Posts Tagged ‘penn and teller’

Here’s a video that’s kinda fun if you know what’s going on:



Maybe I should explain what’s going on.

Penn & Teller do a regular magic show in Las Vegas, several times a week, and have been doing so for years now. The show changes constantly, with some tricks being retired once they’ve had their time, and new ones being introduced. About a year ago, they started doing a trick where Teller escapes from a bag of helium.

At one point in the trick, for reasons perhaps best known to himself, Penn takes a photograph of the audience. The above video is a collage of all the photos of every Vegas audience they’ve played to, for the twelve months they’ve been doing this trick.

I saw this a couple of weeks ago, I think because Penn posted a link to it on Twitter. Like just about everyone in the comments thread, I wondered if I’d be able to see myself in there. I’ve never been to Vegas, but I saw P&T at the Hammersmith Apollo when they were briefly in London last October, and I’d seen it happen there. I watched the video, looking out for a different theatre appearing at some point near the beginning of the run.

After a little while, though, I thought to myself… Wait… Did I see them do the helium bag thing at the Hammersmith show?

I was definitely at one of their recent live shows at the Apollo. I’ve definitely heard Penn talk about the helium trick a lot, and I’ve definitely seen it on TV… but am I sure I’m not conflating these different events and remembering something which didn’t actually happen?

Going solely by my memory, I genuinely can’t tell.

At first glance, the memory of seeing the trick happen live, in a theatre, right in front of me, appears to reside in my brain. But I don’t feel like I can extrapolate from that to say that it definitely happened.

One thing I can do, though, is to check some other sources, and measure those against what I seem to remember, to see how plausible it is. A quick check of this very blog finds me reporting on seeing the show last July, not October, so already I’m getting things wrong. And if it was July when I saw them, then surely that was before they’d finished working on the trick and had ever performed it publicly.

Furthermore, their Wikipedia page states:

The duo had hoped to put the trick in their mini-tour in London; however, it was first shown to the public in their Las Vegas show on 18 August 2010.

If that doesn’t count as proof positive that my brain is screwy, I don’t know what does. Your memory of what happened is just one piece of data among many when trying to determine the truth.

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An episode of Penn & Teller: Bullshit! from a couple of seasons back dealt with “Sensitivity Training“.

They laid into those office seminars and such, which expect participants to make awkward conversation in circumstances contrived to help everyone understand the difficulties faced by minorities in everyday life. It’s well intentioned stuff designed to counteract prejudice and discrimination, primarily in the workplace.

It’s true that insensitivity and cruelty can be a real problem, and that even someone who doesn’t hold any actively discriminatory views might have a few things to learn about moderating their behaviour in order to avoid making things uncomfortable or difficult for the people they interact with. But this kind of “training” rarely seems like a good way to achieve any worthwhile goals.

The main problem is that, rather than helping people see past their superficial differences, these sessions tend to focus on the aspects of a person that makes them part of a “minority”. If I talk to a black person for the purposes of sensitivity training, I’m talking to them as a black person, not just as a person. If I’m talking to someone Asian, the implicit message is that the sensitive thing to do is to talk to them exclusively about Asian-y things.

Our chances of interacting as fellow humans, with a rich variety of thoughts and feelings and passions that don’t depend on our background or genetic make-up, is actually diminished by this fixation on our differences.

Here’s something which came to mind while I was watching Penn and Teller talk about this.

I know very little about, say, Sikhs. Almost nothing, in fact. I just barely know how to spell them. I’m aware that Sikhism is a significant global religion, I’d guess it’s been around a good few centuries, and that it’s probably mostly something you’d find in Asia. I may have met a Sikh, but I honestly couldn’t tell you.

Here’s something I’m pretty sure I know about Sikhs though, at least at a basic-to-moderate level, and don’t need any training in sensitivity to learn:

I know how not to be a dick to someone just because they’re a Sikh.

I don’t need to understand anyone’s cultural background, or be intimately acquainted with their historical hardships and travails, to know that. Not being a dick is quite an adaptable approach.

So perhaps, while in conversation with my new Sikh friend, it comes up that they don’t want to join me in my puppy-kicking afternoon in the park, because puppies are sacred to their religion. I can then learn about this at the time, and bring into play my moderate skills of not being a dick to someone just because they have some different ideas from me. I can respect that, once they’ve explained it.

And maybe I can also extend this to, say, not being a dick to someone just because they’re black, or a woman. It’s the same basic skill. Ideally, I’d put it into blanket effect and have it active all the time, but part of the knack involves listening when someone suggests that you’re not employing it as thoroughly as perhaps you should.

If any Sikhs are reading this, let me know if you were offended by the crass Western assumptions this article makes about the role that gratuitous violence to small animals plays in your faith.

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I realised, sitting in the fourth row of the Hammersmith Apollo on Friday night, that I’m basically the ideal Penn & Teller audience member.

I’m predisposed to like them and enjoy their company a great deal, which helps, but that’s not what I’m getting at. I mean in my approach to watching the magic they do – and I suspect I’m far from alone here – I have what must be close to the perfect attitude to maximise my admiration of their performance.

What I mean is: I’m just smart enough to be really stupid.

Or, I’m just stupid enough to think I’m being smart.

Or something.

I have just enough superficial, surface-level understanding of magic, and deception, and of Penn & Teller’s usual way of doing things, that I briefly delude myself that I can watch out for the clever tricks, the subtle palms and whatnot they must be doing to make something appear where it wasn’t. I think I know misdirection when I see it, so I peer carefully at the other hand and keep my eagle eyes peeled for any tiny hints of subterfuge.

In other words, I am precisely the right kind of idiot. I think I’m watching out for the right things and will have some idea where they’re going and what they’re about to pull. And they still fool me and produce some grand last-minute flourish out of nowhere, that I could never see coming even after it’s happened. Every. Damn. Time.

And obviously they’re going to fool me every damn time. They’ve been doing this for decades, and what the fuck do I know?

It’s a wonderful performance, and I can’t really think of anyone for whom I wouldn’t recommend it. You may have missed your chance in London this time (though, as I type this, there are still tickets available for tonight’s final show (and there was at least one tout outside the theatre when I went)), but if you ever find yourselves in the same city as them when they’re performing in future, go.

If you like magic, go. If you like comedy, go. If you like entertainment, go. If you like joy, go. Just go.

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