Penn and Teller and Leiren-Young – Revealing Magic Secrets, Favourite Tricks and Having a Cow (onstage)0
Penn and Teller may not believe in “real” magic but the two have the magic touch. It’s not that everything they touch necessarily turns to gold but you can guarantee it’ll turn into something interesting.
Penn Jillette just produced a new documentary, Tim’s Vermeer - directed by Teller. The doc hits Canadian theatres this week and examines the magic behind Vermeer’s masterpieces. I haven’t seen it yet but it’s on my “must view” list and it’s why I decided… it’s time to post this.
In 2005 Penn executive produced The Aristocrats - a documentary about a joke so dirty that stand-up comedians only tell it to each other… after the audience has gone home. If you’re easily offended you’ll be completely offended. If you’re impossible to offend you’ll probably still be offended. It’s not just gut-bustingly funny, it’s a brilliant reminder of the power of words.
Last year when Penn and Teller were playing Vancouver I had the chance to interview Penn for The Vancouver Sun.
As any fan of Penn knows, the guy can talk. Our scheduled fifteen-minute interview lasted close to half an hour as Penn hung out in a Las Vegas parking lot answering questions on his cell phone. As a responsible entertainment journalist filing a story for a daily newspaper I had to ask about his gig on Celebrity Apprentice — a show I’ve never watched and despite my fan-boy fixation with Penn and Teller, never will. It’s a freakin’ reality show with Donald Trump that presumably makes money for Donald Trump. I’d rather watch Dancing with the Real Housewives of America’s Deadliest Duck Dynasty.
But once Penn told me all I needed to preview his show at the River Rock Casino and satisfy readers who love their “reality” we talked about what I wanted to talk about. Magic.
With a new book out called Free Magic Secrets Revealed that’s all about a disastrous magic show I wrote and directed as a teenager how could I resist the chance to ask a magician who made his name revealing magic secrets for his thoughts on magic?
I know this is too long to be a blog post but Penn’s not a guy given to speaking in sound bites. Besides, as a magic geek I thought this was seriously cool, so maybe you will too.
Mark: Do you have a favourite illusion that you and Teller do?
Penn: You know you don’t really have that luxury. It’s not the way I see the world. First of all, I don’t think in terms of “best” very much. I don’t want “the best” slice of pizza, I just want a slice of pizza. I don’t want the best blowjob, just suck my dick. And in my work it takes a certain amount of willpower to not have a favourite. In order to do a ninety-minute show, in order to have, as we have, five and a half hours of working material, if you start focusing on “the best, your favourite,” why the fuck are you doing the other bits?
That having been said a thing we do called “Cowboy” is probably the bit we should be best known for because it, as far as I know, doesn’t have antecedents. Everything else in magic that I can think of you can look back and say, “Oh, that’s a little like Thurston’s blah blah blah, a little like Houdini’s blah blah blah, a little like Blackstone’s blah blah blah.” With this one you can’t. This one is “a little like Penn and Teller’s.” And the audience really likes it. It’s conceptually very strong and it also does not build on the shoulders of giants. And I kind of like that a lot.
I’m really fond of our cell phone trick, because you look at a cell phone and say you’ve gotta do a trick with this. It’s new, it’s modern, it’s better than borrowing a handkerchief but what do you do with it? And so many other people have tried to do cell phone tricks and I think have been very unsuccessful so I’m really proud of the fact that I think we are successful.
I think that we did the “Bullet Catch” — exactly conversely to “Cowboy” it’s the best version of a trick that many, many people have done and that’s another thing to be proud of. But what you’re finding out as I’m speaking to you is that I try to find a way to make every bit my favourite in some self-delusional way, in order to be as good a performer as I can.
We certainly can’t do it in Canada, there are laws against it. – Penn
Mark: Do you have a dream illusion that you and Teller would like to do and you haven’t figured out how to do?
Penn: Well, yes. I used to answer that and then everything that I’d answer we’d end up doing. We’ve been working for over three years and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to dress up a cow as an elephant and vanish it, surrounded by the audience in the middle of audience members. And we wanted to do the best animal trick that’s ever been done and we felt that an elephant and tigers and lions were all kind of too on the money, too cheesy. So we thought that the stupidest, heaviest animal that we could think of that has a Podunk feeling but is amazing is a cow. You know magicians produce doves. The cow is the equivalent of producing a pigeon – an ugly, street pigeon. And yet really, really hard to work with. Really, really difficult. And then dressing it up as an elephant gives it a pomposity that makes it, to me, dramatic. And that’s really, really, really, really, really, really, really hard. (Laughs). And we’ve been banging our heads against it for, as I’ve said, for over three years and just pissing money away working on it. And I think we might get it in this year. But it still now fits the definition of your question – something I’ve always wanted to do and haven’t done yet.
Mark: What’s the difference between your stage show that you do at The Penn and Teller Theatre (in Las Vegas) and the stage show that you’re able to take on the road?
