September 6, 2018
Pointillistic paintings have always intrigued me. When I come across one at a museum I often find myself staring at it long enough to start making plans on visiting the scene it portraits. Then I wonder about what made that scene so interesting for the painter. It’s only after a few of these thoughts that I find myself thinking about the actual points which drew my attention to the work in the first place. I mean, have you thought about that? The number of points in such painting is one of those numbers which is impossible for someone to grasp, like the number of cells in a fingernail or the amount of money which represents Elon Musk’s net worth. Can you even start imagining laying so many dots in a canvas? Let alone picturing the number of hours required to study colour, light, drawing and all the necessary techniques to paint such a piece. My recurring thought is “why going through all that when there are so many examples of paintings which use apparently easier techniques right in this museum?”. However, the result is indeed an unexpected, layered and immersive piece of artwork which easily distracts me from the technique used.
Right: clearly I’m not an authority in plastic arts. I’m trying to make a point. Actually, I’m trying to convince you to go see Penn & Teller. Yes, the magicians! Are you not into magic you say? Well, what if I told you that there are different approaches to magic and that Penn & Teller’s is not the kind of magic you are thinking of? Ok: you might have heard of Penn & Teller’s scepticism, you might have seen segments of their show Fool Us. You might know that they give away a lot of tricks. You may have seen one of their many tv appearances. This might have been enough to convince you to go see their live show during your next visit to Vegas or whenever they are touring near you. If that is the case, this article wasn’t written with you in mind. However, my experience tells me that this kind of awareness of Penn & Teller’s off-stage appearances and opinions can also serve to detract people from the idea of ever giving them money to see their show. If you don’t see the reason to see these two guys live, here are the arguments I’ve been using to pitch the show to my friends.
Don’t Think About Magic
The following may resemble some sort of Jedi mind trick. Nonetheless, it’s my recommended exercise when it comes to sitting in the audience of a Penn & Teller show: do not think of it as a magic show. You are not going to be sitting for 120 minutes looking at cards and other objects and animals disappear and/or appear from thin air, mixed with moments where the minds of volunteers are breached in order to extract some information only they could possibly know. You are going to witness a stage performance. Do you remember those pointillistic paintings? I didn’t go to that museum to see a cloud of dots on a white canvas. The stories I bring back are not of me watching a series of dots. That’s because that artist did not just paint a series of dots. That painter captured a harbour of a small French village, or a field of wildflowers, or even a scene in a cabaret. Sure they used a heck of a lot of dots, and sure that mastering that technique took an obscene amount of time of their lives. Nevertheless, that is just used to accomplish capturing something that wouldn’t be portrayed otherwise. You’re with me so far? I want you to think of magic shows more in this way. Many things are not all about what it’s billed on their name: the theory of relativity is less about relativity and more about invariance, a pointillistic painting is less about the dots and more about light, colour and ultimately the subject of the paintings. A Penn & Teller show is less about the tricks, and more about stories and different ways of describing the world, which ultimately makes an intellectual point. _ I saw a Penn & Teller show live only once, last year during their passage by Glasgow in their summer UK tour1. I didn’t sit in the audience completely virgin. Much the opposite: for about four and a half years I’ve consumed hours and hours of Penn & Teller material. In the Autumn of 2012, I moved to the Netherlands, to a small university campus close to the woods where I was supposed to attend four classes of a masters program in theoretical Physics. This gave me a lot of time to watch online videos and to listen to podcasts while walking in the Dutch forest. I came across Bullshit! when it was offered as a sidebar recommendation on YouTube while a science education video was playing. From then on I was sucked into the thus far unexplored world of Penn & Teller. That lead me to Penn’s podcast - Penn’s Sunday School - which had started a few months earlier. Having consumed this much Penn & Teller audiovisual material has ruined the experience of wonder which comes with getting to know their work by watching one of their live shows for the first time. Not only had I seen some of the tricks in YouTube videos of tv appearances of the duo, but I had listened to hours of Penn talking with his mates about the tricks in great detail, from the perspective of the audience and also from his perspective. This included descriptions of the evolution of bits of the show, how did certain illusions failed on stage, how some methods have changed throughout time, how some of the props were engineered and constructed…
Here is the point of the text which demands a fair warning: if for some reason you trust my words, and you don’t consider yourself acquainted with Penn & Teller’s stage work, you may want to stop reading now. I was robbed of that feeling of wonder that comes with discovering Penn & Teller for the first time on stage. It’s not too late for you. Are you still reading? It’s your call! You have been warned.
