April 29, 2012

A Magical Night With Penn & Teller & Grump

On my recent trip to Vegas, I needed at least one evening away from the poker tables and decided to take advantage of one of the great things about Vegas—its cornucopia of great restaurants and entertaining shows. I have attended many of the Cirque du Soleil shows (some of them more than once), so I was looking for something a little different. Considering I recently read Penn Jillette's book "God, No!", and since the sig other and I follow Celebrity Apprentice on which Penn was a contestant this season, the choice was obvious. A couple of texts was all it took to strong arm Poker Grump into being my wing man for the evening (Grump is also a fan of Penn & Teller—see HERE and HERE for a couple of his posts that reference Penn & Teller shows). As a surprise bonus, Grump even treated me to a great meal at Lindo Michoacan, a "local" Mexican restaurant a mere 10 minutes or so from the Strip (I enjoyed the spicy-but-not-hot house salsa and definitely loved the slow-roasted carnitas entree).

Penn & Teller have been performing at the Rio for over a decade now, meaning their current show was running for several years before my first trip to Vegas in July 2006. I originally got hooked on Penn & Teller from their appearances on various late night TV shows during my college days in the late 1980s and early 1990s, not to mention their co-starring role in Run DMC's video for "It's Tricky" [FN1]:

I loved Penn & Teller originally because of their irreverent showmanship, often going so far as to reveal how they performed the trick, giving a wink and a nod to the audience who not only want to be fooled, but to have an idea of how they were fooled. Frankly, Penn & Teller have based their success on the genius concept of acknowledging to the audience that they are going to try to fool them, and then proceeding to do just that. They are really just the flirting teens of magicians, showing just enough flesh and leading their audiences on with promises of more revealing poses later. Two of their early tricks were memorable enough to have stuck with me nearly for nearly two decades. The first is the Rocket trick, which is still one of my favorite magic performances of all time:

The second memorable old-school trick is a variation on Cups and Balls:

Flashing forward to the recent show at the Rio, which began with a pre-show opportunity for the audience to inspect a crate and an envelope which were props in later tricks. Grump and I were impressed by the skill of the two ushers who assisted audience members going up on the stage by taking their beverages and remembering whose drink was whose when those folks left the stage.

The show itself was a phenomenally entertaining hour and a half, filled with new tricks and classic tricks from  past Penn & Teller shows. The show opened with a new Penn & Teller "meta-magic" trick, where an audience member participates in the trick and the audience is in on the trick—or so they think, until a final twist leaves a theater full of scrambled brains. They call this trick "Cell Fish" and it is a quite entertaining in-person trick (fast forward to the 4:25 mark for the trick; the video doesn't show it well, but the bucket Teller brings on stage during the trick ends up hanging above the audience participant for the duration of the trick, adding to the mystery of the final reveal):

The diabolical secret of the trick is revealed in this straight-from-the-iPhone footage. I have to admit, I fell for the Cell Fish trick hook, line, and sinker ...

Penn and Teller have a great rapport, blending Penn's fast-talking and often humorous showmanship with Teller's sly facial gestures and artistic sleight of hand. Even though they have performed many of these tricks hundreds of times, they still feel fresh. Both Penn and Teller are avowed libertarians, and they work some political statements into their tricks. For example, any magician can conjure a person from thin air. It takes Penn and Teller to conjure a scantily-clad woman holding a rocket-propelled grenade out of a TSA-certified metal detector. Penn and Teller also put their own personal twists on classic magic tricks. Plenty of magicians make people disappear; but Penn makes Teller disappear from a helium-filled garbage bag. Similarly, there are plenty of magicians who levitate a ball, but Teller adds an artistic element, creating a ball which is also a pet that learns to do tricks.

I enjoyed every bit of the performance, and every trick was well-executed and entertaining. The showstopping d√©nouement—the famed "double bullet catch"—was even better in person than on TV. But probably my favorite trick of the night was Teller's solo performance of the Goldfish Bowl trick:

It was a stunning illusion, even more so considering our seats were only a few rows back from the stage. During the performance, I knew Teller had to be producing coins hidden in various spots, but the execution was flawless. As for the production of the goldfish, well clearly there had to be a secret compartment, but where and how Teller triggered it sure fooled me. It was just overall a wonderful trick. Now after seeing the video several times, I have a pretty good idea as to where the coins are hidden and how the water tank operates. Watch the video again and see if you catch any clues to how the trick works; some of the trick can be figured out from the video, but you won't have one important fact which was known to me from having watched the live performance. I'll post my thoughts at the end of this post. [FN2]

Altogether Penn & Teller was a great way to spend an evening and I plan to go back for another performance, maybe this December during WPBT. In the meantime, remember that although Vegas is a great place for poker, there are plenty of other entertainment options that provide a fun change of pace to tilting d-bags with the Spanish Inquisition.


