I am a big fan of Penn & Teller’s and have been since the early eighties when I first saw them perform on one of the late-night chat fests, most likely the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, although it could have been the Late Show with David Letterman. Then again, it might not have been either. But the stunt they pulled during that appearance was indelibly imprinted in my memory and remains one of my favorite illusions. So when I actually got to meet Penn as Spider-Man, the moment was… er… magical.
To be honest, I can’t say I immediately took to the pair of subversive prestidigitators. Who was this obnoxious, lumbering giant? Doesn’t he know there’s no talking in magic? Why is he picking on his diminutive accomplice? For that matter, what’s with the Marcel Marceau routine of the little guy?
Despite all the questions swirling about my noggin and the team’s seeming “wrongness,” there was something hypnotic about the act. I wanted, nay needed, to know what was going to happen next. I had never been so captivated by a simple card trick in my life. And that’s all it started out as, a basic “pick a card, any card,” slight of hand betwixt the sarcastic Penn and brow-beaten Teller, with the former doing the selecting. The application of a hood over Teller’s head may have made the trick slightly more interesting, but it certainly wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen before.
But then Penn produced a very long, very dangerous-looking knife, which he carefully placed in his wee hooded partner’s hand. Teller fumbled with the bare bodkin like Helen Keller to Penn’s Anne Sullivan at the water pump. The scene was silly and evolved to farcical, when the Teller began swinging the blade about a ducking Penn, who was attempting to spread the deck of cards in which was hidden the previously chosen card on a small table.
At each of Teller’s downward stabs, Penn would barely get his hands out of the way, each time scolding his armed assistant before continuing his mixing of the deck. The tension mounted, even though the two weren’t fooling anyone with their antics. No one believed for a second that Teller was going to “accidentally” stab Penn.
Then Teller did just that.
The knife came down, plunging through Penn’s hand. The big galoot screamed and lifted his wounded appendage to the audience. There, impaled on the knife blade which had seemingly penetrated several inches through Penn’s generously bleeding palm was the card he had selected only moments before.
I screamed; I laughed; I OMG-ed. I tried to explain the amazing feat to others long thereafter. But it was like trying to adequately convey a sunset. The trick was so much more than its climax. It was about the unsuave Penn, whose brash, caustic persona was anathema to the recognized ideal of the debonair, often tuxedo-clad magicians up to that point in history. Then there was Penn’s mute assistant. Teller was far removed from the leggy, sexy female assistants which were de riguer of prestidigitation. And rarely, if ever, had illusionists spoken to their helpers, never mind vocally lambaste and humiliate them. By the time Teller was stabbing willy-nilly at the cards, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one thinking, Yeah, stab the obnoxious jerk. That’ll shut him up, which contributed to the shock of the trick’s finale.
Sure, Doug Henning introduced a variant style of magic in the ’70s, but in the end it was the same old, same old, only by way of sunshine, lollipops and rainbows. Magic tricks, after all, are about the theatrics, not the result. Whether rabbit, glittery assistant, tiger, elephant or ocean liner, something is going to appear or disappear in the end; the audience volunteer is going to get their watch or $20 bill magically restored and returned. And the card randomly chosen from a typical deck of 52 cards will be inexplicably revealed. What Penn & Teller had done—and continue to do—was take a tired magical standard and turn it on its ear.
Since then I’ve seen Penn & Teller perform live on and off-Broadway several times. Their shows feature hilarious debunkings of archtypical magical tricks mixing equal parts silliness, shock and the bizarre. But one trick in particular, presented in their 1994 Broadway show, irked me. It was another spin on the aforementioned card trick, only this time the audience volunteer did not choose a card from a deck, but rather a superhero action figure from a briefcase filled with such.
Guess who was missing?
Even from my seat in the mezzanine, I could see that Spider-Man was absent from the selection of figures in the case. And there had to be several dozen—60 at least—lining the inside cover and main compartment. All were different. They had to be. It wouldn’t be much of a trick if there were only a handful of characters from which to select. Oh, there was Superman, Batman, those upstart Ninja Turtles, He-Man, Power Rangers of various colors…
(We interrupt this story to take a moment to consider how sad the raconteur must be to have been so anguished over the make-up of action figures in a case that was open for a fraction of a minute during a two-hour lavish Broadway show; not to mention the fact that said Uncle Remus can’t recall much else from the show, yet can pinpoint actual toys in the short span of time they were featured during one trick. Can you say, GEEK?! We now return to our regularly scheduled posting, already in progress...)
As fate would have it, I wasn’t the only one who noticed the affront to Marveldom. No more than two days later, I was called into Director of Personal Appearances Alyson’s office.
“Do you know who Penn & Teller are,” she innocently asked.
“Know them? I was at their show just the other night. You know, they do this trick with superhero action figures and they didn’t even have a Spider-Man. I couldn’t believe it!”
“Funny you should mention that,” Alyson said with a laugh.
Apparently, someone else at Marvel, someone of such a level as to make things happen, saw the Penn & Teller show as well. It might very well have been company President Terry Stewart. Unlike traditional head honchos, who keep themselves far removed from the underpinnings of the companies for which they work, Stewart was a fan of comics—pop culture in general, to be precise—and followed the characters religiously both in the books and beyond. I would not have been surprised if he, too, noticed the absence of a Spider-Man figure in that briefcase during a performance. And he could do something about it.
As President, Stewart could contact the magical misfits or at least their agent and convey a message. But that type of reaction from a big corporation—Revlon owned Marvel at this juncture—is exactly the sort of thing that would rile the duo, who have since made a career of antiestablishmentariantism well beyond the magical realm through their hit Showtime series Bullshit!
