Big Friday sale

Penn & Teller's How To Play In Traffic by Penn and Teller

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii October, 1997)


Many of my readers no doubt read the Penn & Teller section of Genii which I assembled for the May 1995 issue. Thus it should come as little surprise to find my name briefly mentioned in the back of this book at hand, amidst a lengthy list of thank yous and a short list of no-thank yous. I did not have anything of particular significance to do with this book in order to earn that mention; it is there by deem of my longstanding personal and professional relationship with the authors. For the record, I did in fact work on the previous Penn & Teller book as a paid creative consultant. I draw your attention to these two (no doubt) troubling conflicts of interest to avoid any misunderstanding: I take some measure of pride in the independent standing of this column, and while it's difficult to avoid the need to comment at times on the work of one's friends and colleagues, the case at hand is unusual at very least by degree. However, the magic community did such a lousy job of addressing that previous Penn & Teller book that I have in the final analysis elected to write this review myself. If you feel this is inappropriate you're probably right, but rest assured that my concern that you be aware of any possible bias is sincere. You've been warned.

Penn & Teller are not merely postmodern magicians who regularly litter television talk shows like Leno, Letterman or Conan with vermin and blood, or nightly on stages across North America attempt to shoot each other to death with bullets marked and identified by the audience and then fired from .357 magnum revolvers.

No, no.

Penn & Teller, true Rennaisance renegades, have also published columns, essays and articles in the New York Times, Harper's, Esquire, Playboy, Spy, the New Yorker, and more. And now they've just written their third book. Not bad for a couple of eccentric guys who've learned to do a few cool things.

Like Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends and How To Play With Your Food (1992), the newest addition to the Penn & Teller catalog, How To Play in Traffic, will be found in the humor section of your local bookstore, but in fact includes an array of material including essays, short stories, stunts, gags, magic tricks, a plethora of laughter- inducing photographs and yes, plenty of that aforementioned humor. As such, the volume is an eclectic tour through the minds of these unique creators-cum- commentators, embracing subjects as far ranging and near and dear to their dark and duplicitous hearts as skepticism, atheism, libertarianism, free speech, free markets, a panoply of other varied ism's and freedoms, and sex. This is an engrossing and entertaining book of ideas for the deeply hip in fin de siecle America.

If you're already familiar with the work of Penn & Teller, then you can expect more of the same—like it or not— within these covers. The title refers to the loosest of excuses for banding this material together under one cover, namely that the material has something very loosely indeed to do with the subject of travel. The table of contents is organized by category, and so forget any linear itemization of the contents in order; the only order here is conceptual. Thus the book is divided into "stories— really true and kinda true"; "stupidly easy tricks—just read 'em and do 'em"; "just as stupidly easy tricks—but maybe you have to stick something in your pocket"; "real tricks—it's not going to hurt you to learn something"; and "hard, impossible, immoral, and/or illegal tricks—maybe you'll go to jail." But at least you'll probably go laughing.

An entry in the "stories" section includes a paen to the Mütter Museum and its creepily wonderful collection of medical oddities at the College of Physicians in Philadelphia, and another salutes the classic sideshow illusion known as Girl To Gorilla. There is an appreciative account of attending a NASA shuttle launch that is told via a discussion of comic timing. Another narrative touches on issues of free speech and sexuality, while providing an awfully nifty and inexpensive tip for how to become the hit with the dancers at a strip bar, courtesy of Michael Goudeau, long-time featured juggler in the Lance Burton show. And in "The Devil Went To Bell Labs," a short story turns a classic barroom joke into a thought-provoking tale of computer programming set among the computer whizzes at Bell Labs.

"Stupidly easy tricks" includes a nice stunt with which to spread a bit of joy and confusion at your next toll booth; a strongly worded anti-drink-and-drug piece which includes a prank to play on a drunk that will provide some slightly mean amusement but also prevent said drunk from starting his or her own car; a version of a clever but simple prediction trick which the great Al Koran once used to fool Albert Einstein; a presentation for the Paul Harris/Eric Mead trick, Fizz Master, in which you transpose the fizz from one soda can to another; the old neck cracking stunt, utilizing a plastic cup concealed in your armpit, described here as particularly effective for freaking out your fellow passengers on a bus or airplane; and another airplane/bus/train bit which requires only some acting skill but is hilariously conceived and, like most everything in the book, just plain fun to read, climaxing as it does with an hysterical full-page photo featuring Mac King.

