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Penn Jillette And “Wizard Wars” Magicians Explain How Magic Works And Why It’s Still Relevant

Whether it uses smoke and mirrors, or invokes iPhones and GoPros, magic finds ways to remain an unlikely mass entertainment in 2014.

Penn Jillette And “Wizard Wars” Magicians Explain How Magic Works And Why It’s Still Relevant
[Photos: Dale Berman, courtesy of Syfy]

If you think about it for more than a few minutes, the fact that magic is still a popular form of entertainment in 2014 is kind of surprising. When the first magic theater opened in Paris in 1845, people had few opportunities to see the impossible. Right now, without leaving your chair, you can watch a lifelike giant lizard stomp the hell out of San Francisco; you can control your favorite football players on a photorealistic gridiron; you can send a message around the world in seconds flat. With all of these things in mind, the idea that magic is still relevant to people seems hard to imagine.

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But magic is relevant. Top magicians still sell out theaters, Hollywood scores regular blockbusters with films about magicians, and–as evinced by shows like SyFy’s Wizard Wars and the CW’s Penn & Teller: Fool Us–the reality of an illusion crafted by sleight of hand and misdirection can catch our eyes even when that same screen could also be used to show big-time special effects.

Christen Gerhart, and Penn & Teller

No one knows magic–and how it stays relevant–like Penn Jillette, and he can trace the evolution of the form in recent years from David Copperfield (“he had a debonair quality that magicians jumped on”) to Doug Henning (“he created the kind of casual hippie magician”) to current stars like David Blaine and Criss Angel.

“The biggest change in our lifetime was David Blaine changing magic from a proscenium to street magic, and changing the attention from being on the magician to being on the audience and how they reacted,” Jillette says. “His first magic special was a turning point that changed magic in this country and in the world for the past 20 years. That yielded wonderful, wonderful stuff. And we’ll see what the next phase is.”

The question of what the next phase might be is a fascinating creative question about a medium that would seem outdated and hokey if it weren’t still so vital. We consulted with Penn who hosts Wizard Wars with longtime partner Joseph Teller, as well as show contestant Adam Trent, and his tourmate on the Broadway show The Illusionists, Dan Sperry, to learn how magic evolves, and the state of creativity in magic today.


Starting From Scratch

The thing about magic that distinguishes it from every other art form is that, while certain mechanical skills–like card and coin sleight-of-hand–are relevant in multiple tricks, for the most part, magicians have to start from scratch every time they want to develop a new trick.

“Magic is very different from many other forms, because when you learn to play the piano, or to play the guitar, you’ve learned a skill that can transfer directly to other forms of artistic expression–once you’ve learned to play a Chopin piece, you can kind of play some Bach. With magic, it’s very odd, because every time you want to write another piece of music to perform, you have to build the instrument,” Jillette says.

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A new trick that Penn & Teller are developing for their act involves vanishing a cow dressed as an elephant (when Penn talks, you tend to nod your head and not interrupt). But a trick like that doesn’t share much connection with the tricks that the duo have performed in the past.

“We’ve been working on that for six years with a huge amount of money and a huge amount of hours,” Jillette says. “That has been our quest. There’s nothing in that trick that we’ve done before, so what you learn in magic is that you don’t really learn how to do things that you’re going to do again. What you have to do is build the whole instrument and start from scratch.”


Knowing What’s Possible

More than anything, as Jillette puts it, the real skill that a professional magician with experience crafting new tricks develops is knowing what’s even within the realm of possibility. He quotes Danish physicist Neils Bohr when describing the mindset of the magician: “An expert is someone who has made all of the mistakes before.” In other words, if you–assuming you-the-reader are not someone with an extensive history in creating magic tricks–were to decide that you wanted to walk into the center of a crowd and vanish with nothing covering your body, Jillette would shoot you down right away.

“I would dismiss it instantly as being impossible,” he says. “If I brainstorm with Teller, the ideas that we bring up are ideas that, in some way, we can do. We may not know how to do them. In fact, most of the time, we don’t know how to do them, but we have a sense of what’s possible.”


Using Technology

Because magic is an old form of entertainment, it seems like incorporating technology into it would be cheating, but Jillette says tech has always had a place in the magicians’ bag. “Technology used to be a big thing in magic,” he notes. “Movies were created by magicians for magic shows. Electromagnets were used in magic before they were used anywhere else. Mirrors, of course, were new technology used by magic.”

Adam Trent–who competed in Wizard Wars as “The Futurist,” says technology can be a bridge for audience engagement and has used it in his tricks.

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“Technology almost brings an audience’s guard down, because it’s stuff they’re familiar with,” Trent says. “I don’t think that audiences are really familiar with big boxes and spikes and flaming torches and stuff. When was the last time a regular person held one of those? But people hold pieces of technology in their hands every single day, so there’s a whole set of assumptions and preconceived notions of what these tools are and how they work. It requires you to think a step further.”

Trent takes these ideas in interesting places. One of his tricks, for example, involves wearing a GoPro on his head, so the audience can see the live projections of exactly what he sees–which means that the audience thinks that they’re getting an inside look at how his act works. But in Trent’s hands, it’s just another way to manipulate and fool the audience–viewers watch the trick and focus on exactly what the magician wants them to see. By the end of the trick, the audience has been so misdirected that Trent manages to appear in the audience.

“That wasn’t something that started as ‘Ooh, I’m going to appear in the audience,’ it started as ‘I’m going to wear a GoPro on my head for a trick’ and ‘What can I do wearing this GoPro?’”


Not Being Used By Technology

Trent embraces technology, just like–as Jillette points out–countless magicians over the history of magic have. But he’s not alone in despising one piece of technology that’s ubiquitous now.

“Obviously, YouTube is one of the best ways to get discovered, but it’s probably the worst place for your magic to be seen,” he says.

Trent is old enough to recall poring over VHS copies of David Copperfield TV specials as a kid, trying to figure out the secret over the course of years of intensive study–but on YouTube, things are a little different. “All these YouTube comments, it’s like a community of detectives all working the same case,” he says.

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It’s something that every young comedian has to consider at some point. Dan Sperry, who, along with Trent, is part of the touring Broadway show The Illusionists (which opens November 26th in New York), just tries not to worry about it. “I don’t consciously battle the YouTube exposés, just because the ones that I’ve seen–although they’re very clever–are thinking way too hard and way too deep.”


Letting Constraints Drive Creativity

Ultimately, everyone has different ideas about how to make their act, and the magic tricks they use, relevant to savvy contemporary audiences. Penn & Teller like to devote years of study to tricks that only they could come up with–dressing cows up like elephants and getting them to disappear. Adam Trent likes to bring technology into an arena where it feels almost anachronistic. Sperry tries to take his inspiration from all of the creative media that inspires him–“like a Kubrick film or something.”

For Sperry–and for every magician–the limits of what can be accomplished are both their own imagination and the constraints of reality. And there’s a lot of joy in that.

“Magic is great because you can do anything,” Sperry says, “But in reality, you can’t, because there are only X amount of things that magic can do. You can make something appear, you can make it disappear. You can make it float. You can make it go from one place to another: ‘I’ve got something in this hand, and another thing in this hand, and they change places!’ You’re limited to a handful of outcomes. In one sense, anything is possible, because it’s magic. But by the same token, you’re limited to these potential outcomes–so you have to work within those outcomes to make it really interesting for modern audiences. People react differently to magic.”

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About the author

Dan Solomon lives in Austin with his wife and his dog. He's written about music for MTV and Spin, sports for Sports Illustrated, and pop culture for Vulture and the AV Club.

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