Veteran magician and entertainer Penn Jillette — the vocal half of the hugely-successful Penn & Teller act — along with his partner Raymond Teller, is bringing to the U.S. and the CW Network a TV competition show that has been popular across the pond in Britain. Beginning at 7 p.m. Wednesday (WGN-Channel 9) “Penn & Teller: Fool Us,” will launch a 9-episode run, with magicians literally attempting to pull-off a trick Penn & Teller cannot figure out. The aspiring magicians who achieve that win the opportunity to perform with Penn & Teller at their enormously popular show at the Rio Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.
Jillette called the other day to chat about it all.
Q: What did you enjoy about putting this particular show together?
A: You get into magic because you love being fooled. You love the feeling of wonder and awe and being tricked. You kind of chasing that first ‘high’ because the more you learn about magic, it’s harder and harder to be fooled. So you end up, as Teller and I are, as professional magicians — all the years we’ve been performing together and before that individually, knocking on 100 years! So, as a result, not much fools you.
What was fun here, with this show, was throwing down the gauntlet in a playful way — and saying, ‘Come on TV and fool us!’
Q: What are your hopes for this program?
A: We shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves here, but if U.S. audiences like this, and the ratings justify it, the CW tells us we’ll do a second American season — with American magicians. Although there are wonderful, wonderful magicians in the U.K., there quite simply better ones — and more of them — in the U.S.A. It’s simply that America is a bigger country with more magicians out there. That’s all it is.
Q: Of course, the obvious question: Do you guys get fooled a lot here?
A: Not to give too much away, but a few people really do! Those that fooled us, fooled the pants off us! It was the exact feeling I had when my mom did the first magic trick for me when I was 6! I got that same feeling with this show. It’s a feeling of your whole world being discombobulated for a moment. It’s just glorious!
Q: Since this really is a reality competition show, how do you compare it the others out there?
A: So many of the competition shows are essentially contentious. What’s different and wonderful about ‘Fool Us,’ is that it recreates what happens at our show in Vegas, when we’re backstage. Pretty much every magician in the world ends up at our Vegas show at one time or another. So, after the show, they come backstage to say hi, and we sit with snacks in the green room and invariably somebody will pull out a deck of cards or a coin, and say, ‘Hey, you guys — you seen this?’ What they’re really doing is actually playing a game as it is now on TV with ‘Fool Us.’
And, after watching it, we go, ‘Yeah, we have seen that and we know how you did it,’ or we go, ‘Wow! No! That was terrific!’
Q: Was this a tough sell to the TV executives who would have to give it the go-ahead?
A: When we first were explaining it to the television executives, they said, ‘How do we decide whether they fooled you or not?’
And I just said, ‘We’ll know, and they’ll know. … We don’t really have to say anything. We can kind of look at them and that’s it. We all will know, both us and them.’
Q: Do you think it’s fun that unlike other competitive reality shows, yours is focused on magic alone?
A: That’s part of it. We have so many of the singing competition shows or variety act competitions and it ends up with the question always, about the judges — who the hell are they?! What does Howard Stern, for example, know about jugglers [on ‘America’s Got Talent’] When it comes to the music shows, you sometimes wonder, if Miles Davis was coming along now — would he win one of those shows? I could just hear the judges saying, ‘I don’t know. He was a little pitchy.’
With this we’re not ever commenting on their showmanship, or how enjoyable they are. It’s a very, very simple thing: Did. You. Fool. The two of us. Not, did you fool everybody else in the world. Not would you fool David Copperfield. It’s did you fool Penn & Teller.
Q: Is there anything else you’d care to share about doing the ‘Fool Us’ show?
A: We never really say this, but I think people will be aware, once they watch it — it’s an excuse to do magic on TV, where you know there’s no camera tricks. No matter how much the other [reality competition] shows swear to you there are no camera tricks, there always are.
But on this show, because they’re doing tricks for us, there’s no motive to do camera tricks. You really know [when you’re watching] you’re seeing what’s happening in the theater. That to me is what makes it really wonderful.