There’s Something for Everyone
In some magic acts, you can start pulling the (certainly invisible) thread and soon you will be met with a jagged end. I’ve seen the most successful magicians (even my favourite performers) present segments where, when you know how the trick is done, you’re done: there’s nothing more to it. You just have to sit down and wait until it passes. Every single time I’ve seen someone presenting the Sands of the Nile trick it was by an artist I much admire and it has always disappointed me: I know how the trick is done, I know it’s all in the props and that there is even little dexterity needed (when compared with sleight-of-hand card magic, for example). I’ve never seen a presentation of that trick that has added more than just showing the sands being separated. That doesn’t happen in a Penn & Teller show. Again, this is because the show is about more than the tricks. When you pull the thread, you are met with a ball of yarn which you can untangle. If you keep pulling, more balls of yarn will come up. Knowing how one of their tricks is done in the worst case will have no effect on how you experience the performance. Recently I’ve understood the method for one of their tricks: the trick is, in fact, performed in such a way that both the audience and the volunteer brought on stage are led to believe they understand how the trick was done and the others don’t, although they are shown two different methods. On top of that, knowing any of these methods just helps create confusion about how the reveal is performed later in the same illusion. Isn’t that great?
Despite my acquaintance with most, if not all of the material I was seeing that evening, there was still room for surprise. A lot of that surprise was directed to one particular insight: the Penn & Teller show is a beautiful mix of many forms of art. If you are at all acquainted with illusionism shows, such insight may induce your eyes to roll. But hear me out: this show is more complete than what you would expect. The most identifiable form of art linked with magic performances is theatre, correct? Well, in this show you’ll see two very distinct schools of theatre. Teller, who is - here comes the inevitable point of the article - the silent partner - gasp! -, brings in the physical theatre. His performance style is very visual, him being seemingly always aware of what his body is doing. He is capable of grand gestures of affection towards a red ball, but he is also able to play the audience with an impeccable comedic timing just using nuanced movements with his face. Speaking of red ball, this famous routine by Teller is a perfect example of his brilliant performance. Where other performers would use music, sound effects and other props, Teller presents a very rich performance by just using a red ball, a thread, a bench and his body. Penn, on the other hand, is the talker. He demonstrates an impressive stage presence, but not particularly due to his enormous figure. In fact, due to his fortunate change in diet, he now has less of an aggressive and more of a humble and wise appearance. The way he fills up the space is with his voice. Whether he is on or off stage, or there is even any action on stage, his voice brings in the power and comfort of a thunderous religious preacher or snake’s oil salesmen. His tone of voice may be trying to sell you a panacea for all the evil in you, but you also accept him as your friend.
The diversity in their performance isn’t conditioned by theatre. If music is your area of expertise - I know it’s mine - you will definitely enjoy its usage in the show. If some segments are left without a tune in order to direct the focus onto the text, the performer or a prop, others are brilliantly aided by a musical background. Something I consider an interesting usage of music in a contemporary performance is the unapologetic usage of jazz in their show. In fact, the Vegas shows are opened by a mainstream jazz duo on the piano and double bass (unfortunately this was replaced by a recording in the UK tour shows). For one hour before the show, a virtuoso pianist and a surprisingly tall bassist go through a great repertoire of jazz standards, with a chemistry which reflects greatly in the music. This segment, now a staple of their live show, welcomes you in a friendly and human way, relaxing you and letting you leave any concern at the bar.
I’m rapidly approaching the disciplines of art for which is hard to find an example of their explicit usage in the Penn & Teller show. Therefore I’m going to resist the temptation to refer to the carefully designed light show in combination with the video backdrop as painting. Also, it would be obvious to point out that someone with an inclination for literature would certainly appreciate the script of the show. I’ll just finish up with two examples of two other areas: film and sculpture. A bit recently added to the show, mononymously (as all the Penn & Teller bits tend to be) named Dracula, is nothing but two adults recreating an attempt of two children to make a magic video. The whole bit is meant to be seen from the screens which up until then were used for video magnification since the trick performed during that segments is so small only the members of the audience sat on the central chairs of the first few rows would actually be able to see it live. This is, therefore, an ingenious way to present a trick with tiny props to a big audience. But, it doesn’t stop there: the whole thing is brilliantly orchestrated to resemble a believable scene of children playing, from the choice and delivery of words to the awkward acting in front of a lens. Apart from the subjects still looking like grown men, the only other surreal aspect is the fact that they (and by they I mean Penn) don’t try to fake a child’s voice. This has the effect of an even more immersive experience. It’s a simple detail, one of inaction too, but one that makes much sense: we know Penn’s voice, we’ve been hearing it throughout the show. Putting up a voice would be distracting since a child staging such video would also not be putting on a voice themselves.
