This is gonna be a cheat. Some will not get why I’m calling this a joke. I will endeavor to explain. First I want to get this out of the way. So that we’re all on the same page, you need to see what I’m talking about. This is a visual joke, done by none other than the great Mr. Teller of Penn and Teller fame.
Now let’s get the obvious out of the way right at the beginning. This is a magic trick performed by an illusionist. There are no words involved in this performance, because Teller rarely if ever speaks during a performance. On rare occasions he speaks in movies and television appearances but mostly only for dramatic or comic effect, and I do not recall him ever speaking during an actual magic trick. This is not because he can’t. It is because he doesn’t have to speak. He captivates your attention simply by not speaking. This pulls you into what he’s doing rather than what he’s saying, and is a cornerstone of what makes not only Teller work as a solo performer, but the team of Penn and Teller work as a combo. Penn purposefully talks too much, and Teller purposefully doesn’t talk at all. You can see a similar dramatic tool used by Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes as Jay and Silent Bob. Bob can speak, but letting Jay do all the talking works great for both of them.
Teller’s Fishbowl performance is choreographed. I’m not talking about how he does the trick. I don’t care about the mechanics of the trick. I care about the mechanics of what he’s conveying to the audience. He has this written out, so to speak, in his head. He knows exactly what he must accomplish to make this gag work, and in what order, and what affect he wants to illicit from the audience.
What is the premise? Penn selects a seemingly random guest from the audience to hold the fishbowl for Teller. Again, she may be random or a part of the gag. I don’t care. The audience assumes she’s one of them, that’s a part of the premise. Teller hands her the fishbowl and asks her to sit down. To his right is a large water tank with nothing in it but water, and to his left is a woman holding an empty fishbowl. What is this picture missing? It’s a fishbowl. There’s water on the stage. We’re missing fish. Teller has presented us with facts and set up an expectation in our minds. That’s the premise.
Now, perhaps the audience doesn’t know what to expect next or perhaps they do. At any rate, rather than fill the empty fishbowl with a fish using water from the tank, he takes a little water from the tank using his hands, and then puts gold coins in the fish tank. First one. Then a couple. Then several, all coming from various places from himself, from the water tank, from the lady holding the fish tank, from mid air. And he purposefully is wearing short sleeves so there can be literally nothing up his sleeve as he performs this gag.
Now the gold coins are perhaps a punchline, and they certainly do make a punch, or rather a clang, with each one used. To a certain point Teller is even using them almost like music, taking a page perhaps from John Cage and similar avant garde musical artists. Teller is using his silence and the noise of the coins to make a powerful statement. What that statement actually is, he leaves to the interpretation of each viewer. Teller is not interested in telling us what to think, but there are certain points along the way where he’s wanting us to think something. What that something is is largely up to us.
Now here’s the kicker. The coins illicit laughter. And applause of course, but he’s shocking and surprising his audience by setting up their expectations and then giving them something different. First he produces clanging coins instead of fish, and then he produces coins from all over the place, each time getting laughter from people. This is a brilliant gag. It’s a great trick. It’s a lot of things. For my purposes, it’s also one of my favorite jokes, cuz even though Teller is not a stand up comedian, and even though this is a magic trick and not a joke, it’s still one of my favorite jokes. It has a premise and punchlines, and it builds with twists along the way, culminating of course in a conclusion, fulfilling what was silently promised at the beginning of the gag: gold fish. A bunch of them, in fact. Very elegant structure, from a joke telling perspective. For a man who doesn’t speak, Teller tells a joke very well.
Another similar ‘trick’ or ‘story’ that Teller tells very well is one of his most famous and renowned routines: the Shadow Flower.
I wish I could find a full video of this at YouTube that doesn’t have someone talking over it. I saw it many years ago, but can’t currently find a copy. Essentially in this gag, Teller has a flower backlit onto a flat white wall which produces a shadow of the still life flower in the foreground. Teller takes a large knife, carefully examines both the shadow and the flower in the vase, and carefully begins miming the action of cutting leaves and then petals from the shadow of the flower in the vase, at which point, very delicately, the flower in the vase itself responds to the actions Teller commits to the shadow, as if a strange form of voodoo is being performed on plantlife.
Again, I’m not interested in how the trick is done. This is one of the few tricks that I don’t think Penn and Teller have actively explained in detail publicly, but i have seen others replicate this trick so it’s not a well kept secret. There are points during his performance where Teller purposefully passes between the shadow and the vase to visually confirm that there is nothing connecting the two, like when a magician waves a wand or a hand under something he’s levitating. This is also part of conveying a message to the audience, anticipating the audience expectations and questions they may be asking themselves as they watch, but this is about how it’s done that he’s addressing and not the ‘story’ itself.
I don’t care how it’s done that’s not the point of today’s exercise. What interests me is how this is like a well written joke. You have the premise, and expectations that the audience brings with them, and then there’s the surprise of using the knife on the shadow instead of the actual item in the foreground, and the pay off or ‘punchline’ is when a leaf or petal from the flower falls to the ground along with its shadow.
And again this often solicits laughter and even applause, thus fulfilling the ideal expectations of a well written and performed joke. Now how Teller ends this is a little surreal twist that is also a strange punchline of sorts, but it even brings to sharp focus perhaps the message he’s trying to convey, again allowing the audience to try to formulate it themselves, and no doubt each member of the audience comes away with a slightly different meaning but this is how it comes across to me.
Teller takes the large knife he’s been using and puts his free hand to its sharp edge at which point he feigns accidentally cutting his hand with the knife. He reacts to this convincingly by wincing in pain and even putting his thumb to his lips as if to perhaps suck on the cut as some are instinctively want to do. Then he reaches up to the bare wall where the now stem of a cut flower stands in a vase, and he smears red blood slowly down the flat surface right next to the shadow of the dead flower. It’s as if in payment for taking beauty away from the flower, he gives a little of himself to the image projected, like painting, and in this instant it’s revealed that what he’s been doing all along is in essence painting, but with light and shadow instead of conventional paint on canvas. The light itself is like a canvas and the shadows surrounding the light make up a frame. Then his blood red smear brings it all into sharp relief. It’s essentially a form of dada art. A painting that only lasts so long as the light shines on the deflowered vase. And almost as soon as this reality hits the mind, the trick is gone and the light fades. The artwork now nothing but a memory inside your head, or with the help of modern technology, a video on YouTube.
Once again, premise, expectations, twists, punchline. It engenders laughter and applause. Perhaps not a joke in the conventional sense, but fills the criteria that I know regarding what a joke should be. I’m not one to be all that conventional anyway, and neither is Teller. Teller’s Fishbowl and Shadow Flower are two of my fave jokes. I can’t think of a better compliment to give such a master showman and crafty storyteller.
..oh, and Penn’s okay too. =)