“If you happen to fool Penn & Teller, that’s a bonus”
Hi Michael! When and how did you get involved with Penn & Teller: Fool Us as a magic consultant?
Michael Close: I met Penn & Teller about thirty years ago; I had been friends with Johnny Thompson since the mid 1970s. When I moved out to Las Vegas from Indiana in 1998, Johnny suggested that I join him in working with Penn & Teller on their stage show and television projects. This I did for twelve years, until I moved away from Vegas in 2010.
Johnny and I had the same mentor, a man named Harry Riser, who was one of the best magicians of the twentieth century. Consequently, Johnny and I looked at conjuring the same way. We worked well together.
The first season of Fool Us was shot in England. I was not a part of that season. When the show moved to Las Vegas for the second season, Johnny, Penn, and Teller suggested to the producers that I come on board as a second magic consultant. I have worked on seasons two through six.
And after the sad loss of Johnny Thompson, were you the only magical consultant on the show?
Johnny collapsed and was taken to the hospital at the end of the first full day of rehearsal for season six in Las Vegas. He never left the hospital, consequently I did the entire sixth season by myself. I have no idea if the producers will add another consultant for season seven, if there is a season seven.
In your opinion, what does it take for a performer and a routine to be “ready” for the show?
There are two aspects to this question. If you mean, “ready” to send in an audition video, it helps if you have an interesting or novel presentation and a strong effect. If you mean, “ready” to perform on the show–that is, you’ve been accepted by the producers–, then you want a tight routine, with any imperfections smoothed out.
I understand that the premise “You try to fool us–we try to catch you!” creates the necessary element of conflict of the show, but how much focus should the performer actually put on the aspect of fooling Penn & Teller?
The reason to come on Fool Us is that it puts you, your brand, and your magic in front of millions of viewers. If you happen to fool them, that’s a bonus. But it should not be the only reason you want to be on the show.
We all have egos, creative magicians have plenty of ego. We want the effects we create to fool our peers. But that can overshadow the real benefits of being on the show. Penn & Teller are extremely knowledgeable magicians. They have figured out acts that I thought were going to fool them. If you don’t fool them, I wouldn’t feel bad about that.
There have been some discussions why or whether this act or that actually fooled them or not. How detailed or full do the explanations have to be? Are you the judge?
During the time Alyson (Hannigan) interviews the performer, Penn & Teller discuss the act, working out possible methods. On television, this lasts about forty-five seconds. During the taping it can last up to five minutes, maybe more. This is also true of Penn’s conversation with the performer. It is almost always edited down for the sake of time.
In previous seasons, Johnny Thompson was the judge if there were any questions about whether the performer fooled them. In season six, I was the judge. As I have told magicians privately and at convention appearances, if you ever wondered, ‘Did that act really fool them?’ there is probably a story behind it. Penn sometimes recounts these stories on his podcast.
In season six, this aspect of the show–whether or not Penn&Teller were fooled–ran smoothly. If they said they were fooled, they were fooled. If they said they weren’t fooled, they weren’t fooled.
Please describe your process of working with the signed acts until their performance. What are your main goals and your major contribution in that process?
I wear many hats during pre-production and during the two weeks we record the show in Las Vegas. During pre-production I evaluate every act the producers are considering. I make notes of the effect performed, what I think the method is, whether or not I am fooled, if there will be time problems when the act is too long, if there will be problems shooting the routine on the Penn & Teller stage when the act uses, for example, small props or a large number of spectators, and if I spot any technical–that is, magic technique-problems that need to be fixed. I also begin to make notes on what “secret words” Penn could use in his discussion with the performer.
Once the producers make their decisions, I go back to my notes to see how I can help. Many times, my help isn’t necessary. If the act is a professional who has done the routine a thousand times, probably any glitches have been worked out. Sometimes I discover small suggestions that help. I pass those suggestions along via email or phone calls.
For some performers, I need to offer more help, working with script, blocking, and technique. With some of the young performers I work on stage presence and delivering patter so it is clear and understandable. This I most often do over Skype, and it works out well. Something I work on most often with all performers is helping cut their acts down to fit the five-minute time limit. This is always challenging.
At which point before production do you want to “tick off” an act?
The most important thing is that these consultations happen as early as possible. My goal is to have everything worked out before the performer arrives in Vegas. I have discovered the hard way that trying to learn a new technique or action two days before you record the act is difficult. When the performer hits the stage, nerves happen. The new information disappears and muscle memory takes over. This happens with even the most experienced performers. It is best to have everything worked out early.
So what does your production schedule look like then?
In the two weeks the production crew and the performers are in Las Vegas, we record sixty-two magicians and thirteen Penn & Teller routines. This year we also recorded an April Fool Us Day special and a Christmas special.
I am responsible for watching a performer’s initial rehearsal with the director, assistant director, executive producers, and property master, the camera rehearsal, shot on stage the day of the performance, and the performance taping. If anyone needs extra help, I try schedule time for that. For the two weeks of taping, I work sixteen-hour days.
I am always delighted when a professional performer agrees to appear on Fool Us. As I mentioned, they make my job easy. Sometimes it is not so easy to convince them to come on the show, and I understand this. I saw Tom Stone do the Quantum Logic routine at a convention in Lund, Sweden, in the fall last year, and I thought it was great. It took a bit of arm twisting to get him to agree to do the show. I’m so glad he did, and he was great to work with. I had high hopes he would fool Penn & Teller with this. But, regardless, it was a great spot!
Beyond that, I also enjoy discussing magic with people like Tom, Pit, and Axel. Pit and I spent some time on Skype working on his two-deck matching routine. For me, the pleasure is that I also learn things during the process. These guys are not just excellent magicians, they are also really smart people.
I did not know Wolfgang and Harry before they came on the show. Wolfgang did a terrific job and was a delight to work with. He and I had a lot of back-and-forth on this routine, mainly because he had to tighten it up considerably for television and in particular for the time constraints Fool Us imposes. When he performs this on cruise ships and other venues, he brings up twenty people and the routine is lengthy, so it was no small task for him to reconfigure it. I applaud him for his effort.
A special question on the Feel Box, invented by Boretti back in the 1990s, co-improved and performed by Harry Keaton: Was this trick really new for you, or had you or Penn & Teller seen a version of it before?
The Feel Box was new to me and also new to Penn & Teller. The only problem I had when I watched Harry’s audition video was it was in German, so I was unclear on exactly what effect he was going for. But I thought the trick was really great.
Final question: Where can performers apply for Fool Us, and what do they need to bring?
As of today, we have not officially received any word from the network whether there will be a season seven. So, doing anything at this time would be premature. However, if your readers would like to get prepared, they should record a demo video of the routine they want to submit. This can be in a real performance situation in front of an audience, or a casual video with friends or family helping. Regardless, it should be a full performance, with a rehearsed script. The key is the five-minute time limit. Also remember, Fool Us does not allow preshow or the use of stooges.
My Fool Us email address is email@example.com. If you are interested in being on the show, drop me an email on October 1, and I’ll let you know the status of the show.
Thank you so much, Michael, for your time and for sharing so many details. Let’s hope for season seven then!
(Interview: Jan Isenbart)
Besides his job as a magic consultant, Michael Close is a world-famous card magician, a busy teacher, lecturer, musician, and magic author. His latest book, The T.O.M. Epiphany, came out just a few weeks ago and deals with strategies for turning tricks into miracles. He also publishes an extensive monthly newsletter and podcast interviews for subscribers. Check out his website here.