No Lip

Penn & Teller devote themselves to skepticism

Alan Katz

Of the many fascinating magic tricks that Penn & Teller perform, the neatest is how they can repeatedly say things that the mainstream considers heretical and yet remain the most popular magic team in the United States.

For example, rather than pay lip service to religion like performers are supposed to do, Penn goes on the radio to explain how disbelieving in God has made him more thoughtful and decent. Nor do they pander to facile patriotism. One of the mainstays of their act is to wrap an American flag with a copy of the Bill of Rights and set the flag on fire while somehow the document stays untouched. Even though the flag appears at the end fully restored, the point is not lost on the audience. It's this kind of thing that distinguishes them.

Both Penn, the 6-foot-6-inch talkative guy, and Teller, the diminutive silent fellow, are Libertarians and free-speech advocates. They're also devout skeptics. On Bullshit!, their television show on Showtime, their shtick is to present a popularly held belief -- such as "true love is everlasting," or "passive smoke is harmful" -- and debunk it. The show also exposes con artists, psychics, frauds, cheats and purveyors of illogic, which lots of people love until one of their heroes or dearly held values comes under attack.

It's this uncompromising honesty of Penn & Teller and their insistence on challenging the audience that endears them to their fans.

Let's also not forget that they're funny. Yes, many of their tricks can be edgy -- like firing bullets into each other's mouths. But who doesn't thrill to the sight of a little make-believe mayhem and attempted murder? True to their heretical selves, after performing an illusion, they often show the audience how it's done.

When they're not onstage at the Rio, Penn hosts a radio show that airs in eight cities. He also works with a group that investigates claims of the paranormal. Penn produced and both men appeared in the film The Aristocrats, which, in terms of language, is one of the dirtiest movies of all time. The team has written several books. In short, they're two of the brightest, most interesting people in show business.

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