The real magic of the Syfy competition series “Wizard Wars” isn’t the illusions created by the novice magicians looking to win $10,000. It’s that they have less time than it takes to say “hocus pocus” to produce the trick.
A second season of the magical competition show begins Thursday, Jan. 29.
Teams of magicians are given random items — a leaf blower, umbrella, candy, surfboard, etc. — and a limited amount of time to come up with a bit of prestidigitation that will impress the panel of judges: Penn & Teller, Jason Latimer and Christen Gerhart.
“Teller and I just put a trick in our show that took us six years to put together. Most of this stuff we have takes about a year and a half or two years of working all the time to put in two or three minutes of time in our live show,” Penn Jillette says. “Sometimes they have a day or two. Sometimes they have an hour or two, but it’s so much smaller than anyone has ever done a magic trick in, so much smaller.”
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None of the contestants know what objects they will have to use. It can be as big as a piece of furniture or as small as a lollipop. Smaller objects are easier for the teams because so many illusions are based on close-up magic.
It’s the way the prop gets used that impresses the judges.
“I think that if someone comes up with something really deceptive and really original with something big, it’s mind blowing. And a few people did,” Jillette says. “Even though they have a limited amount of time and they don’t get to choose their props, there were a few tricks over the season that would be able to be added to a magician’s repertoire.
“And that’s probably the highest praise I can give to the show.”
Many of the contestants incorporate humor into their performance, something that’s been a trademark of Penn & Teller for decades. It’s a good way to deal with props that are often a little absurd.
Teller says magic and humor are closely aligned because both are about having things that shouldn’t be together and the reaction generated when they come together.
“There’s a little explosion. The setup and the punchline of a joke, when they come together, there’s a little explosion. When there’s the beginning of a magic trick and you don’t know where it’s going and two things are suddenly related causally that shouldn’t be, people often laugh, even when the person is not funny,” Teller says. “That’s a remarkable thing about magic. There are some people who actually get credit for being funny, like me, just because the plot of it is surprising.”
The novice magicians have to face a pair of experienced illusionists in the finale. This season’s Wizards include Justin Flom, Billy Kidd, Gregory Wilson and Shimshi.
Jillette sees shows like “Wizard Wars,” and “Penn & Teller: Fool Us” for the CW as examples of a more positive direction magic is taking.
“We’re coming out of a phase, the past 15 years, where magic has been fairly dour. It’s been people coming out and going, ‘I’m going to pierce part of my body and hang from a helicopter’ or ‘I’m going to go without food for 90 days in a glass box.’ That seems to lack the humor that was so powerful in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s with magic,” Jillette says. “Right now it’s nice to see that coming back because there is no such thing as magic. So it has to be, at some level, playful.”
Paul Gross, owner of Fresno’s Hocus-Pocus Online Magic Shop, a major distributor of illusions and magic merchandise, sees programs like “Wizard Wars” as good for the world of magic.
“Anytime magic is portrayed in a positive way is always a boon to the industry,” Gross says.