This interview was originally published in Creative Loafing.
“We have been doing magic together for twenty-five years, and are so sick of it we could spit. So, in the new show, we are moving into the field of religion and will be performing real miracles.”
Penn & Teller arrive in Greenville on January 18 for an evening at the Peace Center that promises, if not miracles, at least some brushes with death.
“There’s plenty of death,” Teller told me in a recent telephone interview. “Good, funny death.”
Teller is the shorter, usually silent half of the team. Penn, on the other hand, is tall and (as Teller puts it) “brilliantly articulate.” Together, they’ve been mystifying audiences for more than two decades. After catapulting to fame in the mid-eighties with fabled appearances on “Late Night With David Letterman” and their Obie award winning (“For Whatever It Is They Do”) Off-Broadway show, the pair have dabbled in books, television specials, their own movie (Penn & Teller Get Killed) and even an appearance in Walt Disney’s Fantasia 2000. But recently they’ve been focusing most of their attention on their live show.
“The last four or five years we’ve just become so excited and thrilled about live stuff that we’ve been percolating with ideas,” says Teller in just the kind of sonorous voice you’d expect from a former high school Latin teacher. “One of the really great things about doing a live show is that you get a chance to get really good at something. You get to do something thousands of times like the old vaudevillians did.”
And like a good variety act, there’ll be both old and new items in the show. “We believe in making, as Aristotle said, a nice admixture of the familiar and the strange,” explains Teller. So along with his brilliant rose and shadow trick (a piece that Teller first conceived at age 16 and has actually copyrighted), we’ll also get to see some brand new bits. For a piece called The Honor System, the audience gets to choose whether they’ll keep their eyes open or closed for one minute and fifteen seconds of the show.
“If they keep their eyes open,” Teller says, “they learn how the trick was done. If they keep their eyes closed, they get to take home the mystery.”
Their show is full of choices, full of audience interaction. “Among other things, we’re giving you a choice between whether you would prefer to watch me do innocuous hand shadows to the tune of Shel Silverstein’s unicorn song, or whether you’d like to watch Penn being hanged by the neck until dead.” Additionally, the audience is invited to actually get up on stage before the show opens to examine a couple of Penn & Teller’s props.
“At that point,” says Teller, “it’s okay for people to take pictures with their cameras and they can stand in our props and make cell phone calls to their friends.” It’s all part of Penn & Teller’s unique ability to perform magic tricks while at the same time making fun of magicians.
The Honor System is a good example of this. “We first got the idea probably twenty years ago and couldn’t figure out what trick to do it with,” Teller told me. “And then maybe a year ago it came to us that the ideal thing would be an escape. Traditionally, in an escape…people examine some props, then you bind the escape artist up in the props, then you put a screen in front of it and the band plays for ten minutes and then the escape artist emerges all dripping and breathless like David Blaine [one of our most pretentious contemporary magicians] and then you put the screen away and there’s all the stuff still intact. So what occurred to us was that maybe instead of putting up the screen we could just give people the option of closing their eyes.”
Thematically, this ties right in with one of their first signature pieces, the old cup and balls trick — done with clear, plastic cups. Penn & Teller like to strip away a lot of the pretensions of magic while still retaining the mystery. Even when you can see the balls being manipulated under the clear cups, the accompanying hand movements are so complex that it remains impossible to really follow the trick. In short, you still don’t know how they did it. As Teller says, “it’s related to the idea that knowing how a trick is done is more complicated than the Masked Magician [star of Fox network’s “secrets revealed” specials] would have us believe.”
They do all of this with a lot of humor, so expect laughs to accompany your gasps. For example, the show opens with the pair dressed in giant inflatable suits. Teller describes them as being “like the mascots wear at ballgames, a gigantic 12 foot tall Penn and a 10 foot tall Teller and then we do a card trick with an audience member while in the tall suits.”
Penn & Teller are not your average, everyday magicians.