“You are so motivated to make sure the trip goes smoothly, because you know that the organs of these two kids are now going to save the lives of more than just a handful of other kids.”
Penn & Teller
Business jets are their magic carpet ride.
They make an unlikely pair. Penn Jillette is the 6-foot, 6-inch-tall, boisterous frontman; the former voice of Comedy Central; the fearless talk-show guest who passionately defends his brand of libertarianism, atheism and anti-convention against all inveighers. And then there is the man known only as Teller, the short, mischievous foil who rarely speaks onstage and could pass for a high school poetry teacher. He did, in fact, teach Latin for six years at a New Jersey high school before teaming up with Penn full-time. The two have been delighting audiences together since 1975.
By the 1980s, they’d performed live in theaters, on television and in movies and had achieved international renown for their quirky blend of comedy and illusions. Since then, they have expanded into books, magazine columns, plays, radio and podcasts. For a time Penn even had a game show. He plays the bass in his own “No God Band” at concerts and before the pair’s performances.
Penn and Teller, who received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame earlier this year, read extensively and write constantly. Teller is working on a version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest that he promises will have “lots of magic.” He has written and directed other theater offerings as well, including a cult film spoof called Play Dead. Penn says he writes for several hours every day. “I’m always writing books before they ask me to write them. I have books and scripts—a lot of it will never get done.” But plenty have, including titles such as How to Cheat Your Friends at Poker and Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends.
For the last 20 years, the pair have called Las Vegas home, and for the last 12 of those years, they have held court Wednesdays through Sundays at the 1,450-seat Penn & Teller Theater in the Rio hotel and casino. They rush to the exit doors after each performance to greet departing patrons, shake their hands and exchange a few words. Their show is based on illusions, but the gesture is genuine. They don’t act like celebrities.
When was your first flight in a private airplane?
Teller: It was on a Learjet.
Penn: We were playing Off Broadway [at the same time that] we had already promised this cat in L.A. [we’d] do his movie [My Chauffeur, directed by David Beaird]. We had to get to L.A. and shoot all day and then get back [to New York] for our show. There was certainly no way a commercial flight could [let us] do that. We were onstage at 11 p.m. in New York and then we were on set at 6 a.m. the next day in L.A.
Do you recall a favorite private jet flight?
Teller: Someone sent the Warner [Brothers] jet to New York to transport us to play [movie director] Steven Spielberg’s bachelor party.
Penn: It was the same sort of thing. We were playing in New York and we had to fly there [to L.A.] and back fast. It was a big jet with only five people on it.
Teller: You could recline, take a nap. The best part, of course, is no security lines.
When did you first know that you were going to be a magician?
Penn: I didn’t want to be a magician when I was young because I thought magicians were liars. So I was a juggler. And then over the years Teller turned me into something of a magician. But I was a juggler and a talker. That is what I have always been. Teller is the one who taught me you could lie in the service of truth.
There were a lot of people in the 1970s using magic to lie about the universe, particularly with regard to mind-reading and that kind of stuff. That offended me very deeply and still does. I kind of painted all magicians with that brush. Teller taught me that you could be completely honest and still be a magician by just saying you were doing tricks. That is all you have to do.
Do you remember your first magic trick?
Teller: I had a Howdy Doody magic set. The first trick I recall from that was a little box and when you looked into it you saw three miniature Mars [candy] bars and then you would shake it up and there would be six miniature Mars bars.
Who were your professional role models?
Penn: James Randi [a Canadian-American stage magician and scientific skeptic best known for his challenges to paranormal claims and pseudoscience].
Teller: Randi certainly has had a huge influence on us. He pointed the way to using entertainment to open people up to new ways of thinking. Magic is tremendously well adapted to that.
Does good entertainment need to be educational and vice versa?
Teller: When I was a teacher I did rewrite the four levels of Latin readers to make sure the stories the kids were reading were worth their time. Junior high school and high school students tend to glaze over when they’re reading about the Gallic Wars. The actual content is what entertains you.
What quality of Teller’s do you admire most?
Penn: Hard work and responsibility. I know you are supposed to say all the creative stuff. He’s on time, doesn’t drink or do drugs. He’s not Keith Moon [the hard-partying drummer from the band the Who, who died of a drug overdose at age 32].
Who does most of the writing for your show?
Penn: It’s hard to say, but it is really the two of us. When we work on other projects there are other writers who join us but we function as the head writers on the TV stuff.
