Penn & Teller on "West Wing"

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Postby Guest » 12/08/04 10:30 PM

MEANING AND MAGIC ON WEST WING: What do we mean by meaning? Perhaps significance is a better word to use in conjunction with the kind of magic that aspires to be something more than an amusing puzzle or clever trick? And there has been lots of palavering lately about creating meaningful contexts, dramatic or otherwise, for puzzlements to have greater consequence and import. Some of it has been tried and true. Some of it has been pure and not-so-pure cant. And strides have been made. But a sterling example of taking the hoary trick of making a handkerchief disappear in a cone or tube and converting it into a thing of beauteous importone with dramatic resonancewas done by Penn and Teller on last nights episode of West Wing.

This effect is well-known to fans of the Penn and Teller Show: an America flag is tucked into a rolled up Bill of Rights and in a flash of fire disappears. The Bill of Rights, alas, is still whole. Burning a flag of course is incendiary is more ways than one, being a political flash-point. I dont want to spoil how it was handled in the West Wing episode for those who did not see it, but the situation and writing was wonderful. Penn was never better, and if he didnt write the lines, he could have. His succinct, climactic speech to slam-dunk the scenes ending was funny, consequential, and meaningful. Pure Penn. Pure magic.
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Postby Dave Shepherd » 12/09/04 03:45 AM

I think every magician should take a look at P&T's turn on West Wing, whether or not he or she has seen them do the bit onstage.

What it showed to me was the significance of changing the props (the original point of their signature bit) and of changing the performance context (the point of their West Wing appearance) to effect a deeper meaning. P&T's routine completely drove one of the subplots in this episode.

It's been a big month for me and West Wing. I just bought a Toyota Prius. Two or three weeks ago the entire main plot was driven by a character's having run into a Prius with an SUV at a car dealership.

I wonder which aspect of my personal life the writers will address next week? :D
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Postby Jerry Harrell » 12/09/04 06:18 AM

Maybe what Donna Moss keeps wanting to meet with Josh about is to tell him she has met this amazing fellow named Dave Shepherd....

It WAS nice to see magic used to make a dramatic point.
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Postby Guest » 12/09/04 10:34 AM

Excuse my ignorance, but do we have to wait for reruns, or anyone know if West Wing gets produced to DVD?
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Postby Jim Maloney_dup1 » 12/09/04 10:44 AM

Originally posted by Michael Kamen:
Excuse my ignorance, but do we have to wait for reruns, or anyone know if West Wing gets produced to DVD?
West Wing is being put out on DVD, but I think they're only up to the third season. The show is currently in it's sixth season. So, they still need to do the 4th and 5th seasons, not to mention that they need to wait until the end of the current season.

Bravo currently shows reruns of the show, but it looks like they are only doing seasons 1-4 right now.

So, it may be a little while before you'll be able to see this episode again.

-Jim
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Postby Guest » 12/09/04 10:59 AM

The other point that was made more quietly is the craziness of the press, politicians, special interest groups and others to exploit anything for their own advantage, in this case a magic trick at a kid's birthday party of an opposition president. This West Wing episode showed how quickly these things feed on themselves and get blown way out of proportion.

Some years ago a president made a huge deal out of the subject of flag burning, conveniently ignoring the fact that during Vietnam War protests many hundreds of flags were burned in protest and the republic still stood. Most ironic about this particular presidents complaint was as he was moaning the lack of respect for the flag his wife was wearing an American flag as a neck scarf.
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Postby Dave Shepherd » 12/09/04 11:36 AM

Originally posted by Jerry Harrell:
Maybe what Donna Moss keeps wanting to meet with Josh about is to tell him she has met this amazing fellow named Dave Shepherd....
Well, this might be a good point to be honest and say that it was my WIFE who bought US a Prius, that I get to drive most of the time...
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Postby Guest » 12/09/04 02:40 PM

Originally posted by Michael Kamen:
Excuse my ignorance, but do we have to wait for reruns, or anyone know if West Wing gets produced to DVD?
Typically, episodes get rerun later in the year on NBC. Bravo has already re-run some of the 5th season episodes, so they will be on track to pick up this season (6th) next fall.
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Postby Richard Kaufman » 12/09/04 03:08 PM