Lastly, we reach sculpting. If that’s what floats your boat, you will most definitely be satisfied by the “Barrel” segment. At the beginning of the bit, there is only the barrel: no other props, no stagehands, no performers, not even movement. The barrel is pierced by wooden rods - it’s a striking image. This may not be immediately recognised as an art piece to be observed for its singular worth. It’s actually a strange way of displaying a contemporary installation, in front of such a large audience, all looking at it from the same angle. But it’s nevertheless a piece which can very well be displayed in a museum. Penn’s (probably recorded2) narration starts a few moments into the segment, pointing out exactly this fact: that currently there is a sold out theatre audience staring at a motionless barrel positioned centre stage. Movement ensues; the piece becomes a kinetic sculpture. More I won’t write, I’ve already given too many details of a bit which (at the time of this writing) seems to be poorly documented online and therefore has the potential to be one of the most surprising.
Lifetimes of Practice
I hope that at this point I have convinced you that indeed a Penn & Teller show is an unusually eclectic performance. Now I will go a step further and say that you will enjoy it greatly. For starters, no part of the show is rushed in production. Every single moment has been carefully engineered. On top of that, execution is also flawless. Not in the sense that you will see no mistakes. You will probably see a few, you might even see Penn Jillette and/or Teller3 messing up a trick to the point of no return. There will certainly be improvisational moments that arise from requesting the help of a member of the audience. Nevertheless, the performance will be flawless. Watching a Penn & Teller show is watching a highly skilled troupe of professionals at work. The numbers are impressive: Penn and Teller - Penn on his sixties and Teller having just completed 70 recently - have been working together for over four decades. This is not in the rock-and-roll meaning of the expression working together, where long breaks due to fights between band members or journeys to find themselves in other countries are allowed. According to them, the longest breaks they took from performing together hasn't spanned longer than two weeks4. Saying that they do around 300 show a year is not an exaggeration. They are also the longest headliners in Las Vegas still performing. Apart from the shows, they are constantly working either on projects with high visibility such as Fool Us, on guest appearances in popular sitcoms, on other artistic ventures (like the documentaries Aristocrats, Tim’s Vermeer, the film Director’s Cut, or adaptions of Shakespearean plays) or as guests in small audience projects of their mates (like the shorts & Teller or the sessions of The Bucket Show). And the qualifications for expertise don’t stop here: everyone related with the Penn & Teller ventures is also not only on the top layer of professionals in their area but also working with the duo for an impressive amount of years. In a Penn’s Sunday School episode, Penn can be heard referring to someone who has been working with them for eight years as “the new guy”. Their music director - the one who brings the jazz into Penn & Teller - is Mike “Jonesy” Jones, a brilliant mainstream jazz pianist. His friendship with Penn started already in Vegas, soon after Penn begun learning how to play jazz. Actually, the reason why the jazz duo that precedes the show is so tight together is in great part to it being composed by Mike and Penn. Indeed, Penn, on the upright bass, opens his own show most evenings. Their longtime magic consultant is none other than Johnny Thompson, The Great Thompsoni, someone whose contribution to the world of magic certainly occupies many pages on the encyclopedia of the craft. In some cases, other great minds of magic are called to help with a certain trick - as it happened with the “taking a rabbit out of a hat” trick, where the duo was helped not only by Thompson, but also by The Amazing Randi and Piff The Magic Dragon.
These are my two arguments to convince you to go see Penn & Teller. Go see them because you’ll certainly enjoy it. There is something for everyone. Go see it for the storytelling, music, theatre, sculpture, film… or purely to be entertained. If none of these areas interests you, go see it anyway, because they are not just some storytellers, actors, performers, entertainers. They are a team of the world’s best performers, artisans, managers, musicians - and once in your lifetime you should go see the best, even if you’re not into their particular skill. Because they are the best. I hope I have convinced you.
It took me so long to write and publish this article that actually I’m currently getting ready to see them on stage once more, this time at the Penn & Teller theatre in Las Vegas. ↩
wink, wink ↩
Actually the original name of the duo. ↩
I had written this bit of the article before Teller’s back surgery, which caused the Penn & Teller show to stop for about a month. ↩