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Penn and Teller: Avoiding Fame Is a Tricky Business

Just a little over four years ago, Penn and Teller were a struggling pair of performers trying to be heard over the thumpa-thumpa-thumpa of the downstairs disco at Dillon’s in Westwood. Those who remember that time must marvel at the pair’s present notoriety, and wonder if it’s the result of another brilliant Penn and Teller trick--or if it has anything to do with selling out.

They’ve made a movie with no less a director than Arthur Penn (“Penn and Teller Get Killed,” due this spring). They’ve consistently stolen the show on “Saturday Night Live” and “David Letterman.” They’ve taken their act to Broadway and now are triumphantly returning here for a brief engagement at the Wiltern Theatre opening today. It’s almost too good to be true.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Mar. 30, 1989 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 30, 1989 Home Edition Calendar Part 6 Page 10 Column 1 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 12 words Type of Material: Correction
Comedian Penn Jillette’s name was misspelled in an article Monday on “Penn & Teller.”

But the sell-out suspicions have a hard time holding up in the face of the declarations of Penn Gillette and Teller (he has no first name, at least not in public). The current show, for example, generally eschews the familiar magic tricks once used to grease the audience for the really wild numbers. (“They’re artistically uninteresting,” Teller says simply.) Their act, for another example, hasn’t fundamentally changed over the years. (“It’s the same, only darker,” Gillette says ominously.)

At last, though you suspect you have cornered them--after all, anyone who guest-starred on “Miami Vice,” as Gillette did a couple of seasons back, has to be star-struck--they escape with their wild and crazy virtues intact. Gillette, you see, used the TV money to start up a record label called 50,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (a.k.a. Skidillion) WATTS Records so he could put out the kind of music he likes: updates of the Fugs, the Velvet Underground and underground sounds with his own trio, Bongos, Bass and Bob.

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Nevertheless, they’re somewhat troubled at returning to the city that they claim brought them national attention (“The stage act, our TV act, all that, started here, before we went to New York,” reminded Gillette).

“I’m concerned about coming back,” revealed Teller, an Amherst graduate who commonly speaks in compound-complex sentence structure. “I have this besetting anxiety about people thinking that we’re big stuff, when in fact all that we’ve managed is to have more performances in which to refine our act.”

Even with their own personal uncertainty principle, there is a basis for Penn and Teller’s uncompromising stance in the face of their multi-media success. It is the basis for the whole act. It is called skepticism.

Skepticism, it is fair to say, is the pair’s obsession. More than four years ago, this writer listened to Teller in a West Hollywood coffee shop talk--which he never does in the show--about Uri Geller’s “bogus act” of bending spoons. In the Wiltern’s women’s lounge, where they had mischievously arranged to conduct interviews, they were still talking about charlatans and paranormal tricksters.

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“Remember, what we do are tricks ,” reminded Gillette, a large, spectacularly loquacious man. “And so do the Doug Hennings, the David Copperfields, the Gellers. The big difference is that we tell you they’re tricks. It isn’t magic.”

But their big gripe isn’t with the showmen so much as the new age movement, the widespread phenomenon of channelers, faith healers, gurus, fans of crystals, astrologers and the like.

“The whole Ramtha thing (an ancient being who supposedly speaks through channelers) really kills me,” says Gillette, “because the channelers have devised ways of completely bypassing science. Carl Sagan had come up with some questions about details of daily life in a past civilization the channeled being was said to be from. The responses were clever ways of avoiding the answers: ‘Those questions are trivial’ or ‘Those questions are being filtered through the channeler and aren’t being transmitted’ and so on.”

As members of the CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal), these enemies of magic share the motto of writer/mathematician Martin Gardner: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

On the other hand, a few hours before their session in the women’s lounge, Penn and Teller staged an extraordinary press conference in which Teller broke Harry Houdini’s five-minute-plus record for staying submerged and bound in an enclosed tube of water, while Penn took questions from the press. (Q: “How can you have a sequel to ‘Penn and Teller Get Killed’ ?” A: “That’s the point. We can’t.”) Soon, Teller looked clearly dead in the water, but, of course, finally emerged intact, breathing, with a sheepish grin on his face.

“I assure you,” he said later, “I’m never even close to dying.” Interestingly, even though it’s in the stage show, the routine originated on television.

“We devised it for Letterman,” noted Teller, “because it was visual. But it works in a huge place like the Wiltern since it recalls Houdini’s mastery of fixing the attention of a live throng of people on a single act.” But it also exemplifies how the duo confronts any medium with their own black, absurdist view of existence, and then finds a way to make the act fit the strengths of that medium.

Without revealing anything from the movie, Gillette remarked that “Penn and Teller Get Killed” is a way of “doing our act, only cinematically.”

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“The key thing we found with television performance,” said Teller, “is that if you do something that looks impossible, it’ll fail. Instead, you have to do something that might be possible--just maybe.”

Examples? The spectacular “Saturday Night Live” skit, which used upside down cameras to create the illusion that Penn and Teller were beating gravity (“The best thing we’ve done,” declared Gillette.) Or another TV stunt, on location at a New York City bridge, that had them grabbing a passer-by, putting him in a casket, nailing it shut, setting it aflame, and dropping it off the bridge.

“Yeah,” added Gillette, “that might just happen in New York.”


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