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  • Nicholas J. Johnson

An evening with Penn & Teller

As a professional magician, I'm often asked the same question over and over.

Who's your favourite magician?

The answer hasn't changed in the thirty years since I first watched a grainy VHS bootleg of these two troublemakers performing the cups and balls with clear plastic cups:

To a young kid who thought magic was all rabbits and hats, Penn & Teller were simultaneously chaotic yet thoughtful, foolish yet intelligent, tearing down the pomposity and self-importance of magicians while celebrating and respecting the art form.

Their series Bullshit was a major inspiration for me in my quest to promote critical thinking. As was Penn & Teller's Fool Us, a show that pretends to be a gameshow but is actually a love letter to what is possible when magicians are given the space and respect to perform.

Which is why I knew I had to be in the front row* when I heard they were coming to Melbourne. The show was—as you'd expect—everything I wanted it to be. A mix of classic routines (yes, including the infamous cups and balls) and routines I'd never seen before.

I was fooled by their extraordinary creativity and, when I wasn't, dazzled by their methods' creativity.

After the show, I ran into my friend Tim in the foyer.

"Teller and a group of us are heading to dinner. Want to join us?"

Do I want to join you?!

We had cheap Chinese in Chinatown, and I sat and watched as Teller—who normally never speaks—held court, talking about the show. He was unhappy with how one of the routines played out, despite having performed it for thirty years.

I got an extraordinary insight into how the duo work. The pair thrive on respectful disagreement. They're as different offstage as they appear on and are happy to challenge one another creatively. They're more business partners than they are friends.

(This isn't gossip, Teller admitted as much in an interview with CBS where he said "We never had a cuddly friendship. It was a very cold, calculated relationship where we thought we do better stuff together than we do separately. It turns out that respect lasts longer than affection.") The topic of State Library of Victoria's W.G. Alma Collection came up and soon I was on the phone trying to arrange a viewing of some of the many extraordinary magic props buried deep within the library's collection. I worked with the collection for two years on a project that never came to fruition (thanks COVID) and it fell to me to connect Teller with the library.

Strings were pulled and that's how I found myself viewing ancient documents and vintage props with one of the brightest minds in magic.

Teller again held court as the library staff and I watched him examine, explained and be inspired by Australian magic history.

We even managed to baffle Teller with an eighty-year-old magic prop that was built for the great Les Levante by Will Alma himself. Is it worthy of Penn & Teller's Fool Us? We'll see...

As amazed as I was by the show, I was more impressed by Teller's curiosity and passion for an art form that he has reached the pinnacle of but is still inspired by every day.

Pure magic.

*I forgot to actually book the tickets and ended up in the back row.


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