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Arts & Entertainment

What Is Magic?

Penn & Teller

Lesson time 6:07 min

Magic is an intellectual art form that requires the audience’s engagement as well as their suspension of disbelief. In this chapter, Penn & Teller crack open the philosophical and psychological concepts behind performing magic.

Penn & Teller
Teach the Art of Magic
In their first-ever MasterClass, Teller breaks his silence as he and Penn teach their approach to creating moments of wonder and astonishment.
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[MUSIC PLAYING] - Magic is a very complicated word, because magic always has supernatural overtones. And yet, in our view of magic, in the 21st century, magic is fighting those supernatural overtones. The rule we try to follow in magic, what I refer to as the sawing a person in half rule. When you saw a human being and half on stage, everybody, we can just say, knows you didn't actually saw a human being into halves. And they leave knowing that they've seen a trick. That's the rule we try to follow with our show, that no one leaves the theater believing something that we ourselves do not think is true on purpose. There's tricks in the show that deal with memory, that we leave it on the edge, that you could go either way. That troubles me a little bit. There's things with danger that although I say they're safe, we're playing emotionally so much on the danger, I'm afraid some people leave feeling those things, but I believe we're out very far off the bell curve. I believe we are closer to our ideal than anyone else. There's also those who want to call-- use the term illusions. And to me, and I think I'm almost alone on this-- I don't even know if Teller agrees with me on this. But illusion seems to me a very particular term of art that has to do with a visual effect that looks one way and is accomplished another. TELLER: Yeah. - It is very different than a trick. An illusion is putting a mirror here, and it looks like that is there. That's all. 45 degree angle mirror looks like you're seeing the back, but you're actually seeing the sides. That's an illusion. Illusions are dirt dumb. Illusions are stupid. The smart thing in magic is the tricks. When I say illusions are dirt dumb, I don't mean they're easy to design. That's not what I mean. I mean there's very little intellectual content in perceiving them. You see something. You perceive it in a way that it isn't actually there. That's an illusion. It's just there. A trick, the simplest, stupidest trick, the I'm holding something here, it's now over there, the simplest trick you can do involves intellectual engagement on the part of the audience. And a trick involves playing with the perceptions, the skills of the audience member and exploring epistemology. It's what you're really exploring. How do we know what is true? Magic plays with that. It's a very playful way of dealing with that. It is the heaviest philosophical ideas you can possibly have dealt with in the silliest way. - In real life, the most important decision you ever make in a situation is what's real and what's not. If you make that decision, and it's wrong, you can be hit by a bus or get the wrong surgeon. Magic is one situation where you go in with the full intention of knowing that if you make every possible mistake, there will be no harm done. So this very important thing, what's real and what's not, magic is the playground for that situation. [MUSIC PLAYING] - The hardest thing to beli...

Open your mind with magic

With more than 40 years performing together, Penn & Teller have sold out shows around the world, earned a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, and created the longest-running headline act in Las Vegas. Now the legendary magicians are taking you behind the curtain. Learn fundamental magic tricks and the psychological tools that create amazement, at home or on stage. Expand your perception of the possible.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

It is worth it just to hear Teller Speak !!! He is great.

Many "reveal the trick" tutorials are gimmicky. This was intimate and pure--a joy to watch. I even have a few extra tricks up my sleeve now.

I have learned alot. I would like even to have more classes with them

I really enjoyed Penn and teller and their magic tricks


A fellow student

It's helpful! It's actually hard to believe that it's just a type of acting ^-^

Tim M.

Very interesting observation that you can’t do magic for yourself and seems similar to the phenomena of not being able to tickle yourself, or tell yourself a joke.


I absolutely love this! This is genius! I do have one question though. Let's say that one of your audience members constantly asks something like, "Can I see your other hand?" or "Stand up, I want to see what's in your pockets." What are you supposed to do? Are there any good tricks you can use to handle this?

I'm a painter. I'm interested in how to create meaningful wonder in content. Many contemporary painters just use color and offer up a snail's shell... maybe they can BS the meaning of the snail shell or its mathematical beauty by Fibonacci... but it often lacks narrative. As these fellows describe the opportunity to tell stories and wonder... it makes me think of how use a basic layout for my compositions. It's not enough to include a symbol or two but LOCATE the symbols in the quadrants of the painting surface. The left is the "past". The right is the "future". The lower is the temporal or cerebral. The lower is the terrestrial or tangible. When using these Classic locations to form my narrative, my clients experience a sense of wonder that becomes a contemplative device that they can return to over and over again. It's magic in their eyes! @mysketchbookweighsaton

Brett G.

Some decent commentary on the rules of magic, but I did not purchase this series for their commentary... I wanted them to teach me some professional tricks, and ended up with "bell curves" and "terms of art". All filler!

A fellow student

Before I thought that magic was just a form of entertainment that was at the same time was tricking the mind. But now I know that it is much more than just entertainment. - Martin 9


PENN AND TELLER CONTEST! Win two tickets to see P&T live. Enter a video of you performing a Penn and Teller-inspired magic trick into the Community thread:

Rich C.

I agree with their stance. Keep it real. That said, "illusions" are part of the toy box. In good hands, they are the realm of magic that actually looks like magic, so to speak. Pillage the principles and do something new.


I belong to the last of the three categories identified by Penn in the introductory episode. I'm not a magician, but rather looking for ideas that could be relevant to me. Really delivered in this lesson. Magic is not solipsistic. Huh. Distinction between trick and illusion. Really glad I jumped into this one.


Connect with other Penn and Teller students, discuss lesson topics, share your magic and get feedback in Penn and Teller's Community! Link here: