ATLANTIC CITY - Magicians are a dime a dozen. Penn & Teller, however, transcend magic. That's why they've lasted 35 years, have the longest-running Showtime network series, had their own feature film and even have a theater named after them in Las Vegas.
After eight long years, Penn Jillette and Raymond Teller finally returned to Atlantic City on Friday to remind a nearly sold-out Harrah's Resort crowd why they are so damn good.
Anyone familiar with Penn & Teller, who perform 9 p.m. today and Sunday in Harrah's The Concert Venue, know that it's not just about the magic. In fact, in their 75-minute show, they only performed a little more than a dozen tricks.
For Penn & Teller, it's about the thought that goes into their magic, the stories Jillette eloquently weaves to set up the magical punchline and the sometimes social commentary that is ultimately delivered.
It's also about the humor. And Penn & Teller - as serious as their political views may be - remain one of the funniest acts in the business. With Jillette assuming the role of frontman and Teller brilliantly silent and sometimes mime-like, the duo knows each other's every move. Watching them reminds you of legendary showmen like Laurel & Hardy, with edgy magic thrown in the mix. .
"There are acts that feature magic tricks, and there are acts that feature illusions," Jillette said. "But we are the only act that we believe offers true, God-given miracles."
At one point, after someone messed up, Teller said, "Let's assume this is a Criss Angel show and keep doing it over and over again until it's right."
The night began in typically odd Penn & Teller fashion as Teller emerged with a styrofoam block covering his entire head and work gloves holding each side. After picking someone from the audience with glasses, whom Jillette praised as having "astounding ocular hygiene" after examining her glasses, Jillette eventually smashed open the block and revealed Teller wearing the woman's glasses under the block, under Teller's safety glasses and on his face - and without Teller's hands ever leaving the side of the block. Impressive.
The act was full of oldies but goodies, including one where Teller magically makes coins appear from nowhere with his sleeves rolled up, turns them into fish and back to coins; another where Teller swallows a bunch of pins and a long piece of thread and spits them out with all of the needles attached to the thread; and the great nail-gun shocker, where Jillette said he memorized the sequence of nails in his nail gun and then shoots nails into wood and air into his hands - the real trick being that he never flinches when firing the nail gun against his hand, neck and groin.
There were some that were truly extraordinary. In one routine, Jillette handed huge jokebooks around the audience, had them passed around to make sure the audience members weren't pre-selected and then had two audience members each memorize a joke. He then tried to guess what jokes three people memorized: one was a middle-aged guy; the other was a 9-year-old boy; and the last was a senior-citizen woman.
Picking from hundreds of jokes in each book, he was dead wrong on the guy and spot on with the 9-year-old. For the third one, the senior-citizen woman read her joke out of the book, then Teller opened a sealed envelope signed by members of the audience before the show that had a banner with the punchline. Wow.
There were few moments that didn't work. But there were a few, particularly an overlong skit that wasn't all that clever that had P&T fooling a woman to believe they were throwing knives at her and then had her throw them at Teller. It was worth a couple of laughs, but seemed shallow compared to most of their routines.
A seemingly new routine that did work had Jillette playing a trick on one member of the audience as the rest of the crowd was in on it. But, through the use of a video camera and getting the audience to lose focus, P&T turned the whole trick around and blew the audience away. It was one of those that you had to see to believe.
Penn & Teller has gotten away from showing how they do most of their tricks. But the crowd was really impressed by their well-publicized trick where they burn the American Flag in the Bill of Rights as Jillette comments how even if you burn the flag, the Bill of Rights remains. The duo then shows how the trick was done, that the flag was never burned and how proud they are to work in a country that allows them to do tricks like that. It's one of the most brilliant and well-written illusions ever performed.
They also brought back one of Jillette's favorites, a fire-eating trick where he tells the crowd how fire-eating is performed.
"I tell you this because I think it's more fascinating for someone to slowly poison themselves than burn themselves for your entertainment," Jillette said. "When you leave here tonight, we don't want you to think about how we did it, but we want you to think about why."
The fact that Penn & Teller can still make audiences do that after 35 years is perhaps the greatest magic offered all night.
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