Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Standing in Line

We took a break over Easter weekend and went to Las Vegas to visit my sister and brother-in-law, who live there. Among the amusing things we did was to take in the Penn & Teller show - which I highly recommend, by the way. It's a great magic show, and you could take a 9 year old to it, if you don't mind all the questions afterward about how they did the tricks.

But aside from the show, I saw something interesting. We got to the theater about 40 minutes early, having been tipped that our wait in the theater would be lightened by the jazz pianist and his bass player. (The add said something about a "trio" but the most I ever saw was two, and I think one of them may have been Penn. It was certainly Penn playing the bass fiddle briefly, later in the show.) As we took our seats, I realized that the stage was full of people, standing in line. The pianist had just finished saying something but I missed it; he began to play again; and after awhile the line dwindled. However, after another set, the pianist stopped playing and, in the most seductive male voice you could imagine, invited the audience to "come up on the stage and participate in Penn & Teller's envelope signing."


Yes, envelope signing. They had an ordinary manila envelope tacked to an easel, and to while away the wait for the show, they were inviting the audience to come up onto the stage and sign their names on the envelope. The envelope would be used in the show, the pianist explained, and Penn & Teller would like everyone in the audience to come up and participate in the show by signing the envelope.

"If you are sitting next to someone who says, 'You never take me anywhere!', bring them up onto the stage for the Penn & Teller Envelope Signing."

"Bring your loved ones."

I am not making this up. And no, I didn't sign the envelope. But for the entire 40 minutes or so we waited for the show, I watched as a fairly large section of the audience - I'm guessing maybe a third - walked up to the stage, stood more or less patiently in line, and signed their names on a 9x12 manila envelope. From what I could see, enough people signed it that it was about full by the time they took it back stage. People were signing it sideways. And every time the line began to shorten, the piano player took another short break, and issued another soothing, mellifluous invitation to come up on stage and Participate in the Penn & Teller Envelope Signing.

And the moral of the story is the amazing things that people will do, if it seems harmless, they have nothing else to do at the moment, and someone asks them to in a soothing, encouraging voice.

Welcome to Las Vegas. Come up on stage and sign the envelope.


  1. I guess I thought the point of the story was that Penn and Teller would somehow deduce secret bits of information about the signers, and that this would astound and amuse everyone. That's a usual trick that card and "psychic" entertainers do.

    But, no, the point (?) was that people will do stupid things--?

    I have a horror of being on stage for any reason. Even being on a stage in an empty auditorium makes me queasy, squeamish. I don't think I would have signed the envelope, either. (I think I would have suspected they would play some kind of trick on me, singling me out like Groucho for gleeful sardonic amusement.)

    Groucho: So, you're married.
    Man: Yes.
    Groucho: Any children?
    Man: Yes, nine children.
    Groucho: My heavens! Why so many?
    Man: I guess I just like children.
    Grouch: Well, my friend, I like to smoke a cigar, but I take it out of my mouth once in a while....

  2. Groucho, thou shouldst be living at this hour... except that the FCC wouldn't let him on the air.

    As a lifelong singer, of course, being on stage doesn't bother me - I even sang in an octet once, and I've soloed on various occasions. I just chose not to go up on this stage for this reason.

    Yes, the point was the odd - not necessarily stupid - things people will sometimes do, especially if a lot of other people are also doing it. Nobody was hurt doing this. Nobody was made to appear foolish. Some of the audience people they called up to the stage had some odd things happen, but not the envelope signers. Interestingly, the envelope played an extremely minor role in the trick, which was an "ESP" trick. I was happy to hear Penn inform the audience loudly and firmly that ESP, mind reading, and communicating with the dead are scams, and that people who claim they can do these things are lying, either to you, to themselves, or both.

    Penn & Teller actually, at one point, demonstrate in detail exactly how several standard sleight-of-hand tricks are done; and then Teller turns around and does them again, and you still can't see him do it!

  3. Ever read the James Merrill/David Jackson account(s) of the ouidja board sessions? They apparently swear by them. The Changing Light At Sandover is built around (imagined?) communications with the dead (including Auden etc.).

    You could look on that as creative hocus-pocus, which is how I do.