The Secret Truth Behind Penn & Teller: Fool Us
A television ratings success for years and a viral hit with millions of views on social media, Penn & Teller: Fool Us is arguably one of the most valuable and entertaining platforms for magicians in the world. Unlike America's Got Talent, or other competition shows, this magic show was designed exclusively to support magicians.
But, this tv show about magic tricks also holds some secrets of its own behind the scenes. Ever wondered why Penn & Teller reveal how magic tricks work in their Las Vegas show but not on Penn & Teller: Fool Us? Or, if magicians don’t share their secrets, how do Penn & Teller really know when they’ve been fooled.
Join us as we expose the secret truth behind Penn & Teller: Fool Us.
What is Penn & Teller: Fool Us?
Some fans of Penn & Teller: Fool Us may not realize that the show first premiered in England in 2011 before moving to the American television network The CW in 2015. It has since been one of The CW's most popular TV shows.
The premise of Penn & Teller: Fool Us is simple. Magicians perform their most creative and amazing magic tricks in an attempt to fool the iconic duo Penn & Teller.
At the end of each magic act, Penn & Teller use their combined century’s worth of magic knowledge and card trick history to guess the secret to the magic trick. If they’re wrong, the magicians win a “Fool Us Trophy” and a chance to be a guest opening act for Penn & Teller’s long-running Las Vegas show.
Hosted by renowned English Broadcaster Jonathan Ross for the first two seasons, Alyson Hannigan (a.k.a. Buffy the Vampire Slayer) has been the host of Penn & Teller: Fool Us since Season 3. It has been filmed in the Penn & Teller Theater at the Rio Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas since Season 2.
Penn & Teller Don’t Actually Care if You Fool Them
Despite the name “Fool Us”, Penn & Teller don’t actually care if they’re fooled or not. In fact, this show was derived from the fact that magicians actually love sharing magic tricks with each other and trying to fool their fellow magicians. Known as “jamming”, this is especially popular at magic conventions.
The concept of Penn & Teller: Fool Us is mostly just a catchy hook designed to entice people to watch. Ultimately, the real goal of the show is to offer magicians a platform to share their talents and gain national exposure.
Teller actually spoke about this during a fascinating interview with Vanity Fair (yes, believe it or not, Teller of Penn & Teller does speak). Magic on TV has always struggled with the fact that viewers either think camera trickery is being used or just spend the entire time trying to figure out how the trick was done. There are even YouTube channels devoted to exposing the secrets to magic tricks.
Yet, the secret to a magic trick is just one part of a greater whole. Like any other form of theater, magical performances are supposed to be entertainment. Spending the whole time trying to catch the magician in the act causes many people to miss out on the fun. By openly looking for the secret themselves, Penn & Teller allow the viewers to just relax and enjoy the show.
As one of the biggest online magic shops in the world, we can also say that Penn & Teller: Fool Us is great for business. There are tons of places where beginners can learn how to do magic tricks for free. But, have you ever wondered where professional magicians learn their tricks?
Magic shops like Vanishing Inc. have a variety of magic books and magic tricks for sale. And, when one of these magic tricks is performed on Penn & Teller: Fool Us, magicians around the world want to buy it—especially if it fooled Penn & Teller.
Why Does Alyson Hannigan wear the same outfit on every episode of Penn & Teller: Fool Us?
Like most reality tv shows, a season of the show is filmed over several days. Wearing the same clothes in every shot allows the editors to more easily cut together different episodes that feature a wider variety of magic tricks instead of having episodes filled with just card tricks, close-up magic or mentalism tricks. This is the same reason Alyson will often say a generic phrase like “here’s our next fooler” when introducing a new performer.
Why Do Penn & Teller Reveal the Secrets to Magic Tricks
Throughout their storied careers, Penn & Teller have garnered a bit of a reputation as magic adversaries. One of their most famous routines exposes the secret to one of the oldest magic tricks in history, the “Cups and Balls”. They use clear plastic cups to show the audience when sleight of hand occurs.
But, the reason Penn & Teller reveal magic tricks is actually not as nefarious as you might think. They have no intention of convincing people they have real magic powers. This is different than fake psychics, like John Edwards or Long Island Medium Theresa Caputo, who disguise mentalism tricks and cold reading as supernatural powers.
When they spoil the trick by exposing the secret, Penn & Teller actually allow the audience to feel like they’re part of the act. The behind-the-scenes look gives audiences a much stronger appreciation for the level of skill that goes into performing a magic trick.
It’s important to note that Penn & Teller typically only reveal the secrets to classics of magic that can often be found in beginner’s magic books. They don’t reveal the secrets to their own magic tricks or marketed effects sold by other magicians. In fact, in 2012, Teller sued a Dutch magician for copying his famous magic trick "Shadows."
Why Does Penn Speak in Code on Penn & Teller: Fools Us?
Both Penn and Teller don’t want their TV show to just be an hour of magic tricks revealed. Magician Val Valentino (better known as “The Masked Magician”) tried that in the late 90’s with his infamous television show Breaking the Magician's Code: Magic's Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed, and ended up being kicked out of the magic community.
Instead, Penn & Teller: Fool Us was designed to be a magic tv show that properly supports magicians while also entertaining a non-magician audience (also known as “laypeople”). By speaking in code, he can make a special connection with the magicians at home, without completely ruining the veil of secrecy that makes magic so exciting.
Penn Jillette hopes the show will also inspire young magicians. This is why he uses “keyword phrases''. Any aspiring magicians that hear the terms “Gaff Deck”, “thumb tip”, “flash paper” or “invisible thread" can easily search them on the internet and purchase them from a reputable magic dealer like Vanishing Inc.
How Do Penn & Teller Know if They Were Fooled?
There’s actually a full team of producers and magic consultants backstage at Penn & Teller: Fool Us that knows exactly how every magic trick is done. Beyond verifying if the “Fool Us” trophy needs to be distributed or not, there is a very important reason for this.
Despite what some fans of the show might think, none of the magic tricks use “camera tricks” or “video editing.” However, some magic tricks must be filmed from certain angles to avoid exposing their secret. So, by knowing how the trick works, the production team can find the best way to present it on TV.
For the first six seasons, legendary magician Johnny Thompson, who is idolized by magicians (and who the average person might remember from his many appearances on Criss Angel’s television show Mindfreak), was the lead producer for Penn & Teller: Fool Us. Since Thompson’s passing in 2019, Michael Close, another widely-respected magician, has taken the reins on the popular TV show.
If you are a magician that wants to perform on Penn & Teller: Fool Us, check out our helpful guide on “How to Appear on Fool Us."