Sinking and Swimming
Penn and Teller have long ridden their deceptively simple schtick as outlaw magicians breaking the cloistered ranks of magic to reveal the secrets of the trade. Like everything else they do, however, there’s quite a lot of deception and misdirection involved even in this, the most basic distillation of their act. Because Penn and Teller don’t really give away the secrets of magic—there are a lot of clowns that do, most of them on the Internet or in low-rent TV specials like Magic’s Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed!. What Penn and Teller do is slightly but significantly different: they artfully deconstruct the artifice of stage magic by partially revealing some technical aspects involved, and celebrating the essential showmanship required.
Penn and Teller understand that the real secret of magic can’t be exposed. Each trick is an artful blend of performance, psychology, technical proficiency, and pure con-artist aggression. A skillful magician can make the hoariest of hack magic appear incredible again. A hack magician, on the other hand, can have all the technical trickery in the world and still bore you to tears.
It’s in this very artfulness that Penn and Teller distinguish themselves. It’s a common belief that other “mainstream” magicians hate Penn and Teller for revealing secrets. But that, too, is just part of the schtick. The real professionals recognize that Penn and Teller shows only reveal enough to tantalize the audience, and even magic purists such as Ricky Jay have hailed Penn and Teller for their modern aesthetic.
With Penn & Teller: Off the Deep End, the duo once again showcase their ability to update and reframe old-school magic with lateral thinking and hipster showmanship. As the name suggests, this 88-minute made-for-cable special has an aquatic theme. The action takes place in various locations in the Bahamas and Grand Cayman Island. The idea is to run through some old magic standbys, performing them in, on, and under water.
Take, for instance, the old saw-the-lady-in-half bit. By taking the trick and attempting to perform it entirely underwater, Penn and Teller introduce some seemingly insurmountable technical difficulties. In fact, at one point, the assistant-to-be-bisected loses her air hose and has to be rescued by rescue divers. Even more daunting are the showmanship obstacles. Where do you seat the audience? How do you preserve the interaction of patter and misdirection when no one is miked and everything is in slow motion? How do you raise the curtain, for that matter?
Half the fun is observing how Penn and Teller and their collaborators overcome these dilemmas. One cool trick, which they employ throughout the show, is using a wall of air bubbles to replace the usual curtain of translucent fabric. These are the interesting details. The trick itself often fades into the background as Penn and Teller gleefully demonstrate the skewed inventiveness required to present old magic in new ways.
Other stunts include a sleight-of-hand street magic bit involving a trained dolphin, and an extended sequence where the silent Teller (that’s his legal name, by the way) is lowered into shark-infested waters. As usual, Penn and Teller reveal behind-the-scenes details, but only partially and selectively, and always for effect. With the shark trick, the audience is clued in on some Houdini 101, but the real fun is watching how Penn Jillette uses his oversized persona to misdirect a boatload of tourists on the high seas of the Caribbean.
Penn and Teller fans will find plenty to engage them in Penn & Teller: Off the Deep End, but ultimately the DVD plays awfully long, and awfully thin. Its 88-minute running time was stretched out over two hours in the original A&E broadcast. On the commercial-free DVD, the extended lead-ins and buffers should certainly have been excised, and some weaker material—like the excruciating Aaron Carter underwater serenade (yes, really)—ought to have remained submerged.
The big finale trick in Penn & Teller: Off the Deep End involves vanishing an 80-ton submarine ringed by a circle of underwater observers. This seems impressive when described, but the stunt falls terribly flat as it’s dead obvious from minute one exactly where that submarine disappears to. In fact, Penn seems to apologize throughout the trick for the essential lameness of it all, and it’s a miserable end to the proceedings. You get the feeling the producers sunk a lot of money into that trick, and by God it was going to make the broadcast.
When Penn and Teller are at their best, they bring an anarchic sense of play to the stately conventions of stage and street magic. Their sideline gig as atheistic debunkers and slightly righteous rationalists is best displayed on their Showtime program “Bullshit!” Penn & Teller: Off the Deep End is more like Penn and Teller lite: frivolous and basic-cable friendly. But even when idling, Penn and Teller still excel at revealing the clockwork complexity of showtime magic.