Illusionists Penn & Teller are celebrating 40 years as an entertainment duo this year, and they are everywhere—on TV and radio, in magazines (print and online), gazing down from gigantic billboards and on social media. They even feature in a recent Mazda commercial in which they “cut” a 2016 Mazda CX-5 in half. If you’re in New York City, you might see it on one of the giant digital screens in Times Square.
The magician-comedians have been resident headliners at Rio Las Vegas Hotel & Casino since 2001, where any given night you can catch them performing mind-blowing tricks involving guns, knives, fire, helium and narrow escapes. Known as the “Bad Boys of Magic” for their irreverent humor and skepticism, they are also adored for their “meet and greets” with fans after the show.
Penn Jillette is the tall and talkative half of the team, while Teller—he legally dropped his first name years ago—is the silent partner. During their career they have won an Emmy, an Obie and a Writer’s Guild award and received their own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame—not far from master illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini’s. Their Emmy-nominated Showtime series “Penn & Teller: Bullshit!” was the network’s longest-running series. They also appear on the TV shows “Wizard Wars” (Syfy) and “Penn & Teller: Fool Us” (The CW). Jillette produces the weekly “Penn’s Sunday School” podcast, and appears on “King of the Nerds” (TBS). He is also currently in production on his crowdfunded movie “Director’s Cut,” which received more than $1 million in donations for the project.
Opportunist: What inspired you to become a magician, Penn?
Penn Jillette: I didn’t really have any interest in magic. As a matter of fact, I had quite the opposite. When I was a young kid watching TV, I saw a mentalist who claimed to have real powers. It was The Amazing Kreskin. He’s an awful performer and a very bad person. He did this thing on a TV show—it wouldn’t be ‘The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson’ because Johnny hated him—where he pretended to do an experiment in ESP. And as a real fan of science and that kind of exciting stuff, I believed it completely. So I asked my parents to buy this Kreskin’s ESP test kit, which was a piece of garbage. I had just started learning to juggle and one day I was at the library looking for books. In the Dewey Decimal System [of library classification] books on juggling were very near books on magic and I picked up a book that had a description of how to do the trick I had seen Kreskin do on TV. To say that my reaction to it was extreme is understated. I was heartbroken. With that revelation I went from straight-A student to failing. I wouldn’t do anything in science anymore because I thought scientists lied to people.
Opportunist: Did you continue to practice your juggling?
Penn Jillette: Juggling was perfectly symbolic because it is the most straightforward performance of all. You’re either doing the trick or not doing it. Whatever you’re juggling is in the air or on the ground. Two jugglers backstage instantly know who’s better. Two magicians don’t. What are they going to say, ‘I have more real magic than you?’ It’s very subjective.
Opportunist: So what changed your mind about magicians?
Penn Jillette: I read about The Amazing Randi and he said you could turn the worst thing in the world, which is lying to people, into the best thing in the world: entertainment. An actor performing in a Shakespearean play can say he’s the king of Denmark and that’s OK because he’s entertaining the audience.
There was an avant-garde band in San Francisco called The Residents whose tenet was ‘If you don’t like supermarket music, for Chrissake, start making supermarket music.’ I was a big fan of Rock ‘n’ Roll and Beat poets and authors growing up. I loved Jack Kerouac, The Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa and Bob Dylan, but why would I want to go into music and be like them—but not as good? I knew I had no chance. But with Doug Henning, well, I had a chance against him. That’s what I call the Guns N’ Roses principle. We already have a Rolling Stones. There was already a Velvet Underground in music, but there wasn’t a Penn & Teller in magic. I wasn’t really interested in magic in general but in Penn & Teller.
Opportunist: How did you and Teller first meet?
Penn Jillette: Through a mutual friend Teller went to college with that I bought a stereo from. Teller graduated from college and I hadn’t finished high school. We were both kind of brought in to do a music show at Amherst College with a friend who was involved in a society for unusual and disgusting poetry and music. I was engaged to learn to juggle toilet plungers and throw them like knives so they would stick to a board. So I learned that and then Teller and I got together. After a very short time he quit his job as a high school Latin teacher. I didn’t have a job. I was homeless. We teamed up in ‘75 pretty much right after I got out of high school. Notice I say ‘got out of high school’ and not ‘graduated.’ [Laughs] Our age difference was greater back then. He’s seven years older than me. When you’re 17 and the person you’re talking to is 24 that is a big difference socially. Now, who cares?
