In a 1990 TV special, Penn and Teller performed a variation on the “body separation” illusion. Throughout the performance, Penn takes apart and rearranges the boxes containing the “body segments” of his hapless mute partner Teller and scatters them throughout the stage. Teller’s body parts poke out periodically according to music cues, teasing the audience by appearing as if they are in the separate pieces.
While this trick is impressive enough on its own, Penn and Teller decide to go one step further and reveal how the trick is done. They assure the audience that the first version is how “everyone else does it,” but they prefer to do it again with clear acrylic versions of the boxes. “We got these special made,” Penn tells the audience as they begin to dissect the trick.
The question the viewer is left with is, why go through the trouble? Why would Penn and Teller break the magician’s code and prove to everyone that the illusion was indeed a fake? The answer, along with a video of the performance, lies in the rest of this post.
Liftoff of Love
Penn and Teller reveal the trick for the same reason most magicians do things: showmanship.
Penn and Teller want to establish a connection with their audience and make them feel “in” on the act. Their casual dismissal of the illusion runs contrary to how much trouble the process obviously takes. Watching the video, Teller scrambles on his back to be ready for his next cue, indicating the amount of rehearsing required.
When Penn tries to brush aside the skill involved, what he is really doing is playing up the creativity and dexterity magicians need to make their illusions work. He later tells Victoria Jackson that “We do stuff like that with the clear boxes because everybody thinks they know how magic is done. People think that if they think enough, they can just figure it out on their own.”
The truth is that the secret behind the tricks is often far more complex than the audience can realize. While they are trying to process the apparent nonsense going on in front of them, the performers are scrambling behind the scenes to make their cues and achieve the look of effortlessness.
In the end, Penn and Teller are simply adding to the mythos that magic creates. Besides, they are fairly tight-lipped about how their other tricks work. They once sued a magician who threatened to reveal one of their secrets, and they included an unexpected ending to another trick reveal as a knowing wink to the audience.
They want to assure audiences not that magic is “fake,” but that the real skill involved in close up magic in Miami comes from making it all seem easy. Visit our videos page to see more performances and try and guess how they were done.