Penn and Teller have been dazzling stage and screen audiences with mind blowing tricks for nearly half a century. In this MasterClass, they pull back the curtain to share some of the secrets behind their magical performances.
But will Penn and Teller’s MasterClass have you confounding your friends with amazing feats of conjury, or just make your cash disappear?
If you’re here, you may be wondering whether this class is worth the investment. So this Penn and Teller MasterClass review provides lots of detail to help you decide whether it fits the bill.
I’ll be sharing both what I absolutely loved and learned from this MasterClass, along with one or two downsides, to help you decide.
First, here are the headlines:
Learn how to:
- Perform a series of impressive card, coin, and rope magic tricks
- Master the art of sleight of hand and misdirection
- Understand the fundamentals of each trick and how you can customise them to make them your own
- Appreciate how Penn & Teller think about magic
- Learn tricks requiring no specialist equipment that can be performed anywhere
- Well structured MasterClass, allowing rapid progress
- Great balance of theory and practice
- Excellent delivery and teaching style
- Enormously fun and entertaining
- Input from other magical greats
- Disappointing workbook
- Rather short
Course length: 17 videos, 2 hours and 52 minutes.
Best for: Anyone interested in learning a series of quick and impressive tricks that can be performed anywhere using very little (or no) specialist equipment. Plus anyone looking for inspiration to sharpen up their act as well as fans of Penn and Teller (of course).
Overall: A super fun MasterClass from the best in the business that will quickly give you the skills to perform great tricks. There’s lots of tips on how to put your own unique take on a routine and plenty of ideas that require little or no equipment so you can perform them at the drop of a hat.
Editor's note: Penn & Teller's class is in a top spot in our best online magic class guide.
Now for my more detailed review, here’s what I’ll be covering:
- A look inside the Penn and Teller MasterClass
- Pros and cons of the course
- Is the content unique?
- Is there anything better?
- Verdict: Is the Penn and Teller MasterClass worth it?
First the basics:
About Penn and Teller
Penn & Teller are a legendary duo who have been conjuring together since the 1980s.
They have performed on stages from Broadway to Las Vegas, been frequent guests on multiple TV shows including Saturday Night Live and The Late Show with David Letterman, and hosted their own TV specials in the US and the UK- including Fool Us and Bullshit.
Bullshit was not only awarded Best Reality TV Show by the American Writers’ Guild in 2004, but was also recognised by the Independent Investigations Group in 2008 for promoting scientific and critical thinking in mainstream entertainment.
So one thing is for sure, Penn and Teller are more than qualified to present a Magical MasterClass – and their skeptical, analytical approach provides a surprising and thought provoking perspective!
If you haven't seen it already, I highly recommend you watch the trailer for this MasterClass:
MasterClass burst onto the scene in 2015 with the simple idea that we should all have access to genius.
The online education platform provides inspirational MasterClasses taught by those who have gained global recognition in their fields of expertise.
Famed for its superlative production values, MasterClass provides classes in everything from cooking with Gordon Ramsay to filmmaking with Martin Scorsese. MasterClass is also rigorous when it comes to quality of content and learning materials. This combination provides a unique and compelling learning experience.
Having taken more than twenty five MasterClasses myself, I can report that many are fantastic and insightful. However, some are definitely better than others. And it’s important to do your research first to make sure the course you’re thinking about is the right one for you.
Inside Penn and Teller's MasterClass
The Penn and Teller MasterClass consists of 17 lessons which vary between about 5 and 15 minutes in length. In total it runs for just under 3 hours.
To give you an idea about what’s included I’ve summarised the lesson content below. My summaries don’t run in lesson order as I’ve grouped practical and theoretical lessons together.
Lessons 1-3: Introduction, Sleight of Hand: The French Drop and Cup and Balls
“If you learn JUST the stuff that we teach you, and nothing else, you’ll have hundreds of tricks you can do.“
After a short introduction in which we’re told that the blast you’re about to get, “is a high you’ll want to chase for the rest of your life”, we get going with the building block for many magic tricks: the French Drop.
