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Penn & Teller at the Rio

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While in Vegas I went to only one show, Penn & Teller at the Rio hotel off strip. Access is simple, as there are free shuttles to the Rio at both the Paris and the Harrahs hotels. The only caveat is one should get there early as the shuttles often fill up quickly.

Magic shows come in two kinds: awe-inspiring or comedic. Penn & Teller tend toward comedy, but their skills are quite impressive. Usually Teller does the sleight of hand, silently, and Penn does the rest. But both are quite good. Twice they performed tricks using transparent props, and I couldn't follow where things went or where they came from, as they both move very fast.

The opening act is pure comedy concerned with throwing knives at a volunteer from the audience. Later the volunteer throws knives at Penn, which is a nice change. In fact the entire point is to fool the volunteer, and the joke is she never knows what's going on. Long story short, no knives are actually thrown by anyone. But it is funny.

Penn is also good at fire-eating tricks. He does a montage with a woman, also highly skilled, to soft jazz music, where they treat the fire as if they were drinks. They toast with them, they feed each other fire while entwining their arms, etc. At one point the woman takes a lit flame from Penn's mouth and lights her mouth. As fire-eating goes, it's very entertaining.

Teller does the straight magic acts alone. In one worth mentioning he gives an audience volunteer a fish bowl, then takes water from a small, transparent tank with his bare hands, shakes his hands into the fishbowl and coins drop into it. I felt like yelling out "Here, have some of my drink!" But I didn't. Later he takes the coins, shakes them into the tank and goldfish, live, appears.

Penn does a lenghty bit about psychics. He uses joke books to substitute for real life information. He chooses a few audience members at random, gives them several joke books, tells them to look through them and to pick a joke. Then he guesses the joke the way a psychic would "I see a dog, no a forest, no a politician!" And he explains exactly how he does it, what clues he gets from the participants, what knowledge he needs beforehand, etc. He goes on at lenght about not trusting psychics, as they are mere tricksters and frauds. I rather liked it.

They also do a bit about burning an American flag with a bit of lfash paper, while the flag is ensonced in a rolled-up copy of the Bill of Rights. Then they repeat the trick using "China's Bill of Rights," which is a transparent sheet of acrylic, like the ones used to make transparencies for projectors. Penn proclaims their right to burn a flag as an expression of the liberty guranteed by the Bill of RIghts. That's a rather good point to make.

The closing act is a new trick using bullets and guns which they actually fire. I'll go into more detail later.

At the exit both of them made themselves available to the audience for autographs and photos. I got Teller's signature on my ticket (the only paper I had with me), and I told him I'd loved their bit on Babylon 5 (as Rebo and Zooty). He thanked me and seemed rather amused. It's odd to hear him talk, too :)

Their premise is that magic is not magic but "mere" feats of skills. Depending ont he rpesentation it can seem awesome, ordinary, funny, romantic, etc. But the emphasis, I think, is on the skills. So they can tell you what they do, they can show you, they can use transparent cups for the cups and ball trick, and still you'll be impressed with their performance.

I had a great time.

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They also do a bit about burning an American flag with a bit of lfash paper, while the flag is ensonced in a rolled-up copy of the Bill of Rights. Then they repeat the trick using "China's Bill of Rights," which is a transparent sheet of acrylic, like the ones used to make transparencies for projectors. Penn proclaims their right to burn a flag as an expression of the liberty guranteed by the Bill of RIghts. That's a rather good point to make.

...

I had a great time.

Hey, that sounds like a great show, D'kian. You’ve painted a vivid word picture. I've always loved Penn and Teller.

One of the things they were famous for was revealing the secrets behind magic tricks, which made a lot of magicians mad, but the reason they did this was to debunk the idea there was anything supernatural about what they were doing. It was all tricks, nothing more.

They combine humor, with slight of hand, big stage tricks, and their own strong philosophical views. And this reminds me, I recently saw an entertaining bit they did with John Cleese. It's on youtube. In fact, here it is:

Thanks for sharing, D'kian, your post was enjoyable in its own right. An FYI, Teller was a student of Scott Powell's "First History for Adults" online course!

No kidding? I once heard Teller say he's one of those "idiots" (or something similar) who happens to believe what Ayn Rand wrote. I love to hear good news like that. This helps explain why their show "Bull Shit" is so dead on so often.

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You're both welcome.

