The Secret of Magic (And Pretty Much Everything Creative)

I was catching up on episodes of This American Life this weekend and came across a great piece that illuminates so many underappreciated elements of the creative process.

They speak to Teller of the duo Penn & Teller about a magic trick he worked on.  It was a re-imagining of a trick that was created in 1920s/30s so you might think the adaptation process would be relatively easy but it took him 18 months to get it to the point he was satisfied with it.

To some extent, mastering the technical aspects were easy compared to being satisfied with the framework of the trick.  Teller’s partner Penn disliked the trick, even when it eventually became part of the show but there were points in the process where he hated it. When it became part of the show, he just disliked it because it wasn’t too his taste. Still there was a point where Penn told Teller he would be fine with making it part of the show but Teller wasn’t satisfied and kept working on the presentation.

What I loved about the story is that it explored all the elements that went into the creation of the piece: How Teller would work on the trick every evening after the Vegas show and in his pajamas while on vacation. All the input Teller got from different people about how to frame the trick. What bits of psychology and storytelling are important to creating and presenting a trick.

Perhaps most significantly, despite the long,  uncomfortable series of conversations Penn and Teller had about the trick. These type of conversations have been part of a 40 year partnership.

Ira Glass

… Here are these two men, who respect each other but don’t socialize or hang out together, who have been arguing, they say, constantly and fiercely, but productively, for over 40 years, and Penn knows how much work Teller has put into this trick and how much he would enjoy performing it every night.

Penn Jillette

He’s not saying this outright, but it’s implicit. This is beautiful. This is mystifying. This is entertaining. People will love it. It’s really important to me. All those five things are true. So it’s very, very uncomfortable.

Ira Glass

Uncomfortable because Penn agrees. It’s a great trick. It totally works. He just doesn’t like it. It doesn’t feel like their show to him, this red ball that’s also a disobedient puppy….

Part of the solution that gets the trick on stage is letting the audience in on part of the secret—the trick is done with a piece of thread. This actually isn’t ground breaking given that Penn and Teller are known for telling people how tricks work. They believe this adds to the enjoyment of the trick.


If you understand the good magic trick, and I mean really understand it right down to the mechanics at the core of its psychology, the magic trick gets better, not worse.


Ira Glass

Teller gestures to the ball like he’s summoning it with his hand and it glides along the thread to him. That’s the sound you’re hearing. Now, what’s mind-bending is that David and I can actually see that he’s tilting the thread downwards and that’s why it slides towards him. We can see the ball’s on a thread. We can see how it’s done. We hear it sliding along.

David Kestenbaum

God, that’s pretty.

Ira Glass

And at the same time, it totally looks like he’s this sorcerer who enchanted this inanimate object into obeying him.

David Kestenbaum

That is so beautiful, actually, when you see the thread.


Ira Glass

He then takes the hoop and spins it around the ball in various ways, which makes it look like there can’t possibly be a thread there. But of course, we can see the thread.

David Kestenbaum

Can I say that’s crazy? That’s so convincing. Your brain really cannot sort that out.


Your brain cannot sort this out. It’s visual double-talk. It’s amazing. I’m sitting here and I’m doing it, and it’s still fooling my brain.

I felt like this provided some reaffirmation about inviting people to witness and participate in the creative process. If even the guy who knows exactly how it is done is fascinated, how much greater still is the enjoyment of the people who are allowed to witness the secret?

The secret isn’t just the technical execution of the trick. It is understanding what makes your mode of creative expression work. It is the commitment to not settling. It is acknowledging that conflict is part of productive partnerships.

I have written before about how often we just assume a great idea or skilled execution springs fully formed from the brain of geniuses whose abilities we can’t match. The truth is pretty much every creative work or idea is the either directly or indirectly the culmination of previous efforts.

As I listened to the program, I also realized that it isn’t just enough to literally or figuratively give a back stage tour in an effort to provide insight into the process. Backstage tours can be illuminating and intriguing for those who have never been, but they also tend to present a superficial perspective into what really goes on.

It is one thing to say people work together to develop elements of a performance. When you talk about the challenges Teller faced in developing a trick, how he sought to resolve them and how sometimes the solutions were perceived as worse, it provides much deeper dimension to the concept of working together to develop something.

How to do that effectively is called good storytelling. Sometimes you need someone else to help you do it. Could Penn and Teller have told that story in 20 minutes or was This American Life best suited to the task?

Here is a video of the trick by the way. You may actually enjoy it more if you listen to how it came together.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

I am currently the Director of the Vern Riffe Center for the Arts at Shawnee State University. Among the things I am proud to claim are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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