They’re known for spectacular illusions, wry humor and a prodigious work ethic. But what really sets Penn & Teller apart is their great love for what they do and a deep respect for their audience. As the duo celebrates 10 years at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino by signing a three-year contract extension, Penn Jillette — the larger, chattier one — talked to us about honesty in magic, spending years perfecting two-minute tricks and pointing guns at each other.
“Everything we do is for ourselves and for the audience. Anybody who does [only] one of those things sucks!” said Jillette, never one to mince his words. “People who pander to the audience are horrible, and people who just do it for themselves you never hear about. So it’s not either/or — you have to 100% satisfy yourselves and 100% satisfy the audience and there’s no room whatsoever for compromise.”
Penn & Teller’s successes are many. They’re responsible for the Showtime network’s longest-running series, “Penn & Teller: BS!,” sold-out Broadway runs, Emmy-winning TV specials and three New York Times bestsellers, and they have been named “Las Vegas Magicians of the Year” five times. Yet their creative process remains pure.
“The reason we started doing this show, before the audience was there, was Teller and me sitting in a room saying, ‘I wonder if we can do this? Wouldn’t this be cool?’ And that hasn’t changed at all,” Jillette explained. “That’s the entire discussion. There’s no discussion of ‘we have to appeal to this kind of audience.’”
Jillette, 55, is a raconteur on stage and off who speaks with intelligence and enthusiasm on a wide range of topics. His partnership with the seemingly shy Teller has been going strong for 35 years — not that they planned it that way.
“We don’t have any plan!” Jillette said, laughing. “Our plan was to play in, like, 100-seat, 200-seat theaters. We accomplished that 30 years ago and we never had a plan to get more successful than that. So the fact that we’re playing an order of magnitude bigger than we intended just makes us happy.
“There are some entertainers in Vegas who talk about how it was the dream of their life to have their own theater in Vegas, and that was not the dream of our life,” he said. “The dream of our life was to do shows that we thought were cool and liked doing. We never care about the venue; we always care about the show. So I’m very proud and happy, thrilled to have run 10 years in Vegas. But really I’m much more excited about the new bit [of the show] that’s going in in a couple of weeks and the new bit we just put in.”
In the economics of Vegas show business, there’s not much financial incentive to change an ongoing show. Yet since they began their Rio run, Penn & Teller have consistently added new illusions to their act.
“The audiences, I believe, would be close to the same size if we were doing the same stuff we were doing 10 years ago,” said Jillette, who claims to not even know how much money he makes. “As it is, we’ve done six hours of unique material since we started here — we’ve done enough to do four complete new shows! And with all that material, we can kind of pick and choose.
“A year and a half ago we put in what I think is the best bit we’ve ever written, and I’m most proud of it because we couldn’t find a real antecedent for it in magic.… We take a member of the audience and really transform them in a surprising way — I don’t want to give away too much.... I don’t think anyone has done anything like before.”
Regardless of how elaborate their stunts may be, Penn & Teller are masters of understatement. Rather than showgirls and tigers, their show is filled with irony and skepticism. They shun big build-ups to even their most complex tricks and never pretend that they’re in any real danger. This “authentic magic” ethos (influenced by veteran Canadian illusionist/skeptic James “The Amazing” Randi), where they acknowledge employing deception as entertainment rather than claiming mysterious powers, is the heart of Penn & Teller’s performances.
“All magic is lying. So to try to do a form of entertainment that is nothing but lies and always be honest and true is amazingly difficult — and other magic acts really blur that line,” Jillette said. “No matter how dangerous the stuff we do looks, even if we’re pointing .357 Magnums at each other’s faces, it’s a celebration of life because it’s a trick.
“When I go to see magic shows, they do so much hype that my heart rebels against it … so we really try to go the other way. And I just think that the audience appreciates that respect: the respect that we do the work — you don’t have to worry about it; this is going to be two amazing minutes that will blow your mind.
“Teller and I have always assumed, as a starting point, that everyone in the audience is smarter than we are.… The audience does not, ever, say to us after the show, ‘Oh, you should be doing dumber stuff!’”
Penn & Teller
Penn & Teller Theatre inside the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino
Saturday through Wednesday, 9 p.m.
Special holiday performances: Dec. 23, Dec. 24 and Dec. 30.
Reservations: 702.777.7776 or www.riolasvegas.com