Penn & Teller: Living it up in Sin City
Duo riding high with live show, TV work
By Todd Leopold
(CNN) -- Penn & Teller are proud to work in Sin City.
This may not come as a surprise to fans of the illusionist duo. After all, these are two guys whose tricks have included catching bullets in their teeth, threatening to impale one member on spikes and appearing to put a bunny through a wood chipper, all to the rhythm of Penn's carny-barker patter and Teller's stoic, silent irreverence.
Las Vegas -- the Desert Gomorrah -- would seem to be a perfect fit.
But it has surprised the pair, despite the fact they've maintained homes and a business office there for several years.
"I used to be snobby about Vegas," says Penn Jillette, the taller, talkative half of the duo. He believed the place had come a long way down from its heyday in the Rat Pack era, when "Vegas was hip," he adds.
But times -- and Vegas -- have changed, he says. The Strip's hotels are now full of the edgier, New York-style entertainment and rock acts it once scorned -- and that's partly thanks to Penn & Teller's success.
The duo packed houses at Bally's when they first set up shop in the city, and began an extended residency at the Rio last fall that should run well into 2004. In their wake, Blue Man Group, Cirque du Soleil, and several rock shows have come into town.
Audiences are welcoming the change, Penn believes. "I think people under age 55 come to Vegas with a certain sense of irony," he says in a phone interview, and initially try one of the old-style shows for kicks. But then, he suggests, it's "let's see something that's not Vegas."
That's where Penn & Teller and the others come in. "We're counterprogramming," adds Teller in a separate call. "We're there for people who want to see people do amazing stuff."
Talk and don't talk
Penn & Teller have been doing "amazing stuff" for more than 25 years now. They first teamed up in New Jersey in 1975; at the time, Penn was a street performer, Teller a high-school Latin teacher who performed magic on the side.
The roles they chose -- Penn's jokey bluster and Teller's silence -- were naturals, Teller says.
"I hated patter," he says. "It was usually redundant stuff -- 'Here I am holding a red ball' -- all of which I regarded as personally insulting." Silence, on the other hand, got an audience's attention, particularly in places like frat parties.
As for Penn's loquaciousness, it's always a means to an end, says Teller.
"Penn's fundamental gifts are his respect for the audience and his intelligence," Teller says. "He combines vocabulary words that wouldn't seem to belong together -- a word out of rap and a word from a physics textbook -- so a lot of images collide."
By 1985 the two had their own off-Broadway show; two years later they moved to the Great White Way itself. They appeared on several TV shows and published three books, "Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends," "How to Play with Your Food," and "How to Play in Traffic." Teller also wrote a memoir with his father, "When I'm Dead All This Will Be Yours."
And the pair recently concluded a season of their Showtime TV show "Bulls**t!", which was nominated for two Emmys. A DVD of "Bulls**t!" is due out shortly.
Now that they're staying in town the two are constantly working on new stuff, which is easy to do since they live nearby.
"Right now we're doing a bit that's four minutes long that we rehearsed for a year," Penn says. "When you're working at that glacial pace, it's nice being in one place."
"Life is extremely easy," says Teller. "Here we have a 5,000-square foot office, shop and rehearsal space. In New York, life was an apartment in a building full of hookers."
The two also play around with their act a little more. In addition to the stunts and illusions, there's a jazz performer, Mike Jones, with whom Penn performs before a show.
Jones also takes part in the magic. At one point, Penn is transformed by Gorilla Girl, a mind-reading woman-turned-gorilla. "It has to be narrated carnival-style. Mike does that at the piano with the whole schtick," says Teller.
Playing a regular show in Vegas is different from touring, Penn observes. For one thing, a Vegas audience is spur-of-the-minute; on the road, they may get to a city seldom enough that "it's an event," he says.
Also, an unfamiliar road audience, primed for their appearance, "explodes," Penn says -- even though the pair may be putting on the same show every night.
But a Vegas audience has more of a show-me attitude.
"I prefer Vegas," Penn says. "I feel like we have to really work."