Getting Ready for Penn & Teller: Fool Us! Part 1

January 10th of 2018 my life took a dramatic change. I was casually deleting junk e-mail when the sentence, “Hi Erik, Congratulations, we would like to officially book you to appear on Season 5 of Penn & Teller: Fool Us, filming this March at the Rio Suites Hotel in Las Vegas,” caught my eye. This was an e-mail I had been hoping to get but did not ever really think would come.
To be honest the entire process started in November of 2017. A friend of mine who knew about my effect Invisible Three Card Monte told me to submit it to Fool Us. When you submit to a show like this there is radio silence for a long time because they get literally thousands of submissions. I don’t know exactly what their process is, but I once did coverage for a production company that necessitated me reading half a dozen scripts every day. I can only imagine watching every magic submission is the same thing but significantly worse. The real heroes are whoever it is who sifts through the submission inbox for Fool Us. My video did get viewed, and then there was a request for a res-hoot because the original video was pretty rough. Following that there was no communication until January when a single e-mail asking, “Would you do this with Alyson at the table or the guys?” The next thing I knew I was booked and under an iron clad NDA with teeth that would make a hell of a lot of bread should a giant decide to grind them.
Once you are booked you get to work with the most incredible production team on the planet. Within days my flight and accommodations were taken care of, contracts were signed, and I was engaged in a detailed description of my props list. When you watch my segment it looks pretty simple. It’s just three cards right? It couldn’t be further from the truth, and knowledgeable card magicians will recognize exactly why I wasn’t at the P&T blackjack table. We went back and forth for a couple of days on specific measurements and specifications. When I perform for my corporate clients I bring my table with me because I expect them not to have a poker table handy. This was Fool Us. I had been dreaming of dealing cards on their table. Finally the production team said, “You know what, bring your table. If we don’t use it you’ll have a great place to practice in your hotel room.” They flew my fucking table out there. I couldn’t believe it. This was when I knew that it was going to be a good experience. Making film and television is all about figuring out where you can save costs so you can put that money towards making something else look great. The people behind the scenes at Fool Us know that something as critical as a height dimension on a table can make or break a trick. They didn’t want to take any chances, and brought my custom-built card table to Las Vegas Nevada.
The next thing that happens is you meet and interview with your package production team. I had this really cool segment producer named Olu who really got me and what I was doing. The package is what they call that brief video intro before you walk out and do your trick. Those aren’t thrown together on a whim. They begin the scripting and research for those months before you show up in Vegas. Olu and his team researched me before getting me on the phone to discuss what I wanted to do. They knew a lot about my education, my history as a comedian, the sketch comedy troupe I perform with, and a number of awards that I had forgotten I even won. Then they interviewed me about my trick, what I thought of the show, and what my approach to magic is. As luck would have it a close friend of mine named Michael Kent was on Fool Us a few years before and Olu had produced his package as well. Olu picked up on my personal brand and the material I put out there and began story-boarding my package to highlight the preparation I was going through to get ready for this experience.
Let’s talk about what I was doing. Because apart from waking up in a panic in the middle of the night I was doing quite a bit to make sure I was ready. As you have no doubt already seen in my promotional reel, I put myself through a sort of gauntlet to get ready for the show. My office got transformed into the Fool Us set. When I am not doing magic and comedy; photography is something of a hobby. So I set up an array of cameras in my office to watch the trick from every angle possible. The main camera that would simulate the primary cameras Fool Us is filmed with was hooked up to a projector that played over my right shoulder. This would allow me to learn to surreptitiously check my angles on the actual monitors the live audience watches in the theater. I really did set up poster print outs of Penn and Teller on my office wall so I could become comfortable addressing them. I knew Alyson would be sitting to my right, so a color photograph of her face was taped to an inflatable dinosaur as a stand in for her. Having performed in Los Angeles for many years I knew that hearing someone’s voice can really throw you off, especially if it’s a celebrity. I really didn’t want Penn’s voice to spook me on stage so almost every one of my rehearsals was accompanied by a soundtrack of Bullshit. Hulu has every season of Penn & Teller’s Showtime program Bullshit available. So I would practice the moves, sequences, and entire routine with Penn yammering about something that John Oliver would go on to do a similar, albeit more succesful, version of on HBO. This turned out to be very helpful, because years ago I froze when asked to do a trick for Natalie Morales. When I stood in front of Penn & Teller the day of the taping, I had been conditioned to be comfortable in their presence.
In addition to my torture chamber of a rehearsal space I lied to a lot of my friends. My long-suffering lady partner helped me orchestrate a series of shows in our living room. We would invite groups to our home under the pretense of me getting ready to major magic competition. We lied to them when we said I was getting for the IBM Gold Cups Close Up Competition. To be fair I did end up winning that thing, but that wasn’t the intent of the small groups. Once we had the group assembled another local magician would do 10-15 minutes of close up to warm the audience up. I am forever indebted to Chris Marek, Branden Wolf, and Brandon Gerald for helping me in this. After their act I would run my Fool Us routine twice, but using a script that didn’t tip where I was headed. Here we were checking to make sure the routine made sense and that I was executing the moves well. We did do one of these small groups with my most trusted performer friends. I am fortunate to work with some extraordinarily talented comedians who understand how to keep a secret and are familiar with the discretion required for television consulting. One evening they got the full routine, with all the jokes, and as a team we agonized over every syllable in my script.
The third and final phase of my preparation involved consultation with Brent Braun, Michael Close, and Nickey Winkelman.
Michael works for Fool Us and has decades of experience helping magicians make their act the best. Every time you see me reach underneath a bill to reveal a card you see Michael’s influence. One of the most important things he taught me was that this was going to be viewed on YouTube a lot. The basic routine as I had created it was pretty easy to figure out if you had the ability to pause a tape and go back, as many people have done to nearly every Fool Us Routine. So we needed to give them something extra to look at. Michael changed the choreography of the routine so it would play better on television. Michael is among the best magicians ever to walk the planet so having his ear and eye on my routine was a real honor.
Brent has been a close friend for a long time and was the second call I made after I found out I was going to be on the show. I spent a day long intensive with him working through the routine and trouble shooting various permutations of the effect. One of the big risks with a routine like iMonte is that the audience has free choices. Theatrically it looks better when specific choices, that I heavily hint towards, are made. So Brent and I gamed out a bunch of different possibilities. We also created a new ending that didn’t end up making it to air but did make it into the version of iMonte that allowed me to win the IBM Gold Cups Close Up Competition. Brent is very good at cutting through the bullshit to the heart of what your routine is.
Nickey Winkelman is an accomplished comedian who knows jack shit about magic, and that’s exactly why I had her look at the routine. Something a lot of magicians overlook is what something looks like from the perspective of a layperson. Nickey directed my theater show Please Shuffle The Cards, and frequently collaborates with me on other projects. Nickey saw this back when it was just a weird thing I did in competitions and moved it around in my show. She is also instrumental in helping me craft the character of the piece and how the magic itself interacts with my audience members.
The worst part of prepping for this show is that you don’t know what you don’t know. Yes I had the best in the business helping me get ready. Yes I had a number of friends who had already been on the show tell me what to expect. It still couldn’t prepare me for what was to come. So I spent the next few months mutilating cards in my office torture chamber rehearsal space in an effort to try fooling Penn & Teller.