Penn & Teller play two nights at Harrah's Resort. Atlantic City Weekly chatted with the often silent Teller, who has a lot to say offstage about how to keep a partnership going for three decades.
For 35 years, Penn & Teller, self-described as “a couple of eccentric guys who have learned how to do a few cool things,” have lived up to that description. To call them magician/illusionists just scratches the surface. These guys (Penn Jillette and Teller; yes, that’s what’s on the latter’s driver’s license) have created their own category in the field that includes mime (Teller doesn’t talk onstage), an impulse to explain how some of their tricks are pulled off and copious amounts of both fake blood and laughter. The team will be in Atlantic City at Harrah’s Resort Friday and Saturday (Nov. 5 & 6).
Penn & Teller’s illusions range from traditional sleight of hand to classic illusions like Teller in a tank of water making like Harry Houdini. The pair has been plugged into Las Vegas the last few years with a regular gig at the Rio. On television, their Showtime series Penn & Teller: Bullshit! has played for eight seasons. The show, which has received 11 Emmy nominations, tackles the frauds and fakes behind such topics as talking to the dead, alien abductions and feng shui.
Luckily for us, Teller does talk offstage. He recently chatted with Atlantic City Weekly.
You played Atlantic City many times and you made your 1989 film Penn & Teller Get Killed here. Do you have any favorite spots to hit when you arrive?
The White House [Sub Shop]. That’s a regular stop. As a child Atlantic City was where I went to visit my grandparents. They had a house on Ventnor Avenue. I have a great fondness for Atlantic City and the Boardwalk.
It’s amazing that you and Penn have been together as a team 35 years. That’s highly unusual for a duo — I’m thinking specifically of Martin & Lewis. How have you managed to do it?
We’re both sober. That helps. Neither of us drinks or does drugs. We were both brought up by really solid, old-school parents who taught us you earn what you get. And most important, we did not have a speedy ride to success. Martin and Lewis were only together for eight years and they rocketed to the top quickly. We did not. We worked in total obscurity for about 10 years. We were playing everything from streets to Renaissance festivals to our most successful thing, which was a run in a 141-seat theater in San Francisco. We had a chance to have all of the fights that people have before we had the pressure of being in the public eye.
How did you meet?
We had a mutual friend, Wier Chrisemer, still the funniest person I’ve ever met and a brilliant classical musician. He knew both of us individually, and one night he brought us up on stage together. I can’t say that we exactly hit it off, but the three of us began to talk about doing a show that didn’t abide by any of the current rules about what show business should be. The show would have classic music, the variety arts and all the cool stuff that we thought we would like to see onstage. We put together a show and struggled for a few years in the Philadelphia area. Then we were a hit with the critics. Once people saw that these old-fashioned skills like juggling, magic and physical amazement could be part of the theater once again, other people began to see that as a possibility.
Will the show you’re bringing to Atlantic City be pretty much the same show you are doing in Las Vegas?
It’s a variety of things. Aristotle used to say that a good show is a mixture of the familiar and the strange. It’s really a time travel, our greatest hits and our newest stuff.
Will you be doing the double magic bullet trick?
That’s not possible in Atlantic City — gun laws vary from state to state and we have to respect that because we are not using fake weapons. We can only do that in Vegas, which is still something of a Wild West town. We have to work within the law.
What are some of your favorite bits to do? I love your needle-swallowing trick.
You ask a chef, “What’s your favorite dish?” and it seems silly. You try to make every dish you cook perfectly delicious and that’s the way I feel about our bits. There are no favorites. I will be doing the needle bit and the shadow/rose. But we will be bringing one of our newer bits. We have a member of the audience follow a sleight-of-hand trick with a video camera. That person is focused on the video image. The audience gets to see that image, but the audience also gets to see what is really happening outside of the frame, which is crazy and unexpected.
Most magicians are usually tight-lipped about how they do their tricks, but you like to give away some of your tricks. Why?
Because that’s the way we like to be treated. There is a tendency among magicians to be condescending. We like to acknowledge with a few bits that everyone went through a magic phase — read about Houdini or got a magic set at Christmas. Most audiences know a lot more about magic than most magicians are willing to acknowledge.
You are silent on stage. Have you ever been injured and had to make a sound?
There have been times where sudden injuries have caused me to emit expletives, but usually not so the audience can hear it.
I noticed that you have a Twitter account. Do you like to tweet?
I do. It’s fun to try and tweet stuff that is worthwhile. Among my tweets you’ll rarely find, “I just took a shower.” If somebody tweets something it ought to be cool, it should make you think or make you laugh.
What’s happening with Penn & Teller: Bullshit! on Showtime?
We are in the process of making a decision to continue with Showtime or move on to a new show on Discovery.
Would the new show also be about debunking myths?
It’s hard to get away from that theme if you are Penn & Teller.
Penn & Teller
Where: Harrah’s Resort Concert Venue
When: Friday & Saturday Nov. 5-6, 9pm
How Much: $45, $65 and $75
Penn Jillette may have been fired during the 11th episode of the current season of NBC’s 'Celebrity Apprentice,' but that didn’t stop the magician from pulling off what might be his most impressive trick during his 40-year career.
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