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Memphis Flyer Magic, With a Touch Of Gunplay

Penn And Teller Bring Their Unhinged, And Sometimes Terrifying, Brand Of Magic To GPAC

By James Busbee

OCTOBER 20, 1997:  Penn and Teller are magicians, but they don't pull rabbits from hats. Unless, of course, the rabbits come through a wood chipper first.

The nationally famous duo has parlayed their off-kilter approach to magic into dozens of appearances on Letterman and Saturday Night Live, in addition to a successful off-Broadway show. They've produced hysterical books and videos on how to use magic to torment those around you.

In the course of their career, Penn (the big, loud one) has run over Teller (the silent-on-stage straight man) with a tractor-trailer in front of Radio City Music Hall, set loose 500 cockroaches on David Letterman's desk, and concocted elaborate, cross-country card tricks. During their Thursday-night show at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre, their performance will include a terrifying new bit where they fire .357 magnums at each other's faces and catch the bullets in their teeth. Recently, they sat down to talk about their approach to magic, their views on art and society, and why so many other magicians just suck.

What originally drew you to magic?

Penn: My interest in magic actually came out of hating magic. When I first met Teller, I thought magic was awful just a lot of greasy, condescending guys in tuxes insulting women and pushing them into boxes. Magic is this wonderful form where you have built-in irony, where something appears one way but you know it's another way. Traditional magic takes away the real balls of it, which is the fact that you are paying someone to lie to you. You are going into the theatre to investigate truth.

Teller: Magic has an intensity that no other theatre achieves. [The audience] can't help but participate "I see it happening, I know it can't be happening, what the hell's going on?"

What separates you from the traditional, "pick-a-card-any-card" magicians?

Penn: All that's different is that we don't insult the intelligence of the audience. We may yell at people and push them around, and there may be blood spurting, but we're polite about it. Jerry Seinfeld has this great line about magic: "Here's a quarter, it's gone, you're an idiot, it's back, you're a jerk, show's over." Most of our audience are repulsed by the idea that a magician would act like they were stupid because he went to a magic shop and bought Hippity-Hop Rabbits. They don't want to see someone pose with a smoke machine and hair-care products.

Teller: No one [in our audience] is embarrassed onstage. And we're very informal after the show instead of hiding away, we hang out in the lobby, and anybody that wants an autograph or wants to chat can come up and talk with us.

You're outspoken proponents of the distinction between art and reality. Why does America have so much trouble distinguishing the two?

Penn: I think that because of some very unscrupulous politicians, we have this climate in this country where people are supposed to blame things that happen in the real world on things that happen in art, which is just insane. I think we are addressing that head-on [in our act]. We are taking what people are really frightened of, which is guns and gunplay, and in a very realistic environment doing stuff that is insane with them. But once you put the proscenium around it, it becomes fantasy and it becomes okay.

Teller: We are very strongly passionate advocates of the idea that art is one thing and life is another. In Shakespeare's day, no one blamed teen suicide on Romeo and Juliet. The beauty of the arts is that you can do the most dangerous stuff in the world in your imagination without any real risk.

Where do you come up with the ideas for your tricks?

Teller: We work from the idea to the trick. For example, a couple of years back, we were going on the Letterman show. This was right after he'd moved to CBS, and his people said, "Do something big for us." So Penn and I stared at each other and said, "What's big?" We ended up using forklifts to do a gigantic card trick, and we built a pack of playing cards out of sheet metal. The cards were 3 feet by 4 feet, and weighed about 1,200 pounds.

What tricks are you proudest of?

Penn: It's always the new stuff. Right now, I'm very proud of the bullet catch, which has killed 12 people onstage. It's the best magic trick people will ever see. No one has ever been hurt with us. We can be completely safe and be amazing and not insult people and not hurt anybody. What more do you want out of life?

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