Opportunist: You have said that one of the things you and Teller are obsessed with—one of the reasons you’re in magic—is the difference between fantasy and reality. How has technology changed the way the two of you present fantasy as reality?
Penn Jillette: It used to be that magicians were at the forefront of technology. They introduced electromagnetic principles to the stage and invented movies. A big part of magic was finding stuff people didn’t know about and exploiting it to the point of trickery, but that doesn’t work anymore. One of the many wonderful things about communication and the Internet is that the public has a really good sense of what’s being worked on. Everybody knows what’s going on with drones, artificial intelligence and 3D printers.
The most advanced technology in our show is the lighting and the sound. Most of the technology we use for our magic tricks, with a couple minor exceptions, is hundreds of years old. Magicians throughout history have explored where technology can go, but that is not where our interest lies. Ours is more philosophical. Magic is the playful study of how we determine what knowledge is and what it is not, the difference between fantasy and reality. What we are doing is kind of on the level of talking about skepticism, and talking about technology doesn’t bring us into that very much.
Opportunist: Speaking of skepticism, why is uncovering the truth so important to you?
Penn Jillette: I don’t know. It seems like everyone goes through a phase where they’re obsessed with what’s real and what’s honest, especially in high school and college. Many people grow out of the constant obsession but I just didn’t. What’s true, what’s honest and what’s real deeply matters to me and it ends up being the subject of so much of the material we do. I don’t really know why it holds some sort of psychological importance to me, but it really does. How we ascertain truth matters tremendously, which is why I dislike so intently the people who knowingly give false information. When you rob a 7-Eleven with a handgun you’ve done more damage than just taking money from the shop owner. You have undermined safety and trust. The damage that a robber does ripples throughout society, but it’s not even near the damage someone does who gives a scientific fact about the world inaccurately. Once you do that you’re damaging our entire database of information and future generations. One guy saying he can read minds is much worse than robbing a 7-Eleven.
Penn Jillette: Psychologically, it always tends to be what you’re working on the most. We do a new trick called Elsie, where we have a cow dressed up as an elephant and vanish her while she’s surrounded by people from the audience holding hands. We worked on it for six years and it’s really, really hard. It first went into the show about a month ago and we have been having a lot of fun with it.
Opportunist: Where did you find such a cooperative cow?
Penn Jillette: It wasn’t so much us finding a cooperative cow as finding out what cows will do to cooperate. Cows are really f---ing stupid! We are not going to change their behavior. The challenge was figuring out what we could do to make what we wanted to do happen. It’s probably the worst part of the show [Laughs] and we are going to keep working at it.
Opportunist: Do you and Teller hang out when you’re not working?
Penn Jillette: Never. That’s probably a bit of an exaggeration. We probably do once or twice a year. My daughter, who is 9 years old, says ‘Dad, Teller is your bff right?’ She is certainly right about that but our relationship is fairly formal. We are business partners first and, although we are each other’s best friend, it’s a little bit staid and careful and we try to put our business ahead of personal stuff. Also, we spend so much time together professionally that when it’s time to get off work I’d probably rather go to dinner with somebody else or spend time with my family. Our dinner conversation would probably be: ‘What did you do today? Well, the exact f---ing same thing you did today.’ [Laughs] I enjoy his company and trust him completely in a very real sense but we don’t socialize that often. He will probably come to my 60th birthday, but we have a successful business partnership—maybe the most successful business partnership in show business history. Part of that is being formal and respectful and running our act like partners in a dry cleaning business.
Opportunist: What was the inspiration for your weekly podcast ‘Penn’s Sunday School?’
Penn Jillette: I had done a once-a-day radio and a movie every couple of years and TV shows. It was too much work. I wanted to do them once a week and I thought about what day of the week works best with my schedule and, lo and behold, it was Sunday so I went with it.
Opportunist: What is the formula for Penn & Teller’s enduring success?
