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Monday, December 02, 2019

The Curse of Cassandra

From the Vault Dept.: In my ongoing effort to clear out desk and filing-cabinet drawers, I’ve been turning old paperwork into PDFs and old audio tapes into MP3s. Even though it’s unlikely that any of this material will be seen or heard again, it remins “there,” and it takes up far less space. I ran across (and digitized) my 1992 interviews with Penn and Teller, conducted in order to write an advance about their upcoming Schenectady debut; that piece is followed by my review of the show.


ONLY VERY RECENTLY has Penn Jillette referred to himself and his partner, Teller, as magicians. “When we first started we were very hesitant to let anyone anywhere call us magicians, because when people said ‘magic’ they pictured – and still do – a greasy guy in a tux with a lot of birds playing bad white-boy Motown music and pushing women around. And that’s not what we do.”

Penn & Teller, back in the day.
What they do do they’ll be doing at 8 PM Saturday at Proctor’s Theatre as they make their Schenectady debut. You’ll see needles swallowed, a straightjacket escape, an almost never-before-seen finale and the possibility that Teller won’t make it through the show.

Is it magic? “If you look the real definition of magic,” says Penn, “if you think past the image of Copperfield or Siegfried and Roy – all it really means is doing special effects that the audience can’t figure out. When something looks one way and is done another, that’s your definition of irony, which is a backbone of the theater. So magic is actually a very intellectual and adult form. It’s just that over the past fifty years, it’s been moved to the barrooms and it hasn’t really developed like the other art forms. I mean, Houdini was not a big star for magic. He was a superstar of his day. He was Bruce Springsteen. That’s what people forget. They start thinking, well, Copperfield is good for a magician – that’s like a Special Olympics type thing.”

“So we didn’t call ourselves magicians so people wouldn’t think we were doing dopey effects and things. We didn’t want to do condescending stuff. We wanted to do stuff for audiences that were at least as smart as we were. Because when you’re out on stage, you’ve got people in your audience who can fix cars, perform surgery, write a machine code – they’re out there, and you’re kind of dick to go onstage and say, you don’t know anything because you don’t know how the Hippety-Hop Rabbits is done. Now that we’ve been on Letterman a few times and people know who we are, I’m much less defensive and I’ll say, okay, we’re magicians.”

The partnership dates back to 1975 and includes shows on and off Broadway, a movie (“Penn and Teller Get Killed”), books, videotapes and many television appearances, including regular stints on the David Letterman show where they have produced everything from blood to cockroaches.

Penn, who is a bulky six-foot-six, is the fast-talking spokesman of the duo. Small, wiry Teller never says a word onstage but is quite voluble otherwise. He has a Harpo Marx impishness that is deliberately worked into the act. “Generations of people have seen silent films and silent performers,” he says, “so that by now they invest the person who’s not speaking with a certain kind of innocence. Which is certainly something that we play against violently. In a certain way, I think of myself as the sinister element of the show, and it’s reinforced by things that we do. For example, in one bit it looks like Penn is ridiculing the hell out of me – and Penn ends up with a knife through his hand. We generally try to work it so that if there’s an action that’s actually aggressive or dangerous, it ends up in my hands. Because Penn takes care of the aggressive and dangerous qualities in speech, we might as well give me the physical part of it.”

A first-time viewer can be shocked to see the pair at work. Penn lulls you in with smooth, confidence-building patter before the two of them go in for the kill. He has been likened to a carnival barker or con man, but he decries the comparison.

“The wonderful thing about magic,” says Penn, “the wonderful thing about what we do is that you have a completely safe zone in the theater. You can do tremendously immoral things, but because they’re within that framework, they become moral. Lying is a horrible taboo. You should not lie. You should always tell the truth. I believe that very strongly and try to live that as much as I can.

“But I’ve got this framework in which I can play with all the techniques of lying and distorting the truth and still be completely moral. It’s a very important thing to remember because there’s a lot of this really sick aggrandizing of the con man, the rip-off artists – you get people saying, ‘These guys stole my purse and handed it off, and it’s amazing how fast and how good they were’ – and they’re not that fast and good. You put them up against the Olympic Relay Team and they fall on their faces. The fact is that any of the cons is really as artistically delicate and difficult as putting a shotgun in someone’s mouth and robbing a 7-11. It’s just evil.

“Whereas it’s a fact that inside the theater you can do things that are very dark and wonderful. We like our audience to be extremely skeptical. The more of a chip you have on your shoulder, the better we are to watch. The idea of the con within the theater is the most wonderful thing in the world. But outside of it – like Kreskin or somebody – it’s just a horrible thing.”

Penn and Teller can be as bloody as any Grand Guignol spectacle, but it’s a darkness all their own. Teller even takes credit for amplifying his own love of the bizarre: “The parts of our personality that we show on stage have become more focused over the years, and the big thing for me has been making explicit the dark side of my character. Because that’s really all I care about. I was raised on the Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock, and my favorite authors are people like Poe and Borges – and Max Beerbohm when he’s turning thingsnoir.”