Working with three total novices, Penn and Teller break The French Drop down into the physical, dramatic and psychological components that make it convincing.
Seeing Penn and Teller work alongside first timers was super helpful for understanding how a trick evolves through basic steps to perfect execution.
There is actually a genuine moment of magic when one of the participants masters the trick and can’t believe the ball has really ‘disappeared’!
Building on the French Drop, in Lesson 3 Penn and Teller teach their students a cup and ball routine, extending their learning by showing “how each magical surprise covers the next move”.
Learning is cemented in both lessons by slow-mo replays and close up demonstrations which focus on hand actions.
Lessons 6, 9 and 11: Coin Magic, Card Magic and Rope Tricks
Building on what’s already been taught, Penn and Teller work with their novice students to teach them a variety of stunning coin, card and rope tricks which make use of various techniques including:
- Sleight of hand and palming
- Sound misdirection (coin tricks)
- Card force and card location (card tricks)
- Destruction and resurrection (rope tricks)
The late Johnny Thompson (who sadly passed since the making of this MasterClass) joins Penn and Teller, and their students for several sessions, including those on card magic.
Together, Penn and Teller and their old mentor explain three card tricks, including Thompson’s famous ‘whispering Queen’.
Each trick uses card force – whereby the picker is forced to pick a specific card whilst thinking they have a free choice. In later tricks a duplicate card is added, which (with imagination) can be used to perform any number of ‘miracles’ (see more).
I particularly enjoyed the lesson on coin magic. You’re always likely to have loose change in your pocket so these are tricks that can be used to impress in any social situation. And there was lots of inspiration to take simple coin tricks to the next level.
These lessons passed in a flash for me and were full of “well, I’ll be damned!” moments. Not least watching the Silver Fish trick being performed to a live audience. And this trick has at its heart a simple coin trick – so it just shows how far you can take the fundamentals you gain in this course.
Lessons 4, 5, 7 and 8: What is Magic? Misdirection, Magic vs Lying, Mentalist or Crook? Exploiting the Best of the Human Brain
“How do we know what is true? Magic plays with that“
In these sections we move away from the practice of magic to the philosophy and ethics that inform Penn and Teller’s approach.
They discuss magic and its relationship to:
- And the audience – since magic can’t be performed in isolation!
Penn and Teller dismiss the idea that misdirection is simply a matter of distracting the audience. They share what it really is and how to use it to ensure that your audience works with you to miss the hidden steps that make the ‘magic’ work.
Their main point is that lying is inherent in magic, so you have a moral responsibility toward your audience in that respect.
As an example Penn and Teller vividly demonstrate how magic techniques can be used to suggest you have psychic powers. And how, this in turn, can be used unethically to exploit grief.
They also explain how they make the most of the strengths and weaknesses of the human brain to create an expectation in the mind of the audience, before pulling the rug away to confound that expectation.
Though these lessons were mostly theoretical, they were short and sharply delivered. I found them thought provoking and was impressed by the way Penn and Teller shared their many years of thinking about the ethics of magic.
And besides the theory, there was still a trick to learn and, as always, a close up demonstration focussing closely on the individual steps and actions involved.
Lesson 12-14: Principles of Performing, Cause and Effect and the Joy of Magic
“In magic, you separate cause and effect. You have a false cause and an unrelated effect“
In these three lessons you will learn:
- How to find inspiration to get you started
- To appreciate how you can distort cause and effect to create believable magic moments
- How to use your natural qualities to lend authenticity to your routine
- Why you should assume that your audience is at least as smart as you are
Teller then shares a poignant childhood experience that explains why he has devoted his life to giving other people joy through magic.
