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[The Kats Report]

Penn & Teller add new tricks—one of which cost half a million bucks

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Funny business: Penn & Teller can now claim the best use of cow ever.
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Creating an act that took six years to develop and cost upwards of $500,000 is, in and of itself, a remarkable feat. This is true even for Penn & Teller, who have never allowed their stage show to grow stale, even for a moment. The new, four-minute trick, dubbed the Vanishing African Spotted Pygmy Elephant Act, is the latest inspired misadventure presented onstage at the Rio’s Penn & Teller Theater.

This is not a real elephant. That must be understood. Rather, it is a cow named Elsie, affixed with plastic elephant ears and a fairly convincing trunk. Elsie is presented after a video clip, 20 audience members are invited to the stage, the ears and trunk fall away and—after milking a bit of drama—Elsie disappears from sight. The crowd’s response is a happy blend of laughing and cheering. All this for half a million bucks. The act is not fiscally responsible, but P&T are hardly worried about the balance sheet. It all works out in the end, as long as the duo remains true to their shared artistic vision.

“The one thing we’ve never done in our show is an act with large livestock,” Jillette says. “I wanted to do it. I had been saying for years, ‘We’ve got to do something with a cow,’ and with this act, we have the wonderful combination of disappointment and amazement.”

If the arrival of Elsie were the only update in Penn & Teller’s career, it would be worth a return to their show. But as has been evident throughout a 40-year partnership, there is never just one act or one show or one project to unearth. The two men are endlessly developing, creating, disappearing and reappearing, and most obvious in this process is the physical form of Jillette himself. The audible member of the act has dropped more than 100 pounds since last fall, and stands now at about 225 pounds on a 6-foot-7 frame after embarking on a diet that eliminated all animal products, salt, fat, oil and refined grains. He consumes fresh fruits and vegetables, corn, rice and “a wicked-lot amount of Brussels sprouts, potatoes and spinach.”

Despite having turned 60 this month, Jillette’s new energy level has him taking steps at his home, the notorious “Slammer,” three at a time. Remedied, as if by magic, is the arthritis in his thumbs and the eczema on his skin from living for three decades in the desert climate of Las Vegas. “Everything is so much better now, I’m embarrassed at how terrible I felt before.”

Jillette’s stamina boost will serve him well in the next few months. But before the summer hits, there’s the niggling matter of banking a season of the Penn & Teller CW series, Fool Us. The hour-long show, in which magicians attempt to perform a trick or act the duo cannot figure out, was originally a hit in England, and this is its second season on U.S. television. Should anyone “fool” P&T, he or she wins a spot as opening act for the show at the Rio. The upcoming season will be taped onstage during April at the Rio, with 13 episodes to be recorded in 10 days.

Fool Us is how Piff the Magic Dragon and his tiny-pooch sidekick, Mr. Piffles, wound up in Vegas, incidentally. His real name is Jon van der Put, and he helped develop the Vanishing African Spotted Pygmy Elephant Act. In this segment, Elsie is introduced after a slickly produced video clip showing her at home at the “Secret Pasture of Penn & Teller.” Twenty audience members are summoned to the stage and gather around a platform with a reed-covered roof, made to look like a hut in the African wilderness. Penn & Teller don safari costumes (at least the hats) and manage to remain steadfastly serious throughout the elaborate farce.

“You can’t say, ‘This is a Podunk thing we’re doing, because Siegfried & Roy made tigers disappear, we’re doing it with a cow,’ because then you’ve lost the creative tension. But if we do it right we have this moment of huge disappointment, then the response that the crowd gets that it is a comedy piece. They get the joke, and it’s not really a magic piece.”

Another new act, nearly twice as long but not nearly as visually dynamic, is the Atheist’s Deck of Cards (a takeoff on the spoken-word religious number from the late-1940s, “The Deck of Cards,” as recited by a soldier who uses the deck as his own bible). Jillette wrote a lengthy script for the act, and also learned to play six chords on the guitar to use as a soundtrack as Teller works through a dense but satisfying piece based on the work of theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss.

On a Vegas stage, eight minutes is an eternity. You can easily quaff a pint of PBR in that time. But the P&T audience stays with this trick, all the way to the end. “It’s not what they expect, but it’s okay,” Jillette says. “They leave thinking, ‘The elephant, the atheist card trick … Copperfield’s never going to do that.” And the slimming ringleader laughs, knowing that what he’s said is funny and, as always, right on the mark.

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