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On Stage with Penn & Teller

This is the sordid tale of my having been exposed to Teller’s bodily fluids.

Teller, of course, is the “small, quiet” half of the Penn & Teller illusionists (“magicians” if you must), and I went to see their show in Las Vegas on Monday. Kit had never been to a show in Vegas, so we made sure we had room in our schedule to go see one.

In 2005, thirty years after they first teamed up, Penn Jillette and Teller got their own theater at the Rio Hotel and Casino in Vegas — where we attended a conference this week. I’ve enjoyed Penn & Tellers’ TV appearances over the years, including their Showtime series — entertainment designed to provoke thought after you’re done being outraged? How could I not like it!

We ended up in the 7th row: far enough back to get good perspective on the entire stage, and still close enough to be able to see well.

Penn & Teller in a publicity shotIt was a good show. Our seats were a bit pricey — a little under $100 — and the show left us with the showbiz ideal: “wanting more.” But all in all, it was a great show. Several tricks I figured out, others left me perplexed. Their last trick of the evening — catching a bullet — was somewhere in-between.

As is often the case with P&T illusions, they do their own twist on catching a bullet. During the show they had called up various audience members to assist, witness, or be duped. When it came to the final trick, Penn asked if any members of the audience had firearms experience. I figured there wouldn’t be any duping going on with that, so I raised my hand — I’m a former sheriff’s deputy. Penn pointed at me to ask how much experience I had. I said I still shoot, and was familiar with both revolvers and pistols (I didn’t bother mentioning rifles and shotguns; this was obviously a handgun trick). He called me up for his side of the stage, and a female cop for Teller’s side. I presume the lady cop did the same things I describe below.

Their big twist for this trick isn’t that one shoots the bullet into the other’s mouth. That would just be so humdrum! No, they simultaneously shoot bullets into each others’ mouths!

But first the preliminaries. They laid an 18″ strip of paper up the center of the stage, front to back. Each of us was told to never step over the paper. They didn’t say why, but it was obvious enough to me: they don’t want any chance of us looking like confederates who might take something across the stage. Each of us had a microphone so the audience could hear us. I noticed that if I said something that wasn’t exactly on cue (the “cue” being Penn’s specific questions), my voice didn’t come through. I guess they don’t want us blurting out jokes or something: it was very clear who the entertainers on that stage were to be!

Each of us started with inspecting the weapons: Penn’s was a real stainless steel Colt Python .357 magnum with a 6″ barrel. Teller’s is similar, but with a 4″ barrel. (Hey, give him a break! He’s a smaller guy!) The only real modification was that both guns were equipped with laser sights so the audience could see where they were aiming. I’ve never had a Colt myself, but I know them and have fired them before. My first duty weapon was a Smith & Wesson Model 19 — a similar, competing .357 magnum.

This pair of Colts is similar to Penn & Teller’s pair, but these are not theirs
(photo by Jeff Dean, from Wikipedia):
a pair of Colt Pythons

Next, Penn opened a “wallet” of .357 cartridges. A “cartridge” is what you load a gun with, not a “bullet.” A cartridge starts with a hollow shell that’s “plugged” at the bottom with a primer, which sparks when the firing pin hits it and ignites the gunpowder inside the shell. The open end is capped with the actual bullet, or the part that comes out of the gun when it’s fired. The wallet had about 24 of them in it, and Penn had me pull one of them at random. He asked me to inspect it. It had a round-nosed copper-clad bullet, an intact primer, and when I shook it to my ear I could hear the powder shaking inside (all are “correct” for a live round). Penn asked me to choose one of the three colors of Sharpie pens he was holding, and asked me to put my initials on the bullet.

He then asked if I wanted a different color Sharpie to write something on the shell. I took another one and wrote “Penn” and “Teller” on the shell, and then he had me watch as he slowly placed it into the gun’s cylinder, rotated it in (so that the cartridge would be the next to fire — the rest of the cylinder remained empty), locked the cylinder into place (and had me observe the cartridge was still there — you can, in fact, normally see the rim).

Each then loudly dropped their gun into metal brackets screwed to the top of stools sitting on the stage, in plain view of the audience. (It strikes me as funny that this might be one of the tasks of misdirection …or might be fake misdirection — a mismisdirection!)

On the stage were two metal stands each holding a sheet of glass, about 8×10″. Real glass? Yep: I tapped my ring on it. They put the glass stands into place — he explained they would each shoot through a sheet of glass, which would presumably prove the guns weren’t loaded with blanks.

Penn then asked us both to exit the stage (“insurance company rules,” he explained; an usher put me into a seat in the front row). Those same eagle-eyed ushers, by the way, kept my friends in the audience from taking any photos of me onstage, in case you wondered. Oh well!

Penn and Teller each donned a pair of goggles, a helmet, and a bullet-proof vest, and got into position.

