Penn & Teller's Greatest Hits are Some of Magic's Best

Penn does the talking while Teller does a shake.
Penn does the talking while Teller does a shake. Photo by Cory Garcia
Forty three  years is a long time for any creative partnership to last. Most bands cut out way before then, and any still kicking around rarely include the full “classic” lineup. A director might have some constant crew over the course of his career, but not an entire staff. No, as the amount of bodies increases, the harder it is to keep things together. But there’s something amazing that even as a duo Penn & Teller have stuck things out as a team as long as they have.

I would argue that they’re the most important magicians of the modern era. David Copperfield and Lance Burton might have entertained millions and had big TV specials, but these days they’re just magicians. David Blaine has certainly inspired many to get into the field of magic, but I still see him as primarily a performance artist, and a damn fine one at that. But Penn & Teller are the ones still bringing magic to the masses. They still regularly appear on late night TV, they have a show on network television, and their Broadway run made a ton of bank.

Last night over at Jones Hall, the duo brought some of their greatest hits to Houston for the first time in a very long time, a wait made even longer after the show had to be rescheduled thanks to Hurricane Harvey. For those who had never seen them live, it was a chance to experience some of their best work in person. For those who’ve seen their Vegas productions of the years—myself included—it wasn’t all that different from seeing a band you love but haven’t had a chance to catch live in a while.

There were a lot of laughs in the show, which is no surprise, but one thing I’ve always believed is that while the humor is important in getting people in the door, the tricks that stick in your mind after the show is over are the less humorous ones. When I watch Teller do his coins in the water trick, made even better in this performance with the help of the most expressive audience member of the night, it’s like sitting in on a master painter as they put oil on canvas. Even better is his shadow flower routine, which for my money is the most beautiful magic trick I’ve ever seen.

Not that Penn doesn’t hold his own. For as much as he likes to play up the fact he’s a loudmouth who is lying to you on a regular basis, he has a warm demeanor that makes him feel like one of the most approachable people you’ll ever meet. Not the worst trait to have if you’re a professional liar, but offstage and in interviews, he’s always come across as a genuinely good human in a world that needs more of them. While most of his solo tricks in the act are less magic and more vaudeville, he plays his part extremely well.

It’s why the duo works, even now. You can’t not pay attention when Penn talks, but at the same time Teller can kill you with the smallest wiggle of the hips. But it’s the contrast of their two styles and how well they blend together that makes them captivating, even when you’ve seen some parts of their act more times than you can count (yes, I’m talking about the nail gun bit).

More than anything, when I watch them work, I feel good about the future of magic. With their TV show, they’ve giving magicians from around the country valuable TV exposure, helping the next generation of magicians get their first significant airtime. In person, they make things that I know are complicated look incredibly easy, and magic’s blend of mystery and surprise is something few other art forms can replicate, especially in real time. Like most everyone else after the show was over, I found myself plugging back into the internet, a place where very little surprises me anymore. But magic, at its best, always leaves me with more questions than answers, in the very best way.
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Cory Garcia is a Contributing Editor for the Houston Press. He once won an award for his writing, but he doesn't like to brag about it. If you're reading this sentence, odds are good it's because he wrote a concert review you don't like or he wanted to talk pro wrestling.
Contact: Cory Garcia