When Penn and Teller first started performing in 1975, the duo was unlike anything else out there.
In 2018 … well, there’s still not anything else out there like Penn and Teller. The comedy/magic greats will perform at The Show at the Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa on Friday, Dec. 7.
During a recent phone interview with Penn Jillette—of course we interviewed the one who talks—he said they made a conscious effort to be different when they started out.
“Alfred Hitchcock said if you wanted to be a director, don’t see great movies and say, ‘I’m going to do that.’ See bad movies and say, ‘At least I won’t do that,’” Jillette said. “I came out of a background of really disliking magic. Teller was in love was magic since he was about 5, but I really never liked it. I was a juggler and a musician. I didn’t like magic because of the obvious dishonesty of it. Besides the obvious dishonesty of it … I disliked the lack of thought in magic. Teller and I started a conversation when we first met, and we would think about magic shows, saying, ‘We don’t want to do that.’ It’s like the Sex Pistols when they said they didn’t want to be the Beatles. Out of that came a kind-of honest relationship with the audience where we occasionally tell them how the tricks are done. We always tell them when we’re lying, and I like to think they never leave the theater believing something we ourselves don’t believe is true.”
Jillette elaborated on their avoidance of dishonesty.
“When you saw a human being cut in half onstage during a magic trick, nobody—and I’m eliminating deeply mentally ill people, or someone who is too young to be at the show—leaves the show believing they witnessed a murder. The same goes with mind-reading and memory tricks. You need to leave the theater with us not misleading you on anything—we try to follow that as carefully as we can. Out of that, the skepticism, the atheism and the comedy comes.”
Penn and Jillette have never been afraid to get political or controversial, be it in their act or on their TV shows—especially Penn and Teller: Bullshit!, which ran on Showtime from 2003 to 2010.
“The nice thing is that our politics tend not to be nowadays in one of the camps that’s fighting,” Jillette said. “We’re both libertarian and atheist. That position is seen by both sides, Republicans and Democrats, with an eye roll. We’re so socially liberal that not even the Democrats agree with us. We’re so fiscally conservative that even the Republicans don’t agree with us.
“Bullshit! is where most of our politics came out. We were so concerned with being pro-science, pro-rational and pro-human that the politics ended up not being partisan, in a very strange way. I used to go on talking-head shows as a pundit, but now that there is nothing to talk about on the news except the president—and I have made my position very clear, because I knew the president well—I’m kind of done. … I’m not willing to go on TV now and talk about the latest outrage. I like to remind people now that the world is getting better, and this momentary thing is just a glitch.”
Bullshit! tackled subjects ranging from religions to multilevel marketing to recycling—and a few episodes stirred up some intense anger.
“People often ask us who got the most upset after an episode of Bullshit!, and I must tell you that this fills me with shame,” he said. “We expected Christians to be a problem, but many Christians practice what they preach, and their reactions were very gentle, very kind and very understanding. But the Sept. 11 truthers and the chiropractors were out of their fucking minds. There were a couple of nuts who didn’t like the Sept. 11 show and threatened, of all people, our prop guy. The police had to be called and showed up at the offices, which is very strange.
“The chiropractors were very aggressive and claiming boycotts, which is a perfectly reasonably way to react.”
There were subjects Showtime refused to allow Penn and Teller to tackle.
“Scientology was one of them, because they were scared,” Jillette said. “Showtime and the lawyers told us, ‘You don’t fuck with Scientology,’ because there have been some bad things that happened. We also wanted to do that book The Secret that Oprah was promoting. (Showtime) didn’t want us doing that because of some sort of publishing entanglement that would have made us at odds with other parts of the company—not so much that we could affect their commerce, but that it could be a conflict of interest and may violate other contracts.
“We wanted to do one on reality shows like Big Brother and The Apprentice, but it’s impossible to get the footage—as we’ve seen with our president, because it’s incredibly locked down by legal teams.”
Penn and Teller remain busy these days, including their Las Vegas residency and their show Penn and Teller: Fool Us, a magic-competition show on The CW.
“We’ll be shooting all of the Fool Us episodes in early February and March,” Jillette said. “Teller and I are writing material to put in our show. We’re at a point now where our show is changing, and (new) material is going in every week, so it’s really fun. Teller and I are in our 60s now, and it’s supposed to be a time when you calm down—and we’re now writing material faster, better and crazier than when we were on Saturday Night Live, David Letterman and Broadway.”
Penn and Teller will perform at 8 p.m., Friday, Dec. 7, at The Show at the Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa, 32250 Bob Hope Drive, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $45 to $65. For tickets or more information, call 888-999-1995, or visit www.hotwatercasino.com.