Penn & Teller: interview

They’ve been exposing magic’s secrets for decades – but, as Time Out discovers after spending a few days with the duo, Penn

  • Penn & Teller: interview

    © Barry J Holmes

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    4pm Tuesday‘You here for the tournament?’ asks the cabbie. I’m distracted by my first glimpse of the Vegas Strip – Caesar’s Palace, the black pyramid of the Luxor, the famous fountains outside the Bellagio. ‘What tournament?’
    ‘The World Series of Poker,’ he says.
    ‘No,’ I admit sheepishly.
    ‘So you’re here for the titty bars. Let me give you some tips on the good ones…’
    ‘Actually,’ I interrupt, ‘I’m here to interview Penn & Teller.’
    ‘The magicians? It’s a good show, but you should definitely check out the titty bars, capice?’
    I get out of the taxi at the Rio Hotel and scuttle inside to the casino. After a 12-hour flight, the sensory overload of a billion flashing slot machines is overwhelming. I pause at a podium to get my bearings just as a scantily clad waitress climbs on top of it and starts grinding her way through Shania Twain’s ‘Man I Feel Like a Woman’. Awkward.

    2am WednesdayVertigo strikes in my thirty-fifth-floor room, so I head down to the casino to watch obese old ladies shove dollar bills and cards into the one-armed bandits. Whatever happened to coins? I come across the entrance to the Penn & Teller Theater, part of the hotel complex, where since 2001 the duo have been playing six nights a week, 48 weeks a year. There is something fitting about them making a home in a city built on illusion, where smoke and mirrors are routinely deployed to separate a sucker from his hard-earned buck.I’m looking forward to meeting them. I’ve been a fan since the early ’90s when they first brought their uniquely gory and shocking act to Britain on Channel 4’s ‘The Unpleasant World of Penn & Teller’. It changed the landscape of magic, resetting the boundaries of both taste and comedy. After that you could never go back to Paul Daniels.

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    5pm Wednesday‘Let’s not do the interview in here; for some reason it smells like a sewer today,’ Teller says. As he mimes onstage, it’s the first time I’ve heard his quiet, refined voice. We’re standing in his chaotic dressing room – books, make-up, scraps of paper and magical paraphernalia litter the place. Before we leave he points to a poster of ‘Macbeth’ on the wall. ‘I directed that last year. I made the dagger appear in Macbeth’s hand in a reflection in the mirror. A simple trick, but effective.’We head for the empty auditorium, a vast oasis of peace and quiet amid the gambling madness. ‘I’m never normally here during the day. I’m a lazy sod. I arrive at 8.30pm and everything’s just waiting for me. I put on my clothes and walk on stage – that’s my idea of pre-show prep.’

    It almost feels miraculous to hear him speak. Why is such an eloquent man the silent partner? ‘That started long before I started working with Penn. I always hated what magicians said on stage. I found the patter in some way insulting. They’d start with something like, “On this very spot 60 years ago the great Houdini…” and you’d know it was offensively full of bullshit. So I wanted to see if it would be possible to lie without speaking – magic being essentially lying. I found if you turn down all the lights and do things like swallow razor blades you could make even a whole pack of frat boys pay attention.’

    It’s clear a love of the more gruesome aspects of magic was present from the start. ‘I think violence is a nice motor for our heart. If there isn’t at least the threat of violence in art it tends to be kind of tiresome. As a kid I was a Hitchcock lover; I cared about the dark side of things. I had no interest in comedy, I still don’t. That’s more Penn’s thing.’

    Is this basic difference in personality the secret of their success? Not many acts stay together for 35 years. ‘Maybe. Penn was a juggler when I met him in ’73, a crazy kid straight out of clown college whose references were all pop culture or comedy. Whereas I was a Latin teacher – I came with a love of fiction, short stories and the history of magic. Penn introduced me to rock ’n’ roll and I introduced Penn to Bach.’

    And has this brought them closer together as friends? ‘No. We’re not friends. We spent the first six years of our career doing almost nothing but fighting, but what came out on stage was good so we stuck doing it. We still have fights from time to time, but the fights are quick. We often hate each other, but it’s the kind of hatred that’s like flint and steel – the sparks that come out make it worth the while. We’re both atheists. We’re both pro-science. We’re both objectivists. There’s enough there to keep us together.’

