Getting Ready for Penn & Teller: Fool Us! Part 2

Let me quickly begin by saying, I’m sorry for the delay. I side effect of being on Fool Us is having the best winter season I’ve ever had. So instead of editing this blog post, I’ve been doing magic for people as well as releasing my effect Ultra Lucky Coin on Penguin Magic. Here is volume two of my Penn & Teller experience.

Off To Vegas…

Traveling as a magician is a challenging experience because everything we have looks like a bomb to TSA. As it turns out traveling with one deck of cards is ok. When you have three bricks of cards in your carry on people start asking questions. Apparently the answer to the question, “Why do you have so many decks of cards?” is not, “I’m a magician.” That’s a story for another time.


I’ve never filmed a television show before so I didn’t know exactly what to bring. So I just brought most of the contents of my house. In addition to my table I brought with me 3 bricks (that is 36) decks of cards for practice, two magic books, a portable camera system to use for practice in my hotel room, way too many clothes options, and an array of devices, gels, files, and other secret apparatus that mean I am no longer considered a “pure card magician.” It was also decided a few days before I left that my package would highlight my background as a juggler. I still keep up the skills of a juggler, but I’m by no means at the height of my powers. So In addition to rehearsing my Fool Us routine I would also be re-learning some of my more complicated juggling feats which may or may not make it into the final edit.


While travel was uneventful, there is one story I want to share. While waiting for my luggage at the airport my table came out last. It always does. It flies as oversize luggage, and as luck would have it the entire thing fits into a 66 key piano case. Most of the time when I take it somewhere this isn’t a big deal. This was Vegas though. The entertainment capital of the world. There were musicians all over the baggage claim waiting for their instruments to come off the plane. When I claimed my bag as another keyboard player claimed his he asked, “What do you play?” I responded, “Oh I don’t play. It’s a table.” Before I could explain that I was a magician he let out a long sigh of a weary Vegas veteran and said, “Hey man, what happens in Vegas…” then he lumbered off into the night. I don’t know what kind of table he thought I brought with me, but there is no way my explanation will ever live up to whatever he thought.


The transportation team on Fool Us picked me up in a jiffy and whisked me off to The Rio All Suites Hotel and Casino and quickly got me checked in. Looking out over the Nevada desert and the glittering lights of Las Vegas was very surreal. I was in a hotel room because a group of people thought that my one trick was so good that I was worth flying across the country so they could share it with the rest of the world. Who cares if you fool them or not. That was a humbling thought. I haven’t calculated up what they spent on just me, but it probably turns out to a staggering sum per performer.


The rest of the week was filled with my lady partner flying out to join me. Meeting up with old friends who have gone on to be wildly successful and have their own shows in Vegas. Going to see really wonderful shows like Piff The Magic Dragon, Ka, David Copperfield, Mac King, and Masters of Illusion. Vegas is a hell of a lot of fun to visit, and it has been a long time since I visited. It’s a city that changes its skyline more often than a lot of people change their toothbrush.


My schedule was simple. Wake up, check the production schedule to see if I had a rehearsal or show obligation, then rehearse. After a full morning of rehearsal I would go out with Leslie and we would explore Las Vegas. Then come home early for a good night’s rest. I would invariably wake up in a cold sweat, unable to go to sleep. I would go downstairs and play blackjack for an hour, then back upstairs to have a quick nap before we repeated the process.


Rehearsing in the morning was on purpose by the way. Rick Merrill is a FISM winner, and actual world champion of magic. Many years ago I had heard him talk about the best time to rehearse for a competition was at the actual physical time you would compete. I knew that my taping was going to be morningish, so rehearsing in the morning was my effort to be as in tune with my body as I could be. iMonte requires the execution of some rather technical sleights that can be highly dependent on my skin’s moisture content and tackiness.

This sort of all goes back to preparing for the show as best I could. The small groups idea was something I picked up from John George. The camera systems was from my buddy Jon Armstrong (although I admittedly went a little extreme with it.) I was scared as hell for the actual time, but I was as prepared as I could be because I’m very fortunate to be friendly with the best in the world, and I was putting their advice into practice. You better believe that the moment I got booked to appear on Fool Us I read every blog of every performer who had ever been on the show. I wanted every hint I could get to be prepared for the day the cameras went on and I had to work. Writing this is my small way of paying it forward to the people who will be on season 6.


