Originally created 04/23/04

Presto! Penn & Teller celebrate 30 years



NEW YORK -- It's been 30 years, but Penn & Teller have no intention of pulling a disappearing act.

The duo is performing their boisterous, occasionally macabre magic act six days a week at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, and are planning a video version of the show. Penn has a novel coming out this spring. Teller, the small, silent partner, recently wrote a memoir about his parents.

Also, the second season of their trickster-exposing TV program is on Showtime, with a title that's an expletive for "nonsense!"

"I think you're supposed to mellow out as you get older. Elvis Costello is doing jazz, and you don't see Axl Rose running around all crazy like he used to," said Penn Jilette, the taller, louder part of the group, who is 49. "But I think we've gotten a little bit harder and more skeptical as we've gotten more successful."

"We've never planned and strategized, and it's just worked so far," said Teller, 56, who is as articulate in interviews as he is mute onstage. "We just thought we'd do things that were interesting to us, and see if the public was interested in it. It is inexplicable to me, but there are enough people that do have the same interests so that we have an audience."

The two began working together after a mutual friend introduced them. Teller was teaching Latin and Penn had just graduated from clown college.

"He was a bum," Teller quipped. "He was living in a shoe box and doing street performances."

Penn, Teller, and the mutual friend started their first act, called the "Asparagus Valley Cultural Society." Part variety show and part magic act, it didn't last long.

"In order to remain in show businesses you have to want obsessively to be in show business," Teller said. The friend "was a much more civilized person than Penn or I, and didn't want to continue."

Meanwhile, Teller was honing his silent skills, an idea which came to him after he watched magic shows. "Magicians say inane things all the time, like, 'Here I am holding a red ball,"' Teller said with disdain. "I thought, 'What if I just took the speaking away.' You'd have to watch what I was doing, and I couldn't distract with my speaking and it would be a bigger challenge."

Penn, on the other hand, realized that his strength was in talking, and the combination of their approaches worked. Plus, the two shared a common skepticism, which helped create their schtick of revealing the way they perform some tricks. The idea for their snazzy, three-piece suits is borrowed from a magician in the 1940s who took to wearing street clothes instead of the pointy hats and capes of most magicians.

"We were doing this kind of magic that said, 'Look, we know it's all a scam, it's a swindle, and we're skeptics ourselves,"' Penn said. "That was really different from what magic usually aligns itself with - the hippy dippy stuff."

In 1987 they began the first of two Broadway runs, and they had several national tours during the 1990s. Then came appearances on late night talk shows, several TV specials, a movie and their show in Vegas.

Poof! There goes three decades.

Penn said the plan was to have at least 250 people watch the show. Instead, about 2,500 started showing up per night. "We are much more successful than we intended to be," Penn said. "So we thought TV was a good logical step."

Their aptly named show, now in its second season, tries to expose the lies behind real-life "hoaxes" such as TV psychics. It's total skepticism, part journalism and part social rant. But, it's definitely not magic, though both argue that it makes sense they are doing it.

"Magicians are obsessed with the difference between truth and lies, fact and fiction," Penn said. "We may lie to you on stage, but we don't do it in real life, and it sort of makes sense for us to expose and uncover lies in real life."

It seems like Teller's silent act wouldn't translate to television, but for some reason it works, and he's glad to have the chance to try silent ways of getting the point across.

"It's been an interesting process," Teller said. "The show is very verbal in its context, finding out how to work on the nonverbal end forces us to think of images that convey the concept."

This season, which began April 1, deals with topics such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, love and germs. Penn says they have a definite opinion before they interview people.

"I believe there's no such thing as objective journalism," he said. "We are looking for subjects that we think are full of ..."

http://www.pennandteller.com



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