Off to battle…
The morning of the taping my incredible partner Leslie carried my table down to the theater so my hands wouldn’t get injured. In hindsight that was stupid of me. I should have just rung down for a bellhop. Whatever. I was escorted downstairs where I would meet the three other performers in my taping.?
We were each brought up to the Penn & Teller stage one at a time to do our dress and technical rehearsal. You get wired up for sound and most importantly you teach the stage hands how to handle your props. This is a professional show with a professional crew. They aren’t going to fuck around with you moving your own stuff. You show pros how everything needs to be to set it up and they use their expertise to get everything onto the stage perfectly.?
Here’s something you didn’t see on television. Everyone has a fighting chance going into that environment in an effort to fool Penn & Teller. When I sit down in my chair I make some adjustments in my lap to make my performance easier to do. If I was to have a ghost of a chance of fooling those guys it was critical that they not know there was something secret in my chair before I sat in it. I explained this to the stage hands and they worked out exactly how to get my chair onto the stage and under my table while Penn & Teller were sitting in their judging chairs. That’s how good those guys are. No one in that audience knew what was going on, and they did it so naturally that I would have missed it myself. I was told a really great story about the crew doing something incredible for Eric Jones, but that is his story to tell. There are a lot of these stories about how this stage crew went to the mat for magicians that could be a book in its own right.?
The dress rehearsal is really great because you do the run through with stand ins for everyone. The stand in for Alyson is a dead ringer for her. Same hair, height, body type, even personality. It’s spooky how similar she looks, and getting to chat with her after my effect was done gave me a much needed boost of confidence. iMonte is a weird beast and showing it to people does strange things in my head. I start to scrutinize everything and game out how to make it better. The stand ins for Penn & Teller on the other hand are just some guys who are taking a break from being stage hands. They reminded me very much of how when we do the mic check for The Quiz Box I do bad impressions of our panelists for the month. I suspect they are very good friends with Penn & Teller and there is something of a competition as to who can do the most insane impression of them. It’s highly entertaining.?
Once all my props were in the care of the props master I was taken back downstairs to makeup. I don’t have a lot of celebrity stories, in fact I didn’t have any until just now. While I was getting my makeup done Alyson Hannigan walks into the makeup room and starts getting hers done. She was talking with the women doing our makeup like they were old friends, which they probably were. She wasn’t ignoring me, but I was sitting there quietly screaming into my head, “HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER!!!!” at the top of my mind’s lungs. As soon as the haze cleared from my head I heard Alyson say, “I love doing this show but I miss my kids.” At that moment I said, “I know how you feel I miss my tortoise.” Alyson suddenly became very excited and responded, “Oh my god you have a tortoise? What kind? I have a sulcatta. I love tortoises.” It was then and there that we bonded over our mutual love of tortoises and I have cursed myself every day since for not mentioning that during the actual taping of the show. The big takeaway from this blog post is that Willow from Buffy owns a tortoise the size of a coffee table. Whatever you thought of her before, now add a giant reptile into the mix and square it all in your head.?
After my makeup was done began the wait. They film something like 50 magicians in a week and a half in 4 performer chunks during their production schedule. I was fourth in my group so the wait was excruciating. I was amply provided for with snacks, and drinks, and a chicken, and conversation. What no member of the staff could provide me with was a way to calm the rising panic that everyone feels when they are about to do something truly insane. I started to get really loopy. At one point I convinced myself that it was a bad idea to ask for a photo with one of the other performers, so I waited until he was going to the bathroom and took a selfie with his sandwich.?
You wait underneath the Penn & Teller stage. Two people from my group fooled them. I knew that because while no one will tell you what happened, what they can’t hide is the thunderous roar of the audience when someone does fool them. The Sentimentalists were the first to perform out of our group. At one point I was alone waiting for Christian Engblom to finish performing. Christian is something of a hero of mine so I wanted to watch but wasn’t allowed to. I’d have to wait for TV. I knew Christian had fooled them because he’s Christian Fucking Engblom. He’s a machine that was purpose built by the government of Finland for fooling the shit out of people.?
The stage was reset for me and I walked out to my mark. While all of the cameras were reset I just sort of stood there waving and smiling like an idiot to Penn, Teller, and Alyson who all gave me little waves and smiled at me like I was eleven. I don’t blame them. My beard was a monster and I probably looked like I was going to pass out. Alyson said my name and I admitted to the audience I was terrified, and suddenly everything was cool.?
Alyson joined me at the table and we went to work. My favorite moment of the entire experience was when the cards vanished and Alyson’s jaw hit the floor. There was a brief moment where we locked eyes and I knew she was 100% on board with whatever was going to happen. We had a bunch of fun, and then I started to get really scared. The jokes that were crushing in the rehearsals weren’t hitting. I’d do a pop culture reference and the room would be silent. I started to freeze up, but forced myself to relax. There are a few times my hand hits the table as it comes back to work and that’s because I’m trying to figure out what’s up. Alyson, Penn, and Teller all think the Buffy jokes are hilarious but the audience is giving me tepid laughs at best.?