The solution was to let Spider-Man himself confront Penn & Teller about his hurt feelings over their snubbing. Fortunately, there was no need to create a situation that would allow the Web-Slinger to gain access to the pair. As is his custom after shows, Penn situates himself by the theater exit where he interacts with the fans as they depart. For Teller to also do so would entail his breaking out of his mute persona, something he never does in public. But for the garrulous Penn, it was only natural.
My mission—which I chose to accept—was simply: Approach Penn as Spidey after a performance and get him to man-up about the personal affront to the Webbed Wonder. And as a token that there were no hard feelings, Spidey would gift Penn a bag of various Marvel action figures that he could then integrate into the illusion.
Getting hold of the toys was simple. Since Toy Biz—Marvel action-figure licensee—was also owned by the same parent company, Revlon, the latest offerings from the toy maker could be found in the comics storeroom at Marvel. It was the comic geek equivalent of the fabled Vogue “closet” wherein the magazine stores all the designer fashions—shoes and hand bags included—used in their monthly photo spreads. Anne Hathaway’s Andy Sachs updates her look in The Devil Wears Prada at the hands of Stanley Tucci’s Nigel in the film’s homage to the mythical designer depository. Ugly Betty features its own closet inspired by the infamous Vogue vault, as well.
The night of the operation, a car service picked me up at my apartment in Forest Hills at 9:00 PM. The 2-hour performance started at 8:00 PM, leaving the driver an hour to make the 20-minute drive to get to the theater before the show’s completion. I had the goody bag and the backpack holding my suit in hand. I’d have to don the red-and-blue in the car outside the theater. There was no alternative.
Traveling as Spider-Man was not an option. First, I had no idea how long I would be in the suit. Even if everything were to proceed accordingly, it would take two-and-a-half hours minimum before I returned home. I don’t want to think about the potential media backlash were the vehicle to get pulled over or into an accident with Spider-Man as passenger.
Also, the car’s windows were not tinted—Marvel wasn’t about to pony up for a limo—so I would be exposed en route and as I awaited the show’s conclusion, which most likely would engender reaction, perhaps even a crowd—this is New York, after all—around the vehicle; not the most desirable of scenarios for a stealth mission. Pulling off the top half of the costume enough so as not to be recognizable as the Web-Slinger would then leave a half naked man loitering in a black luxury sedan in the heart of New York City’s theater district at its busiest time. Yeah, that would go unnoticed!
No, I would have to transform as soon as I saw the doors open and the first few patrons exiting.
En route it dawned on me that the driver would be completely ignorant of what his passenger intended on doing in the backseat of the car. His brief would simply list the pick-up point, destination and return. I felt it prudent to advise him of the situation, even though he had probably been witness to greater oddities in his rearview mirror over the years. He seemed tickled at the idea that he was commandeering the vehicle in which the idol of millions would be transforming. I’d like to think he was also appreciative of being enlightened of the evening’s job after years are of being kept in the dark and simply told what to do.
The trip to the theater was thankfully quick and uneventful—traffic only happens when one is in a hurry—and the driver pulled over approximately thirty yards from the main entrance, far enough away so as not to be discovered, yet close enough for me to see the doors.
The wait was interminable; I don’t know how law enforcement deals with the inactivity during stake-outs. Finally, the doors opened and the first few audience members started to depart. I’d say I sprang into action, but there isn’t much room for springing in the back of an automobile, even a luxury sedan. Still, I did the best I could, the years of experience I logged over the years changing in smaller vehicles, maintenance closets, Port-O-Sans and the like, coming in handy.
In mere moments I was in Web-Shooting mode. Even with the throngs of departing patrons clogging the front of the playhouse, it was easy to spot the gargantuan form of Penn. Standing well over six feet, the talkative trickster looked like Richard Dreyfus swarmed by the undersize aliens in the final moments of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A quick check with my chauffeur to verify that my face was straight and I was off.
I beelined toward my quarry, dodging tourists and throwing a quick wave in the direction of the several “Hey, Spider-Man”s I heard in the brief time it took me to reach Penn. The prattling prestidigitator’s fans parted like the Red Sea before Moses at my approach.
“Spider-Man!” Penn’s response was less surprise and more like he’d read the script beforehand, though he couldn’t have. I think that because his persona invites all sorts of whack-a-doos to confront him—especially in New York—he’s used to the unusual encounter.
“I got to say, I love your work,” I began. “But I’m disappointed. I was hanging from the ceiling enjoying the show the other night, when I noticed you didn’t have an action figure of yours truly in the briefcase for that one trick you perform. How could you? Me… Everyone’s favorite neighborhood Web-Swinger, scourge of evil-doers the world over… publicly snubbed by Penn & Teller. Tell me you haven’t been taken in by those disparaging editorials by J. Jonah Jameson in the Daily Bugle excoriating me as a menace to society.”
During my playful diatribe Jillette hung his head in mock contrition and chanted a litany of mea culpas until I’d finished.
“I wanted to include a figure of you, but I couldn’t find any,” he offered with genuine concern.
“Part of the curse of being an internationally beloved superhero… constant sell-outs of everything from action figures to Underoos. Well, I’m here to alleviate that and show you that there are no hard feelings…”
I presented the gift and the humbled Houdini took the small white paper bag like a trick-or-treater having just scored their latest confection, peering into the sack with greedy wonder. I was dying to know myself. I’m sure there was a Spidey inside, but the bag held 3–4 different figures, and the colorful curled ribbon tied to the handles and matching tissue paper enveloping the toys within prevented my getting even a modest peek.
“Oooo… thanks, Spidey,” he cooed like a young’un. “I’ll get this into the show tomorrow night.”
And with that, I pulled my own illusion and disappeared.