The magical Penn & Teller duo is made up of a tall man who talks a lot and a smaller man who is quiet. It therefore seems normal that when I ring the latter in Las Vegas, I am greeted by silence. I wonder if he just stays in character until I realize I’ve been given the wrong number. When I finally talk to Teller (he uses a name, like Cher), I have less time than expected. Luckily, when I call his more talkative partner, Penn Jillette, he talks longer than expected and with plenty of swearing.
Since the 1970s, the Penn & Teller act has ridiculed showbiz showbiz flamboyance while simultaneously being confusing in and of itself. They are outspoken atheists and libertarians (both HL Mencken Fellows at the Cato Institute) and their TV shows have debunked charlatans (Bullshit!) and championed a new generation of magicians (Fool Us). Most recently, they collaborated with Mischief Theatre, creators of The Play that Goes Wrong, to create Magic Goes Wrong, which runs at the Bord Gáis Energy Theater from May 10-14.
Teller’s magical origin story is sweet. Stuck at home at the age of five due to heart disease, he was watching the Howdy Doody puppet TV show when he saw Clarabell “a clown who did magic and never spoke” announce a magic game. He ordered it and it made a good impression. “For the first time in my life, I felt like what seemed to be happening didn’t have to be real. You might see something, and it might be wrong and not just right.
Penn Jillette’s formative experience with magic was less inspiring. He saw mentalist Kreskin on TV “selling that ESP kit like science. I don’t come from a wealthy family. My parents were very supportive of my interest in science, so they said, “Okay, let’s buy this Kreskin kit”… Every night my parents and I would make this fucking stupid ESP kit and I took it seriously. [Later] I happened to pick up a book by [Joseph] Dunninger and I saw a trick, very similar to the trick Kreskin had done on television, which he claimed was an experiment. And my reaction, please keep in mind I was 12, was really strong. I was very humiliated in front of my parents. I couldn’t believe this man was wasting my parents’ money. . . My grades went from very good to bad. . . I was inconsolable, some would say to this day.
“Liars and Cheaters”
Young Penn Jillette hated magic when he met Teller. “The magicians were the people who came on TV and kept me from seeing The Who and Led Zeppelin,” he says. “I thought they were liars and cheats and I hated them. When [James] Both Randi and Teller said to me, ‘You can do magic and still be honest.’ I said, ‘No, you can’t. You seem like nice guys, but you’re involved in an immoral business. . . So Teller and I had this conversation that’s been going on for almost 50 years now, about being able to do magic without insulting the public, without being cheesy and actually starting a conversation with the world about how you determine the truth. . . I realize it’s laughable that a 67-year-old can still think of something that happened to him when he was 12. . . but he intellectually laid the foundations. I don’t want kids coming to my show and thinking I lied to them.
Teller, who is seven years older than Penn, was a Latin teacher before pursuing his career as a magician. Where was Jillette headed? “Probably jail,” he said. “I was a very good academic. [But] I broke my parents’ hearts and didn’t go to college. . . I left high school after a plea bargain and lived on the streets. I hitchhiked and slept on the streets. I jumped trains. Everything Bob Dylan says he did and didn’t do, I really did. . . I juggled and told jokes in the streets and in bars with a rock’n’roll band. . . And then I went to Ringling Brothers and the Barnum Bailey Greatest Show on Earth Clown College. ”
How did the duo’s quiet guy/talkative guy dynamic develop? “Teller was working in silence when I met him,” he says. “I was working in bars and on the streets very, very aggressively and very loudly. We already had these things in place.
“For criminal purposes”
“We were heavily influenced by both Houdini and The Amazing Randi,” Teller says. “These two people used their knowledge of deception to help people recognize the difference between fraud and reality. I think if you’re into magic, you’re constantly a bit embarrassed to see people using your art form for criminal purposes. . . For a time it was very fashionable to call magic “illusions”. That’s not magic. Illusions are what you see when you go to an optical illusion show or the cinema. . . Part of the fun of magic is that constant inner conflict that you feel while you’re watching, because you’re watching something, and you know it can’t happen that way, so it engages you in a weird way. almost unpleasant. . . . I think there’s a very nice friction and resentment that’s part of any great magic trick.