Teller took aim first, running the laser across the stage, up Penn’s leg, pausing briefly on his crotch for the audience to laugh, and then homed in on Penn’s mouth. (Penn doesn’t really need a gun pointed at his mouth: he shoots his mouth off all the time without any help whatsoever.) Then Penn similarly took aim. The audience’s cue was “EARS!” — plug them. Penn yelled “EARS!” and within a second both fired simultaneously. Slurring his words from the bullet between his teeth, Penn immediately (well, as soon as the applause died down) called me and the cop back onstage.

He asked the lady officer to step over (but don’t cross the yellow paper!), and spit the bullet into her hand. Are those your initials? Yep. He ejected the spent shell from his Colt; is that the picture you drew there? Yes. Then I was asked to cross over to Teller, and similarly the bullet I had put my initials on was spit into my hand. Are those your initials? Yep. He ejected the shell; is that what I wrote on it? Penn asked. Indeed so.

I sniffed the shell: it did smell like burnt gunpowder. He asked if we could see marks on the bullets — rifling from the barrel. I don’t recall what I said; the lady cop said yes. Even if I did say yes, my answer now is no: what I could see were crimp marks from seating the bullet into the shell:

Enlarged to Show Detail
The actual bullet and shell I brought home
Here it is: The bullet (with a blue “RCC”) and shell reading “Penn” and “Teller” in purple, that I brought home from the stage. (Photo: Randy Cassingham.)

Is the glass really broken? Yes: the one on my side had a hole through it; rather than stick my finger in it, I slid the empty shell through the hole. The other sheet of glass was pretty much shot in half.

Penn shook my hand, then asked me to step over and shake Teller’s, and he thanked me when I did so. Yes, that’s right: Teller’s performing persona does not speak to the audience, but he definitely does speak in public, quietly gives stage directions to people from the audience, thanks them, etc. And by the way: it’s just Teller. He was born Raymond Joseph Teller, but he legally changed his name. It’s just Teller.

We were both allowed to keep our souvenirs and we returned to our seats.

They took their bows, and raced out of the theater. I had heard that they will stay out front for as long as necessary for everyone who wants autographs to get them, and everyone who wants a photo taken with either or both of them can get them. I hung back (I already had my 15 milliseconds of fame), and when the crowd emptied out only then did we step up to get photos:

Penn, Teller: Meet Randy, Kit
Penn Jillette and Randy Cassingham
Teller and Randy Cassingham
Teller and Kit Cassingham
Top to Bottom: Penn Jillette and Randy Cassingham (consider that Randy is 6’3″ tall; Penn is 6’7″), Teller and Randy Cassingham, and Teller and Kit Cassingham (Photos by Chris Knight of EzineArticles.com.) The slogan on the show poster behind me in the top photo reads, “Fewer audience injuries than last year!” True enough, unless you consider what I describe at the end….

OK, How?

Here’s where people get dubious. I confirmed those were my initials, and then they cut off my microphone. The obvious question: was it my writing on the bullet? Yes, it was. Definitely — on both the bullet and on the shell. There’s no one backstage hearing that I chose a blue Sharpie and writing “RCC” on a different bullet. There was some space after that, and I put a dash in too. That was there. And frankly, no one can realistically imitate my scribbly writing, especially with only a moment’s notice.

Several of the audience members came up to me after the show to ask if I was planted in the audience (nope! — but if I was, would I admit it?), or if they could see the bullet (yep!), and after getting photos with both Penn and Teller I handed each a pair of Get Out of Hell Free cards, which both accepted and pocketed.

Kit and I had several friends with us, and they all wanted to know (since I actually do have firearms experience): did they really shoot the bullets into each others mouths? If so, how? My opinion is no, they didn’t. Even if the cartridges were loaded with very tiny amounts of powder, not the regular charge used for a .357 caliber shell, it would still be way too dangerous to perform it six nights a week. When I researched how the trick is done, I found a web site that purported to reveal how Penn & Teller did it. It’s definitely wrong (including insistence that someone backstage copied the initials written on the bullets, perhaps with the aid of a hidden camera). What broke the glass panes, then? A wax bullet — which is at least plausible.

But then, who cares? Penn likes to say — and said clearly that night — that there’s no “real” magic: what the audience sees are illusions. There are no mind-readers, people that can make things truly vanish, etc. The illusions are called “tricks” for a reason, and the idea is to make you wonder — and, of course, be entertained. And they succeed at that very, very well.

And… I came home with a cold. Teller, is that a common social disease I got from your spit?! You owe me, pal!

The Trick on Video

I found this on YouTube. It’s not from the show at the Rio, and the audio level is really low, but it is essentially the same trick as I saw:

Again, this video is not from the same show. There were not cameras at the show I attended, and thus the cameras do not explain how they were able to duplicate my initials in my handwriting with an expert forger backstage. I’m deleting comments that say “See? You just forgot about the cameras and that’s obviously how they did it!”

39 Responses to On Stage with Penn & Teller

  1. Mike, Minneapolis, MN January 22, 2010 at 7:05 pm #

    I saw their show in Vegas about 6 years ago and loved it, too. Penn was kind enough to record my cell voice mail greeting after the show. “This is Penn with Penn & Teller. You’ve reached Mike’s phone. Now leave him a message or leave him alone!”

