You know what I'd like? You know what would be great? I wish someone were trying to kill me. ...I mean, wouldn't it be great? It'd give focus to your life. All that excitement. All that James Bond secret agent stuff going on.... It'd be great.... I wish someone were trying to kill me.
(followed by Teller pretending to cut his throat with a switchblade)
That's Penn's (Jillette) typically hyperbolic statement given on a David Letterman look-alike show to set into motion a movie of practical jokes and pranks gone wrong.
It's not so surprising coming from the loud, brash member of the duothis is the guy who on an episode of Politically Incorrect said he would have traded places with Monica Lewinsky because it'd be a great story to tell people (you know: the President of the United States).
This 1989 film was Penn & Teller's first, and perhaps unsurprisingly only (to date), movie starring the two as themselves. It's a simple concept and as the title suggestsno, tells youthey follow through on their promises. Penn & Teller die.
This shouldn't kill any suspense for anyone familiar with the two. People who have seen the act know that violence is commonplace and Teller often gets cut, shot, maimed, or "killed." In the movie they do it for "real." It's like when they show you how a trick is done. You know the outcome, but the construction of the illusion, the acting, the misdirectionthat's where the fascination lies. And the black sense of humor. They like "no bullshit" franknessthey refer to themselves as "rip-off artists." But all with a smirk and a smile.
So do Penn & Teller die? Damn right they do. And proud of it. They wouldn't have it any other way.
The pranks and practical jokes start up right away. At the airport they deal with a proselytizer (affectionately referred to in the script as "Jesus Freak") by asking him if he has some time to let Teller "demonstrate his religion with a few card tricks." Then he recognizes Penn"the hair and the fingernail," a running gag throughout referring to Penn's curls over his forehead and his single red fingernail. Then "Jesus Freak" pulls a gun (fake?) out of a hollow Bible and pretends to shoot him: "Bang! Bang! Does that make your empty Godless life more worth living?" And runs off.
(Along with being rip-off artistsor "artisteswhen the mood strikes them), they are both well known skeptics and atheists.)
Even though "the I-wish-someone-were-trying-to-kill-me bit is not playing in the Midwest" as manager and Penn's girlfriend (sorta) Carlotta says, the two love it and live for it. Teller gets Penn in trouble at an airport metal detector and Penn leaves Teller handcuffed to a pay phone holding a toy gun. They toss money at each other to disrupt slot machine players at a casino, Penn getting carted off screaming quasi-Marxist sayings and shouting "Attica! Attica!"
Carlotta and Teller arrange for Penn to debunk the scam that is "psychic surgery" for her sick "uncle." Then make him think he's going to be killed and operated on by the outraged Filipino healer who has lost business. If this all sounds a little like Penn & Teller make a big budget home movie, it's not entirely off the mark.
They do some of their classic bits, have fun, create a world that is entirely driven by their sensibilities. Their good friend James "the Amazing" Randi (also a notorious skeptic and atheist) makes a cameohe's the short guy with the white beard holding one of the ropes during the "drill" trick. Favorite music gets mentioned, Dylan, "American Pie," the Velvet Underground (Penn admits to being a "sucker for classy eurotrash in glasses," referring to Nico who appeared on the band's first album). The Three Stoogeswhen the woman police officer (McNamera) is assigned to protect him, she confides (after changing into a leopard print dress) that she loves both the band and the Stooges, he thinks he's found the perfect girl. This Penn & Teller's world and they've created it just for you, but on their terms. No good magician leaves anything to chance.
Of course, Penn's big joke becomes reality when someone actually takes a shot at him (from behind a Penn & Teller billboard) and hits him in the arm. He thinks it's a Teller prank gone awry (recall that the pair's first book was titled Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends). He and Carlotta storm off, making Teller walk. But Teller sees the villainwho waves back, revealing a tuft of curls and a red fingernail like Penn. Later, while in their dressing room, more shots are fired, convincing Penn that this is for real. So they go into hiding.
Which allows them to play with film genres. Teller dresses as a ninja and shows how incompetent he is with weapons (though he does a mean garroting job on some rolled up carpet). The scene, shot in black and white, mimics a forties film noir (the script calls the motel room a "B-movie gangster hideout"), complete with chain-smoking and hard-boiled voiceover of him working on a book entitled "Memoirs of the Hunted." Of course the scene also includes diet soda, Cocoa Puffs, and lines like:
...a face like the inside of a pork sausage after you inject it with water from a hypodermic needle, All full of bourgeois loyalty.
Not exactly Raymond Chandler or Jim Thompson. Definitely Penn. Their little "movie" is ended and the scene shifted back to color and reality (as defined by the parameters of the film) with the intrusion of Officer McNamera, who is assigned to protect them (and begins by attacking the "ninja"). To better protect them, they are moved back to her place.
