Penn & Teller: Partners in time
Penn & Teller can make an elephant disappear, a chicken vanish, a ball and hoop dance. They will bring audience members onstage and assign them surnames like Snowden, Comey and Assange during tricks involving passwords that seem impossible to figure out. They come in discomfortingly close contact with bullets and sharp objects. They are masters of misdirection who constantly change up their show with new material, and who recently celebrated their silver anniversary as Las Vegas headliners, starring in one of the longest continuously running productions on or near the Strip.
After 43 years, they show no signs of slowing down, and although the show changes, the chemistry and dynamic between the longtime friends has remained constant. Penn Jillette is the taller, brash one who addresses the audience and verbally guides them through the show. Teller communicates with pantomimed grace as he gets maximum mileage out of simple sleight-of-hand segments, or partners with Penn for the ingenuous and sometimes elaborate tricks that seem to come from an endless well of inspiration.
Penn & Teller’s debut headlining performance took place at Bally’s on Jan. 14, 1993, and the two opened at the Rio for the first time Jan. 5, 2001. The two had began exclusively performing with each other in 1981, having made their debut at a Renaissance festival in Minnesota in August of 1975. Both were highly intelligent skeptics interested in magic, with Penn finding particular inspiration in the Amazing Randi, who presented himself as an entertainer of deception rather than a modern-day sorcerer.
Teller taught Latin, and adopted his silent persona in reaction to overtalkative magicians and out of respect for the audience, feeling they should be able to tell themselves the story of the bits rather than have it explained to them. His stage approach complimented Penn’s, and by the mid ’80s they were appearing in their own Off-Broadway production and on TV. They toured constantly, proving their show to be durable, their inspiration inexhaustible.
Today, Penn is a bestselling author, Teller produces Shakespeare in his spare time, and both have hosted the magic competition series Penn & Teller: Fool Us since 2011. They are both still passionate about performance, however, and there is nothing more they enjoy than conceiving, constructing, perfecting and performing a new bit. Their team constantly develops whatever they’re thinking of. “My very favorite thing to do, maybe even more than performance, is those weekly sessions where we work on new material,” Teller told Las Vegas Magazine in 2016. “We have the greatest crew imaginable, so between our weekly sessions, the crew’s working its ass off.”
It’s practically impossible to see the same show twice by attending annually, but while the production changes, the inspiration remains. That’s no illusion, or deception, but it’s why a pair of skeptics keeps filling the Rio theater. Penn & Teller perform every show like it’s the first one, or the last one, as if by magic.
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