Interview: For Penn & Teller's Magical Partnership, The Trick Is Telling The Truth The duo are are back on Broadway. They both talk — yes, even Teller — with NPR's Scott Simon about magic, danger and the remarkable endurance of their 40-year partnership.
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For Penn & Teller's Magical Partnership, The Trick Is Telling The Truth

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For Penn & Teller's Magical Partnership, The Trick Is Telling The Truth

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

What does a couple do for their 40th anniversary? Penn and Teller are playing Broadway, 30 years after they first played New York. In the course of a single performance, they make a cellphone ring inside a dead fish, swallow needles and fire and make a rare African-spotted pygmy elephant disappear. Penn and Teller, who used to avoid calling themselves magicians - are on Broadway until August 16. Over the past 40 years, they've also individually written best-selling books. Teller directed "Macbeth." They starred together in a Katy Perry video. They also have a couple of TV shows that are running now and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. They joined us in our studio, but one at a time. First, Penn Jillette, thanks so much for being with us.

PENN JILLETTE: Well, thanks for having me. Thank you.

SIMON: You've said in the past - you said it a couple of times in this show - you don't like magic that seems to put lives at risk.

JILLETTE: No one should ever be hurt doing art. Now, of course, you can't - a light can fall on you...

SIMON: Yeah, right.

JILLETTE: You know what I mean? And I don't mind being hurt and being uncomfortable. You know, we've been covered with bees. We've been - had cockroaches all over us. But the idea that something life-threatening should be entertaining - I think humanity's fear of compassion should have grown to eliminate that entirely.

SIMON: In this show, you saw a woman in half and there are yelps. The part that got me - made me wonder about your safety - was when you took a pneumatic nailer...

JILLETTE: Yeah, well, that's...

SIMON: To your crotch.

JILLETTE: That's the bit where I actually talk about that.

SIMON: Yeah.

JILLETTE: The reason that that's the bit that bugs you the most, that's the reason I bring it up there.

SIMON: Yeah.

JILLETTE: And, you know, magicians will tell you, you can't possibly say during something that looks like a stunt this is actually a trick or the entertainment value of that is completely negated. And I don't think it is. I want someone to think we do a good show. I don't want someone to think I'm mentally ill and don't have respect for life. So, you know, what we're looking for in art is the roller coaster. You want the visceral and the intellectual to collide with as much velocity as possible. You want your guts to say we're going to die, and you want your mind to say if everybody died on this roller coaster, there's no way they could make money. And you want those two to collide hard.

SIMON: Last 10 minutes of the show, without giving anything away, part of it is a - really a lovely lyrical monologue that you give about the nature of magic.

JILLETTE: Yeah.

SIMON: And then you eat fire...

JILLETTE: Yeah.

SIMON: And you tell us in the audience there's no trick to this.

JILLETTE: Yeah.

SIMON: You just open your mouth and stick in a torch.

JILLETTE: Yeah.

SIMON: Is that true?

JILLETTE: Well, I say more than that. I mean...

SIMON: Yeah, no, no, no - yeah...

JILLETTE: If you just open your mouth and stick in a torch, you will get burned and burned badly. You have to have your head tipped back and all sorts of other stuff. That's a very, very old bit, and it comes from...

SIMON: Fire swallowing you mean, yeah..

JILLETTE: Yeah because I was a fire-eater, I mean, when Teller met me. And a lot of this is just - even though I'm now 60 - thoughts I had when I was 20 - rebellious thoughts. Conventional wisdom would be if you're going to eat fire, you know, you have to say you were born with a special skill that allows you to do this - the human salamander - and you have to do all of this. And I became fascinated by how much of this still holds up when you tell the truth. How much of showbiz holds up when you tell the truth? How much can you think about De Niro playing Travis Bickle before "Taxi Driver" dissolves? Turns out, "Taxi Driver" doesn't dissolve.

SIMON: Yeah.

JILLETTE: If I sit next to you and I write it on the screen every time De Niro comes on as Travis Bickle - this is really De Niro; he doesn't really drive a taxi; he doesn't really care about Jodie Foster - somehow the art kind of takes over.

SIMON: Yeah.

JILLETTE: And the thing - and this is - I'm going to try to segue this in, but it really is nothing more than bragging. The great physicist Richard Feynman...

SIMON: Yeah.

JILLETTE: Who I got to know toward the end of his life and is, you know, certainly one of the most brilliant thinkers of the 20th century, came to see that monologue, and then came back to the show later and brought five other Nobel Prize winners with him, and said to me afterwards I wanted them to hear that monologue and especially wanted my wife to hear that monologue because she has never understood how those who look for answers are the ones who love the mystery the most. And he said I could never find a way to explain that. Your fire-eating monologue explains that. It often brings up that same subject. I don't think knowledge ever diminishes, ever.

