The names Penn and Teller evoke instant images of logic-bending magic and zany comedy, but at the start of their career the pair thought they might need a more attention-getting title for the act. (More on that later.) The good news, for fans, is that they're back on Broadway for a limited six-week run at the Marquis Theatre through Aug. 16.
Penn Jillette met Teller -- the little guy with one name who doesn't speak during performances -- in the 1970s. They came to prominence in 1985 with a hit Off-Broadway show that featured their smart, in-your-face take on illusions. (Unlike standard magicians, they dare you to figure out what they're doing -- they even explain some tricks before performing them.) That show earned them an Obie Award, and led to two subsequent Broadway productions, world tours, TV specials and a popular Las Vegas act. They also star in two TV series: The CW's "Penn & Teller: Fool Us" and SyFy's "Wizard Wars."
Jillette, who has appeared on "Dancing With the Stars" and "All-Star Celebrity Apprentice," wrote and stars in the horror film "Director's Cut," due out next year, and hosts "Penn's Sunday School" podcasts. Teller has codirected an acclaimed, magic-infused version of Shakespeare's "The Tempest," which originally appeared in Las Vegas and opens in Chicago later this summer. They recently sat down and spoke -- yes, even Teller -- with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio.
Jillette: We've been together 40 years, playing in Vegas 14 years. But we haven't been on Broadway in over 20 years. We wanted to come back. We're doing some old favorite bits. And bits we rarely bring out because they're too big, too cumbersome.
Like vanishing an elephant?
Jillette: It might be a cow dressed as an elephant.
Teller: Shhh. [He smiles.]
Are some audiences more . . . gullible?
Jillette: We don't trade in that word. Lots of people in show business today play down to their audience, or underestimate the intelligence of the American public. Not us.
Teller: There's so much cheesy flash out there . . . and magicians who believe people are completely ignorant of trickery. Which is insane.
Jillette: Every TV ad you see, every business encounter you have, you think about trickery. But many magicians pretend this doesn't exist. David Blaine is gonna pretend that . . . he has real magic powers. No one thinks that but him.
Teller: Also, there's a whole movement in the magic community that says, "Ohhh, magic should never be taught on the Internet," because then everybody will know. But you can find out just about anything on the Internet. It doesn't take away from the delight of seeing it live.
So if a magic trick you love comes up on the Internet, that doesn't bug you a little?
Jillette: We've had stuff we love come up on the Internet. It just has no impact on the real art at all.
Teller: There's one trick in our show in which Penn walks out and says, "This next trick is done with a piece of thread." Then I proceed to do it. Knowing that piece of information makes the trick better. It's a whole different game watching.
I guess that's part of the joy of it?
Teller: It is. [He leans forward.] When you watch a trick, you're thinking, "This has to be within the world I know." It's the joy when what you see collides with what you know.
What inspires new tricks?
Jillette: Something will grab us. Teller was saying how hard it is to pull a rabbit out of a hat -- that we've never actually seen that trick. So we thought we should try. It may be the first time it's been done on Broadway.
Teller: You've seen the image of a rabbit coming out of a hat . . .
In cartoons. Where did it come from?
Teller: The 19th century, when people routinely wore opera hats -- big enough for rabbits -- and when they didn't care how animals were handled, if you yanked it out by its ears. Even then it was never done cleanly.
Jillette: There's this argument in art -- whether you're trying to please the audience or yourself, and the answer is you have to please both. It's not either or -- it's "and."
Teller: If you're just trying to please yourself and you don't connect with your audience, you're ripping them off.
Jillette: And if you just want to please them, and not yourself, you're a hack. So somewhere between rip-off and hack, there's the artist. [He chuckles.] That was the original name we were going to use: Rip-off & Hack.
Those were going to be your stage names?
Jillette: "I'm Rip-Off -- this is my partner, Hack. Good night, everybody!"
Teller: And we've just given you the lead for your story.