I got two rehearsals with the directors, camera guys, producers, and consultants. The first one was the most scared I’ve ever been in my life to perform a magic trick. Partly because Michael Close and Johnny Thompson are in the room while you do it. One thing you don’t hear about during the taping is that the audience in the theater is watching a lot of the magic happen on great big screens on either side of the stage. For a close up guy like me this is the only way they can experience it. Johnny and Michael have to know the trick really well because they help call those live shots with the director while the performance is happening. That won’t be the final edit, but a lot of the reaction shots of audience members is a direct result of those screens.


Johnny Thomson is a titan of magic who is pushing 1,200 years of age. I’m 80% sure he performed at Christ’s bris. He’s also sharp as a ceramic blade. There is a moment at the very end of my routine that was problematic all the way through. Johnny looked at it, slowly walked over to the table and said, “Can you just hold it like this?” Suddenly the routine was complete. The one thing that could have blown my appearance was solved by him watching the damn thing once and offering a suggestion. Don’t get me wrong everyone up until now had been amazingly helpful, but having a suggestion for the most crucial part of the effect come from The Great Thomsonni is something I’ll carry with me forever.


The great part about the rehearsals is that the entire team continues to try and break the effect. They game out all the possible ways it could go wrong and plan for failure. No one wants you botch anything, so they plan all the ways to make you look incredible. I know I keep saying that they have an incredible production staff, and I’m not kidding. We worked hard to take my very precarious effect and make it into a TV ready performance.

I was elated the afternoon following the first rehearsal when I received an e-mail telling me that everyone was very confident in where I was going after my first rehearsal, and that I didn’t have to do the second one if I didn’t want to. I went to the second rehearsal. I had spent the entire day relearning a single sleight that I’d spent months perfecting. That second rehearsal was almost perfunctory. Everyone looked at it and then we moved on.

Then the package shoot really started. I met Olu and his team and we did the interview. I’ve never been good at on camera interviews. I have a hard time looking people in the eye because I second guess everything I am going to say. It’s a special kind of stage fright that only affects me when I am being asked to talk about myself. I want to say now that if I said anything that seemed arrogant, cocky, embarrassing, or just plain dumb I am sorry. I have no idea how to act in situations like this. It’s weird. Olu was great and asked some really insightful questions and I’m sure that all of my answers were a weird mumbling that didn’t make sense.


The B-Roll was a lot of fun to shoot. Olu and his team set up a mock version of my rehearsal torture chamber and shot me six ways from Sunday practicing. When you watch me shuffling cards I’m not mindlessly shuffling. I’m running the most complex and difficult sleight of hand that I can do. Seconds, centers, and bottom dealing. Riffle stacking. Blind shuffles. Tabled faros. Slug controls and block transfers. At one point I’m certain I did a windmill arc move. I don’t get to really show off very often, so I absolutely cut loose when they said go. None of this had anything to do with my trick, it was me showing off. After that we trundled off to a very hip night club off the main strip in Las Vegas. We got there before the rest of their clientele came in for a drink and I got to fool around with that juggling that I had been relearning. Then we filmed some Instagram friendly color changes, and for some reason some coin tricks.


I sat down the night before this shoot with my notebook and I made a list of every visual piece of magic I do. I don’t own a lot of magic props, because my primary love is card magic. But when it comes to something visual I had to get creative and start relying on some small things that I play with on the side. My repertoire is mostly technically difficult discrete sleight of hand. The most visual thing I do was actually my trick on the show. I think at one point we were filming me eating a card because I’d been awake for way to long and was coming close to actually going insane. The package is interesting because you do it to introduce yourself to lay people and really sell your brand. My brand is technical sleight of hand blended with dry wit. Filming the little cut aways for the package is immense fun and a really cool insight into the way a television show works. When you’re filming it you think, “This is bananas, how is this going to look on TV.” When you see it it’s like a night and day difference. I put my trust in their team and let them do their thing. Once the package was in the can the only thing to do was get myself ready for the biggest audience of my career.