An Interview with Michael Close

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“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.

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Michael Close backstage with Alyson Hannigan and Penn Jillette

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.

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Michael Close on stage with Teller

Could you comment briefly on working with some of the recent performers I have spoken to, like Tom Stone, Wolfgang Moser, Pit Hartling, and Axel Hecklau?

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 fuclose@gmail.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.


Addendum October 3, 2019:

As Michael has disclosed on the Genii Forum, Penn & Teller: Fool Us has been renewed for a seventh season. I look forward to it!


 

Im Interview: Wolfgang Moser

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“Jeder Teilnehmer gewinnt durch den Auftritt in der Show”

 

Herzlichen Glückwunsch, Wolfgang, zu deinem gelungenen Auftritt bei Penn & Teller! Hand aufs Herz: Hast du damit gerechnet, die beiden „foolen“ zu können? Und wie bewertest du selbst deine Erfahrung mit der Show?

Wolfgang Moser: Ich denke, das mit dem „Foolen“ ist wirklich sehr schwer vorherzusagen, denn das hängt von so vielen Faktoren ab, auf die man keinen Einfluss hat. Manchmal reicht es, wenn die beiden nur eine Kleinigkeit übersehen. Oder man hat vielleicht Glück und sie (er)kennen die Methode ganz einfach nicht. Es ist also immer auch etwas Glück im Spiel. Zwar ist Teller ganz eindeutig das Zaubergenie der beiden, aber auch Penn ist verdammt schlau und weiß natürlich sehr viel. Tatsächlich haben die beiden sich – was man im Fernsehen natürlich nicht sieht – eine Viertelstunde lang beraten. Und Teller hat mir hinterher gesteckt, dass ich beide zwar einzeln gefoolt hatte, sie dann aber im Austausch miteinander doch noch zur richtigen Lösung kamen. Es war also recht knapp! Auch wenn ich die beiden letztlich nicht täuschen konnte, war die Show für mich also eine zu 100% positive Erfahrung.

Wie kam es denn zu deinem Auftritt?

Ich hatte mich schon vor Jahren mal bei der Show beworben, wurde aber vertröstet und habe seitdem nichts mehr gehört. Ich hatte mich also schon damit abgefunden, dass mein Act wohl nicht in das Showkonzept passen würde. Umso mehr war ich überrascht, als dann plötzlich sehr kurzfristig die Anfrage kam, ob ich in wenigen Wochen Zeit für die Aufzeichnung in Las Vegas haben würde.

Stand für dich von Anfang an fest, deine Version des Teekessels zu zeigen?

Ich denke, hier hat man als Teilnehmer der Show zwei Möglichkeiten. Entweder man tritt dort mit dem Ziel an zu „foolen“. Viele Teilnehmer entwickeln ja auch eigene Routinen speziell für die Show – Tricks mit mehreren potenziellen Lösungen, falschen Fährten, labyrinthischen Methoden usw. Gerade Kartentricks täuschen deshalb sehr häufig. Das Ergebnis ist dann aber oft eine Darbietung, die zwar „foolt“, aber wenig bleibenden Eindruck beim Publikum hinterlässt.

Andere Teilnehmer nutzen die Show, um einen eingespielten Act vor einem großen TV-Publikum präsentieren zu können. Schließlich gewinnt jeder Teilnehmer schon durch den Auftritt in der Show. Das Täuschen von Penn & Teller ist dann nur ein Sahnehäubchen oben drauf, ein Aufhänger um sehr gute Zauber-Acts zu präsentieren und der gesamten Show etwas mehr Spannung zu verleihen. Mein Fokus lag also darauf mich gut zu präsentieren. Da ich mit dem Trick aber auch schon viele sehr namhafte Zauberer auf der ganzen Welt täuschen konnte, war der Teekessel bestimmt in beiderlei Hinsicht die gute Wahl.

Wie hast du dich speziell auf diesen Auftritt vorbereitet? Und was hast du an deiner Routine ggf. verändert?

Ich hatte die Nummer ja schon für die FISM 2015 auf Englisch ausgearbeitet. Und ich zeige den Teekessel auch immer wieder in Galashows, Kongressen usw. auf Englisch. An der Methode habe ich so gut wie nichts verändert um den Trick unerklärlicher zu machen. Im Gegenteil, ich musste die Nummer fast um die Hälfte kürzen, da jeder Teilnehmer maximal fünf Minuten Zeit hat. Das war eigentlich für mich die größte Herausforderung, da ich den Ablauf der Routine selbst nicht verändert kann.

