On February 3, I took a friend with me to the Castro Theater to what was titled “A Sketchfest Tribute to Penn & Teller.” I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but I figured it would be cool to experience and I’ve always been a fan of Sketchfest programming. I don’t think I’d ever shell out the $75+ price of admission to see Penn & Teller perform in Las Vegas, nor do I typically have extra time when we visit, so this seemed like the best way to fit in Penn & Teller to my choice of entertainment.
We took Muni over and had a nice dinner at Marcello’s Pizza across the street from the theater. While there was quite a line, which stretched all the way from the box office to just before Little Orphan Andy’s around the corner, we managed to get fairly good aisle seats to the left of center around 10 rows back.
The show opened with an intro video and I was hoping it wasn’t the first of many video clips to come. I thought the intro clip was very well done. It was a mix of talk show hosts introducing Penn and Teller from their many late night and daytime apperances throughout their 40+ year career and other television appearances from The Simpsons, The Drew Carey Show, Bullshit etc.
Following the intro video, which was the only video clip shared during the evening, Penn and Teller took the stage and did a classic Cup and Ball routine where balls showed up under cups when you wouldn’t expect them to. The first version they did was the “American” version which was red solo cups and ended with a baseball showing up under a cup at the end of the trick.
Next, they did the same trick but with the audience being let in on how they did it. They used clear cups, emptied their pockets to demonstrate where the items that materialized magically really came from and how their sleight of hand worked. Penn narrated the entire process but did so at the speed that they executed the trick, meaning the feat was still impressive even if we sort of knew how it worked.
Adam Savage of Mythbusters joined them next and they sat down for conversation. Adam’s first question was “Teller, I’m sure the audience wants to know this as much as I do, are you going to talk tonight?” Teller’s “Fuck yeah!” response lead to a loud roar of approval from the crowd.
The discussion started with how Penn and Teller started and why they chose magic as their profession of choice. Teller had previously been a high school Latin teacher and started doing an amateur silent magic act because he saw some sophistication and beauty in the art. Penn, who barely finished high school and opted for Ringling Bros Clown College instead, absolutely hated magic because he felt magicians were just being paid to lie to their audience but his love of music and respect for those musicians that he was a fan of like Frank Zappa, The Residents and Bob Dylan made him not want to pursue music as a professional career. “We already have The Rolling Stones, I’d never be as good as them and unlike Guns n’ Roses, I don’t want to spend my whole life trying to be them.” Magic was something he despised, so he figured it wouldn’t be that hard for him.
They met at a mutual friend’s music festival where he had asked Teller to read poetry and Penn to juggle toilet plungers on a unicycle as a part of the show. They started to have lunch together at regular intervals and eventually Penn saw Teller do one of his silent amateur shows and became enamoured with the possibilty of developing a magic act.
This was a seque into the next trick which Teller performed silently with the assistance of an audience member, “swallowing” 100 sewing needles and a piece of thread and then pulling the thread out with all of the needles attached to it.
Next, they talked about their frequent appearances in the late 80’s on the David Letterman show. The first time they were on the show, they did a trick where Penn was stabbed in the hand with the correct card stabbed into his hand. David asked them to stick around after the show and said “I sometimes come across as an asshole but I really enjoyed your act. Next time you come on the show I want you to do something to really offend me. Go over the top and push me.”
So the next time came along, and Penn and Teller discussed what they would do. They decided to do a top hat trick where thousands of cockroaches of various breeds would stream out from under the hat. They phoned Letterman’s producer and he said absolutely not. They told him what David had told them and he informed David that Penn and Teller had something too crazy for his show that they wanted to do and Letterman agreed to let them do it.
The rehearsal happened and David turned off the monitor in his office and locked the door. He didn’t want to know what was going to happen in advance. His makeup artist warned him it was something bad but he asked that they not share it with him. The time came for the trick and they pulled it off and Letterman freaked out at the cockroaches. When they went to commercial break, Penn went over to shake his hand for being a good sport and didn’t realize there were still cockroaches crawling on his arm. Letterman said “GET THE FUCK AWAY FROM ME!” and that was the last they heard that night.
They thought perhaps they had taken it a bit too far. In the end, the next day Letterman called them himself and said he loved what they did and that they had done exactly what he’d asked. They’d be welcome to come back on his show as often as they liked.
The conversation went back to Penn and Teller and their start. Penn called Teller and asked if he’d be interested in working with him in a Minnesota Renaissance Festival over the summer. Penn had been doing street magic and gotten quite good at it and thought having Teller along with his silent act would be a good contrast. Teller agreed because it was going to be over the summer and wouldn’t conflict with his teaching job. Penn later mentioned it would be through October and Teller decided to take a year sabbatical.
During that gig, Penn was getting lots of tips and Teller not so many, but each night Penn would split the money 50/50. When Teller said “You don’t have to do that,” Penn responded “It’ll all even out in the end.” They’ve been business partners ever since.
Another trick. This one involved the perception of an audience member picked to participate in the trick. The woman joined them on stage and they covered her eyelids with their fingertips to make sure she couldn’t see. They did a hoop trick where the hoop was around Penn’s neck and seemed to pass through his neck and onto her arm and through her arm onto her other arm and around her neck at different points in the trick. The audience could see how they were performing the illusion, sometimes even involving a stage assistant, but the participant had the perception that all of it was really happening.
They talked a bit about their time Off Broadway and On Broadway and segued into why they moved to Vegas. They agreed to move to Las Vegas because they would be able to rehearse and perform shows on the same stage. In New York, they’d rent one place to rehearse, another as a shop to construct parts for their illusions, another for dress rehearsals and would finally perform on yet another stage. In Vegas it would all be in one place. When they told their friends their decision, I believe it was Lou Reed who told them “You’re like painters who made magnificent art and now you’re going to work exclusively on crushed velvet canvas and paint only in neon colors paintings of Jesus weeping and Elvis sweating.”
They’ve since learned a lot more about things that they love about working in Vegas. They can change the show at any time, adding or removing things that they wouldn’t be able to do in New York. Their bosses only care if they fill seats not the content of the show.
They talked a bit about their Showtime series Bullshit and Penn brought up that he had read someone’s website at one point that claimed their was a conspiracy between Penn and Teller’s Bullshit, South Park and Mythbusters. He laughed it off and then realized that he and Trey Parker had had conversations about when they’d have certain segments about certain topics on their shows so in a way, what he considered just conversation between friends it could really have been considered a conspiracy.
They next talked about friendship and Penn and Teller don’t do a lot together outside of business, meeting once in a while on a regular schedule at Starbucks but otherwise not sharing a lot of common interests. They still both consider each other as best friends but it is more about respect and trust than about love and cameraderie.
They opened it up for audience questions and some of them were ridiculous. A few were good. None were really noteworthy outside of the way dumb questions were dismissed.
They did one last trick, taking a small child and doing a trick with polyester fabric “cutting” it and then making it seem to still be in one piece each time. It was done to “induct” the child into the “Church of Teller” and the “master of all things synthetic fabric.”
While the tricks were basic sleight of hand and parlor magic, the style they do it in was fantastic. The behind the scenes stories and commentary was fantastic to hear and the evening was well spent.
I’m sure they stuck around and did some autographs but with a full theater and on a work night, my friend and I headed home. It was a great Sketchfest program and well worth the price of admission.