Penn & Teller have been performing their unique brand of comedy and magic at the Rio Casino in Las Vegas for more than a decade. But it was in New York City, exactly 30 years ago, that the duo first made their mark in the world — which means their six-week Broadway engagement, starting July 7 at the Marquis Theatre, is a homecoming to celebrate.
In the spring of 1985, Penn & Teller debuted Off-Broadway at the Westside Theatre; the engagement unexpectedly blossomed into two-year run, garnered an Obie Award, and spawned two subsequent engagements on Broadway. “New York meant everything to us,” says Penn Jillette, the larger and more outspoken of the two. “Before that we were just party trash; we had been working together for about 10 years, doing street performing, Renaissance festivals, you know, carnival stuff. Our dreams kind of ended at Off-Broadway. We never thought that we would have a chance to be more successful than that. So getting to Broadway took us by surprise, as did Vegas.”
What makes their success all the more surprising is that Jillette confesses he never actually wanted to be a magician in the first place: He began his performing career as a street juggler and musician. “What I hated about magic was that it is based on lies,” he explains. “But then I met Teller, while I was still in high school, and he had this idea that you could tell the truth while doing magic.”
Teller — who legally dropped his first and middle names and uses only the mononym — is the silent and more diminutive partner in the Penn & Teller stage act. In real life he is an erudite speaker — not surprising, given he is a former English and Latin high school teacher. And he is most eloquent on the subject of magic.
“I had a passion for magic since the age of 5,” says Teller. “In high school I had a teacher and a mentor who was also a magician, and we spent a great deal of time talking about magic and the strange place that it occupies in theater. [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge called theater a willing suspension of disbelief, where you pretend that the stick the guy is holding up is a sword, and when he slides it under his opponent’s elbow, you pretend that it is actually going through his chest. Magic is a peculiar form of theater in which the thing that is representing a sword has to actually look like a sword, and look like it is going through his chest — and this is happening before your very eyes. So magic is a very shocking and intense kind of theater because your eyes are telling you one thing and your brain is telling you another. What you are seeing comes into intense collision with what you know; it is not exactly a comfortable feeling.”
Teller says that keeping mute when performing is “a very productive artistic rule” that they made for themselves. In one act, Jillette sings the popular children’s song “I’m a Little Teapot,” with Teller playing the role of the teapot. “Penn lifts me by my elbow and pours tea out of me onto the stage. It is a very curious presentation of a levitation and it seems like the most natural possible thing. Now, if I had to chitchat at that moment, it wouldn’t be nearly as good,” Teller explains. “We also play on this a lot. Within 30 seconds of the commencement of the show it is very clear that I have quietly spoken to an audience member but you haven’t happened to have heard me. That kind of game goes on quite frequently during the show, where you know it must have been me talking, but of course I would never own up to that!”
Penn & Teller share Libertarian values, atheism, and a skepticism of all claims about the supernatural. (Jillette has been known to write “There is no God” when signing autographs for fans, and has, upon request, even signed a Bible or two with that creed.) “Our show doesn’t deal directly with any politics at all,” says Jillette, “but the basic idea becomes political because the subtext is, If two dirtballs like us can lie to you this easily, how easy is it for someone who really has strong and sinister motives? We use the word swindle proudly,” he continues. “I love the fact that we always let people know that we are doing tricks; that makes it, to me, beautiful.”
Describing their relationship over the past four decades, Teller says: “Penn and I work together more smoothly and with less screaming fights than we used to have. We still fight all the time and with the same level of venom and self-righteous intensity, but the fights are shorter, and they are always about the art, never about politics or finances. We are both very strongly opinionated about what makes a good piece on stage, and those things often come into conflict. What is the use of having an artistic partner if your partner agrees with you?”
The process of aging — Jillette just turned 60 this year and Teller is seven years his senior — doesn’t faze them too much. “You cut your clothing according to your cloth,” notes Teller, adding, “I don’t hang upside down as much as I used to, because that can be very hazardous to someone over the age of 50.” The big change, according to Jillette, is that their act has become more edgy. “We’ve gotten weirder, stranger, and bolder as we have gotten older,” he says. “The world has decided to give us enough rope to hang ourselves, and we are using it. And at some point, maybe, the invisible hand of the free market will come in and slap us down and say, ‘Boys, you’ve gotten too weird, you had better go back to the carnival.’ But people seem to enjoying the shows, and although that shocks me to my very heart, it also fills me with joy.”
Jillette credits their Vegas hosts for having provided them with the opportunity to keep pushing the envelope in their acts. “In Vegas they’ve got bigger fish to fry — they’ve got slot machines and so on. And there is no more freedom you can get than the freedom of being ignored. We’ve just got these 1,500 seats over in the corner called the Penn & Teller Theater, and as long as we put asses in those seats, the casino does not care what we do.”
Penn & Teller’s new Broadway show will include material developed for the Vegas shows, including their latest: the Vanishing African Spotted Pygmy Elephant Act, a stunt that apparently took them six years to perfect. (It’s your guess as to whether a real elephant is involved or not.) But audiences from the Off-Broadway and original Broadway shows will also recognize some of their signature work, such as Jillette’s famous fiery monologue, in which he explains the steps of the traditional fire-swallowing act even as he dazzles us while performing that very trick at the same time.
Oh, and Penn & Teller are also going to pull a live rabbit out of a hat.
“That’s a trick that you’ve seen represented on every magician’s business card since the beginning of time, but I will warrant that no one has ever seen it before,” says Teller. “I’ve never actually seen that trick done myself, because it is much harder than you would ever believe it could possibly be.”
Teller adds that despite their past successes in New York, returning to Broadway is a challenge for him. “Show business is not a club that you are ever in — you are always paying your dues and you are only as good as your last appearance,” he explains. “So I come in with exactly the same level of trepidation I came in with 30 years ago.” For his part, Jillette declares, “I think we are coming back to Broadway with the best show that we have ever done, and I am really excited. I just can’t wait to eat a grilled cheese in a diner at 2 a.m.”