The fourth season has already been released on DVD overseas. Why it is taking them longer to do it in the US is a mystery to me, unless it simply isn't selling very well. You can get seasons one and two on Amazon for 46% off!
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Postby Jim Maloney_dup1 » 12/10/04 08:26 AM

I'm curious to know, from folks who have seen P&T's live show, if the routine as done on the West Wing was performed exactly as it is in their show. Now, I could be off base here, but while the script and presentation was positively perfect (congrats to Jamy for inspiring the routine), the actual magic was not terribly deceptive. Maybe it was the camera angle, maybe it was something else, but my wife, who was sitting next to me said, when they were done, "Duh, it's in the flower pot behind them." Perhaps it was a matter of not performing on their own stage (and therefore having additional props getting in the way, like the flowerpot). I don't know whether to not it was actually there, nor how the flag was actually disposed of, but it seemed like the magic was too easily explained away.

Don't get me wrong, I loved the routine -- the political message, the fact that, even while they're preparing to "burn" the flag, they're treating with the utmost respect (white gloves, properly folding it, etc.) -- but it just seemed to be lacking in actual deceptiveness. I realize that wasn't the point (the political message was, obviously, the focus), but I would have preferred to see a more deceptive vanish. Maybe it's just the magician in me. :)

-Jim
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Postby Guest » 12/10/04 10:11 AM

The flag routine as I saw it (in LA about two years ago) was considerably longer. In included a classic P&T quasi-exposure section, in which they replace the Bill of Rights with the Chinese equivalent, which is a sheet of clear plastic (i.e. no Bill of Rights), and show how the flag ends up hooked onto the back of Penn's jacket.

The flag is also taken from a large flagpole on the stage and at the end of the routine makes a surprise appearance back on the flagpole. This caught me completely: there's no cover or anything -- the flag is suddenly back on the flagpole.
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Postby Jim Maloney_dup1 » 12/10/04 10:23 AM

Pete -- that routine sounds much better. Hopefully I'll get a chance to see them perform it live. (Anyone know if they'll be touring the east coast anytime soon?)

Flag going back to the flagpole -- gotta love misdirection!

BTW, that was one of the nice little touches in their routine. When they removed the flag from the flagpole, it wasn't tied on like it normally is, but rather was clipped on somehow. This made the removal process much faster and eliminated what would definitely be some dead time. It's a small detail, but it's one of those things that's shows the difference between Penn and Teller and your average Joe Magician.

-Jim
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Postby Richard Kaufman » 12/10/04 11:02 AM

Penn & Teller do not tour anymore: they perform full time at the Rio in Las Vegas.
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Postby Jim Maloney_dup1 » 12/10/04 11:59 AM

So...uh...anyone care to contribute to the "Jim's Trip to Las Vegas" charity?

:)

-Jim
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Postby Guest » 12/10/04 12:13 PM

Don't suppose anyone can tell me the episode number for this can they?

Thanks
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Postby Jerry Harrell » 12/10/04 12:47 PM

It was Episode # 608, "In The Room"
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Postby Guest » 12/10/04 03:21 PM

Originally posted by Jerry Harrell:
It was Episode # 608, "In The Room"
Thanks
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Postby Guest » 12/12/04 10:25 PM

I've got to see this.
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Postby Guest » 12/12/04 10:47 PM

The way it was presented to me it was a very lame effect. The tube (Bill of Rights) was held in such a manner as to allow the flag to be stolen from the back. Very lame indeed.
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Postby Guest » 12/13/04 01:04 PM

Let's not confuse method with effect-affect, please. P & T know the difference. So do television writers, producers, and directors.
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Postby Jerry Harrell » 12/15/04 08:50 AM

There is an interesting commentary about Penn & Teller from a layman's point of view in the West Wing review of this episode on the Television Without Pity site. (Caution: There is rough language here and Penn & Teller fans will not be pleased.)

http://www.televisionwithoutpity.com/st ... story=7245
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Postby Larry Horowitz » 12/15/04 01:25 PM

And the review proves the point of the whole Penn & Teller effect. Our Bill of Rights is a GREAT thing!
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Postby Dustin Stinett » 12/15/04 01:59 PM

Has anyone noticed that today (December 15, 2004) is the 213th anniversary of the ratification of that glorious document?
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Postby Guest » 12/15/04 08:01 PM

I have never read a dumber review of any performance than the one in the link given above. We are already aware that there are people in this world whose social politics and other personal problems do not allow them to enjoy performance magic. So the author does not like men with slick hair and ponytails -- how enlightening <not>.
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Postby Guest » 12/16/04 12:13 AM

Michael,
I don't think I recall his saying he didn't like magic (though after ten pages I got tired of reading a recap of the show I'd just watched).