Bonus Lessons 15-17: Advanced Student Coaching (Matt Donnelly & Piff the Magic Dragon), and Penn and Teller Live
The MasterClass draws to a close with Penn, Teller and Johnny Thompson coaching more advanced students of magic (Matt Donnelly and Piff the Magic Dragon) to perfect their chosen tricks.
This was super useful for seeing how even a professional routine can evolve through collaboration with others.
The MasterClass ends with a live Las Vegas performance of Penn and Teller’s mind-bending CellFish trick.
What I Liked About Penn and Teller’s MasterClass
Well structured with amazing tricks
The course is carefully structured with each skill building incrementally on what has come before. Even better, very little is required in the way of specialist equipment.
You can quickly gain enough skill to perform simple tricks with conviction. And if you devote a little time to practice you should progress rapidly. The class also provides tips and hints to help you adapt tricks to make them your own.
The versatility of each skill is clearly demonstrated and performances of some of Penn and Teller’s most famous tricks show how simple techniques can be developed into elaborate acts of magic.
Great delivery and teaching
Obviously, Penn and Teller are accomplished performers. However, they are also great communicators.
They have a deep passion for magic and have also clearly spent most of their lives thinking about the philosophy and ethics behind it.
This has enabled them to structure the course in a logical way, deliver it coherently and fluently and approach it from a deeply thought provoking perspective.
And, of course, the usual super high production values of MasterClass add to the magic, making the class very compelling.
The inclusion of magical newcomers
From a learning standpoint it was great that many of the lessons featured students who were complete beginners to magic. As mistakes were made and corrected, I could see where I might go wrong and how to avoid those errors.
It was encouraging to see the students progress from having no skill whatsoever to being quite accomplished tricksters. The high they were experiencing was genuine and motivating.
Added to this, seeing the tricks broken down during the learning process was super helpful and this was reinforced by separate demonstrations at the end of each lesson which focused directly on hand movements.
A joy to take
I’ve taken a lot of MasterClasses and enjoyed them all to a lesser or greater extent.
But this class was, by far, the most fun and enjoyable of them all. Watching the students light up as they mastered techniques or wondered at the antics of Penn and Teller was pure delight. And seeing Penn and Teller perform some of their most mind boggling tricks was awesome.
But perhaps best of all, was trying things out for myself and finding that the way the class was taught meant I could get going, make progress have fun, and bring fun to others.
Great balance of theory and practice
There is a huge amount to get your hands on in this MasterClass. However, there is also a good balance of fascinating and surprising theory.
It’s clear Penn and Teller have spent many years thinking about the ethics of magic and their commitment to separating magic from deception provides much food for thought.
What Could Be Improved
Unusually for a MasterClass workbook, the Penn and Teller workbook was on the short side and not a strength of the course.
The workbook elaborates some on the content of the class but provides little in the way of activities or tasks to extend learning.
It does contain useful diagrams and step by step instructions to help you perform the tricks in the MasterClass – but these don’t add anything to the onscreen demonstrations.
Rather a short MasterClass
There’s a lot going on in this MasterClass, but for all that it is a little on the short side at just under three hours.
This is especially the case when you take into account the amount of repetition devoted to each trick. Penn and Teller perform it, the students learn it, then the whole trick is demonstrated again with a close focus on the hands.
Who is this MasterClass for?
This MasterClass has a wide potential audience.
Fans of Penn and Teller
If you’re a Penn and Teller fan then this course offers some amazing insight into their individual histories, their work together, their philosophy and, of course, their act. And like many people who have taken this course, you might be delighted to hear Teller talking for the first time!
There’s a lot in it for complete beginners as you will learn magical principles that form the backbone of almost every other trick.
There’s plenty for more experienced magicians. Penn and Teller emphasise and demonstrate how you can bring your own personality traits and mannerisms to bear on a simple trick to make it your own. And the bonus content includes two advanced student coaching sessions.
It will boost your confidence and creativity if you do want to practice magic. And if you don’t, the theory and philosophy that Penn and Teller share will make you think and benefit you in your day to day life.