Penn Jillette: I have no idea. If you talk to Howard Stern or Madonna or Paul McCartney, they will tell you they’re not as famous or successful as they should’ve been. We have become way more successful than we ever thought we would be. We intended to be a weird little arty group that would perform at 200-seat theaters. When we were able to achieve that we considered ourselves successful. My dad was a jail guard and Teller’s dad was a commercial artist. We were thrilled to pieces to make money doing what we enjoy. It was a dream come true for our dads. It turned out we were about a quarter magnitude off because about 2,000 people a night want to see us, and I’m still blown away by that. Some people, and this amazes me but it’s true, get into show business to be rich and famous. But if you look at a list of wealthy people, show business is definitely not the most efficient or safest way to do that. We got into it because we wanted to write new shows. That’s all we cared about.
Opportunist: Do you believe the two of you will still be performing together for years to come?
Penn Jillette: At the age we are now there is no economic pressure on us whatsoever to write new material. We have enough to last us the rest of our lives, even with the increased lifespan in the United States. [Laughs] The only reason we write new material is for the same reason we wrote new stuff as teenagers: we love it and feel compelled to do it. When you come to Vegas most shows you see are the same as they were 10 years ago. If you come to our show every year you will see, maybe not a whole new show, but definitely some new material.
Opportunist: Were you surprised by the overwhelming support you received for your movie ‘Directors Cut?’
Penn Jillette: Very surprised. It’s nutty. Yeah. It’s a movie I’ve been working on for 10 years. My last two movies, ‘The Aristocrats’ and ‘Tim’s Vermeer’ were funded by me simply writing a check. I’m at a level where I can do documentaries. ‘Director’s Cut’ is much more of a real movie and a narrative. I wanted to play a bad guy and it’s a thriller with some nutty excitement in it. I simply didn’t have enough money myself and people were willing to put their money where their mouth is and help out. I got to work with my favorite director of the century, Adam Rifkin. I just saw the rough cut and was shocked by how good it is. The voice over track is kind of a 90-minute monologue that we went into my studio and recorded and it’s coming along nicely. I’m thrilled!
Opportunist: You’ve been on quite a few reality shows. What was it like to work with Donald Trump on ‘Celebrity Apprentice?’
Penn Jillette: You know I think the best answer is what Trace Adkins [winner of ‘All-Star Celebrity Apprentice’] said. Do you have a sense of what he’s like? Yeah he’s just like that. A lot of what you see is what you get—with no filters. That’s really beautiful on somebody like Bob Dylan or Lenny Bruce but maybe a little less beautiful on Donald Trump. To quote Thelonious Monk, ‘The genius is the one most like himself.’ The best I can say is Donald Trump is a lot like himself and I respect that very much. I haven’t won any of the reality shows I’ve been on but I don’t think anyone has ever enjoyed any of the shows I’ve been on more than I have. Some people were wickedly miserable but I was having a fun time because I love to do things I don’t know how to do. Every new project Teller and I start is stuff we don’t know how to do. So whenever they say ‘Here’s a project we are making stupid celebrities do’ I think Oh boy! while everybody else thinks Oh no!
Opportunist: We understand you’re going to be on ‘King of the Nerds.’ Can you give us a sneak preview?
Penn Jillette: I don’t think I’m allowed. I am competing against Rachelle Lafevre from ‘Twilight.’ She is wonderful. I told my team that I could definitely get them to win if they were willing to cheat. That’s my way of playing games. [Laughs]
Opportunist: One final question. You are known for your advocacy of free-market capitalism. Do you believe government policy intervention is detrimental to the U.S. economy?
Penn Jillette: I don’t know that it is. Certainly a lot of people who know more than me think it is. I can’t find a way to make the use of force to run the economy morally right. So I don’t have the highfalutin Libertarian ideal that this will make the government work better. The deeper moral ideal is I’m not willing to use guns to make people run business the way I want them to. It’s more a moral position than pragmatic for me. If there’s a problem in our lives or society I always ask is there a way to solve it with more freedom instead of less? If so, then I want to go for that.
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer, editor and journalist with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance, real estate and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides between Florida and Michigan. Follow Leslie on Twitter: @lescstone.
Follow Penn Jillette on Twitter: @pennjillette
Follow Teller on Twitter: @MrTeller