I find out much much much later that the front few rows are all young and groovy people who thought I was hysterical. The rest of the audience is a much older group. They didn’t get the jokes. They didn’t understand what the hell I was talking about and so they sat politely. Fortunately the sound must have been taken from that front few rows who think I’m witty and brilliant so the show came out fine. A question arises in my mind, “Will this make it to air? I’m dying up here. Fuck it just finish the show.”?
The trick ends, everyone applauds and then Alyson and I have a discussion in which I try to stay on brand, but if I had to do it all over again I would have steered the conversation towards tortoises because that is much more interesting that studying comedy. Especially after I just lost all confidence in any comedic ability I had. Alyson and I talked for nearly five minutes. The guys are taking a long long long time discussing my effect. I was trying to pay attention to them while also responding to Alyson. I should have focused more on her. I’m sorry I didn’t. Then Penn & Teller start talking to me, and this is why I’m in therapy because I’m convinced they hate me, and hate the trick. I’m wasting their time and I’m the worst. Suddenly Penn starts asking me if I go to the gym, and my spirits lift a little bit. They always reveal their guess in code and I have no idea where this is going. Have I fooled them? What does a gym membership have to do with IMonte? Penn is way off base, and apparently Teller doesn’t know anything about Swedish FISM winners. Holy biscuits I’m going to Fool…?
“Have you gotten Laparoscopic surgery from Doctor Lennart Green?”?
The penny drops, and while I am moderately disappointed, I didn’t really think I was going to fool Penn & Teller. Going in I gave myself a 27% chance of fooling them. I actually made a spreadsheet of every card guy on the show, how their effect works, the source material, and whether or not it was a fooler. My trick involves some difficult stuff and a few obscure sleights, but by and large they nailed it. I could have pushed on the last switch but I could feel my hand came off the table a quarter second early and I’m afraid I might have flashed. Besides, when I got the e-mail inviting me on the show I didn’t think I was going to fool them. Lennart Green’s material is legendary in the world of magic, and I have built my career on studying his moves and applying them in new ways.?
I am then very excited, because I have been working on a response in secret for months. Truth be told I was going to be disappointed if I didn’t get to say it. The real work for the show is having an exit strategy. If you don’t fool them you need to go out on something that will make everyone remember you. Piff had his banana. I needed a banana. So I decided that instead of saying, “You got me,” and waving I needed to wink at every magician watching the show. Here’s where studying people is important. I’m not just a magician, I’m a script writer. I had watched every episode of the show and the common thing that happens is Alyson never understands the code and always asks if the person fooled them. Then Penn asks if the magician understands what he is trying to convey. So in effect they perfectly set you up for your banana moment if you have the foresight to write yourself an out. It happened exactly the way I predicted and I spoke my favorite line I’ve every written.?
“I’m laterally aware of the idea you are trying to snap out there.”?
I practiced that line every day for months. I wanted to convey the two major elements of the routine, acknowledge what I was doing, and code back to them in a way that they would wish that’s what they had said. As soon as it comes out of my mouth Penn is laughing so hard he nearly falls out of his chair. Teller is stomping his feet with excitement. When you watch it on TV they had to cut their laughter down for time, because I nailed them hard. A double victory for me was that the rest of the room was silent. They had no idea why Penn & Teller were laughing so hard. I could even see camera guys trading quizzical looks. I’ve just told a joke that is so inside baseball it’s destroying two of my heroes and no one else gets it. In effect I did the linguistic equivalent of splitting an arrow with another arrow.?
“OK,” I think. I can hold onto this. No matter what else happens, this was worth the trip.?
Then I fall ass backwards over the chair Alyson was sitting in. I say thank you, walk backwards, and windmill both arms and damn near crack my skull on their stage. Because when you are are your highest moment something must immediately take you down a peg. To the eternal credit of the editors this didn’t make it to air. But if they ever show a blooper reel on the DVD set I bet I make an extra appearance.?
After that I was handed my case with table, ushered through a hallway and out into a parking lot behind the casino with no idea where the front door was. 30 minutes later I had stowed my props in the room and Leslie found me in the bar with a very large very nice scotch. Penn and Teller filmed one last trick (actually the one with Piff in the first episode) and then released the audience. As they all went back to their rooms about a hundred people stopped into the bar to tell me how much they liked me and my trick. To a person they all said, “I have no idea how the hell you did that. I was sure you had fooled them because you definitely fooled me.” That felt pretty good. I was emotionally and physically drained. Once the last of the people had left, and Leslie and I were alone in the bar I set down my Johnny Walker Blue Label and asked,
“So did I do OK?”?
“You were great honey. It was so different from anything else and everyone loved you. How do you feel?”?
“Honestly I don’t know.”?
“You should feel good. It was awesome.”?
“What did Christian do?”?
“OH MY GOD HIS POCKETS DISAPPEARED!!!”?
I’ve literally never seen Leslie that excited about another card magician. I’ve got something new to look forward to. I can’t wait to see Christian Engblom’s pockets vanish. Besides, now that Fool Us is over I need to get ready for the IBM, because sitting in that bar was the moment I decided that I was going to compete for real.?