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.
Viva Las Vegas
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.
It 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.
Their Own Style
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!
Setting It Up
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 with a 4″ barrel— a similar, competing .357 magnum.
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 mis-misdirection!)
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, being sure to stay on our respective sides.
Penn asked the lady officer to step over (but don’t cross the yellow paper!), and he spit the bullet into her hand. Are those your initials? Yep. Teller 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. Penn 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: see photo.
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:
|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.) 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….|
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, no one who 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!”
Seriously, people: think!