5 Reasons You'll Want to See Penn & Teller Live ASAP
They’ve turned a Mack Truck into a human rolling pin, disassembled and reconstituted countless volunteers—and made a 1500-pound pygmy elephant disappear. But perhaps Penn & Teller’s greatest trick has been their staying power. They’ve been working together for 44 years. That’s longer than Siegfried and Roy, Lennon and McCartney or Homer and Marge.
And yet, year after year, show after show, audiences keep turning out, making Penn & Teller the longest-running production at the Rio Hotel and Casino—or any other Vegas hotel, for that matter.
On a recent night at the Rio, where the duo has been holding court for 18 years, longtime fans and expectant newbies packed the 1475-seat theater. Many came early to hear Penn Jillette play upright bass with The Mike Jones Duo. Others stayed late, long after the final curtain, to take selfies with Penn & Teller in the theater lobby. Not a one seemed anything less than starstruck.
So, what’s going on here? How do two guys who’ve worked together since the Ford administration keep the magic alive—and why should you check out their show, even if you’ve already been? We went behind the scenes for the answers, and discovered five key secrets to the duo’s constant reappearing act.
Their show is always changing
There’s a locked room backstage at the Rio with a giant photo of Mr. T. on the door. “Stay Out, Sucka,” he warns. This is where Penn & Teller keep their tricks and very few people have the combination to get in. But anyone who does knows that the collection is ever-evolving. The duo is always inventing new routines or improving on old ones. Even Teller’s famed shadows routine, which he copyrighted in 1983, might turn up on any given night.
Generally, though, the duo develops every trick as a team. If one does a solo bit, the other directs it and vice versa. “When I’m working on a routine,” Penn says. “Teller is in the audience watching it and giving me comments, lines, and ideas.”
(Bizarre fact: Teller’s actually the chatty one during rehearsals; Penn is more cerebral and aloof.)
If the tricks are trending in any direction, though, it’s away from the dangerously fraught. (Read: No more catching bullets in mouths—the trick many people first knew Penn & Teller for.) Which is not to say the two are losing their edge, but rather that “our show has become a little more thoughtful,” explains Penn, whose penchant for talking to the audience about magic mid-trick will come to the surprise of no one who’s ever caught an episode of the CW hit Penn & Teller: Fool Us. And that brings us to our next point.
Total world domination keeps them relevant
Or at least pop culture domination does. In the unlikely event that you’ve not seen Penn & Teller: Fool Us, here’s the premise: The televised magic competition places the title characters in the audience, where they try to decode whatever trick is happening on stage. If they fail, the performer who’s just gotten one over on them wins a trip to Vegas—and an opening role in their live show. The formula is ratings gold—as underscored by the CW’s recent renewal for season seven.
Somehow, between that show and the live Vegas show, the duo has also found time to partner with another pop culture legend—J.J. Abams (of Star Wars, Star Trek and Mission Impossible fame)—on the soon-to-debut Magic Goes Wrong—a London theatrical production based on the hit The Play That Goes Wrong.
And before this latest round of side hustles, there were the Showtime years (when Penn & Teller: BS! became the network’s longest running series); plus the appearances on every show from Friends to Big Bang Theory to The Simpsons; and the cameos in movies and music videos (Run DMC's It’s Tricky is a classic). There’s even a Penn & Teller video game.
A cynic might view all this exposure as a brilliant ploy to stay relevant, but Penn says there’s no hocus-pocus behind their omnipresence. They’re happy to perform pretty much anywhere anytime, as long as there’s an audience. “Teller and I used to be, and still are, carney attractions,” he explains. “We’ve worked stairs, we’ve worked streets, we’ve worked outdoors. We’ve worked the funkiest environments ever. It’s just the way we are.” Even after their first show on Broadway (oh, did we mention they’ve had a couple of Broadway runs?), the duo walked outside onto the street and continued the show on the sidewalk, much to the horror of their producers, no doubt.
They’re clearly meant to be a team
Penn was first introduced to Teller in 1975 through a mutual friend. Teller was a child prodigy—a gifted magician with an encyclopedic mind for magic history. He’s said he stopped talking during his act because the silence “allows for a kind of intimacy that no conversation can have.” Penn, by contrast, was an outspoken musician and a juggler. At 6’6 and 300 pounds, he commanded the stage. The unlikely duo immediately clicked and took their show on the road as The Asparagus Valley Cultural Society. “Teller and I started our relationship based on respect. We thought, very simply, very directly, we could do better stuff together than we did separately,” says Penn.
And the world agreed.
Eventually, the duo landed guest spots on Saturday Night Live and Late Night with David Letterman. By the time Penn & Teller's TV special had won an Emmy—and their Off-Broadway show an Obie—in 1985, the two were bona fide stars. Now, they perform their live show in Vegas five nights a week, and the other two days, the guys are touring, filming the TV show or launching some other new enterprise.
You’d think by now, the two would want to chill out a little. But you’d be wrong.
Granted, they take “the show must go on” to extremes sometimes. When Penn had to go to the hospital with pneumonia a few years ago, for example, he'd pull the IVs out of his arm each night, head to the theater, perform the show, then hop back in bed. “The nurses can tell you not to do it, but if they stop you, it’s kidnapping. It’s a federal offense,” he says, only half-joking.
They’re phenomenal with their fans
If you go to a Penn & Teller show and don’t interact with them in some way, that’s your choice, not theirs. They go out of their way to engage fans, pulling volunteers of all ages from the audience (there are no “plants”). After the show, both guys stick around for photos, autographs and questions—neither leaving until the last fan does.
The duo has also been known to make personal videos for fans—and to showcase fan art in the Rio’s green room (fondly known as The Monkey Room for the hideous monkey-decorated pillar lamps that occupied each corner when Penn & Teller moved in).
To Penn & Teller, being cool with their fans is as instinctive as magic itself. “It’s in our hearts,” says Penn. "If you like my show, the chances of me liking you have actually gone up.”
That said, “we have a strange relationship,” Penn commented to one recent audience. “You’ve come here tonight to watch us lie, cheat, swindle, and steal.” Then he and Teller proceeded to do each of those things. Repeatedly.
Even so, there was a standing ovation. And therein lies the most fundamental secret to their enduring popularity: Penn and Teller simply put on a great show, every single time they perform. “It’s like pinball,” says Penn. “You play so you can play again. There’s no work involved. This is my life.”