    And here I thought standing up for photos with everyone was going beyond the call of duty! -rc

  2. Jeff, Seattle January 22, 2010 at 7:05 pm #

    I was picked for that trick also! Still have the bullet, shell, and ticket stub with Penn & Teller’s autographs on it somewhere. Haven’t figured out the trick, but I was entertained. It was cool to be up on stage!

    Do they still invite people up on stage before the show starts to sign an envelope and inspect a big wood box while Penn plays jazz on the bass?

    Yes, they do. And I’d guess virtually no one realized it was Penn playing the bass. -rc

  3. Stormy, Calif. January 22, 2010 at 7:34 pm #

    Teller is an “illusion historian” of some renowned and Penn certainly knows his stuff. The “catch the bullet” trick has been around a long time, I remember seeing it as a kid on Ed Sullivan. But being Penn & Teller, they take it up 5 notches. It’s great you got to see this amazing trick up close and personal.

  4. David, Canada January 22, 2010 at 7:52 pm #

    I’ve also seen somewhere detailing how this trick is done step by step, pretty simple and yes, you and Penn have it right, it’s all just illusions. Having a friend who is a “magician” who has taught me a few “magic tricks”, I know (and had to understand before he taught me the tricks) the “Magician’s Code” – never reveal how a trick is done. You seem to have abided by the code – good thing, I don’t want to have Bozo the Hitman come after you….

  5. Ross - Marlborough, MA January 22, 2010 at 9:49 pm #

    I’m a shooter, too, and I’ve done my own reloading. The marks on your bullet are NOT from a crimp die – they definitely are diagonal, and in a reloading press the bullet is pushed straight done into the shell cartridge… and there’s not enough pressure while seating the bullet for it to mark the bullet. And the bullet never goes UP in the crimp die far enough to make those marks, either.

    Nope, those are markings from the bullet going through a rifled barrel. Which means I have absolutely NO idea how that trick was done. The only thing I AM sure about is that at some period in time, that slug went through a rifled barrel.

    I’m not sure what you’re seeing, but I don’t see any diagonal marks. The marks on the bullet (and seen in the photo) are clearly straight, back toward the base, not the nose. But I’ve never done reloading, so am anything but an expert on what marks are naturally there from hand loading the cartridges. -rc

  6. Brian, California January 22, 2010 at 10:16 pm #

    Just one question: if Teller caught the bullet you initialed, wouldn’t Penn’s gun have the shell you wrote on to be ejected? And vice versa? The gun held by one illusionist, with the writing by civilian A, should fire the bullet to be caught by the OTHER illusionist…. So one should have your cartridge, and the other the bullet!

    The “he”‘s may be unclear in the description, but I got my bullet from Teller’s mouth, and my shell from Penn’s gun, and the lady cop vice versa. -rc

  7. John, Texas January 22, 2010 at 10:40 pm #

    I am amused that Penn always has his tie off by about the fifth row as he is running off stage, and, I just love Teller, he’s great! See you in July guys.

  8. Art, Missoula MT January 22, 2010 at 11:12 pm #

    A while back (80’s?) P&T did a TV series showing how tricks worked. Each week they’d do one. They did the bullet trick – at that time they were doing it with just one gun.

    The “Trick” solution given in the show was 1) shoot over the target’s head, 2) use cameras and markers to copy the text.

    Another great episode was when they ran over Teller’s chest with the wheels of a semi-trailer. On the reverse side of the trailer (away from audience and camera) was a huge lever-and-counterweight system that left only about 20 pounds weight on the camera-side tires.

    It was a fun show! I wish I remembered more of it.

    Even with ILM making space travel a reality on the big screen, I still find there is nothing quite like the buzz I get from a live performance. I’m glad you found the time to catch one this great!

  9. Colleen ,Bound Brook NJ January 23, 2010 at 2:59 am #

    Pish, OF COURSE Teller TALKS! Can’t teach High School Latin without talking…At that time, we all thought his name was MISTER Teller. This was back before “Asparagus Valley Cultural Society” and “Aqueous Fowle”, and before Mr Gillette. If you meet Teller again, Randy, let him know that the Lawrence High Class of ’73 says hello!

  10. Jackie, VA January 23, 2010 at 7:02 am #

    Penn is a master at “reading” people; he knows who to choose as an onstage participant. He was correct to choose you — you followed directions onstage, you were credible to the rest of the audience, and most importantly, you treated the magic with respect, both onstage and afterwards.

    As the wife of a professional stage illusionist, I agree with you and Penn that magic is an illusion created in the mind. All audience members are not just observers, but actually a very important part of every show. When an audience suspends belief in favor of letting themselves be entertained, it’s very “magical” indeed!

    Thanks for taking the “high road” and writing about the interesting adventure of being onstage with P&T, rather than overly conjecturing on the banal details of “how it was done”. Of course it was a trick. But when you let yourself enjoy being fooled — it’s magic.

