In a country where magic shows on TV are usually the "kiss of death" (Criss Angel lastest 3 episodes on Sunday night prime time, Derren Brown survived 2 at 10.30pm on Channel Nine) Penn & Teller: Fool Us has done surprisingly well late night, Saturday night on the ABC. Almost everyone I meet while performing has watched it. Even my parents sit up late to watch it!
So why is it that this show has managed to capture the attention of a nation uninterested in most things magical?
Penn & Teller are reknowned for treating their audiences as adults. They don't talk down to them, they don't pretend the magic is "real", they acknowledge that the main purpose of magic is to fool people and this show celebrates this.
After all, what do most people say when they watch Criss Angel, Derren Brown or David Copperfield: "That was so entertaining?" or "How did he do that?"
So, Penn & Teller are saying to the audience, "It's a puzzle. Can you figure out how they did it?"
Does this puzzle approach damage the art of magic?
I don't think so.
I think that Penn & Teller are simply acknowledging the 'elephant in the room' and celebrating it. As a result, they are giving the opportunity for dozens of magicians to get international TV exposure they otherwise wouldn't get.
Think about it. Take out the 'Fool Us' angle and watch that same show as a straight magic show, and suddenly it loses a huge amount of appeal. The "Will they fool Penn & Teller and go to Vegas?" and "Will I be able to figure it out" is the hook that gives the show a purpose for existing.
It is a little sad though, because as most magicians know, magic should never be presented as just a puzzle - but the majority of the magicians on the show (who are doing their regular acts) are doing nothing more than that. They are simply showing off. They are trying to fool us.
Yet, when Penn & Teller do their trick at the end of each episode, the who "show off" angle simply isn't there. Penn & Teller understand the idea of multi-layering. They create a presentation for the magic which is more engaging than the magic itself, then add the magic to enhance the presentation. If you watched the presentation without the magic, it would still be totally engaging - but can the same be said for the majority of "contestants" on 'Fool Us'?
When watching Penn & Teller perform, of course some people will still ask "How did they do that?" but they will also understand the message, the point, the purpose, the reason that Penn & Teller performed the trick for.
There are so few magicians who understand this principle.
Sure, you can do your magic and have everyone laughing hysterically, gasping in amazement, and giving you a standing ovation at the end of the show. But unless you can come up with a purpose for doing each routine you're still in the category of a "show off".
There's nothing wrong with that, it just depends on where you see yourself heading in your future: one of many competitors on another magician's TV show, or the magician whose name is in the title of the show?