The Greatest Trick I Ever Saw

Years ago, a magical night for Penn & Teller

I imagine it was like any other Saturday night during my high school years. As if on ritual, at 11:30pm EST, I would sit myself in front of our 19-inch Zenith color TV, tune into Channel 5, and for the next hour and a half, lock into whatever was happening live from New York. 

This particular night in 1986 featured an appearance by the relatively new Penn & Teller. 

The bit opened with Penn and Teller stationed behind a desk with a few props sitting on it. As Penn was running through his setup, I could tell something was a little off, but I couldn't quite put my Pepsi A.M.- and Pop-Rocks-addled brain around it. Whatever it was, the live audience seemed to be enjoying this on a whole different level. 

Penn & Teller, SNL, 1986

The first trick was "The Rising Card," in which Teller held up a deck and let a card effortlessly fly to the top of the screen. There were no wires, no trick cards. This was all live, one shot. 

The next few tricks were similar. Various props magically floating out of frame. 

This went on for another six minutes. One live shot of Penn and Teller on a stripped-down set, pistol-whipping the laws of gravity. 

That alone was a pretty entertaining run. But it was the last five seconds of this piece that blew my adolescent mind. 

Toward the end of the bit, the camera pulled back to reveal that Penn and Teller, as well as the desk with props on it, were all hanging upside down on a rack. They also flipped the camera 180 to make everything appear right-side up. 

What I saw was five minutes and 55 seconds of some pretty good stage banter and some highly engaging visuals. 

Then a pullback reveal that not only shifted my visual perspective, but my creative one as well. 

It's a study in mental Judo. A Sixth Sense-level mind screw. 

The whole six-minute piece is a simple, elegant and gripping thing to watch. But what I love about it, why it still holds prime property in my mental landscape, is the way it used one small simple move—one new piece of information—to change everything I had thought I was watching. 

It had me glued to the screen, thoroughly entertained and wondering "How the hell are they doing that?" But that's not what makes it The Greatest Trick I Ever Saw. 

What makes it The Greatest Trick I Ever Saw is that it taught me two extremely valuable lessons about creativity: That creativity is often about a small shift of perspective. And that most great pieces of creativity are perfectly obvious, but only after someone else does it.

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Greg Hahn
Greg Hahn is chief creative officer of BBDO New York.