  11. Mary, Sandy Hook, CT January 23, 2010 at 9:53 am #

    What a great opportunity you had! I have never seen Penn and Teller live but love watching them when they have a show on television. It is nice to know that Teller really can speak!

  12. Pat, Iowa January 23, 2010 at 10:03 am #

    I have been big fans of Penn & Teller for years. Finally got to see their show this last summer. I was a bit closer (2nd row), but don’t have the firearms experience to volunteer (I only shoot occasionally and don’t own any myself). I hear they do that trick every night, but do a good job of rotating in other tricks, so it isn’t the “same old same old” every show. My fav from the night I went was the “smoking cigarette misdirection” trick where Penn plays bass, and Teller does a palming trick with a cigarette, they then go into a detailed, step-by-step showing of all the illusionists tricks used to perform it, all fully exposed. Great fun! Congrats on making the stage!

    They did that vignette Monday night. I’ve seen it on TV before, and it was enjoyable to see it in person, too. -rc

  13. Ross - Marlborough, MA January 23, 2010 at 11:40 am #

    Randy, look closely – rifling in pistols looks pretty straight on such a short surface as a bullet. The twist rate for a Colt Python is one turn in 14″, so you can see that it’s a real gentle turn.

    Also, there are NO marks made on the bullet when it’s reloaded – I’ve pulled bullets from made cartridges (wasn’t sure I’d charged the powder correctly, so being paranoid, I’d pull the cartridge apart and redo it) and there is NO WAY to make those marks on a bullet other than putting it through a barrel.

    And one other odd thing, now that I look at it again. That bullet looks much more like the kind of FMJ (Full Metal Jacket) bullet you’d use in a 9mm instead of a .38! Bullets for a .38 Special are more rounded as you don’t have to worry about them feeding through a semi-automatic’s feed ramp. The 9mm bullet (which are actually .355″ in dia) is more pointed than a bullet for a .38 (which are actually .356″).

    OK, I’m fine with taking the opinions of experts! -rc

  14. Jim de Graff (Winnipeg) January 23, 2010 at 1:32 pm #

    If you enjoy Penn & Teller (and who wouldn’t) then you have to see a 1989 movie titled “Penn & Teller Get Killed”. The airport scene is especially hilarious.

  15. Patrick, Tucson, AZ January 23, 2010 at 1:55 pm #

    A very nice recounting of your experience with Penn & Teller and their very interesting bullet catching trick. I like the mystery and fun and prefer to not know how it was done.

    Years ago in Scottsdale we went to a P&T show, and I was picked, along with a woman, to bear witness to the fact that they were completely nude on stage! They were behind a screen so the audience couldn’t see, but we indeed got full frontal and rear nude views of the two of them, as they went through one of their tricks that involved “nothing up our sleeves or anywhere else” routines.

    A great jaw dropping moment that the woman and I had, and great fun to remember, as when I hear someone talk or write about P&T, I always casually say “I’ve seen them both naked”.

    Quite interesting indeed. But all in all, I think I prefer my experience. -rc

  16. Joan, Henderson, NV January 23, 2010 at 7:43 pm #

    Several years ago in NYC, I saw Penn and Teller’s “Refrigerator Tour”. It was great fun. One of their tricks was the cups and balls. They used transparent plastic cups to show how the trick was done, then made the balls disappear in plain sight!

    Another trick involved Teller in a water tank (part of guessing a card previously picked from a deck). While Penn was talking to the audience, Teller was supposed to escape from the tank, but didn’t. Penn is oblivious to his partner’s increasing distress until after Teller has gone limp. When Penn turns around, he’s distraught. His partner has suffered a terrible accident! He grabs Teller’s hand sticking out of the tank’s top, twists him around to reveal a large playing card in front of Teller’s face. “Is this your card?” he asked the audience member. It was.

    A few years ago, Penn was shopping in the bookstore where I worked. I approached and asked if there was anything I could help him find. Perhaps a book on…magic? He gave a huge laugh and we had a pleasant few minutes chat.

  17. Simone, Australia January 24, 2010 at 2:18 pm #

    Thanks for sharing the interesting perspective on their show.

    The one thing that strikes me as a weak point in the trick is the laser sighting. Is it possible to set the laser sight so that the light shines at the target, but the gun is angled to shoot over their head? If the glass breaks it isn’t possible to tell exactly where the bullet struck and the bullet could then be captured offstage somehow and snuck back to the target to palm into their mouth before spitting it out again?

    It definitely occurred to me that the laser sights were set to land the bullet far from where the sight’s dot lands. That would get rid of the “fake” projectile, but wouldn’t help to get the real one into anyone’s mouth. -rc

  18. John Tampa, Florida January 24, 2010 at 5:24 pm #

    We went to see P&T here in Las Vegas last night, they did the bullet trick – I was not watching to see if they were aiming so that the bullets would miss hitting each other, nor did I see marks on the white barricades behind them, but it was neat. Your bullet does have rifling marks, I am sure, but I do not know when they were added either. I told Penn about your blog Randy, he said that he did remember you being there and sounded interested, but he had to go!

