Tricks and Treats

While Saturday Night Live freed comedians from the reputations established by USO and radio-show performances, Penn & Teller were taking their craft out of the Doug Henning-dominated '70s and making sure magic would have a life in a time when making tigers disappear wasn't "cutting edge" anymore.

Though performances on SNL, The Late Show with David Letterman, and their own variety show brought them to television, Penn & Teller's appearances on Miami Vice and in a Run-D.M.C. video sealed their status as contemporary and hip--not your parents' magicians. It had to have been those cameos that made them cool. It wasn't the flashy clothes (these guys appear regularly in gray suits); it wasn't the great haircuts (see picture). And it wasn't just the illusions, although those are good enough to make people squirm in their seats. Example: The small and silent Teller is suspended precariously above blades as Penn (the talkative, tall one) promises not to remove him from harm's way until he's finished reading a lengthy passage from a classic book. Then there's the wince-inducing gag where they square off and point and fire .357 Magnums at one another at close range, or the bit where the trick goes awry and Teller is left to drown in a water-filled phone booth.

Penn & Teller approach their profession (and the world) with cynicism while still maintaining an enthusiasm for their craft. They show their love of the process of the illusion, not the act of deceiving, often allowing their audiences to see the wizard behind the curtain. They demonstrate the "ball and cups" trick with transparent cups, explaining it step by step so that audience members can see every sleight of hand and redirection. But the unveiling makes it no less amazing. In fact, the process is at least as amazing and perhaps twice as entertaining. They show that sometimes reality is just as wondrous as the illusion.

Penn & Teller have also taken a stand beside James "The Amazing" Randi in a war against charlatans by showing the methods behind clichéd magic tricks, exposing mentalists, faith healers, and mind readers who claim to be more than entertainers and use their skills to deceive or lie, not amuse. Penn & Teller are also champions for the public, warning them against scam artists who wish to bilk them with parlor tricks or present themselves as something more than snake-oil salesmen. While this plus showing the techniques behind common tricks hasn't made them popular among some other practitioners of the illusionary arts, Penn & Teller have helped magicians shed the past and challenged performers to stop sawing the lady in half and move on to something new.

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Mark Hughes