It is suggested Teller leave the two alone so he goes to see a Stooges film festival on his own. While coming out of the theater, he spies the would be assassin (the script refers to him as "Fan"). He loses him but stops in a pawnshop and purchases a gun. Always pay attention when a gun is introduced.
Next we hear that the man has been caught. He is an obsessed fan. McNamera takes them to his apartment ("Penn & Teller Land"). It's full of memorabilia and tapes of them performing. He has even created a techno-industrial music video of the two doing their act (including clips from the hard to find "Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends" video release) intercut with shots of the Fan imitating them. Penn remarks, "that's pretty good, is there any way we can not press charges and hire this guy?" Of course, it's not yet overthinking that it is, Teller tosses the gun in the waste basket.
Shortly after, the Fan does a run-by stabbing of Penn. He's rushed to the hospital where he yells (something he does a lot) at Teller to find the guy. After Teller takes off, we find out that the stabbing is a fake. Things become a little more clear.
Teller arrives at the apartment where he finds the Fan imitating their upside-down trick with a cardboard cutout of him in front of a video camera and a television (the trick involves securing the two to an overhanging bar while the camera makes it appear they are right-side upthey perform it at the beginning of the movie). He speaksif you ever want to hear Teller speak, it's here, though he has spoken in their cameo on the Simpsons and is reportedly quite friendly and talkative to fans after their Vegas shows. The guy knocks him down and hangs him up so they can perform together.
McNamera shows up and is apparently partners with the Fan. They duct tape Teller, saying they hated the couple's "putrid disregard for life and death" and not only wanted to scare them but anyone else who might think "death is a joke." She tells the Fan to go to the hospital and kill Penn. This will all show "how serious death can be." Meanwhile, Teller has managed to stretch far enough to retrieve his gun from the waste basket.
Penn shows up, in party hat, to celebrate the big joke. Teller shoots him in the chest. Then McNamera reveals that she is really Carlotta. She first thinks it's part of the joke. She thinks it's a fake gun. At first, Teller thinks it was switched. He is amazed at the complications they went to creating the joke. "This is great," "this is the best." Then they realize it's for real. Teller says, "no hard feelings" and shoots himself. But it's not over.
Carlotta stares as reality intrudes. A baby cries, a dog barks. She spins around (sort Stooge-like) and ballet leaps out the window. The Fan shows up with a friend, bringing snacks to the party, relating the plan and how great it was"they'll do anything for a joke." They even told him he might be in a movie with them. When he realizes what's happenedand that the prank required everything to look like he was a psycho and decides he can't face a prison sentencehe puts a bag over his head and shoots himself. His friend states that "my life in politics is over. I never even met these people. I hate Penn & Teller. Not content to just destroy themselves." He loads the gun and shoots himself. But it's not over.
Two cops show. The typical "buddy cop movie" types: the old guy near retirement and the young guy. They get to the apartment. (The camera begins to pull back from the outside of the window, eventually traveling over the city.) The kid can't take the scene ("I can't stand violence" and laments how so much violence is "senseless"). He shoots himself. The older guy: "I guess there was no way I could have stopped him from taking the easy way out. I can't lose another partner. Not the same way." He kills himself, too.
The camera continues to pull back as the song "I Started a Joke" begins playing
I started a joke which started the whole world crying,
But I didn't see that the joke was on me, oh, no.
Sporadic shooting continues and Penn speaks:
We're dead and there's no way out. It couldn't be a gag, it couldn't be a joke. We're not going to have one of the characters wake up from a bad dream. You'd hate us for that. I mean, the movie is called Penn & Teller Get killed, we had to get killed at the end, there's no way out of that. We were married to that ending from the moment we though of the title.
Now we've actually killed ourselves and there's no taking that back. And this whole pullbackthis is not us going up to heaven, we're just dead. I mean, those are suicidesfrowned upon by every major Western religion. And Atlantic City is in the Western world, so Penn & Teller are dead. [laughs] That's it, thanks, hope you enjoyed it. You can imagine the sequel thing is kind of a bitch.
[Teller speaks] Why didn't we just use different names? Damn.
Till I finally died which started the whole world living,
Oh, if I'd only seen that the joke was on me.
And that is it. The practical joke is played out. The audience got pranked, too. And that's what magic is: the audience is a willing participant in its own deception. Penn & Teller force the audience to acknowledge that. And not only does the audience want it, it can't do anything about it. You came to see a show and be fooled and that's what happenedwhether (then or later) you like it or not.
Maybe it's not laugh out loud funny. Maybe no one can adequately explain why Arthur Penn chose to direct this. But it's undeniably their movie. Dark humor, misdirection, and lies. Magic. And God bless 'emor James Randi, who seems to sport a vague resemblance to Him.
(Sources: personal copy of the video tape; the scriptwhich with quite a few differencesappears in their 1989 book Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends quotations were transcribed from the tape; some references checked with the IMDB; the song is by the Bee Gees, normally reason to not recommend a title....)