Twenty years later, Penn & Teller are still making magic in Las Vegas
By Susan Stapleton
Photograph by Christopher DeVargas
By Las Vegas standards, 20 years is more than just an occasion to give gifts of china. Few entertainers on the Strip have hit the milestone. Now magicians Penn & Teller can add that achievement to their trophy case. But that just wasn’t a big enough feather in the cap; the prestidigitation kings just signed another six-year contract that extends their stay at the Rio through 2018, making them the longest-running show at one resort in Las Vegas history.
The duo—Penn Jillette, the taller of the two who talks onstage and plans to return to Celebrity Apprentice All-Stars, and Teller, the magician who usually stands mute—opened at Bally’s 20 years ago and moved to the Rio nine years later, bringing a brilliant combination of magic, performance art, political commentary and vaudeville skills. It’s a show with sleight of hand, mentalism, prop magic and a big finale for a 90-minute show.
One of the first rules of magic is never to tell the audience how a trick is done, but time and again, the duo shares plenty of the maneuvers, as with Teller’s shadow performance that shows the seven principles of magic—palm, ditch, steal, load, simulation, misdirection and switch. Teller does his magic with Penn playing the upright bass, then reverses his position so guests can see exactly how he does it.
Another trick requires audience participation. One audience member calls another’s cell phone, and the phone magically disappears and then reappears in the audience inside a sealed box of frozen tilapia. The entire trick is filmed from the phone’s perspective to see how it got from one place to the other.
Misdirection plays a key role in this show. Guests enter the showroom (be sure to get there early to discover the second member of the Mike Jones Duo performing for 30 minutes before the show) to find a giant wooden box and a big envelope waiting to be signed. “If you’re with someone who says, ‘You never take me anywhere,’ take them up onstage.” Guests can stream onstage to examine the box and sign the paper. Teller jumps out of that wooden box to open the show.
Some tricks move swiftly, like the duo sawing a woman in half or a new bit with Teller turning into a human teapot with running water. Others need time to set up, such as Penn cold-reading audience members who select any joke from any page in a stack of books handed out to the audience.
While new acts continually get added to the show, it’s old tricks that the audience can anticipate. The show ends with a literal bang when the two perform one of their most infamous acts—shooting each other with bullets from two Colt Python .357 Magnums. “We like to do a trick that we think involves danger, looks fun or is stupid,” Penn says. Audience members sign the bullets and confirm that the guns are real. A line appears onstage to show that the bullets never change sides, while glass barriers demonstrate that the bullets were really shot. Even if Penn & Teller tell you how they did it, you may never figure it out.