Yet as black as their comedy gets, it doesn’t seem to stop anyone from laughing – even as black comedy itself seems to have fallen out of audience favor. “I have a theory about this,” Teller says. “I believe that we possess the curse of Cassandra, who would speak the truth without anyone believing her – that was the curse she got for not sleeping with Apollo. It’s almost as if the darker and more noir the material we do, the funnier people think it is. We’re cursed with some kind of likeability that enables us to do things that other performers could never get away with. Imagine somebody else trying to get away with producing 500 cockroaches on David Letterman’s desk.

“I think it may be that underneath it all we have a tremendous respect for the audience, and we do really like the audience, so there isn’t any real bitterness under it. It’s just two guys who are fascinated with this stuff that seems so exhilirating and fun.”

The Proctor’s show is part of a three-week tour that includes a mixture of their favorite routines with a brand-new finale. “This is a little bit smaller than what we’ve done on Broadway,” says Penn, “only in that we aren’t dropping refrigerators on our heads. But we are doing the Water Tank which is big and – excuse me for this – splashy.”

That’s yet another of the torture-Teller routines they enjoy. It will end the first half, says Teller, “and leave me dead. It’s always good to leave the audience up in the air about whether one of the performers is going to make it back after intermission.”

“We’re doing the straightjacket-Teller-upside-down,” says Penn, “and the classics – we’re doing Teller eating the needles and bringing them up threaded – and we’ll have a brand-new closing bit that has a lot of blood. In our 18-year career, there are only two closing bits we’ve ever done. Now we’re adding a third, which is what you’ll see in Schenectady. It’s one of the coolest things ever written. For anyone who has any magic background, it’ll just blow you away because it takes some standard magic technology and just turns it fuckin’ inside out.”

And there’s a coming-home of sorts for two of the team, he adds. “Our director of covert activities, which is the guy who does all the magic stuff, Robbie Libbon, is from Schenectady. And so is Stewart Wagner, our lighting guy. So it’s a heavy Schenectady group. Of the five people who will be arriving from the Penn and Teller camp, a solid 40 percent are from Schenectady.”

Metroland Magazine, 8 October 1992


Penn and Teller Play Proctor’s

AS PENN JILLETTE EXPLAINS, the Penn & Teller style is to “take a standard, wimpy piece of card magic and add a little class.” This is why he doesn’t take the easy way out to produce a chosen playing card – he gets his hand stabbed and the card is affixed to the underside, drenched with dripping blood.

It’s a startling, ghastly, funny effect. “And you kids,” Teller adds, “will be talking about this to a court-appointed psychiatrist.”

Penn & Teller made their first Schenectady appearance at Proctor’s Theatre last Saturday, bringing a two-act show of classic magic and illusion livened with humor and irreverence.

That approach is aptly demonstrated in the first act closer, another card trick with a twist: Teller has to hold his breath underwater while Penn tries to reveal a chosen card. And fails.

Two audience “volunteers” (actually, Penn & Teller are pretty specific about choosing who comes up onstage) help with the trick. One woman held a stopwatch and read off the time in 30-second intervals, while a young man acted as card chooser and general patsy.

“What’s your name?” asked Penn as the seconds ticked off and Teller hung suspended in the tank. “Evan Burch. Okay. Do you use a middle initial? C. Right. Hold out your hand.” Penn slowly counted out cards, one per letter: “E-v-a-n C. B-u-r-c-h. Is this your card?”

It wasn’t, of course. And the kicker is that Teller has to writhe and struggle and expire before our eyes before the card is produced in a singularly gruesome fashion.

Penn is a bear of a man with a booming voice who takes the tradition of magician’s patter to a new extreme. With hip slang and an attitude problem that must have earned him endless high school detentions, he insults flashy (and just plain bad) lounge magicians, reveals their shoddier tricks, and then tops everything you’ve ever seen any of them do.

The second act opens with a familiar effect: Teller climbs into a stack of oversized boxes, and, even as Penn separates the boxes, Teller’s limbs and face continue to emerge from the sections.

“Hey Copperfield!” Penn shouts. “Suck on this!”

They repeat the illusion using clear plexiglass boxes and the effect is shattered, revealed as a not-too-clever sham (which, of course, describes most magic). And then they go on to an even more startling effect, which is not explained.

The small, lithe Teller has kindly features that turn demonic in an instant. A first-act solo turn finds him swallowing a hundred needles, but by this time there’s the uncomfortable sense that he enjoys munching on needles and might even do so in lieu of crackers. By the time he swallows a length of thread and produces the threaded needles, you’ve almost forgotten that such was in store.

We were treated to levitation, a straightjacket escape (complete with poetry) and a balloon routine titled “The Domestication of Animals” that is more about bursting balloons (metaphoric as well as literal) than twisting them into shapes.

A simple prediction routine, of the sort that Kreskin does much too seriously, is turned into a freewheeling bit that asks a number of volunteers to help choose a Bible verse while Penn slips in and out of a convincing televangelist character.

And the finale strips the conventions of sleight-of-hand naked as a similarly undressed Penn & Teller (tee-shirted for modesty once they emerge from behind a screen) produce flowers, scarves, and lots and lots of blood. Special congratulations for the Vegas music parody the routine was played against.

Unlike so many magicians, they don’t rely on larger-than-life routines for their effect. Thanks to well-written bits and a fiendish sense of humor, they explore the theatricality of magic so shrewdly that you never feel duped – only dazzled.

Metroland Magazine, 15 October 1992

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