Josh Wakefield and Penn & Teller at The Rio - September 20, 2008

Penn & Teller (Penn Fraser Jillette and Teller) are Las Vegas headliners whose act is an amalgam of illusion and comedy. Penn Jillette is a raconteur; Teller generally uses mime while performing, although his voice can occasionally be heard throughout their performance. They specialize in gory tricks, exposing quacks and frauds, performing clever pranks, and have become associated with Las Vegas, atheism, scientific skepticism, and libertarianism.

Careers

Penn and Teller were introduced to one another by Weir Chrisimer. From the late 1970s through 1981, the three made up an act called "Asparagus Valley Cultural Society" which played in San Francisco at the Phoenix Theater. This act was sillier and less "edgy" than today's Penn & Teller act. Chrisimer helped to develop some bits that continued on to be performed by Penn & Teller; most notably Teller's "Shadow-Flower" trick.

By 1985, Penn & Teller were receiving rave reviews for their Off Broadway show and Emmy award-winning PBS special, Penn & Teller Go Public.  In 1987, they began the first of two successful Broadway runs. Through the late 1980s and early 1990s, the duo made numerous television appearances on Late Night with David Letterman and Saturday Night Live, as well as The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, The Today Show, and many others.

Penn & Teller had national tours throughout the 1990s, gaining critical praise. They have also made television guest appearances on Babylon 5 (as the comedy team Rebo and Zooty), The Drew Carey Show, Hollywood Squares, Muppets Tonight, The Bernie Mac Show, Fear Factor, The West Wing, Home Improvement, Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, and The Simpsons. They also appeared as Three-card Monte scam artists in the music video for "It's Tricky" by Run-DMC in 1987.

Their Showtime Network television show Bullshit! takes a skeptical look at psychics, religion, the pseudoscientific, conspiracy theories, and the paranormal. It has also featured critical segments on gun control, astrology, Feng Shui, environmental issues, PETA, weight loss, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the war on drugs.

While their social and political views are libertarian, the pair also describe themselves as teetotalers. Their book, Penn & Teller's How to Play in Traffic, explains that they eschew absolutely all alcohol and drugs, including caffeine, though they do appear to smoke cigarettes in some videos. Penn has said that he has never even tasted alcohol, and that his tolerance is so low that his doctor only had to administer a minute amount of anesthetic relative to what one would expect necessary for a man of his size to undergo surgery.

The pair have written several books about magic, including Penn & Teller's Cruel Tricks For Dear Friends, Penn & Teller's How to Play with Your Food, and Penn & Teller's How to Play in Traffic. Since 2001, Penn & Teller have performed six nights a week (or as Penn puts it on Bullshit!: "Every night of the week . . . except Fridays!") in Las Vegas at the Rio All Suite Hotel and Casino.

Penn Jillette hosted a weekday one-hour talk show on Infinity Broadcasting's Free FM radio network from January 3, 2006 to March 2, 2007 with co-host Michael Goudeau. He also hosted the game show Identity, which debuted on December 18, 2006 on NBC.

Penn & Teller have also shown support for the Brights movement and are now listed on the movement's homepage under the Enthusiastic Brights section. According to an article in Wired magazine, their license plates are customized so they read, "Atheist" and "Godless", and when Penn signs autographs, he often writes down, "there is no God" with his signature.

Tricks

Their tricks include Teller hanging upside-down over a bed of spikes in a straitjacket, Teller drowning in a huge container of water, Teller being run over by an 18-wheel tractor-trailer, Teller swinging over bear-traps on a trapeze, and knives going through Penn's hands. Many of their effects rely heavily on shock appeal and violence, although presented in a humorous manner.

Sometimes, the pair will claim to reveal a secret of how a magic trick is done, but those tricks are usually invented by the duo for the sole purpose of exposing them, and therefore designed with more spectacular and weird methods than would have been necessary had it just been a "proper" magic trick. For example, in the reveal of one trick, while Teller waits for his cue, he reads magazines and eats a snack. Another example is their rendition of the cups and balls, using transparent cups.

Penn and Teller perform their own adaptation of the famous bullet catch illusion. Each simultaneously fires a gun at the other, through small panes of glass, and then "catches" the other's bullets in his mouth.

They also have an assortment of card tricks in their repertoire, virtually all of them involving the force of the Three of Clubs on an unsuspecting audience member as this card is easy for viewers to identify on television cameras.

The duo will sometimes perform tricks that discuss the intellectual underpinnings of magic. One of their acts, titled "Magician vs. Juggler", features Teller performing card tricks while Penn juggles and delivers a monologue on the difference between the two: jugglers start as socially aware children who go outside and learn juggling with other children; magicians are misfits who stay in the house and teach themselves magic tricks out of spite.

In one of their most politically charged tricks, they make a U.S. flag seem to disappear by wrapping it in a copy of the United States Bill of Rights, and apparently setting the flag on fire, so that "the flag is gone but the Bill of Rights remains." The act may also feature the "Chinese bill of rights", presented as a transparent piece of acetate. They normally end the routine by restoring the unscathed flag to its starting place on the flagpole; however, on a TV guest appearance on The West Wing this final part was omitted for drama.

One of their more recent tricks involves a nail gun with blanked (missing) nails from its strip of nails. Penn begins by firing several nails (presumably real) into a board in front of him. He then proceeds to turn the nail gun on himself several times while suffering no nail-puncture related ill effects. His patter builds as he oscillates between firing blanks at himself and firing nails into the board. While performing he explains the need for pseudo-randomness in switching between himself and the board. The bit ends with a bit of prediction when audience members choose where the next shot will be aimed. The whole bit is explained during its performance, except for the prediction.

Off-stage relationship

Penn Jillette has told interviewer Larry King that a big part of the duo's success and longevity is due to the fact that they have never been close friends. They enjoy working together immensely, but have little in common besides magic. As a result of their drastically different lifestyles and interests, they rarely socialize or interact when not working. Jillette believes that their partnership succeeds precisely because they give each other a great deal of space off-stage.


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Last updated: Tuesday, September 23, 2008 10:06:17 PM CST.  All images are Copyright Josh Wakefield and may not be reproduced without express written permission.  All rights reserved.