Corrections or additions?
This article by Jack Florek was prepared for the September 26,
2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Penn & Teller: Quirky & Hip Hocus-Pocus
By all rights it seems that stage magic should have
been relegated to the back-bin of quaint nostalgia a long time ago.
These days, with technology capable of jettisoning the wildest sort
of virtual reality into impressionable minds at the click of a mouse,
it is hard to imagine anything potentially more anachronistic, and
downright corny, than magic. The image of a mustached magician decked
out in top hat and tails mouthing stage patter as he pulls a
bunny from a hat remains magic’s enduring image. Didn’t this stuff
go out with the horse and buggy?
But surprisingly, 75 years after the death of Harry Houdini, magic
has leapt into the 21st century, looking less like a carefully
daguerreotype than a high-tech digital TV. It is high profile, trendy,
and cool. (One noted magician even became a fixture on the covers
of the gossip mags recently, haven broken up with his super-model
girlfriend.) Nostalgia, magic is not.
Ever since the 1970s, big-name magicians such as Siegfried & Roy,
David Copperfield, and the late Doug Henning have been international
celebrities. Their big budget TV specials and lavish stage shows,
still relying mostly on the old tricks, but adding an updated
edge, have drawn huge crowds and big bucks. And today, as any channel
surfer can attest, magic shows dot the cable and satellite TV
But in the face of all this glitz and glamour, Penn & Teller,
called "The Bad Boys of Magic," have been performing their
quirky, hipster version of hocus-pocus since the mid-1970s. Despite
appearing in their own brand of TV specials ("Penn & Teller Go
Public" won two Emmy Awards) and even a movie ("Penn & Teller
Get Killed"), they’re approach is decidedly anti-mainstream.
even though they don’t like to admit it, Penn & Teller are two of
magic’s prime practitioners. They will be appearing at McCarter
on Wednesday and Thursday, October 3 and 4, as a part of their 25th
Using the trappings of traditional magic shows as a jumping off point,
Penn & Teller have taken such time-honored bits as bullet catching,
the East Indian Needle Mystery, fire-eating, juggling, and levitation,
and launched them into new oddly inspired avenues of offbeat surprise.
"We’re not really in the mainstream of magic," admits Teller
(his full legal name), in a phone interview from his offices in Las
Vegas, Nevada. "The fact that I’m willing to use the word `magic’
about some of the stuff we do is a new thing to me. We’ve always done
something very different, twisting things in different ways. I really
kind of defy you to tell me in what category to put some of the stuff
As an example, Teller describes how they’ll open their show at
"We open things with, supposedly, a card trick, but we behave
as if we don’t notice the fact that we’re doing this trick each
giant inflatable suits, like mascots wear at ballgames. There’s a
giant, 12-foot-tall Penn and an eight-foot-tall Teller. Now is that
more like Harry Blackstone or Samuel Beckett?"
As another example Teller describes a bit new to the show which is
really a kind of psychological test for each individual audience
It is a variation on the traditional escape trick made popular by
"We lock me in a wooden crate with a Plexiglas box nested inside
it," he explains. "It is locked from the outside so it is
really impossible to reach the locks from the inside. Now normally,
an escape is done with a screen put up in front of the box, and then
a little while later the magician emerges from behind the screen
and all covered with sweat. They then whip the screen away and there’s
the box, still intact. Magic. Now our view of this is that the screen
is optional. We tell the audience, `We’re going to do the trick, but
if you want to be amazed, you’ll have to keep your eyes closed. On
the other hand, if you want to see how the trick is done, keep your
eyes open. That’s your choice.’
"This tells you what kind of individual you are," he
"Are you someone who comes to the show with the hope of taking
home mysteries and puzzles that trouble you when you wake up in the
middle of the night, or are you the kind of person that wants an easy
answer? I guess you could say that’s a magic trick, but it’s not a
magic trick if you don’t want it to be."
Teller, the shorter half of the duo, has become famous
for his refusal to speak onstage. Asked if he was inspired in some
way by the comic persona of Harpo Marx, he says, "No, not at all.
