Television Program / Uncategorized

What Can We Steal From The Work of Penn & Teller?

Title of Work and its Form: Penn & Teller, magic act/writers/producers, etc.
Author: Um…Penn Jillette and Teller.  (Mr. Jillette can be found on Twitter @pennjillette and Mr. Teller can be found @MrTeller.)
Date of Work: The pair have worked together since 1975.
Where the Work Can Be Found:  Penn & Teller have a regular gig in their theater in the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.  If you are in the area, go and see them several times.  Mr. Jillette and Mr. Teller always have a lot going on.  You may be able to keep up at this Facebook page.  Mr. Jillette has a STELLAR podcast called Penn’s Sunday School.  Penn and Teller are always doing interesting things like this: a magical collaboration with a dance company.

Bonuses: Penn & Teller are on a lot of talk shows.  Why do producers enjoy booking them?  Because P&T are always interesting and they always come prepared.  Here is an appearance the duo did on Letterman:

And here’s a great appearance they did with Conan.

Here is where I first took note of Penn & Teller.  (At least I think that’s the case.  I was pretty young.)  Spy Magazine (one of the best ever) allowed the magicians to tell you how to pull a mean prank on your closest friends.

I’ve been a big fan of Penn & Teller for a very long time and for a number of reasons.  Only in the past decade or so have I come to understand more deeply why they are so amazing and have been relevant for so long.  Penn & Teller teamed up nearly forty years ago; Penn had no formal post-secondary education and Teller had a degree in Latin and taught the classics.  Look at what Penn says in this Q&A starting at around 20:30:

Penn makes a very interesting point.  The two men have a relationship that is primarily about respect and not love or extreme affection.  In a way, the respect we have for writing partners and fellow scribes is more important than love.  Respect is a sentiment that is earned based upon evidence, while love can be inspired by irrational thinking.  Think about your experiences with your favorite teachers.  I remember my first workshops at Ohio State quite well; I sat down in the workshop room with a great deal of respect for folks like Lee K. Abbott simply because of what he had accomplished in the literary world.  Over the first few workshops we shared (and the subsequent years I got to work with him), my respect deepened based upon his skill and the way he related to everyone.  That kind of sentiment doesn’t go away very easily.  Compare that to a crush you had in high school; those feelings are far more precariously perched in our hearts.  If you are lucky enough to work with a partner, bear in mind that the longevity of the arrangement will be determined by your commitment to the work, not to each other.

I’ve been a fan of Penn & Teller’s Bullshit for many years.  I even use it in my classes because Penn & Teller are masters of rhetoric.  (And why shouldn’t they be?  Magicians MUST be able to convince you of all kinds of things that aren’t necessarily real.)  The program is a kind of documentary series; in each episode, the pair take on an issue and point out, as they put it, the “bullshit” involved.  Do I always agree with them?  Of course not; no one agrees with anyone else 100% of the time.  (Not even Penn with Teller and vice versa.)

As you can tell by the abrasive-to-some title, Bullshit pushes some away with its title and still others with the hosts’ strong stances on controversial issues.  Some, for example, contend that there is proof that childhood vaccines have contributed to the recent rise in autism diagnoses.  Penn & Teller point out very clearly that there is no science to support such a hypothesis and spend 28 minutes employing ethos, pathos and logos to dismantle the claim from all sides.  Here’s the introduction to the episode:

By all means, please buy the program on DVD or stream it.  (I even heard a rumor that the episodes may be available on YouTube…)  Even if you disagree with Penn & Teller on this point or any other, the two men (and their researchers and co-writers) create works that result in both light and heat.  Great writing (and magic) should address our intellect AND our emotions.  A great book teaches us something about the world AND makes us feel something real.

Penn & Teller do a lot of dangerous tricks that you definitely shouldn’t try to recreate at home.  As the duo notes, it can take YEARS for them to perfect a trick enough to perform it for a real audience.  They spend a lot of time and money just PRACTICING and TRYING and HOPING that a trick will work out.  If it doesn’t work out in the end, they abandon it.  Is this a bad thing?  Not necessarily; their infrequent failures teach them important lessons.

