Why do Penn & Teller seem to dislike Mentalism so much?

Watching Penn & Teller’s show “Fool Us” I get an impression that they take a dim view on Mentalism when it comes to magic performances.

For my part Mentalism seems cool as magic goes. I have seen some I do not like and some I do but same goes for other forms of magic.

So why the bad rap?

I believe what they object to is a performer who asserts that the performance is not a trick but is an actual demonstration of supernatural abilities.

Do mentalists who perform on stage pretend it is all real? I mean, maybe as part of the act they pretend it is “real” same as an actor being killed on stage pretends it is real but I don’t think I have seen any who run around later pretending they really are psychic.

Doubtless there are charlatans out there telling fortunes and whatnot but that seems different from the stage performers.

ETA: Saw this one where P&T think mentalists are “sleaze balls”: https://youtu.be/ENHZ-dACMR4?t=457

Most mentalist tricks just aren’t technically impressive, that’s all. Penn and Teller just like technically impressive tricks.

I’m not an expert, and certainly can’t speak for them, but.

I believe as performers they feel it’s cheap, like dick jokes to comedians.

Penn also seems to have a sore spot about scam artists using these methods to con people out of money, and I think his distaste shows whenever mentalism comes up. Either as a stage show or as a super natural scammer.

It seems to me that a modern mentalists try to claim the whole thing is based on some sort of pseudoscience. Or they’ll reference some real science, like psychology, and say they are just really good at it. They don’t reference some fantastical magic that is obviously fake.

And Jilette is really, really big on ethics in magic, and one of his ethical rules is that you never let people think that what you did is actually real. He’s a proud rationalist and skeptic, and does not condone anything that tricks people like that.

It’s why he has an issue with Darren Brown, who sometimes seems to be good at telling people it’s just a trick, but other times seems to want people to believe he has some mastery of hypnosis and such, or, like in one video debunked by Captain Disillusion, that it was something like the “wisdom of crowds” when it was simple video fakery.

Magic (all of it) is creative lying. Not “involves creative lying”, but IS just that. Creative and entertaining deception is an art form that people value and will pay something for, which may seem odd - because when we are deceived to our disadvantage, it’s bad and we don’t like it.

Imagine a horror movie, but one where audience members really do get hurt.

Imagine a dinner theatre where the actors run a pickpocket routine (to actually steal people’s wallets for real, not to put on a show).

In entertainment, there’s a line you don’t cross: the audience risks their ticket price AND NOTHING MORE. No legitimate entertainer of any kind puts an audience member at risk, except the unavoidable risk that they might hate the show and feel their ticket was a waste of money.

Convincing an audience member that you do a certain trick in real life, or (in other words) convincing them that what you’re doing is not even a trick, is unethical and harmful to them. Messing with people’s expectations is fine. Messing with people’s heads is not.

Because mentalism is fucking dumb. It’s all just a variation of the same shit over and over again.

  • You have a spy that can communicate stuff to you surreptitiously or in code
  • You have some way of obtaining information that the audience can not see, especially electronically
  • You show something to the victim that they can see but the audience can’t
  • You manipulate the victim into revealing their choice by elimination
  • You do some dirt-simple force and then spend 10 minutes on some nonsense where you pretend to figure out what thing they chose
  • etc

As RickJay says, most mentalism tricks are not technically difficult, usually involving no sleight-of-hand or clever apparatus or even a great deal of practice.

I have seen P&T impressed by rare mentalism acts on occasion, generally the ones that actually do require a lot of dedicated skill, such as very complex code-talking which requires a great deal of preparation and practice. But those are rare.

To me the vast majority of mentalist acts just stink like shitty TV psychics looking for legitimacy as performers.

Having some insight into Mentalism acts, now, from reading about their techniques, I concur with Friedo.

Agreed. In fact, Penn performed a mentalism act on they’re most recent (I think) Fool Us, that seems to have involved him memorizing half a deck of cards. There was nothing cheap about that act and what it took to perform it.

The ones who do pretend it’s real generally call themselves psychics or mediums, but they’re really mentalists. John Edward was quite prominent some years back.

They have complimented more than one team, though.

The two “Victorian” guys have earned praise from them. A married couple also did such great code-language usage that even though Penn and Teller know how they do it, they admitted it was the best mentalist trick they’d seen.

I think what they don’t like is basic, simple, crap. In any form.

I don’t know how famous he is in the US, but Uri Geller is very much in the “I’ve got real powers” camp.

Only if you focus on his words and don’t twist what he meant to say.


Lots of it comes from the legacy of Harry Houdini who dedicated much of his life to debunking psychics and mediums. The late Victorian period was rife with con men putting on seances so that you could contact the dead, for a fee of course. Houdini hated that aspect of magic and personally focused on strengths of agility and contortions in his famous acts.

I hate the morning call in radio show when they have a psychic once a week. He reads auras over the phone, which is cute, but gives life-changing advice to people with whom he has had no other contact. P&T want that kind of bunk to stop.

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Kreskin, to this day, refuses to admit that he is using tricks. He still tries to give the impression that he can actually read minds by saying things like

(from the biography on his website).

He gave up on that, I think. Though what he says in private shows I do not know.

But, yes, he was pretending to have powers for quite awhile.

No one on Fool Us has pretended to be supernatural, though.

That’s because they wouldn’t want to appear/wouldn’t be allowed on the show. One of the conditions of appearing is that if they guess how you did it you have to admit that they were right, and none of them can do that without blowing their “real psychic” persona sky high.

He announced that should he die before his wife – which he did – he swore he’d do his utmost to get a message through to her. Never happened.

No, he hasn’t.
Here is a link to his official website. He doesn’t personally claim to have psychic powers…but the site is stuffed to the gills with with reports of other people(and even supposedly our own government) claiming he has psychic powers.
“I am much too modest to boast about my powers, so I’ll let everyone else do it for me instead…and who am I to say they are wrong?”