Und wie wurdest du vor Ort beraten?

Vor der Show präsentiert man die Nummer erst mal den Produzenten, vor der Aufzeichnung gibt es dann noch eine Generalprobe mit dem gesamten Team. Mit dabei ist immer Michael Close, der sich um die tricktechnischen Aspekte kümmert. Aber auch die Produzenten bringen sich mit wertvollen Tipps und Vorschlägen ein. Ein Tipp eines Produzenten war etwa, sich nicht mit Penn auf eine Diskussion einzulassen, die würde man nämlich garantiert verlieren… Im Ganzen war der Umgang mit den Künstlern wirklich sehr positiv.

Die Aufzeichnung der Sendung ist ja nun schon einige Monate her. Wie schwer war es, nicht darüber sprechen zu dürfen?

Ach, das macht mir gar nichts aus. Im Gegenteil. Wenn ich die Show dann ein halbes Jahr später sehe, kann ich mich ja selber davon überraschen lassen.

Wie geht es nun weiter? Willst du dich vielleicht nochmal der Herausforderung stellen?

Wie gesagt, „Penn & Teller: Fool Us“ war ein tolles Abenteuer, das mir sehr viel Spaß gemacht hat. Wenn ich die Gelegenheit noch einmal bekomme, würde ich also bestimmt nicht lange überlegen.

Welche wichtige Erkenntnis und welchen besonders schönen Eindruck nimmst du von der Show aus Las Vegas mit nach Hause?

Vor allem wurde meine Erkenntnis bestärkt, wie großartig die Arbeit von Penn & Teller ist. Die beiden präsentieren, wie unterhaltsam, faszinierend und clever Zauberei sein kann, in einer Show, die auf der ganzen Welt gesehen wird. Das hilft der Zauberei, ihr verstaubtes Image abzulegen.

Als besonderen Eindruck nehme ich das Treffen mit den beiden nach der Show mit. Teller nahm sich kurz Zeit um mir zu sagen, wie sehr ihm mein Trick gefallen hat. Und das war für mich mehr wert als jeder Preis.

Vielen Dank für das Gespräch, Wolfgang, und weiterhin viel Erfolg!

(Interview: Jan Isenbart)

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Wolfgang Moser nach der Show mit Penn & Teller

Und hier der Auftritt von Wolfgang:


Zu Wolfgang Mosers Webseite geht es hier.

Weitere Interviews, u.a. mit den deutschen “Fool Us”-Kandidaten Harry Keaton und Axel Hecklau, gibt es hier.


 

Some Collected Impressions from the 8th EMHC in Vienna

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Traveling back now from Vienna on Sunday evening, the 8th edition of the European Magic History Conference is already (very recent) history. I am more than happy to have made the trip and to have attended for the first time!

My head is spinning with interesting facts and insights from a total of 16 lectures; I have met a few familiar faces and made many new acquaintances; my magic collection has grown through a few pieces I was able to acquire; my own presentation found some kind interest; and a couple of exciting new books are about to appear!

Overall, rubbing shoulders with some of magic‘s greatest historians / collectors / luminaries like Edwin Dawes, John Gaughan, Mike Caveney, Roberto Giobbi, The Davenports, our host Magic Christian and many others has been a reverent and rewarding experience!

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Now if this blog were more tabloid style, I could yell out headlines like these:

Dutch Magician Decapitates Rabbit!
Renowned Book Collector Considered Buying A Buried Witch‘s Bones!
Famous U.S. Collector May Bring His Treasures Back Into Barnes and Attics!

 

But of course I won’t. Fortunately, I am more of the serious and responsible writing kind! However, I have no intention of giving a full and thorough review of the conference; I was there to listen, learn, and discuss. So what follows are just some facts, highlights and side notes from my very personal point of view.

For the full program and abstracts of all lectures, have a look here. For the details and the laughs you simply had to be there–sorry! But as a glimpse into the program will reveal, the diverse agenda catered to almost every field of interest: biographical notes and details on some performers and venues; books old and new and how to study them; collectors’ items; some case studies (on a gruesome illusion, a fake automaton, a famous painting, and an early trick deck from 1623), and two topics on magicians serving in wartime and political crisis.