The show in Vegas costs about $90 (I got a discount because the ticket seller said so, I've no idea why). It's well worth it.

So here's the finale, called "Magic Bullets."

First they divide the stage in two by means of a broad yellow tape. Next they pull out two hand guns and ask for two volunteers with knowledge of guns. Next the volunteers write their initials each on one bullet and make a drawing in the casing. Teller puts one cartridge in his gun, Penn does the same with his. All the while they are on opposite sides of the tape, and make sure no one, including the volunteers, cross the yellow tape.

They don bullet-proof vests and riot-style helmets (with clear visors), take aim with laser sights attached to each gun, and fire.

Penn has now a bullet between his teeth, which you realize when he talks, and you note Teller does too. Now Penn has Teller's bullet and Teller has Penn's bullet, they each have their original casing. The volunteers attest they're the casings they drew on, they are empty and they have been fired. They also attest the bullets crossed the stage, they are the bullets with their initials, and they, too, were fired (hence why they ask for people with experience in fire arms).

It's a bit disappointing because you don't actually see the bullets, or the initials or the drawings.

Now, let's assume all Penn & Teller say is so, let's assume the volunteers are not plants, let's assume they are also telling the truth, and let's assume no one on stage crossed the yellow tape. If all that is given, how the hell was the trick done?

Naturally they didn't fire the bulelts at each other or caught them with their teeth. Since they were aiming at each other's faces, then we can be certain they fired blanks. Let's grant all that.

Then obviously they have to switch the marked cartridges for blanks, hand the marked cartridges to offstage crew, have someone offstage fire the marked cartridges in such a way that the bullets are not damaged (into a water tank, just like ballistics labs do), be handed the marked casings and bullets, conceal the bullets in their mouths (to make it appear they were caught with the teeth), fire the blanks, relpace the blanks' casings for the other ones, and end the trick.

How? I've no idea. I'm no stage magician, nor did I see anything to suggest any of the above actions, I've only tried to deduce them. Maybe they do it differently (like printing a digital copy of the initials and drawings in cases and bullets already fired, if such a thing is remotely possible; I'm guessing here). In any case it's an elaborate series of subtle actions, done in full view of hundreds of people, and in a short amount of time.

Firing the bullets for real and catching them with their teeth almost seems a lot simpler and more believable. :)

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Hey, that sounds like a great show, D'kian. You’ve painted a vivid word picture. I've always loved Penn and Teller.

Thank you. The show is great. I'd definitely see it again.

Penn also does a thing with a nail gun, but enough spoilers for now.

One of the things they were famous for was revealing the secrets behind magic tricks, which made a lot of magicians mad, but the reason they did this was to debunk the idea there was anything supernatural about what they were doing. It was all tricks, nothing more.

Really? I must say I'm a bit surprised. I've loved stage magic since I can remember. I recall vividly the joy I felt when there was a magician at a birthday party when I was a child. Maybe when i was five I believed it was real magic. But around age 8 I got a magic set as a birthday present. I realized then it was all tricks. So even when David Copperfield goes through the Great Wall of China (cool trick, BTW), or makes the Statue of Liberty disappear, does anyone seriously believe he's actually doing so instead of performing a trick?

I mean, if I could transmute water into coins, or coins into fish, or divine a person's thoughts, or pull objects from locked boxes, or escape from a straight-jacket while inside a canvas bag inside a locked trunk, etc etc, if I could do any or all of that, I'd be doing a lot more with such talents than performing parlor tricks for an audience.

And this reminds me, I recently saw an entertaining bit they did with John Cleese. It's on youtube. In fact, here it is:

Thanks. I'll look it up when I'm off work.

No kidding? I once heard Teller say he's one of those "idiots" (or something similar) who happens to believe what Ayn Rand wrote. I love to hear good news like that.

If I'd know that, I'd have told him something other than a reference to the Rebo and Zooty bit.

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I found a clip in Youtube with the magic bullets act:

As you'll see, I got some of the details wrong, and forgot about the glass entirely. Also there were a few differences, but this is at a different venue.

Enjoy.

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Really? I must say I'm a bit surprised. I've loved stage magic since I can remember. I recall vividly the joy I felt when there was a magician at a birthday party when I was a child. Maybe when i was five I believed it was real magic. But around age 8 I got a magic set as a birthday present. I realized then it was all tricks. So even when David Copperfield goes through the Great Wall of China (cool trick, BTW), or makes the Statue of Liberty disappear, does anyone seriously believe he's actually doing so instead of performing a trick?