SIMON: Penn Jillette, thank you. Do you want to ask...

JILLETTE: Thank you.

SIMON: I'm going to ask Teller to join us now in our studios, but thank you so much for being with us.

JILLETTE: And only one of us can be in at any time for national security. You understand that.

SIMON: We respect that.

JILLETTE: OK.

SIMON: Yes, thank you.

JILLETTE: Thanks a lot.

SIMON: And we're joined now by Teller in the studio. Thank you for being with us.

RAYMOND TELLER: I'm happy to be here.

SIMON: I wasn't sure until I said thank you for being here that you were going to talk, but you're going to talk.

TELLER: I am. That's actually part of the show, this not talking business.

SIMON: Yes, I know (laughter).

TELLER: I find it so much easier to place phone orders by speaking.

SIMON: (Laughter) What - what is the idea behind not talking?

TELLER: Well, I resented magic patter, particularly as a late teenager because magicians were always saying redundant things. Here, I am holding a red ball. Well, yes, you're holding a red ball. I can see that. I asked myself could you tell the story of a piece of magic just by doing actions and letting the audience watch and put the pieces together themselves? And as it turns out, there's lots of interesting benefits to that. Nothing fools you better than the lie you tell yourself. So when you let an audience figure out what is going on, and they tell themselves the beautiful lie that a good piece of magic is, it becomes convincing in a way that if the magician asserts that, the magician doesn't get through nearly as well. Another part is at the time I was doing that, I was playing fraternity parties at Amherst College, where I went. And I am a small man of not particularly imposing proportions or voice. And if I had tried to assert myself over a room full of drunk kids groping their dates and drinking beer, they would not have paid any attention to me.

SIMON: (Laughter).

TELLER: So I found that if I turned off all the lights except a few lawn spotlights that I carried with me, and then did creepy things like swallowing razor blades at the time - I later graduated to needles because...

SIMON: Yeah...

TELLER: I think it's more elegant...

SIMON: A hundred needles up and down your throat, yeah.

TELLER: I think needles are more elegant than razor blades, the idea being you swallow a bunch of needles and you swallow thread and they come up thread. And there's something sort of so grandmotherly about that that it has an elegance to it. But I found that when I did that sort of thing, they paid attention to me in a way that if I had tried to assert myself over them, they wouldn't have. It sort of undercut any kind of heckling. You know, a lot of people who don't speak on stage in magic blast the audience with music that is loaded with all sort of emotions. I think that's cheating. And by stripping away music, by stripping away speech, there is a level of intimacy that I feel with the audience that is deep. It's very deep.

SIMON: What's the most gratifying sound to hear from an audience?

TELLER: I think for me, overhearing somebody saying something like oh my God. You know, I love laughs, of course. What performer doesn't? And I love applause, but boy do I love gasps because gasps mean that I've done my job. My job is to take what you know about the world and turn it for a moment, playfully, upside-down because the most important thing that you have to decide before you can make any other decisions in the world is what is really going on, right? If you step off a curb and a bus is coming at you and you haven't observed, you're in big trouble. If you make a mistake about what is really going on, it has dire consequences everywhere except in theater.

SIMON: Forty years - how do you keep that going, the relationship part?

TELLER: We were introduced by our friend, Weir Chrisemer. And both of us really liked Weir, and we didn't particularly like each other. I admired Penn immensely. To this day, his street act is the most perfect street act that I've ever seen. It was 12 minutes. It was tight. It was dramatically structured. It was hilarious. It was unnerving. And I believe that he has some admiration for what I do, too. And the idea that you can respect someone without wanting to, you know, sit by a fire and snuggle with him (laughter) is maybe not a very popular idea in show business, but it is a very true one. And what turns out to be more important in a long-term relationship is that you can do your job. Neither of us drinks. Neither of us does any drugs. We are never late for gigs. We always show up. We always do our job. And there are lots of times when Penn does not like me, lots of times when I don't like him, and that's what you want in a partner. In an artistic partner...

SIMON: Yeah.

TELLER: You want someone you're going to disagree with. And an idea that is third, that is other, will emerge from that. That said, no two people could be closer...

SIMON: Yeah.

TELLER: You know, because you work with somebody for 40 years. I'm brought to mind the "Fiddler On The Roof" passage where that song - you know, (singing) do you love me? Do I what?

SIMON: Oh yeah.

TELLER: And, you know...

SIMON: (Singing) Do I love you?

TELLER: Exactly.

SIMON: (Singing) By (unintelligible) years I (unintelligible)...

TELLER: Yeah, and then she details all the stuff that they've been through together.

SIMON: Yeah.

TELLER: If that isn't love, what is?

SIMON: Yeah. Penn & Teller on Broadway 'til August 16. Teller, Penn before that, thanks so much for being with us.

TELLER: My pleasure.

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