If you are a really accomplished magician and you are already familiar with the work and philosophy of this magical duo, this course probably has little to say that you don’t already know – though you would probably still appreciate its polish, humour and entertainment value.
How much is Penn & Teller MasterClass?
At the time of writing MasterClass had three subscription offers. The cost of these (per month) is:
- Individual (1 user) $15
- Duo (2 users) $20
- Family (6 users) $23
All are billed annually, which at first glance may seem pricey.
However, you can considerably reduce your costs by taking as many courses as possible.
With over 150 courses on the platform you’re likely to find quite a few to interest you. Even if you buy an individual membership and find only 10% of the courses of interest this still works out to only $12 a course:
$180 (annual individual membership fee) / 15 courses = $12.
Bearing in mind that these classes are taught by global leaders in their fields the value is unbeatable. You can pay over $100 for an online course taught by someone you’ve never even heard of, never mind the caliber of teachers on MasterClass.
What’s more, MasterClass also offers a 30 day refund if you’re unhappy with your purchase.
You can also purchase MasterClass as a gift.
Alternatives to the Penn and Teller MasterClass
Udemy and Skillshare both offer some great magic classes. However, these mostly focus on a single aspect of magic (ie card tricks) and the teachers, though practicing magicians, are not household names. Check out our Best Magic Class review for a roundup of the best online classes available now.
A number of Penn and Teller shows are available on platforms such as Netflix or Youtube. However, these are formatted purely to entertain rather than teach. And of course YouTube is packed to the rafters with short 10 minute videos of thousands of tricks and is free.
But if you want a course on magic that is strongly focused on teaching and learning, provides the building blocks of a large variety of tricks and is delivered by not one, but two, masters of the art – this is the MasterClass for you.
The Penn & Teller MasterClass: What Others Have Said
I took a look at the comments on Reddit and beneath the Penn and Teller MasterClass trailer on Youtube to gauge the reactions of others who had taken this course.
The comments on Reddit were largely positive and probably best summed up by this one:
“I just got past the first few videos and really it’s just a pleasure to see Teller speak haha. As magicians we’re always going to our Gregory Wilsons or our Harry Loraynes. We forget that Penn and Teller have a plethora of working magic knowledge that spans over 5 decades since they haven’t really published any learning material. I think the community as a whole has plenty of knuckle busting moves to last 4 life times but not enough of the pure psychology and theory. They dissect their hilarious cups and balls routine in this masterclass and it really is great to listen to Teller explain the French drop and load. Being reminded of the subtle mechanics to make this effect work got that part of my brain churning again. If you practice magic a lot, there are a lot of moves that fall to the background (sometimes before they’re actually mastered). Seeing this simple lesson is making me think a lot more about everything I practice. Looking forward to getting deeper and learning more the psychological approach they take.” - Comment from Penn and Teller MasterClass Reddit
Any negative remarks centred around how appropriate the course was for experienced magicians.
“I just bought Penn and Teller’s Master class courses. I love them, they are my favorite magicians. The issue is there wasn't much substance to them. I finished all the videos in a day. I was hoping to have a big wonderful lesson, not small basic tricks that I could learn in two hours. Don't get me wrong, the videos would be great for a beginner. However: A) I already knew the basics B) It is not worth the price Not trying to be negative, just beware to those who are thinking of buying it.” - Comment from Reddit
Admittedly, the tricks were all new to me and my perspective was that of a complete beginner. However, others did share my opinion that the course still had something to offer to accomplished magicians.
