‘Penn & Teller Get Killed’: The Darkest Celebrity Vanity Project in Movie History
Warning: This article contains descriptions of self-harm.
The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night, the Crocodile Hunter in The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course, Jerry Springer in Ringmaster — it used to be the case that there was no greater signifier of pop-culture relevance than a non-actor being given a feature film in which to play a lightly fictionalized version of themselves. And while these don’t always work out too well, in 1989, we got a celebrity vanity project in this vein that took the trend to an impressively grim place: Penn & Teller Get Killed.
Back in the 1980s, long before their Las Vegas residency and family-friendly CW show, Penn & Teller were famous for being the “Bad Boys of Magic” and were mostly known for their popular off-Broadway show and disruptive performances on hip late-night shows — like the time the “new wave magicians” released a horde of 500 cockroaches on David Letterman’s desk, or pretended to slice themselves up with razor blades.
Just a few years later, the duo was given the chance to star in and script their very own major motion picture: Penn & Teller Get Killed. Adding to the film’s pedigree, they hired Arthur Penn, the guy behind legit classics like Bonnie and Clyde and Night Moves, to direct. Quentin Tarantino would later justify his own retirement plans by remarking that the fact that “Arthur Penn’s last movie is Penn & Teller Get Killed is a metaphor for how crummy most of the New Hollywood directors’ last, last films were.”
But the film gave the aging Penn a chance to work with two culturally relevant young stars while dabbling in the type of straight-up dark comedy he had never actually made before. As Penn mentioned at the time, he sought to capture the “duality” of Penn & Teller’s act, which he saw as both “personally confrontational” and “extraordinarily sweet.”
Penn & Teller Get Killed opens with the guys recreating one of their most famous Saturday Night Live routines: a killer gravity-defying levitation act that, unbeknownst to the TV-viewing audience at home, is accomplished purely by suspending the magicians upside down.
During the interview portion of the fake show Weekend Live, Penn casually remarks, “I wish someone were trying to kill me,” since it would add “focus to your life.” It isn’t long before Penn is being stalked by a homicidal fan — is it for real, or another one of Teller’s practical jokes?
Penn & Teller Get Killed is perhaps best remembered for its ending, in which (spoilers for a movie that pre-dates Back to the Future Part II) it turns out that Penn was the one who hired a guy to pretend to be an obsessed fan — unfortunately, Teller finds this out after accidentally shooting Penn with the real gun he bought at a pawn shop for protection. When he realizes his mistake, Teller takes his own life, quickly followed by Penn’s girlfriend, who throws herself out the window.
This grisly scene inspires an increasingly surreal domino effect in which everyone who stumbles upon the dead tricksters are inspired to end it all. The camera pulls back as gunshots continue to ring out, all to the mellifluous sounds of the Bee Gees’ “I Started a Joke.”
In a lot of ways, this bold twist made total sense in the context of a Penn & Teller story, considering that their tricks frequently ended with brutal acts of mock violence. At the time, Penn Jillette told the New York Times, “We took that edgy, scammy, ripoff quality that we play with constantly, and we tried to figure out how to fool with it in a movie.” But for a mainstream comedy released by a major movie studio, it was practically unheard of — for context, Warner Bros. other comedies that year included far lighter fare such as Police Academy 6: City Under Siege and Turner & Hooch, which definitely didn’t end with Turner and Hooch gunning each other down.
Any possibility that the film would be a financial success was seemingly doomed by this ending. Four months before Penn & Teller Get Killed was released, the New Yorker reported that “the word from Hollywood is that studio executives were shocked by its ending and that the audience at its first test showing was distinctly unenchanted,” adding that “Penn and Teller love the way the movie came out. The prospect that it may not be the mainstream triumph their supporters had looked forward to does not seem to horrify them.”
More recently, Jillette claimed that “Warner Bros. hated it and they pretty much buried the film,” a trend that seemingly continues to this day. While it was released on home video, it’s only available through a specialty DVD release, with no Blu-ray and few streaming options. Which is too bad. At least the VHS tape had a pull quote from Lou Reed.
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