a lot of different reasons.

    • Blackbird71 says:

      I just recently saw that episode again (I began re-watching the whole series after Stephen Furst’s passing). I found it interesting to learn that Bruce Boxleitner could not stand Penn Jillette; apparently he found him to be a bit of an arrogant jerk to work with. Given Penn’s rather loud persona, I could see him being a bit annoying in person.

  12. Viktor says:

    Penn and Teller are ridiculous. Magic is all about the patter, having style while you do it, and their showmanship is something else. Penn is, unfortunately, a serious jackass off the stage(a friend of mine interacted with him once and had nothing good to say about the experience), but seeing them perform live is a unique experience.

    • Ani-kun says:

      People being assholes off the stage happens way too often, unfortunately.

    • bubba0077 says:

      He can be off-putting, sure. But they both also come out to the lobby and meet their fans after every show. Plus they’ve given a good amount of support to Desert Bus over the years.

    • Niriel says:

      I am so very confused by what you wrote. They’re ridiculous, meaning we can only laugh about them, but still they’re better on stage than in person? And they’re “something else”, different from what? I feel like old French me isn’t up to date with your idioms.

      • Christopher Kerr says:

        “Ridiculous” in the sense of “ridiculously good”.

        “Something else” is a common English idiom meaning, roughly, “remarkable”, or more literally, “something beyond normal”.

    • Dreadjaws says:

      “Penn is, unfortunately, a serious jackass off the stage(a friend of mine interacted with him once and had nothing good to say about the experience)”

      Now see, this is a bit problematic. I don’t personally know Penn, but forming an express opinion of a person based on a one-time meeting is not the proper way to do things. This is particularly notable in the case of show-business, when fans don’t realize how obnoxious they can be while approaching celebrities.

      We all have our bad days, is what I’m saying. I know celebrities and ego pretty much go hand in hand, but still.

  13. Steve C says:

    You’ll be glad to hear that Penn & Teller are class acts in real life too. I saw their show in Vegas in 2000. After the show, P&T beat the audience outside and stood outside in the lobby. They shook hands, had a quick conversation* and signed stuff for everyone who wished. Some of their act is pretty physically demanding. Especially on Teller. I’m sure they would be tired and would rather take a break after the show. Instead they took time to talk and interact 1:1 with their audience.

    Now David Copperfield was a different story. I saw his show in Vegas two days before P&T. I waited outside for a while to talk to someone. (It was about an audience member that I was seated with that purposely tried to screw up the show.) Someone did come out after about 20-30mins of waiting. Really they were there just to shoo me away.

    The contrast between the two shows was stark. The contrast between the performers was more-so.

    * And yes. I did get to speak with Teller, who spoke back.

    • eaglewingz says:

      My wife and I went to see David Copperfield in the 80s and we bought a picture to get an autograph. I remember he was seated on a raised platform about 6′ high. Someone handed him the items and we got a few scrawled letters without so much as a smile or eye contact.

  14. Another Pen & Teller series that is worth watching is Bullshit (8 seasons, 89 episodes). This is a societal documentary, where they interview people and pick apart fallacies and rant about stuff.
    “Penn said the aim of the show is to “hunt down as many purveyors of bullshit as [they] can””

    And Penn & Teller Tell a Lie (1 season, 6 episodes)
    Where they tell 3 stories, one of which is a lie (and some smaller magic trick if I recall at the end).

    • Mattias42 says:

      I can second the recommendation for Penn & Teller’s Bullshit.

      Really enjoyable AND educational documentaries with a ton of humor in them. Was quite sad to see the show go, and especially saddened by how hard it is to legally get a hold off nowadays.

      *Edit: Ooh~, never-mind! Apparently the whole show’s on DVD now.

      Wasn’t when I last checked. Sorry for the misinformation.

    • Distec says:

      An interesting facet of that show is their justification for calling everybody “fuckers” or similarly generic expletives when they’re being critical. Initially, I thought it was just them being slightly juvenile. But then I read a quote from Penn where he said they wanted to avoid any potential legal action against them if they got too specific with their insults. Fair nuff IMO.

      • Neil D says:

        Yeah, he makes that disclaimer in the very first episode. To the effect of, “If one calls a person a fraud, or a quack, or a charlatan, one can be sued. But if you call someone a motherfucker, you’re fine.”

        It was a pretty good show, especially in the first few seasons. They weren’t always completely on point – I think they’ve said they’d like to go back and revisit some of the topics, like second-hand smoke. Also, while I am a fan of the female body, they did come to rely more and more on “Look! Boobies!” as the show went on, which I felt didn’t help their credibility. But overall, a very good show.

        Lastly, I’ll just mention that Teller only looks diminutive because he’s often standing next to Penn, who is a giant. Teller is a pretty average 5’9″.

      • RCN says:

        My only complaint about the show is that it gets heavily libertarian at some points.

        “We don’t need the government telling us that we should have parking spots for the disabled! Businesses should put them on or not, if they don’t want disabled customers, their loss!”

        I know this is getting a tiny bit political, but, uh… what’s wrong exactly with the law if you agree disabled people should have easier access to services? Seriously, I never get the point of “allowing people to be assholes for no reason or bigotry if they want to”

        One of their best episodes was about videogames and violence. They gave a teen gamer an assault rifle to see if they’d get an instant killing machine like the media and some anti-gaming advocates keep screaming about. What they got was a crying kid who couldn’t handle the automatic mode of the assault rifle. It is a sample poll of one, but a powerful one.

