Talking with Penn (not Teller)

Whitney Spaner

Penn and Teller are no strangers to making big statements in NYC: they've released a pile of cockroaches onto David Letterman's desk, dropped a refrigerator on themselves on Broadway and delivered a monologue (well, Penn, at least) while eating fire in an Off-Broadway show. But perhaps their most amazing trick is managing to keep their act together—and add fresh material—since the days when Times Square had more strip clubs than Disney theaters. With a show that's part vaudeville, part science, part comedy and part thrill, Penn and Teller are returning to the Great White Way this summer after 24 years away—where they will attempt one of the hardest magic tricks they've never actually seen: pulling a rabbit out of a hat. In between their putting the finishing touches on Penn & Teller on Broadway and performances at their own theater in the Rio Las Vegas Hotel and Casino, we caught up with Penn Jillette, the bigger and louder of the two, to talk about his 40-year relationship with Teller, mastering the most iconic magic trick in the world and returning to New York City with two kids in tow. For more insights (and, surely, some surprises), catch their TimesTalks conversation July 2 at TheTimesCenter.

You've been in Vegas for a while now, but this will be your third time on Broadway. Do you find audiences are different in Vegas than in New York? Or does it not matter where you’re performing? Penn Jillette: In general, I think there are fewer regional differences [than there used to be], but those that do remain don’t really affect us. I think they’re mostly political, and our show is essentially not political. There are no Hillary jokes. There are no Donald Trump jokes. There are no Rand Paul references. I think that changes a little bit in terms of the country, but in the stuff that we do—tricks no one can figure out—Mississippi is pretty similar to Vegas is pretty similar to New York.

Rumor has it that you'll be doing one of the hardest tricks of all time, which also happens to be one of the most traditional: pulling a rabbit out of a hat. PJ: It's funny. It is the cliché to pull a rabbit out of one's hat, and yet Teller asked me: “Have you ever seen that?” I had to do a lot of thinking, but I realized I've never seen that trick, and neither had Teller. The reason why is because it's wicked-hard magic. We've been working together for 40 years, and we have lost interest in doing easy stuff. We got some of the most amazing magic minds alive—Amazing Randi, out of Florida, and Johnny Thompson, out here in Vegas—and the four of us worked for months and figured out how to actually say we're going to pull a rabbit out of a hat, and then do it, and check all the boxes. Those boxes include making sure the rabbit is comfortable, because we care very much about that. We're known for doing nontraditional magic, yet we realize that no one is doing the most traditional thing of all time, because it's too hard—so we're able to do traditional magic. It's kind of like after you play lead guitar for a really long time, you might want to go back and play those Robert Johnson blues.

Do you and Teller hang out outside of the show? PJ: Never. We spend time socially together probably twice a year; we might have a hamburger, or a cup of tea, but we work together all the time. One of the reasons I think we've been a successful team for 40 years is that our relationship is based not on affection but on respect. We don't expect to get along or pal around. We expect to do the best possible shows we can. From the very beginning we both thought we did better stuff together than we did separately, so that keeps us together, but it's run more like a dry cleaning business. That having been said, when my children were born, when my parents died—those important huge changes in life—Teller was the first one I talked to. He is my closest friend.

Do you still get nervous when you perform? PJ: Nervous might not be the exact right word, but certainly jacked to high heaven, and that’s a really nice feeling.

Excited, then? PJ: Yeah, sure. You want to do everything right, and this is a really interesting show, because we’re doing some stuff that’s really brand new that we've only been working on a couple of months and some stuff we've been doing for over 40 years. We're really trying to make this the definitive Penn and Teller show. We haven’t been back to Broadway in 24 years. We work in our own theater in Vegas, and we're really interested in making this particular show our real statement. In Vegas we change the show all the time, but for the past few months we've been focused on getting the show as tight and polished as we can for Broadway. It's really fun to have that focus.

What do you like doing in New York that you don't get to do in Vegas? PJ: Everything. In my mind you're either living in New York, or you're someplace else. I lived in Manhattan for 10 years when we were doing the Off-Broadway and the other two Broadway runs and all the Lettermans and the Sterns. I love the city. I love a toasted corn muffin at 3am, and I love a cup of decaffeinated coffee while people walk by. I like walking around New York. Vegas is a little bit more like LA. You don't get to walk. You don't bump into people in Vegas; you have to plan to see people. I miss bumping into people. I also miss the art. When I was back in New York 20 years ago, I could still go to CBGB. I guess I could still go to the Knitting Factory—that's still going, although it's very, very different. I like hearing jazz. I like hearing avant-garde music. I love the shows. I'm not much of a musical guy, but I do love straight dramatic plays. I'm very eager to see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I just like the sophistication and the cosmopolitan quality of New York. I'll be very eager to finish my show and rush off to catch some jazz—anything that's avant-garde and crazy, I'm there.

Your kids are also coming along this time, right? PJ: Yes. My children are 9 and 10, and that's a really, really good time to be in New York—there’s museums, they can be outside, they can have a wonderful time. We're staying right off Times Square, and I think my children will really enjoy that. They’ve been to New York many times before, when I've shot TV shows only for a week or two at a time. They’ll be here seven weeks this time, and I think that will be really nice.

Last time you lived in New York you were living a bachelor lifestyle. It’s going to be very different with kids. PJ: It'll be different. Back when I left New York it was all porn in Times Square, and now Disney bought it, but I love the porn and I love the Disney, so I'm OK with it either way.

Good to know. Break a leg on opening night of the show! PJ: I hope you get hurt badly yourself.

Penn & Teller On Broadwaybegins previews July 7, with an opening on July 12, at the Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway. The TimesTalk takes place 6:30–8pm on July 2 at the TimesCenter, 242 W. 41st. St.