How often do you change the live show here in Las Vegas?
Penn: Whenever we want. That is a really important answer. There is no other act that does that. There is a bit we are putting in now that we have been working on for three years. Sometimes we put a bit in after a couple of months.
So many [performers] in Vegas…don’t rehearse, don’t practice, don’t warm up. They come in, do the show, get the check and they’re done. Kind of when they are out of show business, they come here to cash in.
To me, the ability to have an unlimited budget, to think up things to do onstage and have people come in and see it, I can’t think of anything more [rewarding]. I worked really, really hard to get this. I’m not going to sit back and coast. I could. We could have not changed the show the whole time we have been in Vegas and it would make no financial difference to us. But we’ve done five and a half new hours of material in Vegas alone. There are spurts when all of a sudden another 25 minutes (of new material) will go into the show and we will shuffle around other things.
People think we put in new stuff because we are sick of the old stuff. That is not the case. The fact is once you change one thing, it’s a bit of a house of cards. You have to decide who has what pocket loaded and who is onstage and how much talking there has been and how much visual stuff there has been. You have to shuffle it all around and it makes it a whole different puzzle.
Teller: Every Tuesday we work on new material for the live show and rehearse it.
How do you test a bit?
Penn: There is no testing involved [for content]. We decide if we like it. We always test a bit for safety [such as when they appear to fire bullets at each other and catch them between their teeth]. No one has ever been hurt at a Penn and Teller show, and I’m really proud of that. We do stuff that is so scary and so impossible and so safe. That is a pretty wacky combination.
We have a real advantage over other performers in that we hang out after the show and meet people. We don’t talk to them very much, but people get a sentence or two in. And what that has taught me is that the quiet audiences that other entertainers might hate—because the only information they get is from the applause and laughter—are sometimes one-on-one the most appreciative audiences.
Have you ever done a bit that really bombed?
Teller: It doesn’t get repeated very much.
Penn: With me it does. I’ve repeated bombing a zillion times. Sometimes there is stuff I want to say and the fact that people don’t like it sometimes doesn’t deter me as fast as people wish.
What is your favorite illusion?
Penn: The thing we do that is the most talked about is the “bullet catch,” but the thing I am most proud of is this thing I call “cowboy” that has many direct antecedents. [Teller appears to be sliced into many pieces in several containers.]
Teller: The best TV trick we ever did was our upside-down bit from Saturday Night Live. That used the medium more thoroughly than any piece of magic ever did. [Penn and Teller ostensibly did their entire act while hanging upside down. For the television audience, it appeared that they were defying gravity. Only when the act ended were viewers let in on the gag: the camera picture had been inverted.]
Your show is rated “family friendly,” which is pretty unusual for Vegas. Was that a conscious decision?
Penn: Johnny Carson, Redd Foxx and Lenny Bruce did perfectly clean television shows and absolutely filthy live shows. We have done the opposite. We do a show with nudity, obscenity and political content on TV. A lot of the other shows I go on have heavy political and religious content. Our Vegas show is fully G-rated. I don’t know why that is.
I think maybe it is to do with the fact you can’t do magic on TV. For magic, you need to have the rules established of physics and time. Those rules you learned from infancy have to continue into the theater for you to feel it. The most amazing trick I could do for you right now is to be in another place instantly. Yet on TV that happens every 35 seconds. So you can’t do magic on TV. When we are live we do a magic show. When we are on TV, doing a magic show would be stupid. If you want to make it a little more symmetrical, it would be offensive. You’re insulting people. You say, “I promise I will not use camera tricks” and then you are. As a very famous magician’s television producer once said, “We don’t use camera tricks, we use a lot of editing tricks.”
After you do a show, do you debrief it?
Penn: No. And we don’t talk to each other.
You are sober, non-conforming, atheists. Does that background help in putting your act together?
Penn: Sure. I don’t think we would be able to function [otherwise]. There is so much to disagree on, so you might as well agree on all the basics.
NAME: Penn Jillette, Raymond Teller (though Teller is known only by his last name)
Ages: 58 (Penn), 65 (Teller)
PROFESSION: Magicians, actors, entertainers, authors
TRANSPORTATION: Jets chartered from Southern California-based charter broker Jet Link
PERSONAL: Both live in Las Vegas. Penn is married and has a son and daughter.