Penn & Teller:
The science of magic and laughter

An interview by Jen Kopf,
October 1997

Try talking on the telephone with magicians/comedians Penn & Teller.

A phone conversation with one, then the other, is like talking to your urbane, erudite, subtly anarchistic, atheistic uncle -- and then with your manic, erudite, boldly impudent, atheistic uncle.

The first is Teller, just Teller, the always-silent-onstage half of the successful duo. He's calmly breakfasting on French toast ("Covered with nuts. Wonderful!" he can be heard telling room service). A cultured veneer covers his glee with the darker side of things.

The second is, well, Penn Jillette: How is he this morning? "Wonderful! Never been better!" barks the voice heard 'round the clock on Comedy Central cable television. All 6-feet-6 of Penn threaten to push through the phone as he gets excited about something or other.

They've been together since 1975, Off-Broadway, on Broadway and, then, in a leap of faith in the common man ("We'd only ever been in thea-tuh, you know," Teller mimics) to Atlantic City and Las Vegas.

The varied audiences have helped them hone a show of illusion that blasts rabbits and top hats into oblivion.

And it's exactly what Teller dreamed of doing, growing up at 15th and Vine in Philadelphia, Pa.

"I thought that what was wrong with magic was both attitude and originality," he says. "It consisted of getting women -- badly dressed, usually -- and doing hokey, insulting things to them, like cutting them in pieces. Then (the magician) would link those god-damned silver rings. It was like going to a concert, and you'd only ever hear the same 10 songs. And the attitude. They acted like they were gods. Good acting seemed totally absent."

When he was about 16, Teller took his other loves -- baroque music and Shakespeare -- and applied them to magic.

"I noticed Bach's tunes, Shakespeare's plots, were not always original. They seemed to build on historical material and make genuinely new compositions." That, he said, is what he and Penn do.

"A trick has to be just like a one-act play. It has to be shaped properly for the audience."

Penn agrees ("Whatever Teller said, I can tell you 'Yeah. Me too.'") He and Teller design the act together. But the ardent fan of science and technology also has his own loyalties.

"Our role is being the most pro-science act in show business," Penn proclaims.

"You hear some person like Sting or Shirley MacLaine spouting that science is ruining our species. But I believe we are nothing but technology. We're the only magic show you'll go to where you'll hear us talk about velocity, or physics. You'll get a lot of physics," he promises.

There's little danger that magic will lose out to any of Penn's other loves:

• He's a member of the band Captain Howdy, which will soon release Money Feeds My Music Machine. No plans for an MTV video.

• He spends lots of his free time with friends who aren't in show business, but who are on the cutting edge of science.

• Like Teller, he stays fascinated with how much technology and magic are intertwined, and what magic can teach about the thin line between truth and lies.

Magic's lessons lie in the gray area where reality leaves off and trickery begins, Teller said.

Teller admires the work of magicians like Karl Germain, an early 20th-century lawyer-turned-performer. Germain's trademark routines were elegant and deceptively simple. "The Blooming Rose Bush" showed the audience a rosebush growing from seed right before their eyes. As Germain fanned the flowerpot, his sister performed Elgar compositions on the piano.

Penn votes for Houdini -- for his attitude as much as for his magic.

"He was one of the only people to bring a skeptical, atheist point of view to popular entertainment," says Penn. "He was the first 20th-century star. He used the media, he embraced science, he butted heads in a primitive way with religion. I love the fact that he's in my dictionary. ... At the end of the century, he and Elvis will be listed as the biggest stars we've seen, but Elvis isn't in my dictionary."

[ by Jen Kopf ]

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