    I’m sure I’m not the first to blog about the experience, but I hope he’s amused if he seeks it out and reads it. -rc

  19. J from Castle Rock January 25, 2010 at 7:44 am #

    I’ve seen P&T a total of 5 times now. My favorite was when my girlfriend of the time was chosen to go up on stage.

    This was when they were at the Sahara for a show and one of the tricks was a knife throwing routine where my GF would be blindfolded and throw a knife at Teller.

    Quite a good comedy routine as they rigged the knife on a fishing pole so the knife she threw would be pulled back while Teller would pull a knife out and manually thrust it into the board he stood up against.

    The laughter of the audience was huge, of course, and Penn “revealed” the trick to my GF by opening the boards behind Teller and revealing a series of magnets that drew her knife to key points, but away from Teller’s body.

    Great fun. And as she came back to the stage Penn took a moment, singled me out in the crowd and admonished me to “keep my big mouth shut!”

    She, being a nuclear physicist, was quite sharp and knew 2 things for sure as she left the stage. 1. Magnets would not perform as described and 2. The copious laughter meant something else besides knife throwing was going on while she was blindfolded.

    As we left the theater after the show many people stopped to congratulate her skills, all with a knowing smile. After each time she would turn to me and ask me to tell her what really happened, and of course I said “oh, I can’t tell” and the crowd would all agree approvingly. I figured I would at least wait until we were out of the crowd before going into the discussion on what went on.

    As I said, quite a lot of fun. BUT she felt I was not being forthcoming. Now remember, we have not actually cleared the theater yet. But I was in on a joke being pulled on her and would not tell her when she asked.

    Which led to a big row and then a break up before we even got to the car in the parking garage!

    Guess that is another reason I go to their shows every few years. Their magic extends beyond the stage!

  20. Marty Springfield, MO January 25, 2010 at 10:08 am #

    You must have the dumbest friends on earth. I find it incredible that anyone would have to ask if the bullets were really shot into each others mouths. Thank God you have “actual firearms experience” and was able to set them straight!

    I don’t think it’s dumb. That is, of course, the impression that the trick is designed to give. But the fact that they ask means they’re dubious, and trying to explain what their eyes say is true, but their mind says can’t be. -rc

  21. AllanW, Rancho Cucamonga January 25, 2010 at 10:29 am #

    First, I think that P&T standing up for photos after the show IS going beyond the call of duty. The fact that they do it after EVERY show is even more remarkable! When I saw them live, I asked them why they do it… After their first performances in their very early days, they didn’t have a dressing room. Nobody told them where they ought to be after the show, so they just hung out in the lobby and talked to people. That was popular, so they’ve done it ever since.

    I completely agree with “Jim de Graff” about the P&T movie. In fact, I love every movie they’ve ever done.

    When I saw them live, they did the “box illusion.” Penn put Teller in a 3-part box, then drove steel blades into the box. Then he picked up the top 1/3 of the box and moved it to another part of the stage; he briefly opened a window, and Teller smiled to prove his head was in there. Then he moved the second 1/3 of it, and Teller waved out of it, and so on. This trick wasn’t invented by P&T, but they did it to perfection.

    Penn announced that most of their act was intended to please the audience, but occasionally they liked to do stunts just to please themselves. Then they jumped off the stage and ripped away the curtains that hid the section below. They dragged out boxes identical to the ones they had just used, except that they were made of Plexiglas – you could clearly see into them. Then they repeated the entire act, with Teller jumping down through a trap door and popping his head into the box at the exact moment that Penn was opening the window. It wasn’t any less amazing this way, but it was very humorous because we could see EXACTLY how it was done! P&T were already my favorites before this stunt, but now I think even more highly of them.

    As for the bullet trick, I think I know a VERY SMALL part of how this trick works. Shooting the bullet through glass proves that something (i.e. the bullet) really does travel across the stage. But it also causes the bullet to slow down, making the process of catching the bullet slightly safer.

    SLOWER doesn’t mean SLOW. Personally, I wouldn’t want to be standing in front of a bullet racing towards me, even if it had been shot through glass first. I don’t pretend to know ALL about how the trick works; obviously there’s more to it than that.

    Penn has stated in public that it’s a trick, that they do not really catch the bullets. Why be so emphatic? Because another magician was shot in the face by a guy who said “Catch this!” — and naturally he couldn’t catch it and was killed. -rc

  22. Doug, Maryland January 25, 2010 at 1:43 pm #

    I’ve seen them twice once in DC and once in Vegas, and they are great entertainers. Penn actually was playing the bass with a piano player as the crowd came in, being 6’7″ does have its disadvantages…

    I saw the bullet trick also, very impressive and like all good tricks open for extended discussion.

    They’ve gotten into trouble with their fellow magicians for “revealing” how some tricks are done. I put that in quotes because sometimes they show you things that are so outrageous that you know it’s not how they do it, other times they play it straight.

