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Penn and Teller Part 1

Penn & Teller's act isn't easy to describe: If you call them magicians, it's almost an insult, since so much of what they do revolves around hilariously debunking and making fun of so-called magic shows. To call them comedians is to ignore the elaborate, fascinating, seemingly death-defying tricks they pull off with apparent ease. No one else does what Penn & Teller do: put together painstakingly rehearsed stunts and tricks, and package those tricks with hilariously caustic, cynical humor. The duo's richly deserved popularity has led to numerous TV appearances (talk shows, a prime-time ABC special last fall, a variety show on FX premiering this summer), successful tours (the duo resides in Las Vegas, where it's a major draw, and plays two weeks in Chicago in the first half of June), and even a movie, 1988's Penn & Teller Get Killed. The Onion recently spoke to both Penn Jillette (whose interview runs next week) and the silent-in-performance Teller.

The Onion: Ultimately, the two of you use your powers to entertain the people. Do you feel like you could be doing more for evil?

Teller: [Laughs.] Uh, well, there are a lot of people who have taken care of that. Yes, I could be in the Senate. I think the powers we have are best used to stimulate the minds of the interested public.

O: Do you like the public?

T: Immensely. And I don't understand people who don't. I don't understand performers who don't. You can see it in every aspect of our show: the fact that we get probably 15 people at various times up onto the stage with us, and basically trust them not to screw up the show; the fact that, after every show, we hang out in the lobby and have people come up and say whatever they damn well please to us, or get autographs, or take pictures with us. We just like 'em. People come up to me on the street and make some little joke—like they'll say, "Excuse me, sir, what time is it?" And I'll say, you know, "5:15," and they'll say, "Hey! Made you talk!" And that's merely a way of saying, "I know your work and I like you." I couldn't be more pleased: These are the people who are letting me do what I've always dreamed of doing for a living.

O: Are you tired of answering questions about how you're different from David Copperfield and Siegfried & Roy?

T: Well, I don't frequently have to, because their audience and our audience don't overlap almost at all. People do not come to a Penn & Teller show to see a magic show. They just don't. They come to see weird stuff that they can see no place else, that will make them laugh and make the little hairs stand up on the backs of their necks.

O: Do people still believe in magic?

T: Unfortunately, yeah. It's an embarrassing thing that, in a modern culture, people still fall for lines of bull that were invented in the caves. Look at the popularity of James Van Praagh, the guy who wrote a best-seller called Talking To Heaven. It has literally been on the New York Times best-seller list forever—well, not literally forever, but virtually forever. And what is it? It's spirit-medium bullshit of the worst kind, and it's taking really serious advantage of people's grief and making money off of it. And people fall for it. So, yeah, people unfortunately still believe in magic, and there's not one good thing about that. I believe in art. [Laughs.] I think art should be in the place in our culture where religion used to be. Where magic used to be, there should be art.

O: It seems like we've sort of entered an age—and maybe this is my limited perspective—in which debunking magic is more popular than practicing it. You have the Secrets Of Magic Revealed specials...

T: But what is that? That's the kind of thing that anybody could go to the library and read in the magic books. It's the kind of thing I loved as a kid. As a kid, I would go to the library and just sit for hours in the children's department, contemplating the diagrams of the old illusions. It's a fascinating thing to watch, which accounts for the fact that the show—which, as far as I can tell, has not a grain of wit or performance on it—is terribly popular. But that's confirmation that people love the concept of magic. They love the concept of lying turned into an art form: Everything that's evil about lying, once you put it in a frame on a stage, becomes virtuous and becomes wonderful. And people love that, and they love measuring one view of reality against another. They love situations in which they can look at something and sort out for themselves where make-believe leaves off and reality begins. So I'm not surprised that that show is popular, because it's not in any way a dismissal of magic. It's a tribute to the fact that people are fascinated by magic. They're not fascinated by illusion, as Doug Henning would have us believe. Magic is a much tougher thing: It's not about watching a cartoon or a special effect. It's about seeing something that seems to violate all your previous experiences in the world, and coming to some sort of terms with that—whether it's coming to terms with it as poetry, or coming to terms with it as deceit, or coming to terms with it as technology. It's an incredibly vigorous kind of natural form to work in.

O: Are the David Copperfields of the world even still popular? They used to be a lot more visible.