Jillette says, “David Blaine will tell you that the magician’s job is to constantly distort reality. . . When you come to see Penn & Teller, you shouldn’t leave the theater believing everything I know to be wrong.
Has a moral position always underpinned their work? “If you don’t have a moral position, I don’t see how you do anything,” Teller says. “How do you write Macbeth? How do you write Hamlet? And magic deals with the most basic thing we do. You can’t make any other decision in life until you first decide, ‘What’s really going on?’ [It’s] the question that magic explores. If you don’t really know what’s going on and step off the curb without looking both ways, you could get hit by a bus. In magic, if you get fooled by something, you’re like, ‘Oh, wow, that was cool.’ »
They have always been politically outspoken. “We used the Bible with derision when we were off Broadway in the 1980s,” says Jillette. “We have always been free speech absolutists. We have always been. . . understood. We started Broadway Cares for Aids in the 1980s. . . In this way, we are progressive, perhaps fiscally more conservative. We were very strongly anti-Trump. . . The number of people who have told me in my life that I take these things too seriously and that it’s okay not to worry too much about the underlying absolute truth. I tell these people, ‘Okay, here’s what we have: January 6th, holy shit. It’s on you.
Jillette has a particular opinion on why we should prefer verifiable fact to mystical belief. “If you say Trump won the election in the United States, or if you say a copper bracelet stops your arthritis, or there’s a personal God watching over you, and I say, ‘Well , I haven’t seen any proof of that, can you prove it to me? And you answer, “I don’t need to prove it… I feel it in my heart. [That’s] saying ‘Fuck you. I will not share the world with you’. . . If I tell you, ‘I believe the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second.’ And you say, ‘How did you get that?’ And I say, ‘I just feel it a little.’ . . That is, ‘fuck you’. But if I say, ‘Here are the experiments that we have done…. Here are the papers. Here’s how you can go through it so you can teach yourself. It’s just saying, ‘I love you.’ That is, ‘I want to share the world with you.’
He notes that the duo put their “finger on the scales very strongly” with their TV show Fool Us, in which they challenge new magicians to confuse them. “The producers can’t hire someone on the show who lies to the public because we’re going to rip them a fucking new asshole.” They have also tried to diversify the field away from the straight white men who have dominated it for so long. “Teller and I have always worked hard to support magicians who don’t look like us. If you look like Penn & Teller . . . you have to have the best magic trick ever to be on the show.
Penn & Teller are icons these days. They make regular appearances on television. My godson is impressed that I talk to them because Teller was in The Big Bang Theory. My wife is more interested in the fact that Jillette played “Drell” on Sabrina the Teenage Witch. He’s laughing. “Nell Scovell, the writer and showrunner was a good friend of mine. . . Her goal was for Drell to never say anything she hadn’t heard me say in private . . . So when Drell says something like ” Ah, teenage issues are so interesting,” these are actually things she’s heard me say.
Why did they decide to work with Mischief Theatre? They were “kindred spirits,” Teller says. “The Play that Goes Wrong contained a magic trick that tricked us both. . . Magic on television can never be great because there is always a screen between you and what you see. . . When something like this happens in the same room as you, there’s a kind of weird explosion that happens in your brain because you see something that you think is happening and you know at the same time that it can’t not happen.
Jillette is eloquent about their collaborators: “I played guitar with Lou Reed, I knew Richard Feynman, I was on stage with Debbie Harry, I knew Andy Warhol. and I’ve never been in a room with more talented, more hardworking, more skilled people. . . It was like watching Miles Davis play. He’s recording Kind of Blue and I’m in the room. That’s why I got into show business.
Magic Goes Wrong is at Bord Gáis Energy Theater May 10-14