    And when they were in DC not only did they stay after but they even were out front during intermission, selling CDs!

  23. Luke in DC January 25, 2010 at 11:14 pm #

    I’ve never seen Penn & Teller’s show live but as someone who shoots regularly, I can tell you one thing for certain, that pristine bullet did not pass through the glass (it would have deformed from the impact & started tumbling no matter how thin the glass. What I’m not certain of is if that is rifling or not. It looks like rifling but Randy is right about it being a little too vertical. However, you can look up the number of lands & grooves (& the directionality of the twist) to expect on a bullet shot from the weapon Randy described. If they match, then those are probably rifling marks. If not then you can be sure that the bullet was never fired. Randy, did you smell the bullet (not the cartridge?)

    I suspect in the banging down their guns into the stands, it popped out the bullets from the cartridges and they were swapped between P&T when no one was quite paying attention. Probably when they were laughing/watching the lasers. And the hold your ears for the “bang” of the gun means your hearing was muffled (if you did cover your ears) and thus were unable to detect that P&T’s guns didn’t make the gunshots.

    I did sniff the bullet, but wasn’t sure about burned powder smell. It was coated in spit, after all. It does have some powder burns on it, though. I don’t buy that they can get everyone in the audience distracted enough to toss bullets across the stage to each other, nor was there anything about the brackets that could have assisted in popping out a bullet.

    And wait: you live in DC and shoot regularly? I’ll have to guess that you either travel a lot, or are a fed…. -rc

  24. JEQP, Mexico January 25, 2010 at 11:48 pm #

    It’s obvious, innit? It’s all done with mirrors…

    My experience with Penn was signing up for his Twitter feed knowing nothing about who he was, and then spending the next several months trying to decipher his messages to work it out. Obvious in retrospect…

    I enjoy seeing magicians/illusionists whether I know how the trick is done or not. There’s nothing as impressive as knowing EXACTLY how someone is performing some trick but still not being able to see them do it.

    Agree completely! And I appreciate a painting more by seeing how that’s done, too. Magic is beautiful performance art. -rc

  25. Ernest, Junee NSw Australia January 26, 2010 at 12:55 am #

    First off, I do NOT know how this trick was done, but I do know how part of it was done, simply from what is seen in the video file on the page. The cartridge is inspected, then P&T take it back and hold on to it by the case, while the initials are written. After the initials are written on the bullet, they show it to the camera. When the ask about writing on the shell case, they switch the cartridge to their right hand and hold it by the bullet. After that, you never get to see the whole cartridge, just the case.

    The two pieces of glass are at the same height and the bullet hole in one is about half way up it. Yet, that height is about lower chest for Penn and upper chest for Teller, and the hole is off to the side, not dead centre. Despite them standing opposite each other with the glass dead centre between them.

    I SUSPECT, when they get the pens out of their pockets, they already have another prepared cartridge in their right hand, and they swap this for the one just examined, when they put the cartridge in the right hand to get the pens with the left. After the bullets are written on, the hand again come together and the cartridge is now held by the bullet in the right hand. The case is written. After this, you only ever see the case, and not the bullet. When they aim and fire, the guns are aimed to the side, by having the lasers angled off a pre-set amount. The guns fire, the bullets go to the side into prepared catch points on the side stage. The laser lights could even have been worked by assistants off stage. After the shot, the close up shows Penn working his mouth to bring the bullet up between his teeth. Also, at the point where they walk back to the glass, you can see Penn slip something into the waistcoat pocket with his left hand. The only thing I didn’t catch was where they slipped the bullets into their mouths, but then, there were times each was out of view of the camera or it was too tightly focused to see if a hand went near their mouth.

    Even if that’s how it was done, it was extremely well carried out, regardless of how they did it.

    See what happens when you throw out a challenge like this.

  26. Kelly, California January 26, 2010 at 3:42 am #

    Magicians make extensive use of invisibly exchanging stuff – marked or otherwise unique item replaced by generic, disposable item for body of stunt, then retrieved after generic (stunt double) was used, destroyed, etc.

    You say “had me watch as he slowly placed it into the gun’s cylinder”. My guess is there was a split second where you could not see “your” cartridge and a generic cartridge went in the gun. Once “your” cartridge was (invisibly) in his control, many, many things are possible.

    Recently watched “Sherlock Holmes” movie and the “revelations” at the end reminded me — it’s not just Penn & Teller up there — it is a whole crew of invisible people.

    One possibility – even as they were putting handguns in braces, someone was shooting “your” cartridge into pillows in a soundproof cage. — shell smells, bullet marked — now exchange them again as illusion unfolds.

  27. Devin, Japan January 26, 2010 at 3:50 am #

    The bullet trick looks quite simple to me. Don’t keep reading if you don’t want to hear about what I saw. I don’t have any inside info, so the “magician’s code” doesn’t apply here — audience members are supposed to try to figure it out, right?

