The pinstriped business suits have gone from hipster-ironic to age-appropriate. But Penn & Teller still wear them well, as the onetime upstarts of magic become its gatekeepers.
The rebels who pumped fresh (stage) blood into a tired form in the ’80s are now a more direct version of magic’s quality police, playing the mentors on two current TV shows.
“Penn & Teller: Fool Us” is a British import now airing on The CW, in which less-famous magicians try to pull off a trick the duo can’t figure out. And this week, Syfy began airing “Wizard Wars,” in which the two judge magic’s version of a cooking contest, with young magicians developing new tricks from a list of common ingredients.
Both shows are among the ever-flowing books, movies, TV guest shots and punditry (for Penn Jillette) that made the duo’s Rio show more popular than ever. (Along with the new TV shows, Showtime still reruns their “Bullsh*t” every Thursday, and Jillette hosts “Camp Stew” on the Sportsman Channel.)
If everything about their career has been slightly out of kilter, there’s a cool irony to them doing peak business after 20 years in town.
And they did it by letting the world discover them, without changing their tactics. Long-running bits still make challenging statements in the context of Las Vegas entertainment, such as a fiery riff on the flag and the Bill of Rights.
Yes, the profanity has been filtered out, a classy nod to the youngsters in the audience who might not have been there a few years ago. A quick mention that “We are both Libertarians” and a brief reference to atheism fly by without further ado, replacing the in-your-face godlessness of the iconoclast days.
And there’s no old guard such as Siegfried & Roy left to make fun of; a mild joke at the expense of Criss Angel will have to do.
But there’s still an impatience with mentalism and tired stage illusions — their version of sawing a woman in half remains a bloody classic — and a drive to create “the finest theoretical physics card trick in all of Las Vegas,” as Jillette says of the newest routine.
That bit reverts to past showoff tendencies by name-checking both physicist Lawrence Krauss and the old Tex Ritter song “The Deck of Cards.” But on the whole, age, the gravitas thing and the thinning of stock magic shows elsewhere in town have muted the smugness. Now they seem more like they are simply doing what A-list magicians should do to justify their existence amid the information explosion.
They do keep up. Before the lights go down, while jazz pianist Mike Jones is still serenading the house (with a bass player who has greatly improved over the years), audiences are invited up to tweet photos from the magic crate that will soon figure into the show.
The first bit calls for us to turn on our cellphones, so one audience member’s can be borrowed, lost and found in a stinky place. The second sequence mocks airport screening technology and questions “the balance between liberty and safety.”
They contrast well with the classics rooted in magic and vaudeville tradition: the ever-silent, Chaplinesque Teller manipulating a red ball with a string, or gifting an audience volunteer with coins in a goldfish bowl.
And the quiet, sometimes poignant moments contrast with those “a little more visceral,” as Penn says of nail-gun play or the climactic “bullet catch,” the ones which create “a weird kind of energy in the room.”
All these discoveries for new fans may leave longtimers feeling like they are watching a greatest-hits show. But the duo’s camp says a long-awaited scenic design will finally arrive in October, replacing the simple curtains and enabling some new illusions.
Good. The strange brand of comfort food served by this now-ubiquitous team just makes us want more of it.
Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0288.