Las Vegas Sun

April 16, 2014

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MAGIC:

Staying power is no trickery

Penn & Teller on their 35-year partnership, charity, religion, vice and the artistic freedom granted by Las Vegas

Penn and Teller

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If You Go

  • Who: Penn & Teller
  • When: Saturdays through Wednesdays; the show is dark Thursdays and Fridays and will be on hiatus Monday through April 24 and May 17-29
  • Where: Rio
  • Tickets: $75 to $85; 777-7776
  • Also: AIDS Walk Las Vegas; 9:30 a.m. Sunday; World Market Center, Bonneville and Grand Central Parkway; afanlv.org

The magic team of Penn & Teller could not be more different — or more alike.

Penn Jillette is 6-foot-6, wears his hair in a ponytail or flowing freely, is an accomplished jazz bassist, barely finished high school in Greenfield, Mass., and attended clown college. He’s verbose on and offstage.

Teller (born and raised in Philadelphia as Raymond Teller) is 5-foot- 9, wears his hair short, dresses conservatively, isn’t a musician but is a talented artist, attended Amherst College in Amherst, Mass., and taught Latin in Lawrenceville, N.J. He rarely speaks onstage but out of the limelight he speaks expansively about topics from politics to religion to community activism to art and theater.

Penn is 54. Teller is 61. They have been the resident headliners at the Rio for eight years and have performed in Vegas regularly for 16 years.

They’ve been together for 35 years, perhaps because of their similarities. Both are brilliant, always exploring thoughts and ideals and holding firmly to their beliefs of atheism and libertarianism. They share views about their art and how to present it. And they are funny.

On Sunday they will serve as grand marshals for the AIDS Walk, sponsored by Aid for AIDS of Nevada (AFAN), for the eighth year.

“We are, of course, looking forward to the day when AFAN isn’t needed, when no one is suffering with HIV, AIDS — or anything else,” Penn says. “But until that happens, we’re glad to help out with the AFAN walk.”

Teller says, “It’s the one day of the year I actually love being awake at 9 a.m. Helping people yourself is one of the most pleasurable things you can do, and the AFAN walk is massive proof of that. To ensure good weather, I generally pour a sow’s blood on a hemlock bonfire under a full moon. It’s worked every year so far.”

The two recently spoke to the Las Vegas Sun in separate interviews.

PENN JILLETTE

On skipping his senior year of high school and enrolling in Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Clown College

I didn’t want to go to a real college, mostly because of all the drugs and alcohol. I never had a puff of marijuana or a drink of alcohol in my life and I hated it. With my SATs (perfect scores, he says), I could have gone to many places. I would go to visit the schools and the kids were smoking dope. The one thing I swore when I got out of high school was that I would never be around drugs and alcohol. So I went to clown college, where there wasn’t a lot of drugs.

I was the youngest person in clown college, and was surrounded by 35 very, very funny people. Really funny. I’m not a good physical comedian, but I got very interested in the more conceptual and verbal side of comedy.

On studying with juggler Michael Moschen in New York City

Moschen was a very important juggler, if those two words can be used in the same sentence — important and juggler.

On his original distaste for magic

At that time I had a real hatred for magic and trickery, a real hatred because of (mentalist) Kreskin and his like. I thought there was nothing worse than lying, and lying through trickery I thought was deeply, deeply immoral even though magicians did it.

But Teller made the point that you could talk about the truth while doing magic tricks. That became really interesting.

On forming the Ottmar Scheckt Society for the Preservation of Weird and Disgusting Music with Teller and musician Wier Chrisemer in 1974 and performing on the streets of New York

It was a comedy musical group, kind of more sophisticated and less commercial than PDQ Bach. At that time I was being a juggler and getting by on no money whatsoever, just savings from high school and occasional street juggling.

Teller was rich. Teller had a grown-up person’s job. Teller would come into the city once a week and I would talk to him because he fed me. He took me to restaurants. It’s the only time I would go to restaurants — I just practiced.

It was very much like Penn & Teller today, except the third member of the group was Lutheran and so the show didn’t have the skeptic, atheistic overtones it now has.

On being invited to perform at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival in 1975

Teller didn’t know this at the time but I offered some of my pay to bring him along. I called him up in June and said, “There’s a gig in Minnesota in August. Do you want to work as a magician?” Teller said, “I would love to but I have to start teaching.” I said, “Oh, I thought you were a magician, not a teacher.” And I hung up. He called back about four hours later and agreed to do it — and he had just gotten tenure that year as a Latin teacher, a hard gig to get and he had the bravery to, not quit, but to take a one-year leave of absence, which, as far as I know, he is still on.

On the first Penn & Teller show in 1980

We did a very unsuccessful show and lost all the money we had saved up.

On why their partnership has lasted for 35 years

Some friendships are based on an animal kind of affection. Teller and I had none of that. We became business partners, which is the best way to run things. We respect each other, and respect is so much more powerful than affection. Teller and I kind of opened a dry cleaning business here. We get along because he is the best partner I could possibly have.

TELLER

On performing magic in a mime format

I worked that way before I ever met Penn. I decided to work on magic with a drama coach at the college. One of the things I wanted to do, as an experiment, was to see if it was possible to lie to people without speaking, to do actions and in those actions give all that fake information in a way that looked real and have people put it together in their minds without my ever telling them what to think.

That fancy schmantzy intellectual experiment led me to dropping talking and doing magic at frat parties whereupon I discovered for some reason it was a great way for me to be with an audience. It’s a chemistry I discovered before I ever met Penn.

On the intersection of magic and theater

In high school I was a serious theater kid and I had a drama coach who was also a magician. We spent endless hours discussing why magic is one of coolest and most sophisticated forms of entertainment. It intrinsically contains the kind of complex experience that Shakespeare breaks his back to write. When you’re sitting at “Hamlet” and the players are playing a play that is supposed to catch the conscience of the king in “Hamlet,” you as an audience member are going, “How is this catching my conscience?” It makes you think about yourself — and magic makes you think about yourself every moment you’re in the theater because you’re asking yourself, “Where does reality leave off and make-believe begin? This guy is screwing with me, this guy is messing with my brain.” It is a fantastically interesting art form.

On performing with Penn and Wier Chrisemer at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival

It was after-hours. The crowds had left and we were in front of two parked cars with their headlights on.

On working with Penn

He was using what he was strong at and I was using what I was strong at, and there was no traffic problem. We never collided. The way he liked to work and the way I liked to work, it was just natural.

On his respect for his partner

The thing I most admire about Penn is how demanding he is that any idea that we do is completely distinct from anything that’s gone before.

On their disagreements

We spent the first six years doing nothing but fighting all the time. We still fight all the time, but we’re just used to it now and it doesn’t upset us or make us angry. We’re both very stubborn. We’re fighting about the important stuff, which is the stuff that goes on onstage. We’re fighting because we both have strong artistic points of view that often contradict each other.

Why would you work with somebody who has the same artistic point of view as you do? You’d just produce the same thing that you could produce by yourself. It’s when we come from opposite directions and a spark flies off that concussion that we get good ideas.

On why Vegas is a natural fit

It’s one of the few cities in the country where a live performance is actually a mode of earning a living. Penn says we may have more artistic freedom here than we ever had anyplace else.

On his outside interests

I think it’s important to continually shock your system to stay happy. When I was in college I studied harpsichord. I’m a big Bach fan. But I haven’t ever had a harpsichord of my own. This year I’m going to buy a harpsichord that Wanda Landowski used to have. I’ll never be great but I will be able to play on an instrument that was handled by one of my favorite musicians.

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