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  • Judge Brown

The Magical Road to Penn & Teller's Fool Us

Updated: Mar 29, 2023

During a session at the Mystery School’s “Weekend of Wisdom” in 2021, Jeff McBride challenged each participant to set a magic goal to accomplish during the following year. The goal was to be written, and then read to the group. I immediately knew my goal: I wanted to appear on Penn & Teller’s Fool Us. But I lacked the resolve to write it down or say it aloud. Somehow, it felt too big, too audacious, so I substituted “performing at the Magic Castle” instead. Yet, in my heart, Fool Us remained my true objective.

If you want to improve as a performer, goalsetting is crucial. Over the past decade, I’ve set and met several magic goals: developing a standup act, inventing about a dozen original effects, studying and lecturing at Mystery School and writing more about performance magic. Each goal, unimaginable just a few years earlier, required sustained effort and perseverance. Most also required guidance and feedback from mentors and friends that helped turn fantasy into reality.

Attaining those goals resulted in amazing (and sometimes unexpected) opportunities: performing at new venues, publishing Wandcraft, serving as the Distinguished Lecturer for a national convention, and receiving awards from the I.B.M. and the S.A.M. More rewarding, though, were the relationships that followed: deepening involvement in the art resulted in bonds with remarkably talented and interesting people.

A few months after the “Weekend of Wisdom,” Fool Us was seeking performers for Season 9. It was time. I decided to develop a new set using one of my inventions, the Viking “Spirit Trumpet” for an audition video. Transforming that stage piece into an act appropriate for Fool Us proved daunting and I needed help. Much of that support came from the Mystery School community: drawing on their deep experience and knowledge, Jeff and Mystery School Dean Larry Hass provided invaluable advice, reassurance and support.

I submitted the video, presuming I would never hear back, yet within twenty-four hours, found myself on the phone with the show’s producers and magic consultant Michael Close. The ensuing months involved revising, rescripting and reshooting the routine, hundreds of rehearsals, and attending to countless details. Through it all, my mentors and magic colleagues helped me with editing, scripting, blocking and stagecraft. Then, it was off to see the wizards!

Fool Us is unlike ordinary reality shows that gleefully wallow in a contestant’s failure. Everyone associated with the production loves magic and strives to ensure that your magic looks beautiful. In a whirlwind, I encountered the Fool Us team: writers, directors, technical specialists, travel professionals, and fashion advisors who would handle everything related to my trip and appearance.

Shooting began inside Penn & Teller’s secret storeroom, a gigantic space stacked floor to ceiling with boxes marked with familiar illusion names like “Shadows” and “Needles.” “Pretty cool in here, don’t you think?” asked our escort. “Well, don’t touch anything!” The storeroom also housed Penn & Teller’s props department, a group of craftspeople who could fabricate, fix or jerry-rig anything that a magician might need. Contestants were shown to an impromptu seating area, where we made nervous chitchat while waiting to be called.

A short elevator ride from the secret storeroom deposits one onto the main stage. The backstage area is reminiscent of the interior of a submarine - dark, cavernous, but tightly packed with experts urgently working over glowing displays and readouts. I was fitted with a microphone, and consulted briefly with the stage manager, audio engineer, and, frankly, more supportive crew members than I can recall. And, in what seemed the blink of an eye, I found myself on the main stage. The contrast between the dark, crowded wings and the brilliantly lit stage of the mammoth Penn & Teller Theater is jarring, if not overwhelming.

What happened next? Well, I’m not allowed to say. But you can see the results on March 31, when my segment is scheduled to air. I’ll be seeing it for the first time, as well.

After the filming, though, I knew just what to do. Just as Superbowl athletes famously proclaim “I’m going to Disneyland” after a big win, following the most amazing achievement of my magic career, I headed straight to Mystery School. There, I reconstructed the performance for Jeff, and described its reception by Penn & Teller. Jeff again shared important tips and encouragement.

The lesson? Set goals for yourself and your magic. Find mentors and a supportive community. Put in the work. And don’t be afraid to aim high. You never know what might happen.

And, incidentally, the producers at Fool Us are looking for auditions for Season 10….

[This post originally appeared in the Mystery School Museletter]

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