My congratulations – Shawn Farquhar!

Aractus 17, July, 2016

Shawn Farquhar has become the first magician on Penn & Teller’s Fool Us to win twice. Now I want to preface my praise for him by going over what I (and a lot of others) have seen throughout the second season of the show – and in fact in the other tricks in the first episode of the third season. And that is that magicians are designing “traps” for Penn and Teller into their tricks. And I don’t really like that aspect of the show, because it makes the tricks much less impressive when you can think of a whole handful of different ways it could be performed.

Now with that said I can’t offer greater praise than I will for Shawn, because not only did he not do this: he’s a true “fooler”! Before going further you may like to view his performance yourselves:

Here is his previous performance on Penn and Teller:

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes book
Shawn holds the book.

So first let’s break the trick down a bit. I was way ahead of Shawn, and as it appears Penn and Teller as well, and in fact I have a theory as to how the illusion could be performed (but I don’t know the method Shawn has used for sure). Now the first thing I noticed when he brought out the book is that it looks like a prop and not a book he’s plucked off his shelf at home.

There’s a couple reasons why, and they are subtle. Firstly this is an old out of copyright book, meaning anyone can download it from the internet and have it custom printed. Secondly, the cover is “cheap”: the words are not embossed, and the cover’s picture is not professional. For example, notice the magnifying glass magnifies the words of the book’s title, but not the pages of the book behind it, and there’s no “glass” depicted in it either. You can notice further on the book does not have a barcode on the back as well, but just from seeing the cover of the book it appeared to be a prop.

Once I had worked this out, from the moment he brought out the second book I expected it to be blank. I also expected, like Penn and Teller, that he was using just two books throughout (the one he gives to Alyson and the blank one he “reads” from). I also did not believe this was a memory trick (which Shawn confirms a bit later on). So it did surprise me a bit that Penn and Teller’s guess was that it was a simple memory trick. One must realise that magicians are master liars, and when they say “this is a memory trick” you can bet that it’s not, unless they’re doing a double-bluff!

His earlier trick from Season 1 (Signed & Sealed) could have been achieved in at least three different ways. I don’t want to spoil the method so I will be as tactful as possible: I originally thought that he used a duplicate signed card – and you could do the trick that way, at least in theory. There’s at least two more ways to do it, either with a “pre-sealed” pack, or perhaps without one as well. With all these three or maybe more different possible methods however, you are still using two different packs of cards – I think most people would know that. With all this said, the one thing that surprised me is we see Penn and Teller “examining” in the wrong place at one point not realising they’ve been duped by a complicated illusion.

Now what do I mean by a “complicated illusion”? Well I’m not a magician, so I don’t know if I’m using the term correctly, but in essence what I mean is that you build the illusion up. Here’s an illusion performed on Penn and Teller by Jay Sankey (torn & restored playing cards starts at 3:40 in the clip), and the instructional video he put on Youtube explaining how to perform it:

Now we can discuss the method for this trick in all the detail we wish because the trick’s author has made the “secret” public knowledge. I wasn’t fooled by his torn-and-restored card trick, for the record, I had assumed he had simply folded the cards and created the illusion they were torn. But I want you to notice this is a complicated illusion: it’s not enough to simply create the visual illusion of tearing the two cards in half; you must also create the sound of them tearing, and be able to show you have a number of individual “pieces”, before preceding to restore the cards. A bad magician, takes a complicated illusion like this one, and does not perform all the illusionary steps involved in progressing the illusion, and consequently it becomes less convincing.

So let’s get back to Shawn’s book illusion. I think if a magician is going to use a magic prop – no matter what the prop is – you need to make it look as convincing as possible. As I mentioned, the look of the book was “wrong” for me and I correctly guessed that it was a prop. Not all books have embossed wording, a glossy cover, a barcode, a less ‘amateur’ picture on the cover, a less ordinary typeface, and the title and author not in all-caps. But most of them do, or at least have a few or most of those features. I therefore think the illusion would have been more entertaining with a more authentic looking book. At the end we’re still going to know it was a specially printed prop because the duplicate book is blank, but if that was the case I would have been less likely to immediately suspect the book was a prop and not a real product sold in book-stores everywhere.

But, with that said, and here’s where the praise comes in, I think Shawn’s performance was wonderful – and much improved upon “Signed & Sealed” which is a good trick, but not my favourite performance of the series. And I must also say, while the books are props because he needs one to be blank, besides that they are what they appear to be – two identical books, one printed from start to finish as if it were a real book, and the other completely blank. I don’t think there’s any trickery involved in the book he gives Alyson, and she could take it home and read it and it would be a normal book.

And to give another direct comparison, here, the very next act after Shawn’s is Michael Kent presenting Multiplying Bottles. Now I don’t want to get into the mechanics of the trick, but I do want to show you this version performed by Matt Franco on America’s Got Talent:

Now the thing that I like about this presentation is that Matt has used ordinary packing tubes, and shows them empty throughout. I think that’s much more convincing to an audience than brightly-coloured magician’s props that are never shown empty! However that said, I do believe the Multiplying Bottles trick is fairly easy for an audience to work out, therefore the real value in it is not so much mystifying the audience as it is entertaining them. Look up the way that Tommy Cooper and Hugues Protat perform the trick – clearly interested squarely in entertaining the audience. So again, Michael Kent’s performance is – at least for me – underwhelming. He does a number of things I would consider “wrong” for a complicated illusion: he skips steps and presents things wrong (duplicating bottles in the wrong sequence, never showing the tubes empty, etc).

In conclusion, my warmest congratulations to Shawn! I am a stickler for fine detail, and I would assume that magicians want props to look like ordinary household items. I mean no offence by my comments, and I don’t think discussing it reveals the trick’s method in any way. The title of the show is “Fool Us” which invites us the lay-audience to view the acts critically. I do have a couple of theories as to how the trick could be done, so I don’t feel fooled – but what a great trick and performance!

One comment on “My congratulations – Shawn Farquhar!”

  • This was a fun read. Yes the book was a prop, made by me. It was necessary since it was going to be on TV and the production company needed it to be royalty free. I originally wanted to use a book I bought at WalMart as it was a Harlequin Romance book and had some fun comedy lines. But the cover has art and is copy-written. I had bought two of the books, peeled off the cover from one and stuck it on a blank note book. The Producers asked me to make a prop since they could not clear the art on the cover. I did the art myself and still use them as I like the look… I guess it’s not as real as I thought it would be…


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