He said he doesn't like Penn and Teller. I know lots folks who don't like Penn and Teller.

I personally happen to love magic but there are dozens of magicians I've seen over the years who make me cringe just by walking out...

I think it was the best thing I've ever seen P&T do and one of the better West Wing episodes since the creator was given the ax.
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Postby Guest » 12/16/04 09:37 AM

Bill,
The tone of the article suggests to me that the reviewer is "one of those people whose social politics and other personal problems do not allow them to enjoy performance magic." I am inferring this from the tone; the author did not necessarily say he or she does not like magic. By stating only his pre-determined opinions about Penn and Teller, the reviewer disqualifies any of his comment on their role in the show from serious consideration (imho).
Michael
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Postby Guest » 12/16/04 10:28 AM

Originally posted by reviewer:
my soul is just full of loathing for them. I hate Penn's greasy-looking hair and his stupid f**king ponytail and his nasty chin pubes. I hate Teller's "look at me, I'm a whimsical mime" attitude. But most of all, I just think that Penn always comes across as a giant bully.

* okay, so far we have judging a book by its cover*
He seems to believe that everyone he deals with is a huge idiot, and he's not afraid to demonstrate that belief. And while I have little patience for people who believe in crazy things like alien abductions and astrology, and it's easy to make fun of them, mocking them doesn't necessarily make you a good person. Especially when you seem (as Penn does) to take such delight in being mean to them. (And yes, I know, I also take delight in being mean to people. But at least the people I mock have put themselves on television and invited criticism.)

Now we get admissions of mind-reading, projection and envy of their decision to express a political opinion

But really, isn't the ponytail enough?

Perhaps this guy admires those things (zits, face pubes and pony tail ) and just doesn't have the guts to wear them himself... so he rails against those who do?
The review seemed longer than the appearance, and the mention of "blathering" about freedom and symbolism is a bit scary. No wonder "Anne" won't call him anymore. ;)
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Postby Guest » 12/16/04 03:59 PM

Michael,

He gave very good reasons why he dislikes their performing personas. Just because we disagree with his assessment doesn't mean he's defective in some way.

I think it would do to recall that he was writing a summary of West Wing, not of Penn and Teller's act. He didn't think having them on the show was a good thing because he dislikes them. He was very up front about his prejudices and why he felt that way. I would feel the same way if they had had Kamar The Discount Magician (from Late Night with David Letterman!) on the show. But that doesn't mean I hate magic
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Postby Guest » 12/16/04 04:44 PM

Bill,

Glad you liked the review. I thought it stank.
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Postby Pete Biro » 12/16/04 06:41 PM

This guy must get paid by the word. I kinda agree with him about Penn... I still don't forgive him for the CRUDE, BLASPHEMOUS act at the WMS Roast.
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Postby Guest » 12/16/04 06:42 PM

This is a multi-page reveiw/blog by a guy who has so little of a real life that he has the many hours needed to record, synopsize and comment on The West Wing.

After about 45 seconds of skimming his rant, I saw he had little of interest to say and so I clicked away.

The First Amendment guarantees his right to say what he says...but fortunately, there's no guarantee anyone has to read it.
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Postby Guest » 12/17/04 01:56 PM

Television without Pity is an ad-supported site that has a bunch of staff reviewers who recap shows. Very cliqueish, very snarky. Think the geekiest Science Fiction club, writ large.

Bio of the reviewer (presumably, an autobiography):

LTG is, shockingly enough, a lawyer. He spends most of his time practicing pension and benefits law in D.C. The rest of his time he spends watching way too much television, hanging out with his housemates, travelling to visit his family in Rhode Island, or contemplating his next trip to Paris, where he has an awesome catsitting gig.
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