I mean, if I could transmute water into coins, or coins into fish, or divine a person's thoughts, or pull objects from locked boxes, or escape from a straight-jacket while inside a canvas bag inside a locked trunk, etc etc, if I could do any or all of that, I'd be doing a lot more with such talents than performing parlor tricks for an audience.

Yeah, I've never believed myself. I have seen people who claim to have the power of psycho-kinesis and telepathy. Perhaps that's what they were responding to. They're in the business, so I'm sure they've seen a lot that we haven't seen.

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I've heard that they actually do fire the bullets, but with very little powder behind them. They have it calculated so that there is so little energy left after breaking the glass that the bullets barely make it at all.

Thus it is a carefully calculated stunt, and not slight of hand. Its all third hand info from a half dozen or so people on a gun forum that I read that were the "volunteers"

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I've heard that they actually do fire the bullets, but with very little powder behind them. They have it calculated so that there is so little energy left after breaking the glass that the bullets barely make it at all.

That would take a small measure of magic all by itself. And failure is too likely a notion, if nothing else because they hold the guns they fire.

After watching it on video I'm still lost as to how, not to mention when, the trick is performed. But that's why they get to charge $90 a head and I get to enjoy the show.

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Yeah, I've never believed myself. I have seen people who claim to have the power of psycho-kinesis and telepathy. Perhaps that's what they were responding to. They're in the business, so I'm sure they've seen a lot that we haven't seen.

That, yes, I've known people who do believe in such things. As I said, Penn does an entire act to debunk psychics, and I suppose they've tackled the subject in their cable show.

The things that psychics, mentalists, faith healers, channelers, mediums, etc claim to do are, in fact, magic tricks any stage magician can replicate. James Randi, a professional magician, has made a career exposing such things. He has an open offer of a substantial reward (at least a million dollars, probably more) to anyone who can demonstrate a genuine psychic ability. The reward's gone uncollected for years.

Larry Niven, who integrated supernatural talents in his fiction, lately's been saying if such things do exist they must be near to useless. His reasoning is people could see inside locked boxes, or divine the future, or read thoughts, or move objects with their mind, they'd be making huge fortunes in several fields of endeavour and revolutionizing police work and other related fields.

Now, I recall a minor stage magician in the late 80s, Doug Henning if memory serves, once tried to establish an institute or foundation to probe for real magic. As far as I know nothing came of it, and I ahven't heard of Henning for a long time since.

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No kidding? I once heard Teller say he's one of those "idiots" (or something similar) who happens to believe what Ayn Rand wrote. I love to hear good news like that. This helps explain why their show "Bull Shit" is so dead on so often.

However, Penn is a libertarian, and even if i enjoy his show, and his "no-nonsense" personality, i absolutely cant stand his thesis that he throws around every now and then: "all will be well when we get the pot heads to like the businessmen and the businessmen to like the pot heads" or something like that. I know he is an entertainer, but in my opinion that is something that sums up libertarianism quite well.

Still, i enjoy watching "Bullshit!"....

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Thanks for sharing, D'kian, your post was enjoyable in its own right. An FYI, Teller was a student of Scott Powell's "First History for Adults" online course!

And a pretty good one at that. I was in Powell's course on European history, and Teller was another one of the students there. The exercises he posted to the course mailing list were pretty solid -- I got the sense that he's an intelligent and intellectually serious man. If I'm ever at his show, I'll wear my Powell History t-shirt and see if it gets a reaction.

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I just caught your post, D'kian.

That, yes, I've known people who do believe in such things. As I said, Penn does an entire act to debunk psychics, and I suppose they've tackled the subject in their cable show.

Yes, "Bullshit!" in which they go after more than just faith healers and the like, they also go after conspiracy theorists, PETA, etc.

The things that psychics, mentalists, faith healers, channelers, mediums, etc claim to do are, in fact, magic tricks any stage magician can replicate. James Randi, a professional magician, has made a career exposing such things. He has an open offer of a substantial reward (at least a million dollars, probably more) to anyone who can demonstrate a genuine psychic ability. The reward's gone uncollected for years.

Right. I'm a big fan of his work. In fact, was it in this forum that a video was posted in which he made a devastating critique of holistic medicine? If you haven't seen it, I recommend it.