Penn: Well, you know part of it is just perversity. I mean part of it is that we like going on the road and doing a different show. It’s just fun to do different material. So we do a lot of different stuff without reason, just to do different stuff. Also, a lot of people will see us in Vegas and also see us in their hometowns, we like to give them a slightly different show. Then there’s other practical stuff, like the fact that we can’t do the guns really anywhere out of Vegas. And as legislation gets stronger it will soon be only Vegas we can do it. We certainly can’t do it in Canada, there are laws against it.
Then there’s some stuff that just doesn’t travel, it just simply doesn’t travel, we just can’t fit it. We don’t want to be a four tractor trailer tour to do a one-night gig somewhere. So that means that we get to do stuff that we can tour with and stuff that we still love and don’t do much in Vegas. So I would say the show is two-thirds different, between a half and two-thirds different.
We don’t ever use trap doors. -Penn
Mark: I’d think the amazing thing about having your own theatre is how much you could gimmick the place but that’s not really your thing.
Penn: No, we don’t. You know Criss Angel had his theatre built for him. Lance Burton had his theatre built for him. And they trapped the living fuck out of it and built all these gee-gaws in. And I believe that the entire audience knows that, the entire audience knows we’re using trap doors, so we don’t ever use trap doors. They wait for it, you know. It’s one of those things in magic that everybody knows so if you use it you’re gonna get caught. So I think even being able to gimmick our theatre, which we can’t, I mean one of the things is that it wasn’t built for us, it wasn’t built for magic. This is pretty uninteresting stuff but the lip of the stage has concrete under it, which is why you can’t trap it anyway. And then up stage, if you get too far up, trapping looks shitty. And we also aren’t experts in trap door use. I will also add that the people that use it aren’t experts! (Laughs).
Penn: And because you asked that question, it’s evidence that everyone in the audience might ask that question. So anything that looks like you could use a trap door you’re gonna get busted, right?
If you’re going in and saying, “Wow, this is the Penn and Teller Theatre, they must have built a lot of shit into it,” if we do something that uses built shit, you know, shit that’s built into it, you’re gonna get to it.
Mark: I certainly thought that when I saw Siegfried and Roy in Las Vegas.
Penn: Well then you know there might have been some of that! (Laughs) But we do use the theatre. I mean it actually hurts us. There’s one trick we do that is actually stronger on the road than it is in Vegas because of people knowing we couldn’t possibly be gimmicking the theatre. The fact that it might cross your mind hurts us a little bit, we don’t like it crossing your mind. You know I would like the rules to be as stringent as possible. I mean, we can do the show in a parking lot outside with no sound equipment. That would be my favorite way because then you know what the rules are and then we can fuck you up bad.
I don’t want anything on my side. I want to do it all ourselves. Now, being in Vegas I realize this isn’t sexy but we are constrained on the road by how much we can fit in the truck and in Vegas we can keep whole separate bins set up back stage that are enormous. I mean we have the equivalent of, you know, eight tractor trailers full of shit that we can have there. Now Penn and Teller, we go to a great deal of trouble to make it look like, or rather when you look back on the show, we’d like you to remember us not using any props. But that’s really hard work on our part, to make you feel that.
I don’t like very much about magic. – Penn
Mark: What do you love most about magic?
Penn: I don’t like very much about magic. I think that you know, Gary Panter (from The Residents) said “if you don’t like supermarket music, for Christ’s sake, start making supermarket music.” I never understand people who go into a form that they love. I’m so confused by Guns N’ Roses. Why would Guns N’ Roses want to be Guns N’ Roses when there’s The Stones out there? Why would I want to play music professionally when there’s The Velvet Underground? They’re doin’ it, you know.
But in magic there’s nobody doing the stuff I wanna see. Nobody. (Laughs).
And Teller comes to this from a love of magic. I come to it from a hatred of magic. I hate the lying, I hate the cheesiness, I hate the pompous quality, I hate the shallowness – all of that shit — I hate tremendously. So we try to not do that.
Our show comes from arguments Teller and I were having forty years ago about whether magic was a valid art form. And Teller saying that it has built an irony and Teller saying that you could tell the truth through trickery and me saying, “Well, why not just do irony and why not just tell the truth?” And that discussion has turned into what we call, “The Penn and Teller Show.” So I don’t really have an affection in general for magic.
Over the years, to quote John Lennon about Paul McCartney, “You must have learned something in all those years.”
Over the years I believe that in my standing next to Teller’s fire I’ve learned a little about magic. You know Teller is indisputably one of the top five magic minds alive today, in the world. I’m not on that list. But I’m, you know, on the big list. I’m certainly in the top twenty but only from being near Teller. (Laughs). Maybe not the top twenty, I’d say the top fifty. But only from being near Teller. Let’s say the top one hundred but only from being near Teller. I just keep thinking of other people who are better than me. So I have developed a great deal of affection for magic but it is not innate.
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If you want to read about Donald Trump and Gary Busey – and who doesn’t — here are the links to the original Sun Stories:
(Thanks to Penn Jillette for making the time to talk to me; his agent Glenn Alai for setting up the interview; Donnie Gordon at the River Rock for making the interview happen and Chantal Strand for transcribing this.)