There’s a certain kind of person–I’m one of them–who’s born eager to please. When you’re born a people-pleaser, the world can be a cruel place. Which is why people-pleasers tend to seek out communities of other people-pleasers. For me, that community has always been the world of musical theater. The first time I walked into Marie’s Crisis in New York, a piano bar filled with over-eager gay men and the women who love them, all singing show tunes in unison, I felt like I’d come home. That sense of belonging, of encountering other freaks who also knew every word to “Little Shop of Horrors,” was one of the great discoveries of my youth.
On Monday night, I found myself watching a show I hadn’t paid much attention to before: Penn & Teller’s Fool Us. The premise is simple: a bunch of Las Vegas magicians appear on stage before the real Penn & Teller and try to show them something they’ve never seen before. If Penn and Teller can’t figure out the trick, the magician “wins.” I put “wins” in quotes, because even though that seems like the point of the show, it’s not really the point of the show. The point of the show, I quickly discovered, is for fringe people-pleasers (aka: magicians) to engage in the ultimate form of people-pleasing—to try to impress their heroes in front of a live studio audience.
Magicians and musical theater enthusiasts really are close cousins (case in point: Neil Patrick Harris). It’s not enough just to impress, you’ve got to dazzle. But what you learn, as you get further into each field, is that what’s truly dazzling tends to be pretty small. For a real musical theater enthusiast, “Send in the Clowns” is a greater achievement than “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina,” just like a perfectly executed card trick is more stunning to a real magician than making the Statue of Liberty disappear.
Penn and Teller are the great arbiters of a magic act’s worth. They see right through any bullshit (they were the hosts, after all, of a show called Bullshit) and help separate, for the audience, the true innovators from the frauds. What makes the show so thrilling–and one of my favorite shows on TV right now–is that something very real is transpiring despite the not-so-real nature of what you’re watching. That real thing is the interaction between these elder statesmen of magic, who entered this world for their own personal reasons 40 years ago, and their disciples who entered this world for personal reasons of their own. There’s an acknowledgment, a tacit understanding, that the magician’s life isn’t an easy life–in many ways, I bet, it’s a lonely life–but it’s a worthy life, nonetheless. What the show becomes, if you watch it for a while, is a window into a passionate community of outsiders; outsiders who become the ultimate insiders because they know how they just pulled off a trick and you don’t.
On Alec Baldwin’s podcast this week, Penn Jillette talks about the ethics of doing magic. He tells the story of Harry Houdini who, after his mother’s death, went to the home of Arthur Conan Doyle where Doyle’s wife asserted she could communicate with the dead. Sitting down at a desk, she “channeled” Houdini’s mother’s spirit, writing on a piece of paper a message from the great beyond: first she drew a cross at the top of the page and then she wrote “Dear Harry.” Houdini flew into a rage because (1) his mother was Jewish, so she would never draw a cross; and (2) his mother was from Budapest and didn’t speak English–she’d never write “Dear Harry.” She didn’t even call him Harry.
That kind of deception is what Houdini spent his life railing against and Penn and Teller carry on that tradition. A good magic trick, it turns out, has nothing to do with deceiving an audience. Deception is a form of alienation. What Penn and Teller forge, through their magic and their interactions with younger magicians, is a sense of community. The show says that even though this world is full of charlatans and crooks, every so often a people-pleaser comes along who’s stripped of all pretense, who simply wants to induce a sense of wonder. Watching Penn and Teller experience that wonder, despite their 40 years in the business, is a total delight–just watch the clip below–and one of the best things to see on T.V. right now.