        • Niriel says:

          I’m French, socialist, scientist and atheist. I’m very libertarian on social issues, but want my economy strongly regulated by the government. I don’t always agree with what Penn says (although France isn’t the USA and context matters), but he presents his points in a rational and articulated manner which actually makes me think, unlike all the US political debates that just make me face palm. I wouldn’t mind Penn as an advisor, as a Devil’s advocate. He’s a guy you can reason with, make good points, and could change your mind at times.

          • Daemian Lucifer says:

            Pretty much this.Even when I disagree with their views on something,I get where they are coming from.Heck,in bullshit they sometimes attack people who they agree with simply because those people have taken it too far to the extreme.

          • RCN says:

            Like I said, it is my only complaint. And from the looks of it, they did agree some episodes were misguided in execution even if they still agree with the message (the second hand smoke episode comes to mind, where suddenly anecdotal experience trumped carefully studied science). And their episode on recycling is still one of my best references into what to recycle.

            I respect them that they do state their stances on things and mostly adhere to good sense and good science. But that’s precisely why I criticize so much when they stoop so low as to resort to these emotional tactics. Heck, despite being 100% pro-gun, they didn’t make the video game violence episode about gun control (if I remember exactly, they only touched the subject once, in order to dismantle the triangle of violence of an anti-videogame activist who said mass shootings happened thanks to guns, troubled kids and videogames, so they stated several mass shootings that happened before videogames and a massacre that happened without guns).

            If I see Trump say something stupid about science, I don’t care. If I see Ken Ham say something deeply idiotic about evolution, I don’t care. But I’m sure going to pull Neil Degrasse’s Tyson ear if her says something deeply unscientific to appeal to emotion. And I hold Penn & Teller to the somewhere around the same pedestal.

        • Agammamon says:

          Ugh, I don’t want to get too far into it, but a lot of this has to do with the whole ‘camel’s nose’ thing.

          Once you get the power to give orders on something you’ll fight tooth and nail to keep being able to give orders on it. And I, for example, don’t trust Google – but I trust my own city government even less. I’ve *met* those guys.

          • Daemian Lucifer says:

            Im always baffled by this sort of reasoning.I dont see why a corporation would be trusted more than the government.Both have loads of corruption,both have plethora of scumbags and a handful of good people in them,so why not be equally wary of both?

            Also,if you trust google more than the government,maybe check in on their recent political dealings.

  15. Disc says:

    The regional differences with Netflix can be so freaking weird. Not sure why, but you can watch the first two seasons on whatever version of Netflix we’ve got here in Finland.

  16. Lachlan the Sane says:

    I absolutely agree that the show has improved over time, but I’d put most of the blame/credit on them getting rid of Jonathan Ross as host and replacing him with Alison Hannigan. Ross is an irritating jerk and a serious attention hog who isn’t anywhere near as clever as he thinks he is. Hannigan isn’t quite as natural host material, but she’s a better fit for this show, because she doesn’t pull attention from Penn & Teller.

  17. Mariusz Pociask says:

    (I have to say that I absolutely love Jonathan and can’t get over his disappearance.)

    Shamus, I adore Penn & Teller – but there’s a better magic show. :-) You NEED TO SEE “Wizard Wars”, where aspiring magicians are randomly paired and have to battle the other pair using tricks created out of several specific things (different in each episode), and then they battle a pair of experienced magicians – for fame and cash prize.

    It. Is. Mind-blowing. :-)

    (I’d really like to see your face when you see the rocking chair trick…)

    Aaaaand… Pen & Teller are among the judges. :-)

  18. Ian says:

    For what it’s worth Netflix UK has it on there at least the first 2 seasons.

  19. The Unforgiven says:

    While the entire series is not on Netflix, season 2 is. At least in Canada.

  20. Decius says:

    I catch Fool Us on Youtube- each episode seems to be posted by the contestant, for their own publicity.

  21. Warclam says:

    “Penn & Teller got a reputation for “spoiling” tricks by showing how they were done…” Oh?

    “Penn & Teller watch other acts and try to figure out how their tricks are done.” Ohhh?!

    “After a trick, Penn talks about the performance, comments on what he thought was good, and uses the names of famous magicians and magic books to explain how they think the trick was pulled off…” Yes!

    “…without giving anything away to the audience.” Well goddamn it what’s the point then?!

    Yeah, the entire edifice of magic shows is baffling to me. The interesting part is how it was done, and that’s the part these jerks refuse to tell us.

    • etheric42 says:

      I think the problem is in order to have a network show you have to appeal to a broad audience (and in order to get recurring guests you can’t hurt their income). A lot of people don’t want it spoiled. For those that do want it spoiled, I think if you are enough of a magic geek to recognize what they are saying or do some google-fu you can find it out based on what they say. Basically it’s like enclosing their remarks in spoiler tags (or rot13) by referencing other things.

      • Warclam says:

        That’s definitely true. The trouble is sort of a vicious circle.

        See, usually magicians don’t tell you how it works. So, I don’t like magic shows. Now, sometimes one comes along that will! Great! But the info is behind a bit of work so people who don’t want that information (AKA weirdos (AKA normal people)) can skip it. But why would I put work into watching a magic show? I don’t like magic shows!


    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      They usually say enough that you can google the answer.

  22. Scourge says:

    I can honestly endorse Fool Us. Its… amazing. Some of the magicians just make you go wow.

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