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Thursday, March 21, 2024

March 21, 2024: American Magic: Penn & Teller

[This coming weekend marks Harry Houdini’s 150th birthday! So this week on the blog I’ll perform some AmericanStudying magic of my own, leading up to a special post on that legendary prestidigitator.]

On three telling influences on one of the most famous magic acts of the last half-century.

1)      Wier Chrisemer: That enjoyable 1989 Calvin Trillin New Yorker profile of the duo makes clear the debt that Penn Fraser Jillette & Raymond Joseph Teller owed to Wier Chrisemer, a friend of Teller’s from his undergraduate days at Amherst College whose scholarly and professional interest in music was their first entrée into the world of performance and whose talents as an amateur magician led the three men to form a trio known as “The Asparagus Valley Cultural Society.” A couple months back I wrote in this post about how The Three Stooges were originally part of a comedy troupe led by Ted Healy, but ended up achieving their lasting fame without him; similarly, it was after Chrisemer retired from show business in the early 1980s that Penn & Teller truly took off as a magical act. I don’t know exactly what to make of this pattern, but at the very least it’s a reminder that there’s usually more to any artistic success story—including more individuals to remember—than meets the eye.

2)      James Randi: Most successful artists have both personal mentors and influences and other professionals on whom they model aspects of their career, and for Penn & Teller the Amazing Randi was an example of the latter. Randi made his fame as both a magician and a skeptic, performing his own tricks but debunking those of paranormal con artists and the like (all of which he discussed in his 1980 book Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions). Not long after their magic career began to take off Penn & Teller crossed over into the realm of professional skeptics as well, as illustrated for example by their long-running television show Penn & Teller: Bullshit! (I like to think the exclamation point was at least in part a nod to Randi’s book title). It’s a complicated lane to occupy, making a main living performing tricks that require folks to suspend their disbelief (or at least refuse to be explained) yet turning a disbelieving eye toward many other cultural forms and narratives. But Penn & Teller have successfully occupied it for decades, inspired to be sure by prior figures like the Amazing Randi.

3)      Television: Bullshit! is one of a few shows of their own that Penn & Teller have had over the years, but it was their countless appearances on other television shows in the 1980s and 1990s that really established the pair’s reputation and prominence. That included not only performances on late-night shows like Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show, but also and even more tellingly both acting roles and cameos as themselves on a huge range of other shows, from Miami Vice to Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, The Drew Carey Show to Babylon 5, and many many more. The trend has even continued in recent years, with a 2022 appearance for example on the reality performance show The Masked Singer. Penn & Teller were far from the first magicians for whom TV was instrumental to their success, but none have better utilized that defining late 20th and early 21st century medium than did this pair.

Last MagicStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Magicians or magic histories or contexts you’d highlight?

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