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David Copperfield on Penn & Teller: Fool Us

David Copperfield on Penn & Teller: Fool Us

Thoughts from a Magician and Fool Us performer

by Nathan Coe Marsh

At its highest aspiration, magic does not fool us…Great magic makes us lose control. We scream. We jump out of our seats. We involuntarily curse. We feel alive.”

Penn & Teller: Fool Us has preserved phenomenal performances from some of the best performers working today. It has been the platform where both Shin Lim and Piff the Magic Dragon first grabbed the public spotlight with viral appearances. In an era where the credibility of magic on television had been eroded by a pervasive and clumsy reliance on editing tricks and audience members that were “in on it” (“friendlies” as one celebrity magician privately termed them) Fool Us had the brilliant notion of putting two performers with their own reputation on the line in the room trying to bust the acts so that the audience watching at home knows there is no “TV trickery” at work. I am grateful that I was asked to perform on the Season 3 premiere of the show, and that performance was a boost to my own career.


There’s one aspect of the show’s premise that I have never been fully comfortable with and there was a segment in last night’s show that is the perfect jumping off point for a conversation about it.

Last night, Fool Us concluded with a smart idea: they inverted the show’s format and had the judges sit in judgement. To judge Penn & Teller they brought in the one person whose name has been synonymous with magic in the public imagination for nearly five decades: David Copperfield.

The idea was vulnerable, bold, and clever. Then came the segment.

Video: David Copperfield on Penn & Teller: Fool Us

(Clip should auto-start at 31:36, if it doesn’t — that’s the relevant part of the show you want to go to…)

First let me say that everyone involved handled this perfectly. It was a great performance, and Copperfield was bright and classy on his feet.

Here’s the issue that arises from the structure and premise of the show:

At its highest aspiration, magic does not fool us. It is not a puzzle with a piece you can’t quite find.

Magic emotionally convinces us that we have experienced something that is not possible while — at the very same moment — we know rationally that it is a trick.

Great magic makes us lose control. We scream. We jump out of our seats. We involuntarily curse. We feel alive.

At that moment, everything else in our lives — every source of stress and tension — vanishes as we are pulled temporarily into a new world. Magic is, or rather can be, the splash of cold water in your face that is both a little uncomfortable and invigorating.

Here, in this segment, we had three of the finest magicians alive — people who create genuinely transcendent experiences that transport audiences five nights a week — arguing about the solution to a puzzle with playing cards.

The routine was constructed specifically to puzzle someone who is familiar with traditional methods in card magic. This was magic as cerebral competition rather than as celebration of life.

And that is perfectly fine. Magic is better for the work of everyone involved in the segment.

But: and I cannot stress this enough, when you see a magician live you are not being put into a competition. It isn’t a game of whether or not you can bust them. It is an attempt — sometimes successful, sometimes not — to give you an experience that no other artform can. It is an attempt to let you play for a few brief moments in a world where the rules no longer apply. It is an attempt to bring you joy.

It is an act of love.


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About Nathan Coe Marsh:
Nathan Coe Marsh’s blend of genuine warmth, hilarious interaction, and stunning impossibilities has taken him to 13 countries. Nathan’s work has been seen on NBC, CBS, FOX, and on the season premiere of Penn & Teller: Fool Us. He has entertained in venues as diverse as the private yacht of an NFL team owner, to the Top of the World club in Thule, Greenland, to the iconic Magic Castle in Hollywood, to performances in French Polynesia, the Mexican Riviera, Central America, the mountains of Banff, and the Caribbean. His corporate event performances led Event Solutions magazine to name him a finalist for “Entertainer of the Year,” while MAGIC Magazine described his work as “a breath of fresh air.” In addition to performing full time, he is a review columnist for Genii, the leading trade journal for serious magicians. Nathan lives in Orlando, Florida.

3 Responses to David Copperfield on Penn & Teller: Fool Us

  • Nathan,

    You’re absolutely correct. Although I’ve enjoyed watching the show, I’ve not been fond of the premise or the name for that reason.

    Magic, at it’s best, like other art forms can kindle within us deep feelings, whether it be the wonder of magic, the comfort or energy of music, the spirit of dance, or escaping to another location in a painting. All of these arts are inspiring to us.

    As a long-time hobbyist magician, I absolutely love Penn and Teller and the show for the ideas that are presented.

    However if I was just another spectator I would feel a need to rise to the challenge to work out the “puzzle” and would be conditioning myself to lose sight of the wonder.

    If the spectator “solves the puzzle”, they will most likely be disappointed in the method. I always tell those that ask, “If I tell you the secret, then it will cease to be magic.”

    Thanks Nathan. I knew that others must be sharing the same thoughts.

    • I don’t want to just watch magicians. Penn & Teller make the show, and like Jeopardy it’s fun to play along at home. I once figured out a trick that fooled them but usually I’m baffled. Trying to decode Penn’s description of the trick is a big part of the fun.

  • I agree with you Nathan. For this reason I have *always* disliked the term “trick’ and, when performing magic my goal is NOT to demonstrate a puzzle or try to make the spectator(s) feel ‘the fool’. It is an entertainment – not unlike dancing or singing – whereby your expression of excitement and joy in your performance is (hopefully) contagious and affects the audience in some significant way.

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