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Shortly before the conference, Magic Christian had already announced a major surprise: the resurfacing of a fine and known Hofzinser portrait, painted by Johann Matthäus Aigner in 1846, that had been missing for almost a century. Christian had been looking for it for 25 years, mainly in museums and other collections. Then, only weeks ago, he received a phone call from a lady who offered him to acquire this huge portrait from an estate. It had in fact been hanging in a private home in Gmunden for the last 100 years! Proudly, Christian unveiled it and presented it to the participants, who were duly impressed!

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I must say I enjoyed all the talks, as diverse as they were in terms of topic, material, and presentation, but I took the most fresh knowledge and inspiration from these contributions:

Flip tracing the history of the “Decapitation Illusion”, as always with an abundance of pictures and information, and also with a word of criticism on the “trivialized” versions like “Forgetful Freddie” and the “Armcutter”. To prove his point, he successfully (non)decapitated a toy rabbit.

James and Sage Hagy with a vivid description of the magicians present (including Houdini) and their tricks at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. They very graciously handed out free copies of a beautiful little book they had prepared along their topic.

Steffen Taut shared some amazingly enlarged pictures (look here, zoom in and marvel!) and recent scientific methods to (re)assess the paintings of Jheronimus Bosch (correctly pronounced “Boss”), and he added some interesting new hypotheses on a number of details, symbols, and meanings of “The Juggler.” He concluded that there may have been an original version of this famous painting; the one we know and admire, however, was more likely painted “only” in his workshop or by a follower, but not by Bosch himself.

Francois Bost presented some exciting new findings from his own long-standing research on Robert-Houdin‘s political mission to Algiers in 1856, including a heretofore unknown letter from RH to Colonel de Neveu (who had won him for the trip). He concluded that RH had in fact played to a selected, peaceful audience of civil servants (instead of fierce, hostile Marabouts) and that the mission had caused little impact (although it was boosted by the press and RH himself), but had probably served as an early military attempt to test psychological warfare on a people with the help of a renowned magician! (This topics tied in nicely with my own presentation on magic and warfare.)

Ron Bertolla deserves our special appreciation for introducing us to French juggler-turned-creator Alain Cabooter and his wonderful (fake) automaton, “Ioni, The Magical Gymnast” (see below). Not only did he show a truly magical video presentation of Ioni’s astonishing feats at the horizontal bar, which caused thunderous applause; he also brought the treasured figure (now defunct) with their current owners to Vienna and handed out a free booklet with the full (and unhappy) story. Wow!

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Again, I can’t help but marvel at the incredibly rich and diverse history of magic, its ingenious creators and performers, and its myriad links to other arts or historical events!

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The Venue

The EMHC Conference was held at the Hotel Stefanie, Vienna‘s oldest hotel, and their service team supplied us unobtrusively with a never-ending stream of tasty food, snacks, and drinks.

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Evening Entertainment…

…included a musical and magical dinner at Marchfelderhof on Thursday. When our bus arrived there, we were greeted and treated by the owner and his team with music and flags. Inside, the fine and fun restaurant is ridiculously but charmingly loaded with thousands of  items—lamps, musical instruments, pictures, signed photographs, figurines and what not (see below). As some collector‘s spouse suspiciously opined, the trip was probably taken to demonstrate „that other collectors put much more stuff in their rooms, see, Honey?“

The magic between courses was provided by Magic Christian, Flo Mayer and Wolfgang Moser.

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Friday evening was spent three stories down below city level in the very old Zwölf Apostelkeller, with traditional Viennese food and some fine strolling magic performed by Robert Woitsch and Raphael Macho.

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Saturday afternoon saw us walking over to Vienna‘s huge and impressive City Hall (with 1,575 rooms, as a plaque said). After a formal reception at the invitation of the Mayor and Governor of Vienna, Dr. Michael Ludwig, we were ushered into the City Council where we marveled at the splendor of the enormous flambeau above us and soon took over the green felt tables. Reinhard Müller was the first to have the cards out. Soon after, Magic Christian performed an Ace routine (with a fine Graziadei subtlety) on this parliamentary stage where, on other days, more subtle deceptive maneuvers may be executed.

