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

Part Two:

     Among the "real tricks" that require a bit more commitment in the practice and/or preparation departments are " The Eternal Card Trick", in which you begin by having your friend select a card. You then either (a) bring your friend to the famous celebrity burial grounds, Forest Lawn in Los Angeles, (b) provide directions so that your friend can find Forest Lawn on his or her own, or ( c) shoot a home video during your next visit to Forest Lawn which will serve you for a lifetime. In any case, eventually you and /or your friend will find your/ themselves staring at a headstone that reads, "Penn & Teller - is this your card?" and is accompanied by, indeed , the bronze impression of your friend's card (presuming you have correctly executed the trick). Deadly funny, this.

     But if that's not dark enough for you, how about inviting a friend into your  hotel room, asking them to pick a card, then opening that annoying Gideon's Bible in the bedstand, ironing a page and suddenly having three words mysteriously darken, thereby indicating the name of the selected card? Penn & Teller encourage you to provide your own Bible, so that upon concluding the trick you can " rip out the page and give it to your friend as a souvenir. Remember, the book is your own property, so you're not thwarting the Gideon's self-righteous intentions by mutilating the missionary bunk they're trying to ram down your throat." I'm thinking that some of us might just hand out the souvenir without bothering to bring our own book.

     In an imaginatively conceived everyman miracle, your friend thinks of a vegetable. You take his or her picture wih an ordinary Polaroid camera. The vegetable in question, which you have identified as your friend's "guardian vegetable" (a la the current looney-tunes guardian angel craze), appears on the photograph as it develops. Let me tell you, this trick is really amazing, but the complete instructions, and a little something extra, are all provided for you. along with the additional materials required for producing, if you are so inclined, the image of a selected card or a Virgin Mary-like figure (which possesses a remarkable facial resemblance to Teller). According to the authors, "This is the best kind of trick because it takes evil scams developed by hateful cheesebag phony psychics (triple redundancy) and uses it for truth, justice and a good natured joke to drive a so-called friend crazy. Let's hear it for  our side." Hear! Hear!

     There are some pretty darn good magic tricks in this section, including " The Price Of Admission." wherein accompanied by a charming reminiscence about a high school theater and magic mentor, you'll learn to do this: Standing in an airport or a bus station or the like, you borrow a dollar bill from a friend. You tear it up into pieces - sure, plennty of fun, but you don't have to buy a book to get this far - and then, after leaving one piece with your friend, openly flush the rest down the toilet. Eventually , your friend finds a  locker key in their pocket. You accompany them as they locate the appropriate locker, open it with the key , and find a dollar bill  within. Not any dollar bill of course , but THEIR bill; they can tell, because that missing piece fits in. (This part will require the book in order to accomplish it).

     Finally, in the section on " hard impossible, immoral and/or illegal tricks," you will see elaborate photographic evidence of why Penn Jillette allowed his friend Tony Fitzpatrick (a serious painter of " outsider art" fame) to carve a tattoo onto Penn's arm without using any ink (in short, you get the pain but without the gain of permanence; this is a temporary tattoo that draws blood and takes a couple of years to wear of). I must note here that this elaborate contribution begins with the lyrics to a song which Lou Reed composed for Penn entitled " Tattoo of Blood". Can things get any hipper than having your own personal Lou Reed epigram? (Penn even recorded this as the title song of the first album with his band, The Captain Howdy,(Shimmy Disc,1995); a second album was recently released in January.) Further on, you are given the text of an insane letter - or more properly, a letter that would be written by someone capable of insanity and violence - to bring up on your laptop screen when someone is reading over your shoulder from the next seat. And finally, you are given an idea that brings a message up on your laptop when you're powering it up for airport security staff that is quite likely to put you in jail, and will give you a hilarious story to tell if and when you ever get out.

     Being a magician - and I should warn you, a skeptical one at that, as well as one who has worked as a consultant on the author's previous book - I've chosen to pay particular attention to the variety of magic instruction the volume includes. I should add that , as with Penn & Teller's distinctive live performances, not only is there material that has nothing whatsoever to do with magic, but all the magic makes for thought- and laugh -provoking entertainment, whether or not you have any interest in magic . That this material can be rendered so interesting, regardless of whether or not one ever chooses to try out the magic,  is testament to the author's literary skills. And even if you don't think you'd be the type, you might find yourself making that horrible crunching sound while twisting your neck in your airplane seat, once you find out how simple it is. There's probably a little Penn and/or Teller in all of us, and while it might seem difficult to be any hipper, cooler, funnier, more skeptical, anti-religion, anti-psychic, and/or pro-science, pro-First Amendment than Penn & Teller, if you'd like to share in their abundant supply of these riches, and even give that amazing part a try for yourself, then " How To Play In Traffic" should be your next stop en route.

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