    I noticed in the video that when Penn offers a change of pen-color to Mike, he palms and then pockets the bullet Mike wrote on. The shell Mike writes on is a completely different shell. Penn carefully keeps the bullet of the new shell covered as he holds the shell for Mike to write on. When Penn and Teller have them load the bullets, again, the tips are hidden — we can see only the shells.

    You can clearly see them reaching “casually” into their pockets as they go to the back of the stage to get the glass panels, so I’m betting there are bullet-sized holes in that back wall that they pop the bullets through, and then someone backstage grabs them, removes the shells, and switches them. They retrieve the switched bullets out of the wall when they go back for their protective equipment, and then they put the bullets in their mouths while putting on their equipment, because the stuff going over their faces makes a great cover. Penn sounded to me like he was talking with something in his mouth after he put on the vest.

  28. Keith, Bradford England January 26, 2010 at 4:03 am #

    I have only ever seen the gentlemen on TV but would like to record my appreciation of the two greatest illusionists around.

    My theory on how this trick is performed is: You see the cartridge being loaded into the chamber of the pistol, but you do not see the inside of the other chambers.

    When the pistol is fired, the bullet goes off into the wings of the stage and is seen no more.

    Whilst the aiming etc is taking place two little pixies, hiding in an empty chamber of each pistol, copy the design on the bullet and fax it to the pixie in the other pistol. The new design is painted onto another bullet which is palmed by the performer and then spat out, identified etc.

    The only problem I can find with this solution is that I’m not sure if they make a .357 fax machine yet.

  29. Robert, Wilmington NC January 26, 2010 at 4:09 am #

    I too can highly recommend the P&T show. IMHO, as an occasional amateur magician, their best trick is the simplest one — the cups and balls with transparent cups.

    Why? Because I have done that trick before, I know the moves, I know what to watch for — and their misdirection skills are so good that I still miss a lot of the moves! Simultaneous “Arggghh!” and “Wow!”

    I heard Teller speak at “The Amazing Meeting!” a few years back; ironically, he has a much more impressive voice than Penn.

  30. Edward in Virginia January 26, 2010 at 6:26 am #

    I have never seen Penn and Teller, so I have no comments about that. What I wanted to mention is that the “catch the bullet” trick is over 100 years old. I remember reading a number a years ago about a French illusionist named Robert-Houdin who used the trick in the late 19th century to defuse a tense situation in an area of the North African desert that was governed by France at the time.

    And for the trivia buffs, the illusionist and escape artist who went by the name “Harry Houdini” (I forget his read name) took the “Houdini” part from Robert-Houdin’s name.

    The magic bullet trick goes back to the 1600s, according to Wikipedia. Houdini was born Erik Weisz. -rc

  31. Doc, Medford, NJ January 26, 2010 at 10:42 am #

    I also like their show BULLSH*T! on Showtime. They’re very entertaining. I agree with you that “HOW” the illusion is done isn’t what matters. That the audience is mesmerized and THINKS it happened is what’s important. I can tell you this much: the bullet is rigged, probably wax covered in a candy shell, somewhat like M&Ms, which would pierce the glass divider but not hit the targets-P&T.

    Also, having been with a USMC combat battalion, 1/1, in Vietnam for the better part of 12 months 28 days and 13 hours and fired my fair share of ammunition, both in action and on the range, the projectile comes out so hot that it would be literally too hot to catch. It would burn your oral mucosa badly. The odds of either Penn OR Teller hitting their targets is pretty slim when you look at how wobbly the lasers are just prior to their firing.

    Glad you had fun…these two gentlemen are GREAT showmen. Stay well and keep up the GREAT work.

  32. Ron - Las Vegas, NV January 26, 2010 at 11:47 am #

    Some folks got it right. P & T palm the bullets with the markings on the bullet and exchange it with another “clean” cartridge when they change pens. Watch very closely and you can see it. That’s why they hold the cartridges for the case to be marked so that you can’t see that there are no initials on the bullet. Now I’ll tell you how I think the rest of the trick is done. Bear in mind that this is just my opinion from watching the video many times.

    WARNING: If you really don’t want to know how it’s done, stop reading now. I found that when I knew how the illusion was performed it only increased my appreciation of the skill and planning of Penn & Teller, but if you think knowing how it’s done will spoil it for you, STOP READING.

    For the brave of heart, watch the video and follow along. Plan on pausing and rewinding a lot to see everything. Even when you know what they’re doing they’re such masters of misdirection that it’s hard to catch it.

    When they return to the stage, each has the cartridge with the marked casing held in their right hand. They each reach into their left pocket and palm the cartridge with the marked bullet. Now look at the stands that hold the glass. They have three legs, one of which is under the curtain at the back the stage. When they tap the glass (that’s the misdirection) you’ll see them each touch the stand. At that time they drop the marked bullet in their left hand down the hollow stand where it goes behind the stage through the leg under the curtain and is retrieved by an assistant. While P & T reveal and load the Pythons it allows plenty of time to mark the bullets and roll them in gunpowder so it appears they have been through the barrel of a gun.

    Note that when they go back to have the volunteers “load” the weapons you still can’t see the bullet, only the casing. My bet is that it’s a low-velocity round with a wax cap. More on that later.

