Penn & Teller: Masters of Illusion
by john katsilometes
For all of their communal artistry and shared experiences and success, Penn & Teller differ on the moments that made them fall for Las Vegas.
For Penn Jillette, it was a quick side trip to Vegas he made with a group of friends in the late 1980s. The plan was to tour the Grand Canyon but, you know, Vegas was right there.
“We came to Vegas just to make fun of it,” Jillette says during a chat in the Monkey Room, the backstage enclave that serves as Penn & Teller’s meet-and-greet room at the Rio. The walls are laden with stars the two have met during the course of their career, photos of them with such a wide array of celebrities as Liberace, Don Rickles, Madonna, David Letterman, and Bob Newhart. “We had on our leather jackets and our Ramones shirts. We went to see Dean Martin, in order to—not loudly or vocally—ridicule him. You know?”
But 20 minutes into the show, Jillette found he was part of a sleight-of-attitude performance.
“Dean Martin destroyed us. He just shut us up,” Jillette says, practically shouting through the retelling and comparing the consistent pace and personality to his favorite band. “It was one of the best shows I had ever seen, and I thought it was identical to the Ramones in that they just talk faster and louder and in the same key and it becomes something beautiful. Dean Martin took this relaxed and not-giving-a-crap attitude and did a whole show with no ups or downs, and it was so fascinating to me. I was just blown away.”
Teller was similarly awed by a different sort of traditional Vegas performance: the Donn Arden showgirl spectacular Jubilee! at Bally’s.
“Penn and I were visiting Vegas with a band called The Residents, and we all decided to see a Vegas show,” Teller says in a separate interview in the Monkey Room. “I remember one of the guys, who was from Louisiana and spoke in this deep, round, welcoming Southern tone, saying, ‘What I love about that show is, you plunk down your admission price and you sit back and say, “Spend it!”’ That’s true to this day: You feel that Jubilee! is a generous show. Big and generous and absolutely unpretentious, and it comes out of a real tradition.”
Twenty years after debuting on the Strip—appropriately enough at Bally’s, where Martin once starred and Jubilee! still does—Penn & Teller are themselves a Vegas institution. It is no mere coincidence that they possess the same sense of affable, aloof confidence that Martin brought to the stage, or that their show is among the city’s more generous for its thoughtful and stylish staging.
In January 1993 Penn & Teller found themselves headliners at the Celebrity Room at Bally’s. Even though the duo had developed a heartfelt appreciation for the best-known Vegas shows, they were not at all confident that their offbeat comedy and magic show would be as well-received as, say, Dino or Frank Sinatra, who sold out Celebrity Room with an act that was (to put it mildly) nothing like their own. They had evolved from street performers in Philadelphia to the darlings of off-Broadway by the mid-1980s, when such hip entertainment and pop-culture luminaries as Lorne Michaels, Paul Simon, and Andy Warhol turned up to watch them perform Penn & Teller at the 230-seat Westside Theatre.
The smart, sophisticated, and discriminate fans loved the show. So did reviewers for the The New Yorker and The New York Times, who kept writing what Teller describes as “love letters” about the show. But what about the average ticket-buyer? The duo’s onstage sensibilities were put to the test in a late-1980s run at Trump Plaza in Atlantic City, booked by the mysteriously confident Joel Fischman, who would later sign acts into Bally’s in Vegas. The performers felt their lengthy monologues and such delicate acts as “Shadows,” where Teller painstakingly snips away silhouetted roses on a white sheet as the real flowers fall to the floor, would fly over the heads of a casino crowd.
“We said, ‘Those Philistines? Really?’” Teller recalls. “We had the total supercilious, cocked eyebrow. ‘Are you serious?’” But they filled the room during these performances, sharing the bill with such coheadliners as B.B. King, The Temptations, and even hot comics of the time like Dana Carvey. They learned that being concerned about demographics, or the type of audience that would happen into a Penn & Teller audience in a place like Vegas, was not their concern.
“There are people who have put a full-time salary’s worth of thought into that process,” Jillette says. “I said to Teller, ‘It’s not our job to figure out our audiences.’”
They filled the 1,400-seat Celebrity Room on their opening night. This, without issuing a single free ticket to a VIP or invited guest, something even Sinatra hadn’t managed. “That’s how you beat Sinatra’s record—by knowing no one in Vegas, and having no high rollers who want to see you,” Teller says in his wickedly high-pitched laugh.
