Penn & Teller (Penn Jillette and Teller) are American magicians and entertainers who have performed together since the late 1970s, noted for their ongoing act that combines elements of comedy with magic.
The duo has been featured in numerous stage and television shows such as Penn & Teller: Fool Us and they currently perform in Las Vegas at The Rio, the longest running headliners to play at the same hotel in Las Vegas history. Penn Jillette serves as the act’s orator and raconteur. Teller generally does not speak while performing, and instead communicates through mime and nonverbals, though his voice can occasionally be heard during their live shows and television appearances. Besides magic, the pair has become associated with the advocacy of scientific skepticism, and libertarianism, particularly through their television show Penn & Teller: Bullshit!
Penn & Teller material varies from light-hearted gags such as graphic tricks and clever pranks to tackling issues through political satire and by exposing frauds. Many of their effects in their past relied heavily on shock appeal and fantasy violence, although presented in a humorous manner. Some of their more daring tricks included Teller hanging upside-down over a bed of spikes in a straitjacket, Teller submerged in a glass tank of water, and Teller being run over by an 18-wheel tractor-trailer. Penn & Teller will often present tricks that they initially appear to have botched, in the “trick gone wrong” vein.
Sometimes, the pair will claim to reveal a secret of how a magic trick is done, but those tricks are usually invented by the duo for the sole purpose of “exposing” the method to the audience, and therefore designed with more spectacular and theatrical methods than would be practical in a “conventional” magic trick. For example, during their NBC Off the Deep End special, an escape act was performed where Teller was placed into a wooden box that was then put into shark-infested waters. The live audience believed Teller to be inside, but the television audience was shown that Teller escaped the box through a trapdoor in the bottom before it was placed in the water. He continued to read a magazine and eat a snack while awaiting his cue. Often a trick will be presented as if to explain it to the audience, only for a more elaborate version to be performed. In a segment of Bullshit!, Penn & Teller demonstrate the illusion of sawing a woman in half, only for the saw to fall and “accidentally” cut the woman in half again.
Penn & Teller perform their own adaptation of the famous bullet catch illusion. Each simultaneously fires a gun at the other through small panes of glass and then “catches” the other’s bullet in his mouth. They also have an assortment of card tricks in their repertoire, virtually all of them involving the force of the Three of Clubs on an unsuspecting audience member as this card is easy for viewers to identify on television cameras.
The duo will sometimes perform tricks that discuss the intellectual underpinnings of magic. One of their routines, titled “Magician vs. Juggler,” features Teller performing card tricks while Penn juggles and delivers a monologue on the difference between the two: jugglers start as socially aware children who go outside and learn juggling with other children; magicians are misfits who stay in the house and teach themselves magic tricks out of spite.
In one of their most politically charged tricks, they make an American flag seem to disappear by wrapping it in a copy of the United States Bill of Rights, and apparently setting the flag on fire, so that “the flag is gone but the Bill of Rights remains”. The routine may also feature the “Chinese bill of rights”, presented as a transparent piece of acetate. They normally end the trick by restoring the unscathed flag to its starting place on the flagpole; however, on a TV guest appearance on The West Wing, this final part was omitted. The methods of the trick were revealed by the duo in an episode of Fool Us.
One trick involves a powered nail gun with a quantity of missing nails from the series of nails in its magazine. Penn begins by firing several apparently real nails into a board in front of him. He then proceeds to fire the nail gun into the palm of his hand several times, while suffering no injuries. His pattern builds as he oscillates between firing blanks into his hand and firing nails into the board, and fires one blank into Teller’s crotch. Near the end of the trick, he says that it is a trick and that he and Teller believe that it is morally wrong to do things on stage that are really dangerous—it makes the audience complicit in unnecessary human risk.
A trick introduced in 2010 is a modern version of the bag escape, replacing the traditional sack with a black trash bag apparently filled with helium. Teller is placed in the bag which is then pumped full of helium and sealed by an audience member. For the escape, the audience is blinded by a bright light for a second and when they are able to see again, Teller has escaped from the bag and Penn is holding it, still full of helium, above his head, before releasing it to float to the ceiling. The duo had hoped to put the trick in their mini-tour in London; however, it was first shown to the public in their Las Vegas show on August 18, 2010. In June 2011, Penn & Teller performed this trick for the first time in the United Kingdom on their ITV show Fool Us.
Politics and personal lives
On Bullshit!, the duo described their social and political views as libertarian. In addition to disbelief in the paranormal and pseudoscience, Penn & Teller also take a view of doubtfulness to government authority. In various episodes of their show, they have heavily criticized both the Internal Revenue Service and the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as taken stances against circumcision and gun control, and in support of ideas such as freedom to eat fast food, private property, and lower taxes. Penn & Teller are both H. L. Mencken research fellows with the Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank and research organization.
Penn & Teller have shown support for the Brights movement and are now listed on the movement’s website under the Enthusiastic Brights section.
They have described themselves as teetotalers. Their book, Penn & Teller’s How to Play in Traffic, explains that they avoid alcohol, drugs, and caffeine, although they do smoke cigarettes in some videos.
PENN & TELLER
- Penn & Teller’s How to Play in Traffic (1997, ISBN 1-57297-293-9)
- Penn & Teller’s How to Play with Your Food (1992, ISBN 0-679-74311-1)
- Penn & Teller’s Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends (1989, ISBN 0-394-75351-8)
PENN WITHOUT TELLER:
- Sock (2004, ISBN 0-312-32805-2)
- How to Cheat Your Friends at Poker: The Wisdom of Dickie Richard (2006, ISBN 0-312-34905-X; Co-author: Mickey D. Lynn)
- God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales (2011, ISBN 1451610378)
- Every Day is an Atheist Holiday!: More Magical Tales from the Author of God, No! (2012, ISBN 1469276887)
- Presto!: How I Made Over 100 Pounds Disappear and Other Magical Tales (2016, ISBN 1501140183)
TELLER WITHOUT PENN:
- When I’m Dead All This Will Be Yours: Joe Teller—A Portrait by His Kid (2000, ISBN 0-922233-22-5)