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    6pm WednesdayPenn Jillette is a mountain of a man. Where Teller (just ‘Teller’ – he made his forenames legally disappear) is quiet charm personified, Penn is loud, evangelical and amusingly abrasive. His dressing room is OCD spotless.‘Our relationship has always been cold and intellectual. It’s like we’re two guys owning a dry-cleaning store – as long as the customers are happy who cares if we don’t get along? He’s never late, he never makes mistakes and he does everything he says he’ll do. We don’t drink, we don’t do recreational drugs. It’s all very simple. When we talk artistically it gets very fiery and angry but we hammer that stuff out. If someone asked what I most liked about Teller, I’d say he was punctual. As I’ve got older I’ve come to appreciate that a lot.’

    But there must be a mutual respect, surely? ‘Absolutely. Teller is one of the ten best magical minds alive today. No argument about that. No one has me on that list. You go to the top 100 and I probably wouldn’t make it in there either – I’m more comfortable with comedians.'

    Apart from their success as magicians, the pair have also become poster boys for the sceptic movement, with their television series ‘Bullshit!’. ‘Phyllis Diller came to see our off-Broadway show and afterwards told me I was “an atheist preacher”, explains Penn. ‘And I feel that very strongly. I’ve no interest in people who are indifferent to important philosophical issues. We carry that into our show.’

    Luckily Teller shares this rationalist worldview: ‘It was the reason for us getting together,’ says Penn. ‘When I was 12, I saw a guy called Kreskin on TV doing scientific experiments on ESP. He sold a kit and I had my parents buy me this piece of shit. Then one day I found a magic book that explained what Kreskin was doing was just a magic trick. I was flooded with rage and embarrassment. I went out of my fucking mind. If this guy’s lying to me, maybe Einstein is! Maybe Newton was a lying sack of shit! Later, my hatred moved on to magicians. If I’d met Teller and he’d been doing anything that had involved any mystical-type thing, we wouldn’t even have had a conversation. It was only after I met The Amazing Randi that I became aware that you could do magic and tell people it’s just tricks. Even now I hate those magicians who claim to read body language, or use psychology or feats of memory in their acts – it’s just bullshit, man.’

    It’s a childhood experience that was vivid and painful enough to fuel a lifetime’s work in exposing the mechanics behind illusion. ‘The two things I want to do are: lie to you and have you know I’m telling the truth. It’s really important. Society needs experts in lying who they can trust. Scientists can be easily fooled because they’re not used to working with complicated human interactions. Test tubes don’t lie to you. That’s why scientists couldn’t work out that Uri Geller was doing tricks a first-year magic student could do; they don’t have that in their culture. That’s where we come in.’

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    7pm WednesdayAll three of us get in to a lift and head to the roof for the photoshoot. I make small talk with Teller about Shakespeare. Barry the photographer chats to Penn about rock music. Penn and Teller don’t talk to each other, nor do they for the next hour of photos. There’s no animosity, no awkwardness; their personal relationship seems one of indifference rather than deep hatred. In public they are consummate professionals, if not friends.

    8pm WednesdaySixty floors above Las Vegas the golden light begins to fail as the sun dips behind the Sierra Nevada mountains. I shake their hands and they head for their separate dressing rooms. The next time they’ll see each other will be on stage.

    11pm WednesdayA rapturous audience gives Penn & Teller an ovation. Later, the fans crowd into the foyer to meet the performers – who greet their adoring public at separate ends of the space.

    3am ThursdayBack in my hotel room I’m unable to sleep. Chatting to Penn and Teller has unsettled me. Why do they tolerate such a lack of bonhomie – is it the money? The fame? The art, or the platform it gives them? They’re dysfunctional brothers bonded by an act that has defined them both for the best part of four decades. And why does this sadden me? It’s their work I fell in love with: why should I care about their personal lives? I can’t explain it, but I do. Maybe it’s just what Las Vegas does to you. Everything about this latter-day, Disneyfied Gomorrah is designed to leave you wanting more. However much you win, there’s always a promise of even greater riches just out of reach. You’re looking at the stars while they’re picking your pockets. Classic misdirection.

    Penn & Teller play the Hammersmith Apollo, July 14-18.

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