Monday, March 5, 2012

Escape from Douchery, Part 14: Penn and Teller

Most of the entries in my ever-growing "escape from douchery" series are about places to party while minimizing bro and bro-ette interactions. But this time, I'm going to talk about a show.

Vegas has hundreds of shows in all kinds of genres, but few of them have anything resembling an edge. That's totally understandable, because if a show opens on The Strip or in Downtown, it has been conceptualized with maximum mainstream appeal in mind. The imported Broadway productions, comedians and musicians with Vegas residencies have long and proven track records of supernova levels of popularity. Even Cirque Du Soleil shows, with all their artsy affectations and semi-nudity, have slick and mainstream appeal (listen to Patton Oswalt's brilliant bit about Cirque shows if you want to hear someone express their feelings on Cirque shows in a much more articulate and hilarious manner than I'm capable of).

Perhaps the least hip genre of Vegas entertainment (or of anything ever) is the magic show. There is something generally (yet endearingly) dorky about most magicians, many of them nerdy introverts with a passion for an un-hip art trying to craft mysterious personas. There's a reason Criss Angel is one of the most mocked entertainers in the world (let me note as a counterargument to the fact that Angel is such a text-book example of  a "douchebag" it's a struggle to think of who the model for the term was before he became famous, he remains an incredibly successful performer whose collaboration with Cirque Du Soleil has been running continously in Vegas for nearly four years).

Penn and Teller stand out from the crowded field of Vegas magic shows and, rather miraculously, bring some edge, hipness, and class to the genre with their ever popular show at The Rio.

You probably know P and T's shtick by now: Penn is the big guy with the goatee and long hair who is almost constantly talking while Teller is his more diminutive and totally mute counterpart. The duo has been performing the same basic routine since their critically acclaimed Broadway shows and SNL appearances in 70's, and the fact their show still feels fresh is pretty miraculous.

What makes the show so special is that they bring a real intelligence, wit, and class to the proceedings. These guys are incredibly well educated in the history of show business, and you feel that immediately while you enjoy the pre-show music, provided by their pianist playing classy jazz (instead of the usual club bangers and dubstep mashup nonsense blurting out of just about every other speaker in the greater Las Vegas region).

But the appeal of Penn and Teller isn't simple old school nostalgia. The duo's understanding and respect of the history of show business allows them to pull apart and examine what makes a good show tick so they can blow it up to create something a inventive, unpredictable, and slightly anarchistic.

When Penn and Teller emerge, suited up and  energized on a bare stage, you're in store for something a little different from your typical magic show. Their dark sense of humor keeps things clicking, as they perform death defying and sometimes violent tricks like bullet catches and knife tosses with a merrily morbid and winking sense of fun. The tricks are often pretty extreme and dangerous, but the guys never take any of it seriously. Their wit and self-deprecating sens of fun deflate the overly-self serious theatrics of other famous magicians.

The reason the show is so interesting and sharp is that that Penn and Teller are themselves are so interesting and sharp. An outspoken Atheist and Libertarian, Penn is a true raconteur, as his recent episode of WTF with Marc Maron proved. While I strongly disagree with many of his libertarian views , he's clearly thought them through and makes compelling reasoned arguments for a philosophy I can't get behind. Plus he's clearly a libertarian because he believes people can take care of people better than the government can; this is a nice (though naive) way to look at things (though I'm a bit more cynical and believe that, unlike Penn, most libertarians became libertarians because they're not interested in taking care of anyone but themselves; but I digress). And even though Teller is the "silent one" during their performances, when he steps out of his stage-persona he's actually an incredibly articulate guy who has given amazing lectures on the psychology of magic and what it can teach us about the human brain. They also hosted the Emmy winning Penn and Teller's Bullshit! on Showtime, which brought the duo's signature wit and and skepticism to the small screen.

Unless Prince tries decides to try for another Vegas residency any time soon (or you're a really big fan of Cee-Lo and "sexified showgirls"), Penn and Teller is the show to see if you're looking for something smart, sophisticated, compelling, and unpredictable. The duo combine an almost encyclopedic knowledge of classic show-biz traditions, mix it in with a restless desire to break the rules, blend it with a blackly comic and self-deprecating wit, and top it all off with some of the most skillful yet meta magic you'll ever witness on a stage to create a show like no other.

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