Why I Performed for Penn & Teller

At the beginning of this year I received an e-mail invitation to perform on Penn & Teller’s hit TV show on the CW network, “Penn & Teller: Fool Us.”

Kostya Kimlat with magic legend, Johnny Thompson

Kostya Kimlat with magic legend, Johnny Thompson

A dozen thoughts went through my head. How do I respond? What do I perform? What will Penn possibly say on national television when he and Teller figure me out? How will he expose me in front of millions of viewers? Then I read the last sentence of the email and all those frantic questions flew out of my mind. “You were recommended to us by Johnny Thompson.” Without a second thought, I responded to say I would do the show.

You see, Johnny Thompson is a living legend in the world of magic. He’s been hired to consult for practically every big time TV and stage magician and is known amongst performers as one of the few masters of the craft. Johnny is able to execute sleight of hand technique before your eyes, produce doves from thin air on TV, and mastermind wonderful illusions for the stage. Magic Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential magicians of the 20th century.

So when Johnny’s name was mentioned, I knew I was in. Not only did I trust him completely but I figured no matter what happens on the show, this would be an opportunity to spend time with one of the greatest magicians alive.

Once the reality of my acceptance set in, I began to worry. I stayed up three nights in a row, wrestling with what I would perform for them. I re-watched dozens of their TV appearances, I re-read their wonderful magic books they put out in the 80’s and 90’s. “Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends.” “How to Play in Traffic.” “How to Play with Your Food.” I read Penn’s non-fiction books, “God, No!” And “Every Day is an Atheist Holiday.”  And Teller’s wonderfully sweet book about his parents, “When I’m Dead All This Will Be Yours: Joe Teller — a portrait by his kid.” Research was a great excuse to spend a week doing nothing but reading their books

I considered performing something for them that they had published themselves in their own books. I thought about doing something ancient that they wouldn’t know. Or doing something new they hadn’t heard about. So many choices! Besides the magic, I was worried about many other factors.

First and foremost, the very act of doing a “reality” type competition show mortified me. I am a firm believer that in life, I do not compete against anyone other than myself. I don’t believe that artists should be pit against one another in a trivial contest judged by people who know nothing about the art or craft they are judging. But this show is not like all those other “competition” shows. The magicians aren’t competing against each other, they’re just trying to fool Penn & Teller, that’s it, nothing more. And, as Penn has mentioned in several interviews, the whole “we’re gonna catch you” part of the show is there just to communicate to the viewer that there are no camera tricks, no edits, no stooges. So while the ultimate goal is to fool the guys, the show is really just an excuse to showcase magicians that most people in the world will never get a chance to see. And while the judges on other the talent shows aren’t magic specialists and have no basis on judging whether something is truly original, Penn and Teller know what they’re talking about. No pressure.

What else was I worried about? Besides what Penn would say, I considered what all the online people would say and comment once they saw the effect and heard Penn’s response. I wanted to select an effect that if it were to be exposed would show an audience that magic secrets aren’t simple, easy and hokey, but can be interesting, difficult and complex.

I set up the criteria for what I would perform.

  • First, it had to be one of my own effects that I have created or developed. It couldn’t be anything store-bought. I wasn’t going out there to play a cover of someone else’s tune.
  • Second, it had to involve Penn & Teller directly, not an audience member. I wanted them to watch closely and be a part of the action.
  • Third, as I just mentioned, if it were to be exposed, the thinking, planning and practice behind it would still have to amaze an audience.

With these parameters in place, I made a list of seven possible effects I could perform and began talking to my closest friends about which would be best. After several weeks of practice, performance and deliberation, I finally settled on my version of a century-old card effect. I knew Penn & Teller would know the effect and I had even heard that they had performed a version of it themselves on TV. But I had a different twist I hoped would surprise them.

My version of this effect came about over fourteen years ago and I have performed it in practically every one of my interactive magic performances. I estimated once that I’ve done it an average of 20 times per week, for an average of 45 weeks per year, for 14 years. That’s about 12,600 times. And while it’s a secret to 99.999% of the world, it’s not really a secret. There’s an old saying in magic: “if you want to hide something, put it in print.” So while the secret of my effect is available, very few know it.  And because the magic world is so small and compartmentalized, I hoped the secret hadn’t reached Penn & Teller. If nothing else, I hoped that my original twist on the effect was enough to at least impress them, if not fool them.

As I prepared for the performance, I rehearsed the effect hundreds and hundreds more times at every single event I was hired to perform. And what delighted me was that even after all these years of performing it, just as I thought I knew the effect inside-out, it continued to evolve. Thanks to constant repetition and performing it for paying audiences again and again and again, the effect became stronger. I practiced, rehearsed, scripted, blocked, filmed it and watched it over and over. I considered it from every angle and dreamt every night about what would ultimately happen on stage.

Even with all that work, I have to admit that I gave up on trying to fool them. It wasn’t my goal. And giving it up made me feel more comfortable. I talked to a few fellow performers who were also preparing for the show and we all agreed — to make each other feel better, I suppose — that our purpose wasn’t to fool the guys, it was just to do a great job, showcase our professionalism, and promote the art of magic on a national stage.

Putting aside any thoughts of fooling them made me feel much calmer and I was able to focus on just the performance. I did that well for another few weeks of practice. My calm persisted all the way until I arrived in Las Vegas, at which point it all went out the door and was replaced by sporadic moments of panic.

I’ll tell you more about the three days I spent in Vegas next time. But now you know why I did the show and why I performed what I did. The show airs August 17th on the CW. The actual performance is a blur in my mind and I’m excited to see how it all looks on camera. It was truly an honor to perform for these two legends of magic and I hope you enjoy watching it. Stay tuned and I’ll tell you more…