Book Review

Book Review from Skeptic Magazine
Vol 5 No. 4

Reprinted with Permission


Romping Through Traffic
With Penn & Teller
By Jamy Ian Swiss

A Review of Penn &Teller's   "How To Play In Traffic".
Boulevard Books. 1997. Paperback, illustrated. 227 pp. $18.95

     Penn & Teller are not merely post-modern magicians who regularly litter television talk shows like Leno, Letterman, or Conan with vermin and blood, or romp nightly on stages across North America attempting to shoot each other with bullets marked and identified by the audience and then fired from .357 magnum revolvers. Nor are they apparently satisfied with frequent appearances in Las Vegas or two Broadway shows, two off-Broadway shows, and another Broadway production in the works, or for that matter, previous network television specials produced both in the United States and England.

     No, no. Because Penn & Teller , true Renaissance renegades who have also published columns, essays, and articles in the " New York Times", "Harper's ", " Esquire", 'Playboy", "Spy", "The New Yorker", et al, have now just written their third book. Not bad for a couple of skeptics who do card tricks.

     Like "Cruel Tricks For Dear Friends" (1989) and " How To Play With Your Food" (1992), the newest addition to the Penn & Teller oeuvre, "How To Play In Traffic" will be found in the humor section of your local bookstore, but in fact includes an array of material including essays, short stories, stunts, gags, magic tricks, a plethora of laughter-inducing photographs, and yes, plenty of that aforementioned humor. As such the volume is an eclectic tour of the minds of these unique creators-cum-commentators, embracing subjects as far-ranging and near and dear to their dark and duplicitous hearts as skepticism, atheism, libertarianism, free speech, free markets, a panoply of other varied ism's and freedoms, and sex. This is an engrossing and entertaining book of ideas for the deeply hip in fin de siecle America.

     If you're familiar with the work of Penn & Teller, then you can expect more of the same - like it or not- within these covers. If you're not familiar, this will sever as a fine introduction. The title refers to the loosest of excuses for banding this material together under one cover, namely that the material has something very generally to do with the subject of travel. The table of contents is organized by category, so forget any linear itemization of the contents in order; the only order here is conceptual. The book is divided by "stories- really true and kinda true"; "stupidly easy tricks - just read 'em and do 'em"; "just as stupidly easy tricks-but maybe you have to stick something in your pocket"; "real tricks - it's not going to hurt you to learn something"; and "hard, impossible, immoral, and/or illegal tricks - maybe you'll go to jail." But at least you'll probably go laughing.

     Some of the entries in the "stories" section includes a paean to the Mutter Museum and its creepily wonderful collection of medical oddities at the College of Physicians in Philadelphia, and another to the classic sideshow illusion known as Girl To Gorilla. There is an appreciative account of attending a NASA shuttle launch that is told in the context of a discussion of comic timing. Another narrative touches on issues of free speech and sexuality, while providing an awfully nifty and inexpensive tip for how to become the hit of the dancers at a strip bar. And in "The Devil Went To Bell Labs", a short story turns a classic barroom joke into a thought-provoking tale of computer programming set among the computer whizzes at Bell Labs.

     We'll begin with "stupidly easy tricks", which include a nice stunt with which to spread a bit of joy and confusion at your next toll booth; a strongly worded anti-drug piece (hey, as role models, these nutty guys, Penn & Teller, seem to be perfectly...well,let's just say, your kids could do a lot worse) that includes a prank to play on a drunk that will provide some slightly mean amusement but also prevent said drunk from starting his or her own car. There is a trick which according to the authors, a famous magician once used to fool Albert Einstein , in which you accurately and uncannily guess how much change is in a a full jar of coins (or a casino slot-machine winnnings bucket). Then there is an easy -to-do but strange magic trick in which you declare yourself "the god of carbonation" and transfer the agitation of a shaken can of carbonated soda into an unshaken can. Add to this a funny but easy stunt, especially good for freaking out your fellow passengers on a bus or airplane, in which you appear to crack your own neck in an excruciatingly loud manner. And another airplane/bus/train bit which requires only some acting skill but is hilariously conceived and, like most everything in the book is just plain fun to read. The premise of this one: Tell the person seated next to you that, as a kindness, you feel they should be warned that you seem to have an odd, unintentional habit of sleeping with your eyes open. You ask them not to be troubled, but also not to disturb you. You now pretend to fall asleep with your eyes agog; the admittedly over-the -top photos are as funny as the effect that a convincing but perhaps slightly more restrained performance would be in actual practice.

    Stupidly easy tricks which might require a little advance preparation include one entry that describes an amazing trick requiring very little other than the ability to lie with wit and style. You hand a restaurant waitperson a watch and tell them to take it away with them and set it to any time. Before they return with it, you predict the exact time that they have set it to . Some of those items are far more difficult to describe here than they are to do. In one of these, for example, in an effort to torture your afraid-of-flying companion (even the authors confess that " this is a mean trick"), you ask them to choose from the route map in the airline magazine a country in which the plane might crash, whereupon you reveal that their point of impact has in fact been predicted on the safety card in the seat pocket in front of them! In another more cheerful item, you bring a laugh to anyone who asks for your photo ID and,according to the authors, you might just get a free airline upgrade, or escape a possible speeding ticket. This is a joyful little bit that's too cute to reveal here, but is a delight to read and think about.


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