I've liked Penn & Teller since I first saw them - probably on Saturday Night Live, but definitely on Late Night With David Letterman on NBC in the 80's. I've been lucky enough to see them live twice (not counting the time Penn was standing outside the deli around the corner from my apartment, talking to some people as I drove by).
The first was at the Wiltern Theater which, like many places in Los Angeles, takes its name from the intersection it stands at - (Wilshire Blvd. and Western Ave. Get it?). It was called the 38% original material tour, or something like that, sponsored by Comedy Central. We had great seats - about eighth row stage right - and they did a lot of good stuff. I specifically remember Teller doing a bit where he threw a bunny into a full-sized wood chipper producing a splatter of blood. After the intermission, Penn said some people were upset about that (despite the bunny being, if you paid attention, fake), and he insisted that if rabbits were big enough, they'd do it to us in a second.
Teller did his amazing "drowning in a tank of water in plain sight" illusion. Penn talked on and on after Teller shuddered and fell still, in plain sight under water, no apparent way he could be breathing. After about seven minutes of monologue, finally discussing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on his water bottle, someone finally shouted "What about Teller?" which is the prompt he was waiting for to go on. Penn berated us for listening to him prattle on while a man apparently died before us. (Teller survived).
The finale found the two of them on a bare stage wearing nothing but plain, white t-shirts that came down to their knees. They proceeded to make all manner of objects appear out of thin air - a glass of wine, a knife, a rose with thorns. the gag was that by the end, they were both completely soaked in blood from these objects cutting and pouring on them. They bowed, and walked through the theater out to the lobby, where they stood on plastic tarps and signed anything and everything people brought up to them - and made sure each item got smeared with as much fake blood as they could wipe on it. Books left with two signatures and full handprints, concert t-shirts were signed and then wiped on their faces to smear with blood. I left with only my ticket stub signed, with Teller's thumb print and a piece of Penn's palm still showing clearly today.
Years later I saw them again at the Wilshire Theater - you guessed it, down the Boulevard from the Wiltern. Tickets were available through work, and I put in for a pair immediately. These tickets are usually pretty good, and on the way there we both expressed our desire not
to get called on stage and ridiculed, as unlikely as that was. But when we got in the theater, we saw that our seats were very good.
Very, very good.
Front row, right side. In fact, if I stretched out my feet from my seat, they rested on the stairs you would climb up onto the stage if you were picked to help the performance.
Now, if you know me, I think you might agree I look exactly like the kind of guy a magician would be happy to call up on stage to look silly. I won't speculate what kind of guy that is, but at least Penn agreed with me. I remember only three specific parts of the show:
1) Teller escaped from a trunk we all examined up close on stage before the show started.
2) They did a bullet catch; fantastic. And,
3) The card counting trick, because Penn called me up.
He does a trick where he asks someone to randomly cut the deck, then tells you how many cards are in the cut by weight alone. He called three of us up for this one. One guy cut the Vegas deck, the most carefully produced cards in the world, therefor relatively easy to count. Another guy cut the standard Bicycle deck, pretty normal cards anyone might have at home, a little tougher to guess.
I cut the "nudie" deck.
Nudie cards, according to Penn Jillette, are cheaply produced with whatever cardstock is available and therefore, very very difficult to count accurately. His count of my cards would truly show off his amazing skills.
I cut the cards, and he held them carefully out, bobbing the small stack up and down a bit and concentrating. "Thirteen." He said, and handed them back to me.
HE then instructed us to count the cards for ourselves, and went down the row as we each verified his count - at least the first two did.
I counted twelve cards. So I counted again.
The first two matched his count, and the audience applauded each time. Then he got to me: "And how many of the nudie cards are in the stack?"
"Twelve" I said, with the board with his "13" prediction right behind me. He froze.
"Well," he said taking the small stack from me, "It's certainly possible I'm wrong, as these are very hard to count, or, it's possible you may have been...distracted while you were counting. would you please check again?" He handed them back.
I counted thirteen cards this time, and everyone had a good laugh as Penn gave me one to take home, since I appreciated them so much. I nodded sheepishly - appropriately - and slunk off stage.
The special, secret sidenote is, just as he took the stack back from me, I saw on his opposite breast pocket a single "nudie" card sticking up in plain view of the audience. So he and they
knew - he counted correctly, and Penn had a little fun holding one card back from me until the final count.
At the end of the show, Penn and Teller bowed deeply... and walked straight through the theater out through the lobby, and signed anything and everything that people brought up to them. Including my card. (It's not the 3 of Clubs, if you were wondering - their "signature" card - it's a Jack of Diamonds.)
Penn Jillette has said the point of life is to get good stories to tell, and they gave a good story to every person they signed for, spoke to, shook hands, or wiped fake blood on a souvenir of. Walking straight out through the crowd like that made it clear they were there for everyone who wanted a piece of them - and frankly, showed quite clearly that they truly appreciated their audience.
A class act.