The trick for Penn & Teller, after 42 years in the magic business, isn’t making things vanish or re-appear at will. Those are feats they appear to have mastered decades ago.
No, the trick - and challenge - appears to be figuring out how to keep in check their creativity, which seems to be nearing an all-time high.
“We are right now - and I mean, this second, because it ebbs and flows - producing the most material we have in our lives,” Penn Jillette proudly declared, speaking recently from his office in Las Vegas.
“We’ve put five new bits in our show in the past three weeks. That’s maybe 45 minutes of new material! By the way, with every other show in Vegas, the new material they put in over the last three weeks - and the last 10 years - is zero. We’ve done about six hours of new material in the past 20 years in Vegas.”
Jillette, 61, and his famously silent partner - at least on stage - Raymond Teller, 68, hold forth in their own theater at the Rio All-Suites Hotel and Casino. The gambling and entertainment mecca has been their home for the past 21 years.
This weekend, they are venturing west for a Feb. 17 show at Harrah’s Resort SoCal. In 1993, the duo had a two-week run at the La Jolla Playhouse. Their most recent New York run, in 2015, was in the aptly titled "Penn & Teller on Broadway.”
Vanishing elephants, ladies sawed in half
In that Big Apple show, they made an elephant disappear and restored crushed eggs to their original form. They also ate fire, pulled rabbits out of a hat and sawed a lady in half (leaving the resulting blood and gore all over the floor).
For good measure, they opened their Broadway show with the slyly titled “Turn On Your Cell Phones,” a complicated bit that somehow managed to employ the cell phone of an audience member and a fresh fish.
That Penn & Teller are performing anywhere, let alone in their own Las Vegas theater and on Broadway, surprises and delights them. So does the fact the duo’s career has seen them levitate Regis Philbin, play “Rodent Roulette” with David Letterman, make a feature film - 1989’s very dark comedy, “Penn & Teller Get Killed" - and appear in music videos by both Katy Perry and Run D.M.C.
Penn & Teller
When: 9 p.m. Feb. 17
Where: Harrah’s Resort SoCal Events Center, 33750 Valley Center Road, Valley Center
Tickets: $30-$75, plus service charges (must be 21 or older to attend)
Phone: (760) 751-3100
“All I’ve ever wanted since I was 14 or 15, was to think up stuff and have people see it,” Jillette, a New England native, recalled. “I didn’t think it was possible. I grew up in a small town where the first person I met in show business was me! There were no role models.
“If you talk to Madonna, Howard Stern, Paul McCartney or Houdini, they will tell you they aren’t as famous as they should be, or wanted to be. Teller and I are more famous than we ever expected to be. Our business plan was to play for maybe 200 people a night - we thought we were too weird to be as successful as we are.”
Jillette stopped for a moment, perhaps not wanting to toot his own horn too much.
“I’m not saying we’re phenomenally successful,” he stressed. “We’re not Madonna or Howard Stern. But we’re many rungs higher up the ladder than we thought we’d be. We thought we’d be doing cruise ships - and here we are in our own theater in Vegas.
“And it seems like our success came with no compromise, whatsoever, in terms of the show. There’s TV stuff we did, just to sell tickets to the show, but TV wasn’t the main thing.”
An air of subversion
In the process of becoming famous, Penn & Teller added an air of subversion to their act. They told audiences exactly how they did some of their tricks.
“We first did that because we thought it was so beautiful to show how tricks were done,” Jillette explained. “And, by the way, we only did that with tricks we invented.”
Intriguingly, Jillette was not a fan of magic until he became immersed in it himself.
“Jerry Seinfeld described magic as: ‘Here’s a quarter; it’s gone! You’re an idiot. Now it’s back; you’re an ass----! Now the show is over’,” Jillette recalled.
“I hated magic! I thought there was something deeply wrong with it, because it tended to be so masculine and confrontational: ‘I can do this, and you can’t!' Plus, guys who went into magic seemed to be exclusively inspired by their inability to get laid in high school.
“And that always makes me very uncomfortable, especially with men. Because women don’t seem to do that - exhibiting sexual frustration in masculine ways - and that’s what magicians seemed to be to me. So what I wanted to do very strongly, and Teller, too, was give the audience a peace offering, and tell them: ‘We have not drawn battle lines between us’.”
One of Jillette’s most impressive disappearing tricks in recent years was self-directed.
In late 2014, the 6-foot-7-inch magic star’s doctor warned him that his weight - then around 330 pounds - was the cause of his high blood pressure. While he was in the hospital, his doctor painted a potentially grim prognosis.
In just four months, Jillette dropped 105 pounds by converting to what he described at the time as an “extreme low-calorie program.”
He eliminated all animal products and processed grains from his diet. Jillette also stopped eating any food with added sugar or salt. After losing the weight, he began an every-other-day exercise program. It includes weight lifting, juggling, 10-mile tricycle rides and a scientifically devised seven-minute workout.
‘I only like to do difficult things’
“I think it’s ridiculous that 99 percent of people put most, or all, of the weight they lost back on within two years,” Jillette said.
“It will be two years, on March 5, since I hit my target weight. Right now, this morning, I’m a little over my target weight. And, just for kicks, on March 5 I want to be just below my target weight. Then I can say: ‘No, I haven’t kept the weight off - I’m five pounds lighter!’ - just because it seems funny.”
Was it difficult to lose 105 pounds so fast, never mind to then retain his lower weight?
“I found both hard, but in a wonderfully fun way,” replied Jillette, who dropped from a 44 pants size to a 34.
“The problem is that, in the past, I tried to make it easy to lose weight. And trying to make it easy is just stupid. Everyone brags about climbing Mount Everest. No one brags about climbing up a grassy slope. And I only liked to do difficult things.”
Golfing is popular in Las Vegas. Does Jillette like to tee it up?
“I don’t understand people who work to be successful and then play golf during the day,” he said, practically sputtering at the thought. "I don’t understand how anyone can enjoy golf more than art. I don’t understand that.
“What’s that great thing Bobcat Goldthwait said? ‘Heroin isn’t killing rock ‘n’ roll. Golf is!’ ”
Speaking of rock, Jillette was a teen in the second half of the 1960s. Was he a budding member of what was then referred to as the counter-culture?
“Yeah!” he replied. “The two exceptions to my having been a hippie are I’ve never been a socialist or done drugs, which kind of (messes) up your ‘hippieness.’ Otherwise, yeah.
“Although, as I get older, I realize I’m a little bit more beatnik than hippie. I’m testing that out by reading Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and that whole period of 1957. I’ve been obsessed with (jazz bass great) Charles Mingus and (beat poet) Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I’m also re-reading (Tom Robbins’) ‘Another Roadside Attraction’ and (Tom Wolfe’s) ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test’.”
What about music in the 1960s?
“I never had any interest in The Doors or Jefferson Airplane,” said Gillette, who opens each of Penn & Teller’s Las Vegas shows playing upright bass in a jazz duo with pianist Mike Jones.
"(Doors singer) Jim Morrison seemed really sexual and incredibly good-looking, but I hated his lyrics. I loved Velvet Underground and the (Frank Zappa-led) Mothers of Invention. As a matter of fact, my mom - a nice New England lady who was 45 when I was born - would buy me records. And she said: ‘Any band called The Mothers is all right with me!’ "