Magicians Penn and Teller Get No Sleight of Hand from Audiences
Playing to capacity crowds off Broadway, Penn and Teller is part magic (levitation, needle swallowing, fire eating), part comedy, part existential pondering on the nature of art and life. It's theater that appeals to adults and children alike with its crescendo of incongruities. The show opens with Teller hanging upside down and struggling in a straitjacket as Penn reads a rousing rendition of Casey at the Bat. If Penn finishes the saga before Teller frees himself, he is dropped headlong onto a bed of spikes.
Penn, 30, and Teller, 37, have worked together for 11 years. Both despise traditional magic shows. "I never wanted to pull a dove out of a silk handkerchief," says Teller. "One of our basic rules is that we've got to present something new. If we've seen it before, then it's not neat." Adds Penn, "Magicians as a rule have condescended to their audience with this 'I know how to do something you can't do.' We credit the audience with a certain sophistication."
Consequently, they address the dark side of illusion too. During the finale Penn sits alone with the lights out, swallowing fire and philosophizing about life and sideshows. "People get to know you by the end of the show," he explains. "Then you should be able to talk in quiet tones without jokes." Teller expresses surprise that there is a comical overtone at all. "Left to our own devices," he says, "Penn would be writing existential horror short stories and I'd be pretending to be Alfred Hitchcock."
Both performers learned magic tricks as kids, but any similarities in background end there. Teller, the only child of a Philadelphia commercial artist and his wife, grew up a "quiet and unobtrusive" boy, he says. After graduating from Amherst in 1969, he taught Latin in Trenton, N.J. for six years.
Penn grew up in Greenfield, Mass., where his mother was a practical joker who woke him with tales of rhinos in the backyard. Penn shunned academia after high school, despite scholarship offers. The son of a prison guard turned numismatist, he was obsessed with sideshows. As a child he fantasized that he would release and then befriend the incarcerated wild man at the county fair. "But I never went into the sideshows," he admits. "I was terrified of what was inside that tent."
The pair met while Penn was living in New York rehearsing a juggling act and Teller was performing "creepy, silent, solo magic shows" in libraries in his off-teaching hours. At first their relationship was prickly. Working with a Latin scholar was a problem for Penn, a rebellious 19-year-old who wore eye makeup and sunglasses and had hair down his back. "There was not a lot of naked liking," admits Teller. "But we worked together because we thought we were valuable to one another."
After years of stashing their personal belongings in storage lockers while perfecting their act at fairs and amusement parks around the country, Penn and Teller have finally become more affluent—and more settled. Last year, during a successful Los Angeles run, Penn bought a two-bedroom house where he lives with his girlfriend, Kathy French. Teller rents a Manhattan apartment just three blocks from the theater.
But having a successful run means more to Penn and Teller than just being recognized on the street and receiving an autographed LP from Yoko Ono after she saw the show. Penn recently filmed a guest spot as a villain in Miami Vice's season opener and a role in Offbeat, an upcoming feature film. Each has received offers for solo spots in comedy specials, but neither has any intention of going it alone. "We prefer to work together, but we're not hysterically dependent on each other," explains Teller. Currently they're writing four Disney Channel specials in which they will star.
Even Penn and Teller have found themselves confounded by the popularity of their off-Broadway stint. "There was one night when I looked out and there was Candice Bergen, Robert Morley, E.G. Marshall, Eli Wallach and Tracy Ullmann in the audience," says Teller. With their newfound fame, he adds, "We seem to be on a perfect level. You get a nice jolt of ego reinforcement a couple of times a day with no inconvenience." That's another mark of Penn and Teller's magic: They turn hanging suspended above spikes into nice work if you can get it.