Penn and Teller and Holy Cow

Stall seats for Penn and Teller’s return to the UK after a 15 year absence. I’m not going to try to do justice to the 19 impossible, beautiful things they showed us all. Nor am I going to try to explain them – I’m taking Penn’s advice and living in the happy persistence of mystery, rather than clutching at unfounded rationales. Go, if you at all can. There do seem to be a few tickets left.

Mostly, it made me think about making and running games. More than the magic, what astonished me tonight was the quality of the workmanship on show. The staging, the timing, the writing, the costumes, the performances, the precision, the invention, the experimentation. Understanding the man-hours that had gone into the evening was impossible – understanding the man-hours that had gone into each individual trick equally so. And, while Penn’s mischevious promises that the nail-guns and tank-drownings weren’t actually dangerous were persuasive, it was perfectly clear that the level of precision required to bring the show off were astonishing.

And so I left with one over-riding feeling: that everything I’ve ever made is a sack of shit. And I’m proud of the things I’ve made. Proud of the people I’ve worked with – of their talent and their diligence and flair. But nothing I’ve ever made came anywhere close to the standards of excellence I saw on stage tonight. Even Royal Opera House performances, my previous benchmark of enacted perfection, don’t quite cut it. My standards simply aren’t Penn and Teller’s standards. They wouldn’t work with me. They shouldn’t work with me. I accept a margin of error, and a rate of failure, which they wouldn’t. They’re six sigma – beyond six sigma – and I’m two-and-a-bit-of-sellotape-and-fingers-crossed sigma.

Most of us are, to be honest. Most of us accept – particularly when we’re making digital, coded, things, that there will be bugs and flaws and things we bravely trumpet as ‘working as intended’.  But seeing tonight’s show reminded me of reading the account of the way NASA code – of how you make things actually work, rather than just mostly work. It’s easy, it turns out – it’s just agonisingly slow, expensive and thorough.

Penn and Teller’s example hasn’t left me daunted, however. It’s impossible not to be inspired by their warmth and hard-earned pride. I don’t want to make things like their things, but I do want to make things as well as they do, and it makes me happy that it’ll take me the rest of my life to learn how.

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