The sold-out Bally’s dates became regular dates at Hollywood Theatre at MGM Grand after the Celebrity Room closed, and in January 2001 they debuted at the Rio, where they are still the permanent headlining act in their own Penn & Teller Theater. Now 20 years after they first stepped onto a Vegas stage as headliners, they consistently draw 1,200 fans per show, five nights a week, one of Vegas’s best-selling and consistently inspired performances. Their recent six-year extension made them record breakers as well, as the longest running headliners at one venue.
Penn & Teller have become an institution principally by remaining unique. When they started, there was no other Vegas production quite like theirs, a blend of simple magic, forcefully opinionated oratory, and sharp comedy.
“When we started here, people came to Vegas for two nights, and they would act in a way they didn’t normally act,” Jillette says. “They’d smoke cigars, chase women around, and go see shows that they knew would suck anyway. And it seemed like after two nights they were saying, ‘You know, we might want to see something that’s actually good.’ That’s what I believed changed. Acts started coming here that were actually good and inspired—Blue Man Group and even Cirque du Soleil—and these are all acts that are not seen ironically.”
The interpersonal chemistry via their aggressively dissimilar personalities is one reason Penn & Teller have managed a consistent mystique in the face of an ever-evolving Vegas entertainment culture. The unfailingly extroverted Jillette is the one who opts for national television, visiting The Celebrity Apprentice for a second time starting in March to raise money for Opportunity Village as part of Donald Trump’s all-star cast. As a side project, Teller has developed the off-Broadway spook play Play Dead. Of course, the six-foot-seven Jillette narrates (at high volume) the duo’s stage show, while Teller, almost a foot shorter and a great deal smaller in frame, is forever muted onstage.
“I actually think it helps, my silence, because of my almost annoying level of clarity when I talk,” Teller says. “When I turn that off, it turns into a clarity of action onstage. The silent thing onstage allows for a kind of intimacy that no conversation can have. If I just shut up, we’re forced to look at each other and really confront that moment.”
He pauses and adds, “Onstage, I find absolutely nothing but exhilaration in not talking. And also, I have a guy who talks in fire as my co-conspirator. He is great, and I love listening to him. The audience loves listening to him, but I also think the audience loves the breath of being able to stop and say, ‘Now I need to figure out what’s going on.’”
There is a great curiosity about how Penn & Teller actually get along, personally. Gone are the days they shared an apartment in New York, which eases tension on the relationship because, as Jillette says, “We only see each other when we want to.” They meet weekly, on Tuesdays (unless rehearsals break the schedule), usually at a Starbucks, to swap ideas.
“We sit and we talk about all the things we’ve been reading or learning, all of the little ideas or tricks that have inspired us, and we have a conversation,” Teller says. “Out of that conversation emerges ideas—or half an idea. That half-idea will sit out there in space for a while, until the other half comes in. It very often happens that one half of the idea will come from one guy and will sit there, and six months later, the other half of the idea will come in.”
Their most groundbreaking career move came from Teller, who originally broached the idea that the duo should relocate to Vegas full-time.
“There was never a plan to play here more than a month a year,” Jillette says. “But we found that in New York it was too hard to build stuff, too hard to get rehearsal space. And it was really expensive to use as a headquarters: We owned places in the most expensive real estate market in the country, yet we’d be on the road for eight months. So Teller finally said, ‘We should live someplace cheaper and warmer. It needs to have a good airport that flies everywhere.’”
That decision, to make Vegas the in-fact home of Penn & Teller, changed their career. They have full run of the Rio theater, bringing in their own support team to rehearse new acts—three are always in some stage of development—and are constantly tweaking the production.
The cerebral, methodic duo who once titillated the New York elite have now been around long enough that they have fans spanning generations. Teller recalls the moments when parents bring their children to see them perform in Vegas.
“We’ve had this happen, someone coming to us and saying, ‘I just want to tell you that 25 years ago I saw you on off-Broadway in New York, I was six years old, and you brought me onstage… And I want to introduce you to my six-year-old kid,’” Teller says. There is a long pause, and tears well in his eyes. “That’s pretty hard to beat, as a compliment, for someone to bring their kids to see what we do. It’s pretty special.”
There is a word for it, and it’s called magic.
Photography by jeff gale; photography by larry marano/getty images (box trick)