On to more "stupidly easy tricks" which might require a little advance preparation. One of these entries describes an amazing trick that requires very little other than the ability to lie like a rug with wit and style, in which you predict the time that a restaurant waitperson sets your watch to. This is an "instant stooge" kind of thing, contributed by circus and carnival veteran, Aye Jaye. Some of these items are far more difficult to explain here than they are to do; in one of these, for example, in an effort to torture your afraid-of-flying companion (even the authors confess that "This is a mean trick"), you ask him or her to choose a country in which the plane might crash from the route map in the airline magazine, whereupon you reveal that their point of impact has in fact been predicted on the safety card in the seat pocket in front of them! In another rather more cheerful item, you bring a laugh to anyone who asks for your photo ID and, according to the authors, you might just get a free airline upgrade, or escape a possible speeding ticket. This is a joyful bit that's too cute to ruin by revealing here, but is a delight to read and think about; what's more, it was contributed by Tom Mullica, includes a fine photograph of and introductory write-up about him, and also includes a photo of Lance Burton wearing a clown nose. Would I make that up?

"Do you have any idea how many magic books Teller reads? I mean do you have any idea? Well, I don't—but it's a lot. He wades through the mind- numbingly bad writing confusing directions, and the zillions of tricks that just plain don't work. And what does he get out of it? How many tricks out of these books end up in the Penn & Teller show? Well, two, but Teller had to reinvent how to do them."Penn & Teller's How To Play In Traffic

Among the "real tricks" that require a bit more commitment in the practice and/or preparation department are some real doozies. In "The Eternal Card Trick," you can reveal a card on a bronze headstone at Forest Lawn cemetery, either by actually visiting there or via a do-it-yourself video, that reads, "Penn & Teller—Is this your card?" and is accompanied by, indeed, the bronze impression of the Three of Clubs (natch). Deadly funny, this.

But if that's not dark enough for you, how about inviting a friend into your hotel room, asking them to pick a card, then opening that annoying Gideon's bible in the bedstand, ironing a page and suddenly having three words mysteriously darken, thereby indicating the name of the selected card? Penn & Teller encourage you to provide your own bible, so that upon concluding the trick you can "[r]ip out the page of the bible and give it to your friend as as souvenir. Remember, the book is your own property, so you're not thwarting the Gideons' self-righteous intentions by mutilating the missionary bunk they're trying to ram down your throat."

Also in this section, in an imaginatively conceived everyman miracle, your friend thinks of a vegetable. You take his or her picture with an ordinary Polaroid camera. The vegetable in question, which you have identified as your friend's "guardian vegetable" (a la the current loony toon guardian angel craze); appears on the photograph as it develops. The complete instructions and a little something extra are all provided for you here, along with the additional materials required for producing the image of a selected card or a Virgin Mary-like figure (which possesses a remarkable facial resemblance to Teller). According to the authors, "This is the best kind of trick because it takes evil scams developed by hateful cheesebag phony psychics (triple redundancy) and uses it for truth, justice, and a good-natured joke to drive a so-called friend crazy. Let's hear it for our side."

Hear! Hear!

These are some pretty darn good magic tricks in this section, including "The Price of Admission," wherein, accompanied by a charming reminiscence about Teller's high school theater and magic mentor, you'll learn to do this: Standing in an airport or a bus station or the like, you borrow a dollar bill from a friend. You tear it into pieces and then, after leaving one piece with you friend, openly flush the rest down the toilet. Eventually, your friend finds a locker key in their pocket. You accompany them as they locate the appropriate locker, open it with the key, and find a dollar bill within. Not any dollar bill of course, but their bill; they can tell, because that missing piece fits it. No, magic friends, the torn corner switch is not revealed here. While some might consider this variant a bit close for comfort and I might be one of those myself, nevertheless, in this version the handling is extremely low-tech, a center piece is used instead of a corner, and most important of all, the magician/reader actually does flush away the dollar bill, hence rendering the principle of a sophisticated corner switch handling rather as incomprehensible as ever to your lay audience as far as I'm concerned, and all the more so if you'r borrowing big bills.

Also included in the grouping of stuff you have to put some effort in to master is yet another trick utilizing that ubiquitous Gideon bible. In the course of a rant about psychics that would warm any skeptic's heart—"Ask yourself which is more likely: the laws of the known universe have been suspended; or some chiseler is doing a trick and lying about it to make money"—you make a strange, doodly-type drawing without actually watching what you are writing, since you are "drawing" by moving a paper pad face-down on the point of a pen held by your victim. Although the drawing doesn't look like much, and it seems impossible for you to have applied much precision to the process, you eventually "discover" that, if held up to a mirror, the drawing depicts a recognizable subject and an abbreviated reference to a bible verse. Turning once again to that bible, the depicted verse verbally describes the object that has strangely appeared on the pad. Any bizarrist, mentalist or seance magician worth his Square Circle should think long and hard about adapting the ideas embedded in this amazing routine.