Larry Niven, who integrated supernatural talents in his fiction, lately's been saying if such things do exist they must be near to useless. His reasoning is people could see inside locked boxes, or divine the future, or read thoughts, or move objects with their mind, they'd be making huge fortunes in several fields of endeavour and revolutionizing police work and other related fields.

Yes, and that's not an uncommon line of reasoning. I've heard Penn say the same thing. Perhaps he read Niven.

Now, I recall a minor stage magician in the late 80s, Doug Henning if memory serves, once tried to establish an institute or foundation to probe for real magic. As far as I know nothing came of it, and I ahven't heard of Henning for a long time since.

I didn't know that, but Henning died several years ago. He's the guy that used to always say "It's magical", or something like that. :)

However, Penn is a libertarian, and even if i enjoy his show, and his "no-nonsense" personality, i absolutely cant stand his thesis that he throws around every now and then: "all will be well when we get the pot heads to like the businessmen and the businessmen to like the pot heads" or something like that. I know he is an entertainer, but in my opinion that is something that sums up libertarianism quite well.

Still, i enjoy watching "Bullshit!"....

You may be right about that, but he doesn't strike me as a nihilist. He's very pro-American and seems to really value and love life.

And a pretty good one at that. I was in Powell's course on European history, and Teller was another one of the students there. The exercises he posted to the course mailing list were pretty solid -- I got the sense that he's an intelligent and intellectually serious man. If I'm ever at his show, I'll wear my Powell History t-shirt and see if it gets a reaction.

Yeah, you won't get a word out of him.

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Yes, "Bullshit!" in which they go after more than just faith healers and the like, they also go after conspiracy theorists, PETA, etc.

I've seen a few eps. The channel that carries it likes unpredictable programming, so I don't get to see it often.

Yes, and that's not an uncommon line of reasoning. I've heard Penn say the same thing. Perhaps he read Niven.

I wouldn't be surprised. Niven's mostly a good read, at least when he doesn't let the background dominate the characters.

Arthur C. Clarke was also once taken with the paranormal, going as far as producing a TV show about it. I never saw it, but I know it was made. In any case, he used such plot devices in only one novel, by far one of his worse works (Childhood's End).

Yeah, you won't get a word out of him.

Not during the show, no. But he talks like a normal person once the show's over.

I forgot this. Since we were talking about stage magicioans revealing secrets, I've been thinking a little about the matter. Just about everyone has heard the saying "a magician never reveals his tricks." Well, why not? One answer is that the trick looses any impact if you know how it's done (but read what I said about Penn & Teller doing a trick while they explain it). Another is that any trick revealed can easily be copied by other magicians; but all sorts of tricks get copied all the time. Which leaves the third possibility, and that is to make the audience believe there's real magic going on.

As I said before, I doubt any reasonable people believe stage magic is actually magic, except for very small children. that said, I don't mind magicians who try to awe the audience by spectacular and well-hidden tricks, even if they rpetend something other than their skill is causing the "magic" to take place (like blowing on a coin, or waving a magic wand). After all, it's performance and showmanship. I like magicians like David Copperfield, who never tell you how they do things, or Sigfried and Roy, who preffer a rather extravagant presentation of any trick no matter how common.

In Penn & Teller's show, Teller does the regular stage tricks alone (regular as opposed to comedic). He does not speak on stage, ever. So he does no build-up and he lays down no hype. He just goes out and performs. He is amazing. When he's on stage with Penn they do the more comedic bits (although Penn can also be serious). It's a different kind of show than what Copeprfield and others do. But I like both kinds just fine. In the end it's the magician's performance that counts.

BTW I've neglected to mention the most important magician of the XX century. An Englishman by the name of Maskeyline. During WWII he used his skills in stage magic to devise camouflage for the Brittish army. He did marvelously well. One time he made the port city of alexandria disappear. His team built a decoy near by and blacked out the real port. This prompted German aircraft to bomb the decoy, especially since Maskeyline's team would set off explosives in the decoy, making the germans think bombs were already falling on target. He also mannaged to hide the Suez Canal using lights and mirrors, so the german pilots couldn't see what they were aiming at. After the war he resumed his stage career, but with one difference. To the end of his life, he performed while wearing his Brittish army unifrom.

Edited by D'kian
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