“I agree that the MasterClass is best for beginners and the tricks are likely already known to most of us. However, I felt the thinking and theory were really valuable. The lessons on cause and effect, misdirection, hearing their thoughts on how magic works, how to do good magic, were great. And even though they were teaching largely stuff I already knew, seeing Teller teach the French drop was very cool. It’s true that you can build great tricks with basic techniques, as Teller does with his version of Miser’s Dream, so if they get you to re-examine the basics, that is valuable. Ultimately, the price is quite steep, so I would recommend not buying the individual MasterClass, and instead seeing if other MasterClasses interest you. If you’re into four or five or more of them, get the all access pass, and the cost/benefit is much better. I think magicians could particularly benefit from learning about storytelling and acting, so there’s potentially a lot on MasterClass for you.” - Comment from Reddit
This contributor makes a valid point that I agree with: The best value option on MasterClass is the all access pass as, whilst Penn and Teller is the only class on magic, there are other classes which would complement it relating to performance, communication and acting.
The main focus of comments on YouTube was utter amazement to hear Teller’s voice for the first time.
“Teller: Breathes in heavily Me: Ha, he's not gonna talk, he never talks, why would he talk, he's not gonna.... Teller: actually talks Me: I spit out my chips” - Comment from YouTube
And the quality of the trailer alone was enough to encourage some to commit to the class:
“damn I've always wanted to watch the masterclasses but I was always held back by their price. But this, this might be just worth it anyway. This is ******* incredible” - Comment from YouTube
And those who had taken the plunge reported thus:
“Just finished binge-watching the whole thing. AMAZING. Just AMAZING. I really miss Johnny Thompson, RIP. His stuff in it was Amazing. By the end, you go inside the brain of a professional magician working on creating a new trick. Really eye opening. Loved it. Penn & Teller are the GOAT“ - Comment from YouTube
So, with the exception of the (debatable) point regarding how suitable it is for experienced magicians, what others have said is overwhelmingly positive.
Is the Content Unique?
You can watch a number of Penn and Teller’s shows on platforms such as Netflix. But don’t forget, these are made to entertain with magic, not teach it.
There are also very short clips on YouTube (in which Teller does not speak) where the pair teach a single trick.
However, in terms of a complete programme which is specifically designed to teach the fundamentals of literally 100s of magic tricks, and with Teller talking for the first time, MasterClass does provide unique content.
And it does so in a slick, professional way that builds skills incrementally, supports learning and enables rapid progress.
What You Will Need
This is a complete list of everything needed to perform all the tricks in the MasterClass.
- 2 small tinfoil balls
- 2 large tinfoil balls
- Magic wand (or anything resembling a wand)
- Some grapes
- 3 plastic cups
- Some large coins
- Drinking glass
- Newspaper or strong napkin
- Small piece of paper
- 2 duplicate packs of cards
- 4-6 foot length of rope
- An audience (duh!)
However, you will be able to wow your audience with just the loose change in your pocket if you focus on the coin tricks.
Is the Penn & Teller MasterClass Worth It?
Of all the MasterClasses I have taken, this was the most fun. It was also a class that enabled me to learn and build skills logically to make rapid progress and achieve real results.
It provides a solid backbone of the basics and clear direction about how to develop these from simple, to complex routines.
The theory was intriguing and provocative and added a whole unexpected dimension to my thinking about magic – and reality, truth and lies more generally.
You will learn to:
- Master a wide range of basic, yet cool, magic tricks
- Understand, and make use of, misdirection
- Get creative and build on the foundations with your own ideas
- Use your personality to individualize your performance
- Use acting, psychology and brain science to add credibility to your act
- Appreciate the ethical and philosophical approach that informs Penn and Teller’s magic
For the amount you can learn from the MasterClass, as well as the fun factor, it is worth your time and investment.
I recommend you take a look at what else is on offer on MasterClass. If you can find other classes that take your fancy (and with what’s available you most likely will) then the all access pass at $180 is great value.
Frequently Asked Questions
An individual all access pass is $180. This will give you access to all 150+ classes for 12 months.
Sadly no. You cannot get the Penn and Teller MasterClass free.
Yes, MasterClass offer a 30 day full refund policy.
It consists of 17 lessons totalling 2 hours and 52 minutes.
Liz Hurley has 30+ years of high school teaching experience and is one of our senior writers here at Learnopoly.