I never really paid any attention to the Marx Brothers until I was
well into my 20s, long after I stopped talking onstage.
"It was mostly a rebellion against the dumbest kind of stage
that I heard other magicians spewing out onstage. Things like `Here
I am holding a red ball,’ which is horribly redundant, or some
kid saying `Last year, when I was traveling with my retinue in the
orient…’ Yeah, sure. Sometime in college I got a bug in my bonnet
that I would try to do dramatic and funny magic without talking and
without using music as a substitute. Just do it dead silent and let
the audience use its head and figure out what’s going on. Soon after,
I met Penn and I just kept on being silent."
Teller was born and raised in Philadelphia. His initial encounter
with magic occurred when his parents bought him a Howdy Doody magic
kit when he was five years old. "My father designed lettering
for newspaper advertising," he says. "My mother mostly worked
in the sale of art supplies."
Both his parents are still alive and both are serious fine artists.
"My mother primarily paints still-lifes and portraits," he
says. "She is a real sensitive painter who tries to get down into
the very soul of whatever she’s painting. My father is a kind of wild
colorist. He paints both abstract and realism, but in everything he
does there is a sense of humor, and a way that these things jump
off the canvas and drill themselves into your head."
Last year, Teller published a book of cartoons drawn by his father,
Joe Teller, in 1939, and entitled, "When I’m Dead All This Will
Be Yours." Since then his father’s artistic career has taken off.
"The book led to an exhibition last July of my father’s work at
WHYY studios in Philadelphia," explains Teller. This has led to
his father’s first gallery show that will take place in October at
the Rosenfeld Gallery on Arch Street in Philadelphia.
After graduating from Central High in Philadelphia, Teller went to
Amherst College where he graduated in 1969. He then briefly taught
high school Latin in Lawrenceville before meeting Penn Jillette in
Along with a third partner, Weir Chrisimer, Penn and Teller formed
the "Asparagus Valley Cultural Society," honing their
comically-laced magic act. "We opened it at a theater on the
campus in 1975," he says. "We did that show for six years,
and then it kind of fizzled. Our third partner decided to go his own
way. He wanted a life, and as everyone knows, if you’re in show
you can forget about having a life."
Speaking several days after the tragic events in New York, Washington,
and eastern Pennsylvania, we asked how Teller how a comedian would
handle it. He said he was relieved that he would not have to perform
and try to be funny too soon after the attack.
"Our tour really begins in Princeton, so I really don’t need to
deal with that question for a couple of weeks. The immediate
is that I don’t think a lot of people will be going to comedy shows
tonight and laughing a lot. It’s too bone-deep for that. But,"
he adds, "we recover from these things."
"My big fear about this is that aside from the immediate, horrific
damage it has done to people, that the more repressive elements of
the government will take this as a cue, and in a sense, an opportunity
to work toward depriving civil liberties," says Teller.
"You know that, in all the talk that’s a going on about `Oh, we
have to control the Internet or there will be terrorism.’ Well, even
though the Internet doesn’t appear to have had anything to do with
this piece of terrorism, those people are going to be singing that
song very loudly. And we’re going to have to watch them. The damage
isn’t just the death and the destruction that was wrought on those
individuals and on the communities. The damage is really, potentially
psychological, but maybe, indeed, whoever is behind this will end
up depriving us of some of our freedoms."
Penn & Teller’s month long tour will also take them to such nearby
places as Wilmington, Red Bank, Newark, and Easton. Then they will
return to Las Vegas where they perform 20 weeks each year. "But
the touring audiences are our favorite audiences," says Teller.
"They buy their tickets two months in advance and they get all
revved up for the show. They’re the best. Especially in an incredibly
cool place like McCarter."
Without any new film projects or TV specials on the horizon for Penn
& Teller, he says things are comfortable and that’s how they both
"We’re in a very comfortable place," says Teller. "I used
to say to Penn, `When I grow up, I want to be Victor Borge.’ I want
to be the guy who can always do shows, always fill up the audience,
always keep people very happy. It may sound immodest, but I think
we’ve really gotten close to that point."
— Jack Florek
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