I love that Penn & Teller, like so many magicians, immerse themselves in the history of magic and the magic world at large.  The same is true with comedians: most great comedians know everything about the field.  Great writers?  They are very hard to stump in a discussion about literature.  Penn & Teller made a whole documentary in which they went in search of the history of “the cups and balls,” one of the basic tricks that every magician learns.  This is how everyone who dabbles in prestidigitation learns their loads and steals and how to make their hands move faster than the audience’s eyes.  The pair ended up in Egypt in an ancient building whose walls feature a depiction of what may be a person doing the cups and balls trick…thousands of years ago.  How do they honor the tradition?  They perform their own version:

Look at this beautiful essay Mr. Jillette wrote for the Huffington Post.  Here is a recording of Mr. Jillette reading his essay.He was competing on Celebrity Apprentice, a program that some folks wouldn’t believe possible of creating something that is artistically beautiful.  That notion was blown out of the water when Mr. Jillette and Blue Man Group decided to change what Celebrity Apprentice COULD be.  During a fundraising task, most contestants will simply have a rich celebrity friend bring by a big check.  Everyone oohs and ahhs about selling Gary Busey’s painting for $50,000 and boom.  Done.  Instead, Blue Man Group, the entertaining and experimental performance art group, decided to bring in money, but to do it their way.  The Blue Men brought in money, to be sure, but did so in a giant balloon and accompanied by eccentric pomp and circumstance.  The balloon was then burst, creating yet another sight that most people have never seen: legal tender fluttering around the streets of New York.  Life, they seem to say, should be lived for enjoyment and to glorify beauty.

For whatever reason, Penn & Teller are sometimes self-deprecating when describing themselves.  They’re not just carny/renaissance fair folks; they’re smart men who devote themselves to all of the many things that are important to them.  Mr. Jillette has written several books, some with Mr. Teller.  Mr. Teller directs plays and makes use of his magic skills when appropriate…I’m sure that Macbeth’s dagger looked great onstage.

Mr. Teller inspired me in a very cool way.  In 1997, the gentleman published an essay in The Atlantic.  In high school, Mr. Teller read “Enoch Soames: A Memory of the Eighteen-Nineties,” by Max Beerbohm.  Soames is a poet who wishes to know if his work will have any effect on literary history, whether all of his modest scribbling will be in vain.  The Devil (of course) offers him a deal: Soames will spend eternity in Hell in exchange for a trip to the Round Reading Room of the British Museum in 1997, where Soames will see evidence of his legacy.

Now, I don’t want to ruin both “Enoch Soames” or Mr. Teller’s piece of creative nonfiction.  If you read the Atlantic article, you will see the same kind of glorification of art and the artistic impulse that Mr. Jillette described in his piece.  Why do I mention all of this?  The Atlantic piece struck me deeply and a great story idea popped into my head, which I promptly wrote.  I usually hate the stuff I write (a defense mechanism?), but this story turned out pretty well, perhaps the best I’ve ever written.   What is the big takeaway?  Artists have chosen a difficult life, but a very rewarding one.  After all, we are fortunate enough to be the people who bring beauty and joy and magic to the world.

I’ll conclude with another thing of beauty from Mr. Teller.  When he was a young man, Mr. Teller came up with a trick he calls “Shadows.”

It really is a very graceful and simple piece that clearly means a lot to Mr. Teller.  Like a poet who keeps a favorite poem in his or her reading rotation for years, Mr. Teller still performs “Shadows.”

You never know which of your works will endure the longest or will mean the most of you.  The lesson, I suppose, is to throw yourself headlong into creating and improving and learning and hoping that something good will happen for you.

What Should We Steal?

  • Respect your writing partners, colleagues and teachers more than you love them.  Respect is hardier than love.
  • Compose works that result in both heat and light.  Think about all of the works that have survived the centuries…they all engage readers on a number of levels.
  • Devote yourself to your work and to your discipline.  Bear in mind that you belong to a long line of writers.  Leave your own spin on the field, but honor the fraternity as well.
  • Find the art in everything you do and make sure your life is a performance.  There’s great beauty in extreme weather and mundane supermarket browsing.

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