[FN1]  Run DMC's "Run Like Hell" album was the pregame soundtrack for my senior year high school basketball team—in rural western Nebraska in late 1987. How's that for the influence of early MTV in distributing urban hip hop music to the furthest reaches of lily-white America? "It's Tricky" is a regular part of my poker music mix, along with "You Be Illin'". I can even still recite the lyrics to both songs, which demonstrates the sticking power of music from our youth, along with proving I'm clearly not maximizing my brain's potential.

[FN2]  SPOILER ALERT! I think the coins are hidden in various spots—behind the chair, in Teller's pants pockets, in the towel on the lady's lap, in the fish tank (more in a moment), and in the lady's hands (again, more in a minute). Basically, look anywhere either of Teller's hands touch an object before he produces a coin (and keep in mind he is a master of palming and concealing items). Now for the tank; notice that there is a dark semicircle in the top middle of the tank that looks to be merely a shadow from lighting. Whenever Teller uses one hand, he keeps it high in the water within that dark area. Now here's what appears to be the key—the tank has a full mirror below the dark semicircle. Whenever Teller puts both arms in the tank he plunges them in quickly and deeply. His left arm is then reflected and you think you see his right arm, which is actually behind the mirror picking up coins or releasing goldfish. But the tank design is so well-crafted, and Teller choreographs the action so well (with his quick moves and the water turbulence helping cover up the deception), we are easily sold on the illusion being real. In the video above, look at the brief closeup of the goldfish; you can see some reflections in the middle of the tank where you usually wouldn't expect them (I suspect lighting effects minimize or eliminate those kinds of reflections for the live audience). Also, the tank is on the side of the stage which keeps the audience from seeing the side of the tank, while the other side is blocked by Teller; the tank's octagonal shape probably also allows some mirroring on the sides to hide the back part of the tank. As for the lady, she appears to be a plant who is in on the trick (the same or a very similar lady assisted with the live show I attended). This explains how the coins get in her hands, and allows Teller to palm more coins to drop from her glasses, etc. This also explains how she doesn't notice the coins in the towel or the strange construction of the tank. I'm probably missing some details, but these appear to be the basics for the trick, which I still love as much as when I saw it live. Despite all the non-traditional patter and showmanship, Penn and Teller are still talented technical magicians at heart.


  1. You should consider picking up a book called "Hiding the Elephant," by Jim Steinmeyer. It's a fascinating read which entails a short history of magic's golden age (the Maskelyne family, Devant, Robert-Houdin, etc.) and goes through some basics of cabinet magic, basic mirror theory, and a whole chapter on Pepper's Ghost, which to an enthusiast is required reading. You'll enjoy it.

  2. Maybe I'm being naive, and I know that some of what Penn says from the stage is lies (he freely admits that), but I still believe he is telling the truth when he says they have never used audience plants and never will. (There is one exception in their show, but that is explicitly revealed at the end of the trick.) I was at the show just a year ago, and remember that the audience member for the goldfish trick was entirely different--a fairly elderly woman.

  3. BTW, you can hear Teller explain how slight of hand tricks exploit mental errors and assumptions we unconsciously make--and he produces coins from all sorts of places (much as in the goldfish trick) to demonstrate.

  4. when I was there a couple of months back they did this trick where they brought an audience member on stage to video tape the trick and letting the "audience" in on the rest of the trick.
    By the end of the trick Teller was transformed into the audience member which pretty much blew my mind at the time and I really want to see that trick again a time or two.

  5. Just one other thing, that I think is a testament to Penn and Teller's professionalism, is how they meet and greet the audience every night after performances, taking the time to signing autographs and pose for pictures with any that would like them.

    Teller is an absolute wizard when it comes to sleight of hand.

  6. Somehow I forgot to include the link to Teller's talking about how slight of hand works:


  7. I always enjoy them when I head to Vegas. I think my favourite of theirs is the smoking cigarette misdirection skit. Here they do the trick, then show you the trick and then at the end completely mess you up by changing the end. Great shows..

  8. @grrouchie: I loved the close up magic trick, really another meta-magic trick where the audience thinks they are in on the act until the very end. BTW, I know how the guy turned into Teller :).

    @ Rakewell: I don't think using a cast member to hold the fishbowl is the same as a "plant". I just don't see how the goldfish trick works without the lady being part of the crew.

    @ Wine Guy: Agree re the cigarette trick. Amazing.