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Before attacking another buffet, we were treated with a magic show of one piece each by Robert Woitsch, Mark Albert, Wolfgang Moser and Flo Mayer. With the exception of Wolfgang Moser, all featured performers over those three days hail from the Magischer Club Wien, of which Magic Christian is the President.

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What about the Future?

The conference closed on Sunday noon with an interesting talk on the future of magic collections, how to maintain them, and all owners’ responsibility to take care of their treasures and their knowledge in due time so collections neither get thrown away, nor scattered all over the world, nor disappear in obscure museums, but rather remain within the magic community and “the big river” from which the next generation of collectors may fish.

A second topic was how to get younger magic fellows interested in the old books and tricks of our art and how to facilitate their entry into the fields of history and collecting. (I might write more about these topics in a future post.)

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Next European Magic & History Conferences:

At least, the immediate future is safe and secured: The participants confirmed to have the next meeting in London in September 2021, organized by Fergus Roy, who already announced some exciting highlights, including a look into a rather unknown collection of 1 million (!) posters. The 2023 Conference is scheduled to be held in Gent, Belgium then.

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New Book Department:

November will see the publication of the coming Bible of Bookplates (please excuse the trivialized secular term, but the alliteration was too tempting) by the late Jim Alfredson and Bernhard Schmitz. About six years in the making, Bernhard and the sic! Verlag are currently putting the final touches on the book, which will present about 1,200 magic bookplates that have been identified yet! If you want your bookplate to be included also, make sure to send it to Bernhard before October 1st!

Birgit Bartl-Engelhardt and Wittus Witt will bring out a quick encore and addition to the beautiful Zauber-Bartl Chronology (in German) that was presented to the market just last week. This one will trace the story of the „Zauberkönig“ magic dealers family, to which Rosa Bartl also belonged. (Accompanying his conference presentation, Wittus also has a lovely small book out that features about 300 magic lapel pins. It comes both with an English and a German text.)

And finally, after about 40 (!) years in the making, Volker Huber and Christian Theiß have completed the long awaited Bibliography of German Magic Books until 1945, covering some 3,100 books and booklets on 700 pages. What a monumental achievement! It will most likely set the standard for decades to come. Whether a second volume covering books from 1945 til today will follow is currently unclear, as Christian said. And if so, it might well be a decade or more away. Let’s hope and see–and in the meantime, let’s be happy about and thankful for the first volume before asking for more!

All three books are available for subscription now. Do now what you have to do! 🙂

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Magic coincidence No. 1: A surprising discovery

I may have found an interesting historical magic reference in the cheap decoration of my hotel room. Look at the depiction of that old and grim Japanese warrior above: If it‘s not some sort of fly swat, he may be handling a huge magic paddle! 😉

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Magic coincidence No. 2: A spooky discovery

Taking a stroll after Peter Rawert’s enlightening presentation on books‘ provenance research (a fascinating topic I had never even thought about before), his acquisition of a copy of Reginald Scot‘s seminal work and its link to the alleged witch Ursula Kemp (whose alleged bones he almost ended up buying!), the first shop window I looked at belonged to an art gallery and presented this painting, „Witches‘ Sabbath“ by one Bonaventura Genelli!

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Magic coincidence No. 3: A weighty discovery

Noticing this statue in the heart of magic Vienna, some of us speculated it could well be our host’s very own one, with MCD meaning “Magic Christian Denkmal” (in German) or MCM meaning “Magic Christian Memorial,” erected by his grateful admirers and disciples… 😉

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Jokes aside, we can only conclude by thanking and applauding Magic Christian once more for being such a very gracious and caring host who offered us over four days a cornucopia of magic history, both from our field and from the wonderful city of Vienna!

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More Magic in Vienna:

While being there, you may also want to check out the Museum der Illusionen (Museum of Illusions; I guess you figured that one out) with its fine optical illusions.

And in line with it, there’s currently a dazzling exhibition (until 26 October, 2019) at the mumok museum, Vertigo. Op Art and a History of Deception 1520–1970.”

(Jan Isenbart)


Addendum 29.08.2019

And here’s a full review of the conference by Ian Keable of the UK, who had presented a lecture on the four magicians in Charles Dickens’s life.