Penn & Teller's Magic and Mystery Tour: exploring magic's roots in China, India and Egypt

We just watched Penn & Teller's Magic and Mystery Tour, their 2003 documentary on traditional magic in China, India and Egypt, and really enjoyed it. Penn and Teller resolve to track down performers who are still doing the street magic that inspired western magicians in years gone by -- the Indian Rope Trick, the Egyptian Gali Gali men with their cups and balls, and Chinese classics like the mask trick and the glass bowls trick.

Each segment is very self-contained, and full of the brash Penn humor and Harpo Marx Teller mischief that they're known for. There's a bit of general history and cultural overview in each nation, but the emphasis is always on magic and its odd history in each nation -- Mao's purge of street magicians, the hieroglyphs that (may) depict an ancient cup-and-balls routine, the colonial soldier who faked evidence of the Indian rope trick.

But where the video shines is in the intimate views of the lives of the magicians and their families in the countries that P&T visit -- a village filled with traditional magicians in China, a slum known for magicians in Calcutta, the descendant of Luxor Gali-Gali, an Egyptian magician who played the Ed Sullivan show and attained fame in Vegas.

The documentary left me with a sense of the overall oddity of devoting your life to magic, and the strange ways that magicians all over the world, and all through time, are bound together by this craft of trickery and illusion. Teller has a moment where he addresses the camera at some length on the nature of the linking rings and the cultural differences in the way that it's transformed that is one of the most interesting bits of video I've ever seen.

Oh, and the Crosby and Hope-style title animation and themesong are a hoot.


    1. You might actually want to check out their British show Fool Us:

      I live in the US but there are … ways to find that show.

      Anyway, from watching that show, it’s very, very clear how seriously they take their craft.  It’s also clear how very much they respect fellow magicians.  Even if they were able to figure out what the magicians were doing, they often were amazed at their skill, and gave much praise, and on more than one occasion happily admitted that the magician on stage did it better than they ever could.

      I guess they might be considered smarmy to some, but they are also humble.  And, you can’t deny the skill that they both have with their craft.

  1. For those interested – this is available on Netflix streaming.

    I’ve queued this for later, thanks for sharing Cory.

  2. Teller speaks in it?  Sounds very cool.  I recall really freaking people out as a young child doing the “no pulse” trick with a rubber ball in the armpit after reading a book about traditional Indian fakirs. 

  3. When I was a teenager back in 1975 my parents and I stood on the deck of the Taj Mahal and threw rupees down to the magicians below. They performed a levitation illusion under a large blanket, but my mother always told the story with no blanket and more embellishment on their levitation height. That was my first experience with a credible eyewitness relating an incredible eyewitness account.

  4. I was hoping they’d show how it was done, like they do sometimes.  Seeing how it a trick is done is usually more entertainment for me than the actual trick.

  5. I was able to catch their show at the Rio in Vegas and was one of the people pulled on stage to assist in the “magic bullet” trick. It’s a great show and I’m still wondering how that trick works.

  6. And yes, as Jim Saul has sussed, Teller speaks in the program. A *lot*. I found it almost eerie how casual the show was about it.

  7. Listening to Teller talk about magic is well worth it in itself.  It doesn’t happen often, and his depth of knowledge on the subject is simply incredible.

  8. For the folks that have seen this one, is it okay for a 13 year old boy?  I couldn’t find a rating on it on Amazon.  I love Penn and Teller, but I’m an adult, and I know sometimes they can have a bit of a racy streak (lots of cursing and boobs and such on their Bullshit show).   My little brother is 13 and REALLY into magic, especially street magic and vintage magic (huge Houdini fan), and I think that video might make a good birthday gift for him.  But I want to make sure that it’s not going to be wildly inappropriate. 

    1. It’s been a while, but I don’t remember anything racey. I do remember poverty, respect and some interesting cultural lessons.

  9. This was aired on free TV in Canada seven or eight years back (it’s co-produced by the CBC), and it’s great. And although I wasn’t a 13-year-old boy at the time, and haven’t seen it since, I’m still pretty sure it’d be fine for that age group. (Although I suppose there could be a few swears, because Canada’s way less uptight about that sorta stuff being on free TV than the US is….)

  10. We watched the Egypt episode on Netflix a week or so ago and were stuck by how unpolished it was compared to their other work. We’ve taken to calling it “Penn and Tellers’s Vacation Videos” in our house to reflect the very casual nature.
    it is, however, incredibly heartfelt. You see them elated, confused, embarrassed, depressed. Teller speaks, at length and candidly, directly to the camera. It’s very different from BullSh*t and Fool Us yet no less compelling. This is far more Penn and Teller the magic enthusiasts and historians, rather than the consummate performers you may be accustomed too.

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