Fascinated Friday: The Joy in Being Fooled

I’ll be honest.  I like magic.

Love it, actually.

Not just the big, Vegas style, make a car disappear with nothing but a handkerchief and a scared looking rabbit, although that can be fun too.  I mean the sharp, mechanical stuff.  The coin tricks, the card manipulations, the vanishes and drops, hides that form the basis for sleight of hand.  I love the skill inherent in it.

But more than anything, I love to be fooled.

There’s an old story about P.T. Barnum.  No idea if it is true or not, but like all the best stories, who cares?  Anyway, the story goes that when Barnum first came to America, he had a flea circus.  And what he would do is set up the flea circus in a small tent, and charge people just a few pennies to come in and see the amazing trained fleas.  He would allow only two or three people in at a time, and there was usually a good size line of people waiting to see these wonderful fleas.

Only there were no fleas.

When people got inside, they saw a little model circus, likely run by clockwork or magnets.  Nothing that would fool anyone older than a child.  But here is where Barnum’s brilliance came through.  Past the flea circus itself, above the exit, was a sign that read “You paid to see the fleas, why should they find out for free?”  And because of this simple sign, something magical happened.  People came out of that tent, rushing to their friends and neighbors in line.  But instead of complaining, they talked about the wonders they had seen inside that tent.  They urged their friends to go in and see for themselves.

They sold the trick for Barnum.

Because Barnum knew something about people.  Barnum knew that people don’t mind being fooled, if its in good fun, but they really don’t mind if they then get to be in on the joke and do it to someone else.  Sure spending real money to look at fake fleas seems like a ripoff, but spending a few bits to be in on a great prank, well now that’s worth the price of admission.

This story, most likely not true at all, has always resonated with me.  This is why I love magic.  And in my mind, no one has inherited that spirit and essence of PT Barnum like Penn and Teller.

I’ve been a fan of these two for a long time now, following them in a number of different avenues.  From their magic performances that took them to headlining Vegas, to their Snopes-esque debunking fest that was “Penn and Teller’s Bullsh!t” to the currently amazing “Penn and Teller’s Fool Us.”

It’s actually “Fool Us” that prompted me wanting to write this Fascinated Friday piece.  I follow game designer John Wick on facebook, because almost everything the man does is awesome.  But he said something about “Fool Us” the other day that really hadn’t occurred to me, but now, I keep thinking about how utterly true it is.  Here is what Mr. Wick said: “Penn & Teller’s “Fool Us” is, perhaps, the NICEST reality TV show I’ve ever seen. It’s not cynical, sarcastic or “watching the idiots.” It’s the exact opposite of the Cult of Dumb.”

This.  So much this.

For those of you who haven’t seen the show, “Fool Us” is basically a magician competition, where magicians come on and present a trick, in the hope that they can fool the great Penn and Teller, and have the two of them unaware of how the trick was performed.  Anyone who is successful, gets to open for the boys in Vegas.  This leads to some great, fresh acts and performances, but there are really two specific things that happen during the show that really elevate it in my opinion to something truly awesome.

First, when Penn and Teller know how a trick is done, they convey that to the performer with subtlety and discretion, knowing that these tricks and acts are the livelihood for these men and women.  They discuss the things they noticed in an almost code language, a patter and jargon that is just alien enough to be intriguing, and just familiar enough to feel like you could almost crack it.

The second thing that makes the show so great though are those moments when someone does manage to fool the two masters.  There is such joy and excitement from the two of them (all the more impressive to see because Teller doesn’t talk) at being able to be fooled, to recapture some of that magic that you get in being in audience of one of their shows, or walking into Barnum’s dark tent.  It is infectious and inspiring.

Don’t believe me?  Check out this clip from the show featuring the amazing Shin Lim.

Awesome, right? And don’t even get me started on the magician performing in that clip, a former concert pianist named Shin Lim.  That guy is the future of magic.  His act was so powerful and beautiful that the audience was utterly amazed.  Including both Penn and Teller. And they could not have been happier about it.

These two have a love for what they do and for people who do it also.  They have a sense of showmanship that is fun and unique.  And I’ll be completely honest here.  I’ve got a serious soft-spot for a duo act.

Now I just need a ponytail, and to get Joe to stop talking so much, and we are there.

Until next time, keep finding things you love.  And then making them disappear and reappear.  I know I will.

-Mark

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