Finally, in the section on "hard, impossible, immoral and/or illegal tricks," you will see elaborate photographic evidence of why Penn Jillette allowed his friend Tony Fitzpatrick (a serious painter of "outsider art" fame) to carve a tattoo onto Penn's arm without using any ink (in short, you get the pain but without the gain of permanence; this is a temporary tattoo that draws blood and takes a couple of years to wear off). I must note here that this elaborate contribution begins with the lyrics to a song which Lou Reed composed for Penn entitled "Tattoo of Blood." (Jillette recorded this as the title song of the first album with his band, The Captain Howdy, [Shimmy Disc, 1995]; a second album is about to be released.) And finally, you are given an idea that brings a message up on your laptop when you're powering it up for the airport security staff that is quite likely to put you in jail, but will give you an hilarious story to tell if and when you ever get out.

"Magic is for geeks. Magic is for boys who are not popular. (Soon, as sexual equality spreads through our culture, we're hoping socially unskilled girls will also be doing card tricks.) Professional magicians aren't babes. The profession just doesn't turn out sexy stars. Magicians are either asexual or desperate. They pick people from the audience they can flirt with them in public. It's just not right. Some finally get enough money and fame to hire real sexy people to act sexually attracted to them and that's even creepier. Okay, okay, so maybe Lance Burton does okay."Penn & Teller's How To Play In Traffic

No doubt this book will create yet another round of complaints about how Penn & Teller are bringing about the end of magic as we know it and/or the end of western civilization. But the history of magic is the history of exposure, from Reginald Scot to Professor Hoffman, David Devant to Penn & Teller. I don't mind discussing or debating the issue, but I do prefer that it be framed in the appropriate context; that is, not in terms of religious dogma ("If you reveal the secrets you are evil and will burn in magic hell"), but in terms of theatrical approach ("Don't ever give away the secret. ... I think it's the most important compositional rule." As stated by Penn Jillette in the May 1995 Genii .).

What's more, I would hasten to add that this book, although it is a book for the public, is very carefully credited. Explicit permission was obtained from the contemporary contributors. And along these same lines, this is a book which very generously and unabashedly promotes a respect and even love of magic and magicians. Eric Mead gets a plug for the Tower Magic Bar. Tom Mullica gets the afore-mentioned writeup and photo. Ken Klosterman gets a mention for a funny gag he once stumped Teller with. There is a delightful photo of magic's funniest assistant, Pamela Hayes, aka the "& Co." of Tomsoni & Co. (you know, the better-looking one in the act who gets most of the laughs). There's a great story about the Shimadas. Lance Burton gets a nice mention, in addition to that photo of him (along with some other magic notables) wearing a clown nose at Tom and Steven Mullica's wedding (worth the price of the book if you ask me). There's an anecdote about Al Koran. There is a lovely portrait of Johann Nepomuk Hofzinser, along with some historical information (and a matching portrait of Teller) included in a story about Teller and Bob Read that will bring a smile to any magician's lips. There's a portrait of Max Malini amid some memorable anecdotes. Like other magicians of their stature, Penn & Teller sometimes get help from their friends. Rather than hem and haw about it, they seem to delight in the chance not merely to admit this, but to use it as an excuse to promote these generous collaborators and contributors. No one ever seems to complain about it afterward. They have even named some of these people on national television, which is above and beyond what any of these contributors asks for or expects. This is a book that is kind to magic.

Some readers of this column probably started out in magic, early in their youth, by discovering a copy of Hoffman's Modern Magic in the public library. Somewhat younger but thoroughly middle-aged magi like myself might have begun by buying a copy of a Bruce Elliott or Henry Hay paperback in the local bookstore. That is all perfectly well and good, Grandpa. But we are in an age in which a new generation of magicians may look back and find that their first introduction to magic came from a couple of teetotaling, rational magic lovers who honored their history, impeccably credited their sources, created imaginative new presentations, and provided extraordinary examples of how to take classic magic ideas and adapt them to your own style, character, and point of view. They could do worse.

7 - 1/2" X 9" paperback; 227 pages; profusely illustrated; 1997; Publisher: Boulevard Books