    Now they go back to put on the vests. Note that they pull them over their heads. Nobody puts on a bullet-proof vest that way, not even in the movies. That’s because the marked bullets have been placed in a pouch in the vest so that P & T can take them in their mouths when they don the vests.

    Right before they fire watch very carefully where the laser sight from Penn’s gun appears on the glass. It’s near the center but the hole from the bullet appears far to the left of where the sight was aimed. The wax head breaks the glass but is aimed away from Teller for safety. The audience is asked to plug their ears because the light loads aren’t as loud as expected.

    The rest is just showmanship and very few entertainers do it better than Penn & Teller. I can’t imagine how much planning and rehearsal went into this stunt and I’m impressed every time I watch it even though I know the trick. At least I think I do….

    I think you’re essentially correct about how it’s done, though in Vegas the glass stands were not near the edge of the stage (one foot was definitely NOT hidden), so I doubt that figures in. Thinking back, it is likely that when I wrote on the shell, it was not the same shell as from the start — the one that had the bullet I wrote on. Clever indeed and, as you point out, even if this is all correct and we “know” how it’s done, it doesn’t diminish the appreciation of their skill in pulling it off. -rc

  33. Ron, Newark Delaware January 26, 2010 at 1:05 pm #

    Roll them in gunpowder so it appears they have been through the barrel of a gun? Nonsense! Traveling down the barrel changes the shape of the projectile, slated engraving from the rifling.

    And there’s a huge difference between burned and unburned gunpowder. -rc

  34. Ron - Las Vegas, NV January 26, 2010 at 1:36 pm #

    You’re right about the gunpowder, the way I put that was stupid and thanks for the correction. But I have to imagine they have some way or device backstage to add rifling markings to the bullet and make the average person think it had been fired. We’re not talking about in-depth ballistics. Passing through the barrel of a gun doesn’t deform the round nearly as much as striking a target and the average audience member wouldn’t know the difference. Besides, if I knew every nuance I’d be onstage, not just commenting on the professionals!

    The easiest and fastest way to get burned powder and proper rifling on the bullet is: to fire it through a gun. And I have little doubt that’s what they (or, more likely, someone back stage) did. To do that without deforming the bullet probably means it was shot into a tank of water. -rc

  35. Scott, Billerica MA January 26, 2010 at 5:35 pm #

    I am confident that anyone who thinks a ‘slow’ bullet is caught is wrong. Please don’t anyone try it; if you’re lucky you’ll end up with a minor wound. At worst you’ll prove that you were dead wrong.

    I’ve seen P&T perform many times. One difference between the video and how they do the trick now is that they no longer throw their jackets off stage before going to the protective equipment.

    I’ve heard Penn say in an interview that they have three safety systems in place to keep them safe during that trick. One is probably that the laser sights are misaligned, as others have commented.

  36. John, Chula Vista CA January 27, 2010 at 12:26 am #

    Penn and Teller provide one of the most entertaining shows I’ve seen in Las Vegas … and I’ve seen dozens of them in the last twenty years.

    I had to skip most of the preceding comments because I don’t want to know how they do the tricks/illusions and I didn’t want to hit on a revealing comment. That’s OK.
    I like that Penn and Teller go to the lobby after the show to greet their fans. Nice touch.

  37. Derek from New Mexico January 27, 2010 at 12:51 pm #

    It’s interesting to me that in the YouTube video, they don’t put the camera on the glass panels with the bullet holes, and don’t seem to give the audience a chance to look at them. (You can see one hole briefly, in one camera shot from behind Penn’s shoulder).
    Was this how they did it when you participated, Randy? I would think showing off the bullet holes would be a fun part of the illusion. I also noticed that they didn’t pretend to catch the bullets with their teeth, but rather in the soft, fleshy part of the mouth. Perhaps grasped from the air chameleon style, by their powerful tongues.

    As noted in my write-up, they did make a point of having us inspect the glass after. We were cautioned about stepping on the broken glass, etc. -rc

  38. Roy, Salt Lake City January 27, 2010 at 1:03 pm #

    I noticed that once the initials were written on the top of the bullet that the cartridge was always handled with the fingers covering the bullet and not handed back to the audience member for his drawing. Before asking the audience member to draw on the shell, he redirected the attention to the markers again for them to select another color. I’m guessing the cartridge was palmed and switched at that time. Then the innocuous cartridge could be loaded into the revolver in full view as the focus is on the shell. You never see the bullet again until it comes out of their mouths. Could the bullet be loaded onto the shell loosely enough to be pulled off with one hand? And then transferred to the mouth somehow? Sounds reasonable to me since they are pros! Great illusion, just the same!

  39. Lee / Austin TX January 28, 2010 at 8:11 pm #

    This must be an old trick. I just came across a radio mystery drama, on a Shoutcast station, from 1948. The plot on “Box 13” revolves around the same trick.

    Yes, as I mentioned in another comment reply, there are indications that it dates back to the 1600s. -rc

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