To be honest, we expected more from Penn & Teller after growing up bona fide Comedy Central junkies, eagerly watching Mystery Science Theater 3,000, The Ben Stiller Show (all five or so episodes), and yes, The Unpleasant World of Penn & Teller. On that show, the duo toured Britain, performing a combination of sleight of hand magic and energetic, intelligent and creative storytelling. They might, say, combine balloon art and an electric guitar with the tale of the domestication of animals. They also taught whole audiences how to use coffee creamer and a fork to fake an eye gouging at a dinner party. But last night's show at the Hard Rock just seemed to set them back a peg.
Now P&T are the stars of Bullshit, a successful Showtime series in which the comedians expose myths and lies about, say, the usefulness of colonics, the validity of UFO sightings, or the social implications of legalized prostitution. These guys are charismatic, researched and opinionated, or at least Penn Jillette, who does all of the talking on the show, appears that way.
With such varied talents and a history of producing shows that defy labels, stretch minds and blatantly break all the rules, we thought the show at the Hard Rock last night would be a reflection of the decades of evolution the duo has undergone. What actually happened, however, was much closer to a safe, old school magic show, infused with some signature humor and a hint of their rebellious ways, but not much more.
The show opened with Jillette choosing an audience member to participate in a "where'd my glasses go" trick. The only thing that set the feat apart from any other magician's act is Jillette using a hammer to smash a box around his mute partner's head in order to recover the glasses. Then they brought a nine-year-old up on stage for some illusions involving polyester. Jillette pushed the envelope a bit, making some vague jabs at religious people by asking the child to express her unshakable faith in Teller, but the trick itself and the atheist humor fell short of the mark.
Next up, they made an audience member appear to levitate, in another rather banal display of pretty traditional "magic." Jillette did, however, come up with some pretty witty banter as he directed the young woman."Put up your hands, as though the sky was falling," he said, standing around the contraption where she lay. "In the more likely event, these days, of a nuclear holocaust, the position you're in won't amount to squat. But we'll leave such a mysterious silhouette.
Teller then charmed us with his mime-like, clean and simple illusions. He made his naked wrists rain coins and goldfish while a seemingly shocked audience member caught them in a fishbowl. Later, he swallowed and recovered a string of needles, and performed an artistic illusion involving the confusion of shadows and objects. This type of expert, straight forward sleight of hand has always been Teller's genius, while Jillette offers the big personality, the cuttingly witty words and the daring politically polarizing opinions. Just not so last night. Jillette seemed tired, or bullied, or maybe both, but after years of watching the big guy challenge lazy thinking, we simply expected better.
The pair did come through with a little myth busting by doing some pretty freaky psychic defrauding, although it's absolutely not clear how they went about creating the illusion. Then, in what may have been the funniest and cleverest trick of the night, they pretended to expose the subjective nature of the camera in magic tricks by using an audience member to film such a trick. In the end, the joke was on the audience member... and then on us.The audience member was inexplicably transformed into Teller right before our eyes.
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We got a mild dose of political commentary as well, when Jillette whipped out China's "bill of rights," a clear and blank rolled up piece of plastic, as a part of his second to last trick. Finally, he left us with something he learned from attending countless freak shows as a child: fire eating.
Are we jaded not to be impressed with knife-throwing, levitation, apparent mysticism and real-life fire eating? We don't think so. Given the rich spectrum of things that Penn & Teller can do, it is natural to expect their road show to reflect the breadth of their talents and their knack for evading categorization.