T: As far as I know, immensely. There is a whole audience for that sort of thing. There's a whole audience for heavy-metal rock. There's an audience for almost anything, and Copperfield is, I think, still one of the most popular performers in the world, in terms of popularity and numbers—and dough, which is a perfectly fair measure of that. It's completely different from what I'm interested in. It's just a different kind of audience. It's an audience that wants something different. There's huge audience for the film Titanic, too, and Titanic is not a great work of drama.

O: You guys are doing a show for the FX network this summer. What's that all about?

T: It's a variety show, one hour once a week starting in August, with us sort of hosting and starring in it and doing several new Penn & Teller kind of bits, which we're writing specifically for the show. We're going to go for the most eclectic possible mix of guests: I've told the booker that my idea of the perfect show would be Pavarotti followed by a trained house-cat act, follwed by Jane's Addiction, followed by Sigourney Weaver and Matt Damon doing a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire. That's my idea of what I'd like on the show; now, whether I'll get that, I don't know. The eclecticism of it, I think, is gonna be pretty for sure. I don't know if we'll get Pavarotti on there; I'd like to have him. If he happens to be in town, I'd love to have him in.

O: Are you contracted to do a season, or...

T: We're set up to do 16 [episodes].

O: And that's basically what you're going to do in lieu of touring?

T: Yeah, we get done playing in Chicago June 14, and we start shooting I think 10 days later.

O: How did ABC respond to Penn & Teller tormenting children, drowning you, and making jokes about secular humanism before Monday Night Football [as they did on Penn & Teller's Home Invasion]?

T: With remarkable support. They honestly did. I was absolutely stunned by how... I'll give you an example: Originally, we had placed the water tank [a hilarious bit in which a trick apparently goes awry, leaving Teller drowned] midway through the show, and then we would come back later, and you would see me alive and doing other stuff. We just thought that was an interesting placement. ABC said, "Look, couldn't you just leave Teller dead?" The only thing they seemed to care about, in terms of saying no, was they didn't allow us to do the section of our polyester trick where we wrap the polyester around the kid's neck and try to strangle him. They wouldn't let us leave the mouse dead in the liquid nitrogen. We had to bring back the mouse. They care a whole lot whether a mouse is dead or alive, but Teller, who cares? But I was amazed and stunned; I really expected a whole lot of serious prime-time censorship, and instead we wound up working with some very hip people there.

O: They were right, too, about the water tank.

T: I think they were absolutely right. This may be the first time I've ever said that sentence in relation to some television activity. They were right.

O: What's in the live shows that you're doing now?

T: The polyester trick is there. "Looks Simple," which is a backstage view of a cigarette routine, but it's a very curious sort of thing where I come out on stage and light a cigarette [pauses], and then we show you how I did that trick. We take a piece of commonplace reality—lighting a cigarette—and then simulate it with an intricate magic routine, and then show you how the trick is done. Penn will be juggling broken liquor bottles—bottles that he's broken the bottoms off of—bare-handed, so the consequences of a miscatch are a little more dramatic than if he were juggling, I don't know, clubs. I'll be making a bunny-rabbit disappear by heaving it into a chipper-shredder. It's a very splashy trick. We'll be doing a 12-minute opera, which we call "Houdini Back From The Afterlife"; [he comes back] to tell us that there's no afterlife. It's a very elaborate piece of staging involving, among other things, an electric bass guitar, a wooden chair, four pieces of rope, a staple gun, and 15 yards of Spandex. It's not like any opera you've seen before. We'll be doing the world's largest and heaviest card trick, with the forklifts. Mofo The Psychic Gorilla is returning with a new act; this time, Mofo invades the audience's pockets and is able to tell them the serial numbers on their dollar bills. But, boy, is Mofo cheesy; I won't tell you anything further about Mofo, except that there are those who have falsely accused me of providing the voice for Mofo. Of course, I strenuously deny that. Let's see...

O: You've done some stuff with guns.

