Awesome People: Penn & Teller

One of the things I’d like to talk about on this blog, besides my own various ramblings, are some of the people who’ve influenced me and played some part in shaping the ways I think. Some of these people I’ve never met; others are among my closest friend. I know (and know of) many awesome people, so there will no doubt be many such posts in the future.

For the first Awesome People post, I’d like to talk about two of my personal heroes: Penn Jilette, and his partner Teller.

When I was younger, I always found magicians disappointing.

That’s not because they were bad (though some were). In fact, I usually enjoyed the performances. The problem was, as a kid with an over-active imagination who devoured piles of fantasy and science fiction, I wanted my magic to be, well, more magical. While they were pulling rabbits out of hats and cutting people in half, I would be sitting in the back pouting that they weren’t changing people into dogs or dragons.

This attitude persisted until college, when I discovered Penn & Teller.

I think the first time I remember seeing them was on YouTube. They were doing their version of the cups and balls (which you can check out yourself here:

They start off doing a standard cups and balls trick; it’s well done, but not particularly exciting.

The part after, where Penn announces that they’re going to do the trick again, describing exactly what they’re doing, show where they’re hiding the various balls, all while using transparent cups? Now that piqued my interest.

Here’s the thing about the second version; you get to see how quickly they move the various trick components. In fact, even while Penn is telling you exactly what is going on, even as you track every motion of every ball, every sleight of hand, even as the secret mechanisms are laid bare before your very eyes, it’s still incredible.

More than that; it’s beautiful.

Penn and Teller are so good that they don’t have to hide it from you; you can keep your eyes on their hands the whole time and will only be more mystified by how fast and smooth they can make the balls appear and reappear.

I think it’s good to step back and ask, why? Why did they decide to do it that way? Why show their hand, when magic is all about keeping things hidden?

The answer is, that’s not what magic is about. Magic is about creating a sense of wonder in your audience. In that sense, it’s not that different from the magic of fantasy novels. It’s supposed to be something mysterious, something special. It’s the feeling of seeing something new, of discovering a different idea, a different angle on things.  The traditional cups and balls trick is too old to inspire wonder in most people, especially adults. Penn and Teller aren’t using transparent cups because they want you to understand the detailed mechanisms of their trick; they’re revealing part of the trick to you because that makes it new, unexpected, and special.

I’ve been to their live show at the Rio in Las Vegas twice, and every trick they do follows this philosophy. Some of them are partially revealed, some of them are deliberately mysterious. Whatever they think will do the job. There is a kind of skepticism, I think, when some people watch magic shows, where the audience feels that the methods the magicians are using to conceal their tricks are cheap. Smoke and mirrors. Fancy trap doors. Camera tricks. That kind of stuff.

Penn and Teller’s act eclipses that notion. They never pretend it’s anything else than a clever trick, but man do they convince you that there’s nothing cheap about their methods. Don’t get me wrong – there’s smoke and mirrors, but they’re far more disguised. The way they manipulate you is not expected. I left each show giddy and a little breathless, even the second time when I’d seen most of it before.

Here’s something else that made me giddy; Penn and Teller stayed after the show, outside the theatre, signing autographs and taking pictures. With everyone. EVERYONE! They do this show five times a week or more! For like ten years! They do it with a smile and a jovial manner and man, if they’re not genuinely having a blast chatting it up with fans, then they’re the best actors I’ve ever seen.

Teller talks, by the way. He also writes. He says, “My job is to leave you with a beautiful question, not an ugly answer.” I can’t think of a more eloquent way to state what I’ve been trying to get at here.

Penn and Teller would be awesome if all they did was magic. But that’s not even half of what they do. They’ve done tons of TV Shows, most notably Penn & Teller: Bullshit! , where they debate or attempt to debunk pseudoscience, fads, or popular misconceptions. Penn is an outspoken objectivist, libertarian, and atheist, and often talks about such topics on his weekly podcast, Penn’s Sunday School (  None of those three labels are ones most celebrities are racing to ascribe to themselves. I think it takes a certain amount of bravery to be willing to be that public about beliefs that are so unpopular among the general public. You can see Penn debating with people on twitter most every day; even with 1.8 million followers, he still goes and back forth with just about anyone who will engage with him.

I don’t agree with everything Penn says, but his willingness to engage with others on these topics, to make sure his side is heard but that he is willing to listen and think about other perspectives, has taught me that keeping quiet about those things won’t change anything.  (As an example, Penn reads the bible nearly every day, despite being an atheist, in his attempt to understand that mindset.)

I don’t know if I’ll ever want to debate these things with the general public, but I’m more willing than ever to have these discussions with people I know.  In particular, it’s important to frame these types of emotionally volatile debates as discussions, and to be as open and reasonable as possible. If both parties can maintain that, you’ll both learn something. Seeing someone as public and visible as Penn do that every day, visible for all the world to see, inspires me.

If this blog entry didn’t convince you that Penn and Teller are awesome, I recommend watching the following videos of them. All of them. Over and over. You can stop when you agree with me 🙂


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