Several years ago my wife and I went to see Penn & Teller. At one point in the show Penn came out juggling flaming batons and everyone cheered. Then he put on safety glasses, made a wisecrack about OSHA regulations, cracked the bottoms off a couple of glass bottles, and started juggling those. I think a few people applauded politely and Penn explained that we should all be a lot more impressed. The batons, he explained, were made to be juggled–they were balanced–and if he grabbed the wrong end by mistake he could drop it quickly enough to only get a slight burn. Glass bottles, on the other hand, were never made to be thrown around and if he grabbed the wrong end, well, the first three rows would probably be sprayed with blood.
In short for those who didn’t know the physics of juggling the flaming batons really looked more impressive than they were and the broken bottles were more impressive than they looked. It’s something that can be true in other art forms too: knowledge of technique can make something that appears impressive seem a lot less so, and something that at first glance doesn’t seem all that great can actually demonstrate a surprising amount of skill. So should artists always take risks? All I can say is we all would have been really impressed if he’d come out juggling flaming broken bottles.
After the show both Penn and Teller came out to the lobby and stood around talking to people and signing autographs. I joined the big crowd around Penn and looked over and noticed there were only a couple of people around Teller. I wanted to go over to him but at the same time I didn’t. I think Teller’s a fascinating character–they both are, but I’m especially intrigued by Teller, especially after hearing him talk about how he developed a floating ball routine on an episode of This American Life–the podcast, so I was really just hearing a voice. He talks about how a trick has to be perfect, that any flaw is a risk no magician can take:
I mean, magic is a fantastically meticulous form. You forgive other forms. A musician misses a note, moves on, fine. He’ll come to the conclusion of the piece. Magic is an on/off switch. Either it looks like a miracle or it’s stupid.
That night that we saw Penn & Teller perform I worried that speaking to him would have spoiled part of his illusion, but I wish I’d been willing to take that risk.