T: Yes, I'm just about to get to that. Penn will do a science lecture in which he illustrates sub-atomic molecular theory by having a woman from the audience smash a concrete block on his body with a sledgehammer. And we're doing the gun trick that we're sort of well-known for now, in which we have two .357 Magnum guns examined by audience members—and there's no stooging in the show at all; we usually find military personnel or police or gun hobbyists. We have them examine two .357 guns, mark the ammunition, load the guns, and hand us the guns. We stand at opposite sides of the stage and fire the guns into each other's faces, through panes of glass. The panes of glass are left with bullet holes, and the marked bullets, still hot from being fired, are then removed from our mouths by the hands of the people who signed them. It's a very disturbing trick, because you look at it and you say, "Okay, that's real, that's real, that's real, that's real... Somewhere along the line, I had to be wrong."

O: What are the odds that one of you will actually be killed doing a trick?

T: Um, I like to think none. Think back over what you may know of our career: We have run me over with an 18-wheel tractor-trailer. I have swung over bear traps on a trapeze, with the bear traps, of course, open and ready to spring. Nearly nightly, I swallow a hundred needles and six feet of thread and bring the needles up threaded without dying. So it's kind of a specialty of ours to take elaborate, careful safety precautions, and make sure that you can never see them. We're incredibly prudent, and we tend to stand watch over each other to make sure the other guy doesn't get too out-of-control. And in the case of, for example, the gun trick, we did the whole gun-safety course. When we were experimenting with it, we experimented very prudently, step by step by step by step. And I'll tell you, it was not a very pleasant action to be holding a gun up and pointing it at Penn's face, and I would assume he feels the same about me. [Laughs.] When we first did it, we had to have other people stand in as the shooters, because we couldn't stand the notion of pointing guns at one another's faces. So it's, I think, very unlikely. We're terribly cautious.

O: What do you want done with your corpse when you're dead?

T: Um, it may not be entirely in my control. There are people I know who would like to have a grave to visit, and we already have a grave. But I think there are people who would like to know that my corpse is actually in this grave. Given my absolute druthers, I would certainly like to see that every part of my body is used for spare parts for science.

O: What do you and Penn disagree on? You seem to be aligned in every way.

T: Well, you get aligned in every way by having every possible argument. [Laughs.] Really, I believe the first six years we worked together, we did very little more than scream at each other all the time about every little thing. And, gradually, you come to accords about things. We still... What do we disagree about? When an idea is developing, there will be disagreements every stage of the way. But that's the nature of how we work. We end up in the position that, if both of us can agree on it, then a large portion of the populace seems to be able to go along with it, because we've come at it from such opposite directions.

O: How much public-advocacy work have you done? I know you've spoken out on civil liberties, on the V-chip.

T: Yeah, I did a New York Times editorial on the Pornography Victims' Compensation Act, whose idea was that, if a rapist claimed to have viewed a porno movie, the victim of the rape could sue the porno producer. You know, that sort of magical thinking is predominant among politicians. But equally horrible stuff is still happening: There's a whole weird mindset now in which the only thing you have to do is utter the words "child pornography" in connection with anyone's name, and instantly that person's life is ruined. It's amazing: It's the equivalent of "Communist" in the McCarthy era. It's very strange. Honestly, I think it's a very good idea to have it not legal to exploit children in pornography. They're maybe a little too young and fragile for you to say that the responsibility falls on them to protect themselves from being victimized. That being said, if somebody has a photograph made by Lewis Carroll, I don't think that person should be able to be imprisoned for it. And the photographs by Lewis Carroll, by our current standards—which are so incredibly vague... I was talking to the head of the ACLU, Nadine Strossen, and she quoted me some of the laws. I wish I could quote some of them off the top of my head. They're things like, "If the model could conceivably be underage, might be able to be represented as being underage and in a suggestive position"—not even explicitly nude or involved in sex—that falls under the same category. And worse, if you happen to have a picture of Brooke Shields from the Pretty Baby days, you really, by current laws, could be subject to criminal procedures. It's really insane. I don't know how to approach that or exactly what to do about it. Of course, I don't think children should be raped or abused—that makes perfect sense—but carrying that to the degree of criminalizing every possible thought in connection to that is really like executing people for murder because they like to watch Psycho. It isn't criminal behavior. I should be able to fantasize about being Hitler at his worst and not be prosecuted for that.

O: How much have Penn & Teller come under fire by censors?

T: Amazingly, not much, and I cannot understand why. Part of it may be that [censors] know that if they were to approach us with certain questions, we would just laugh in their faces. And not a defiant laugh, but a laugh of, "You can't be serious, now, can you?" We've never really had problems.