The magicians Penn & Teller hope to pull off a heck of a trick on Monday — make fears of the coronavirus disappear, at least for an hour.
The duo star in the CW's special “Penn & Teller: Try This at Home,” created and filmed entirely by the homebound magicians and their friends.
“It is a fascinating challenge to be able to do magic for people when you can’t touch anything,” said Penn Jillette, the taller, more vocal part of the group, who goes by his first name. “It’s not even a retooling. It’s a complete ground-up rethink.”
Viewers will get to see guest stars Elle and Dakota Fanning do a card trick from their home — they had to order decks of cards delivered to them in lockdown. Elle will be uncannily able to find the card that Dakota chooses.
“Teller and I had to run that with dozens of people sitting in for Elle remotely because we were making this trick work by the skin of our teeth,” Penn said. “We had a margin of error that was much, much slimmer than we would have in stage show or an ordinary TV special.”
Teller — Raymond Teller, the silent partner onstage — does a trick with two bowls and seven tin foil balls, and also submerges into his home swim spa with a snorkel to make magic with yellow sponge balls. “It was much, much harder than I ever dreamed,” he said.
Magicians Shin Lim and Michael Carbonaro share some of their tricks and illusionist Mac King reveals a cool one — taking uncooked popcorn, pouring it into a paper lunch bag and somehow using his phone's light to turn it into cooked popcorn.
The special's name is a riff off the title of a TV special they did years ago, “Don’t Try This at Home.” This time they want the audience to try the tricks on their families and maybe amuse delivery people.
“We have a bunch of tricks that they can learn and actually do and actually practice,” said Penn, whose wife did his hair and makeup and who was also in charge of sound, camera and props.
The duo decided to dress in formal clothes and avoid directly talking about COVID-19. “That was an artistic choice,” said Penn. “You know, ‘Can we do a special that is entirely created by the pandemic without pandering to it?’”
Says Teller: “We didn’t ignore totally the fact that this was being done during a pandemic. We just we just put it in its place.”
The show marks the 45th anniversary of Penn & Teller, who started working together in 1975. Penn was in high school in Massachusetts, and Teller was a high school Latin teacher in New Jersey. Both adored magic and established a friendship.
“Teller wormed his way into my heart by buying me dinner, which is really all it took to get my full attention and really doesn’t take much more nowadays,” Penn joked.
Penn managed to land a gig at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival and convinced organizers to also hire Teller for some street magic. It was so life-changing that Teller soon took a sabbatical. He may technically still be on it.
“When I woke up one morning and realized that I was actually earning my living doing magic, that is probably the biggest single highlight of my career,” said Teller.
The duo has appeared on numerous TV shows and played Broadway in 1987, 1991 and again in 2015. They've been performing at the Rio hotel and casino in Las Vegas since 2001.
“As we’ve gotten better at things, we just wanted to do much, much harder things,” Penn said. The new special is no different: “The idea of doing a formal show with no touch and trying to do magic is a really interesting challenge.”
Some of the highlights for Penn over the years is meeting and becoming friends with his heroes, including Frank Zappa and Bob Dylan. When he met Lou Reed, Penn was the actual president of the Lou Reed Fan Club.
"Lou said one of the funniest thing that’s ever been said to me — he said ‘Penn, if we’re going to be friends, you need to stop crying,’” Penn recalled.
One of Teller's highlights is their 1986 appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” in which they seemed to do tricks that defied gravity. Only at the end of their set was it revealed that they had been hanging upside down the whole time.
Despite all their appearances in Vegas or on Broadway or the millions watching on TV, Penn & Teller still cherish the early days, when about 100 people would come to see them at carnivals or fairs.
“The goal was to do shows. The goal was not the venue,” Penn said.
Teller agrees: “The scale doesn’t make much difference because it’s still that difficult thing of trying to fool essentially one other human mind.”
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits