You know those late nights when you’re muddling about, aimless on the internet, and you finally find yourself on YouTube and you’re just clicking from one silly video to another, wasting time until you’re finally ready to call it quits and head to bed?
That was me the other night, traversing from old movie trailers, to silly dog tricks, to “real” found footage of Bigfoot, to an episode of Penn & Teller: Bullshit! And then I remembered the Las Vegas entertainer’s movie from 1989, Penn & Teller Get Killed. I remembered thinking it was funny, back in the day.
So, at about one o’clock on a weekday morning, knowing I had to be up early for work, I decided to watch the two illusionists get killed again. Would it still stand up? Would the two stars still die?
Big questions for the midnight hour. Me and my insomnia just had to know!
For those that haven’t seen it, the premise for Penn & Teller Get Killed is pretty straightforward. Shock entertainers and illusionists, Penn Jillette (the big, tall guy) and Teller (the short, silent guy) are making the rounds, marketing their act on a David Letterman sort-of late night talk show. Amidst jokes and bloody magic tricks, Penn blurts out that he wishes someone were trying to kill him. It’s this bold but half-hearted statement that sets the stage for the entire film.
Ever the practical jokers, Teller plays tricks on his partner making Penn believe that someone is actually out to fulfill his amusing wish. At the same time, Penn sets up scenarios for his partner Teller that makes him think that there’s a crazed killer on the loose that is truly attempting to kill Penn.
Of course, there are a number of innocent (and no-so innocent) individuals caught up in the schemes including Penn’s girlfriend Carlotta, airport staff, family members, police officers, hired actors and friends of the various protagonists.
The first half of the film is exceptionally funny if you’re into Penn and teller’s brand of magic-humour. The airport scene, part one of which can be seen in the video below, is, perhaps one of my favourites. I’m a big fan of practical joke humour but it’s a fine line where you don’t want to see anyone with upset feelings – or having the police involved. Penn and Teller always seem to avoid the former, even while encouraging each other to walk ever closer to the line without crossing over. But when you’re messing about in an airport, the cops are sure to eventually get involved! It’s this heightened sense of nervousness that makes the airport scene so funny.
Much of the Penn and Teller act and their outside show business interests are on display in Penn & Teller Get Killed. They give up secrets to magic tricks (an aspect of their brand of entertainment, I remember, that the magic community really abhorred) as well as exhibit their own personal beliefs of scepticism in terms of magic, God and voodoo hocus-pocus such as psychic surgery. This type of disbelief and requirement of explanation would form the basis for their long-running documentary show, Penn & Teller: Bullshit! which aired on The Movie Network from 2003-2010.
Written by both Penn and Teller, and directed by Arthur Penn (who also helmed well known films Bonnie and Clyde, Little Big Man, Night Moves and The Missouri Breaks), the first half of Penn & Teller Get Killed still holds up as a funny romp with two over-the-top leads that would be the life of any party. The snickers in this very 80’s movie continue in the second half, but they’re not as strong, nor are they as long, once the threat of “actually being killed” ramps up.
The ending is still humorous, though not as riotously funny as when I first watched the film in 1989. Part of that is chalked up to originally seeing the flick with friends who shared the same sense of humour as me. As an “I’ve got nothing to do right now”, Penn & Teller Get Killed is still a nice way to pass off ninety minutes.
That said, I might suggest watching Penn Jillette’s co-directed documentary, 2005’s The Aristocrats. That movie, about the craft of relaying a joke, features a re-telling of one of comedy’s longest-lasting and most funny jokes, by a plethora of comedians and actors including George Carlin, Phyllis Diller, Gilbert Gottfried, Eric Idle, Richard Lewis, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Kevin Pollak, Don Rickles and Chris Rock among many, many others.