Penn Jillette and Teller have been performing mind-blowing magic together for over 40 years. But this summer, the pair will take on something they haven’t done for more than half of their careers together: Broadway.
On July 7, their show, aptly named Penn & Teller on Broadway, will kick off a six-week run at the Marquis Theater. And one day earlier marks the return of Penn & Teller: Fool Us, a televised competition in which magicians earn a slot as the pair’s opening act in Las Vegas if they stump the experts. The comedic duo also are appearing in Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No! on July 22.
In a chat with EW, Jillette assures us the third Sharknado lives up to the earlier installments. The illusionists also reveal what fans can expect from both shows, ruminate on when they might retire and divulge magic’s biggest secret.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your last Broadway run was in 1991 with The Refrigerator Tour. Why did you choose this summer to return to New York?
PENN JILLETTE: It’s very, very hard to convince your bosses at the Rio [Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas] when you’re filled up every night that you want to take seven weeks off to do Broadway. That particular negotiation takes 15 years. Since we left New York, we wanted to be back here. But success is a two-edge sword. When you’re doing well in Vegas, they want to keep you there. We’ve got six weeks to do New York. We’re really excited about it. We looked through all 40 years of material and picked out the stuff we want to do the most. It’s the first time we’ve taken a lot of the big tricks out of Vegas.
How do you dissect 40 years worth of material?
JILLETTE: It’s probably 12-13 hours of stuff, but the stuff that’s at the top of our list, we’re pretty conversive with. We’re doing one trick that actually predates Penn & Teller—The Needles, which Teller’s been doing since before I met him. Then there’s a thing called Penn & Teller One-minute Egg that’s only a couple months old. There’s stuff from both Broadway runs, both off-Broadway runs, all the major tours, a lot of stuff from Vegas. I don’t think I’ve ever said this before, but I think this will clearly be the best Penn & Teller show ever done.
What exactly can fans expect from the show?
TELLER: The Broadway show has one or two of the craziest ideas we’ve ever had. They don’t ever seem crazy to us when we’re working on them, but you know the song “I’m a Little Teapot”? We’re doing that song as a magic trick with Penn picking me up as a teapot and pouring out a cup of tea. This may be a sign of our decline. We worked on it for two years and three months.
JILLETTE: It’s one thing for a comedian to get a nutty idea and go out and talk about it. It’s another thing for us to get a nutty idea and work on it for two years and three months all the time to do a minute and a half in the show, maybe two minutes.
TELLER: One of the things I’m most proud of is the amount of time we work on a bit is not reflected in the stage time. The biggest secret to magic is no one would dream how hard you would work on something so stupid.
What’s the difference between the New York and Vegas audiences?
JILLETTE: I think the United States has become a little more homogeneous. I think a lot of the differences would be a lot of the political events, stuff that we don’t deal with. We’re doing stuff that’s a little bit, probably a little more intellectual, a little more thoughtful than we might do in Vegas.
TELLER: Regional audiences used to mean more, but now everybody travels. There is a kind of unity we haven’t had before.
In addition to traveling, social media makes it so easy for people to get their hands on magic these days. Do you feel like that has affected the way your show has been received?
JILLETTE: For Teller and me, social media did not come as the surprise to us as it did for everybody else. After every show we do, we meet people. We have never been afraid of our fans or uncomfortable with our fans. We like our audiences. Social media just made our after show discussions go on 24 hours a day.
TELLER: It’s interesting to have audiences who have now seen bits and pieces of the material they’re going to see on stage. Forty years ago, you would see it just live. With the kind of thing that we do, there’s such a different dimension to seeing it live. It’s shocking live, even if you’ve seen pictures of the action before. It really feels like a lot of the fans are enjoying things more because there’s something about coming and seeing in three dimensions, seeing the actual presence in the room.
You do have a TV show coming out the same week as your Broadway show—Fool Us on the CW. Why do TV if the real magic happens in person?
JILLETTE: The big lie behind Fool Us is that it tells people constantly there’s no camera tricks. Every other magic show that’s ever been done on TV, there are camera tricks. All the street magic guys, they do stuff 50 times, you’re bound to get the right card once and a while. On Fool Us, people get to do it just once. We’re in the audience. There’s nothing that can be done trickery wise. We do everything we can on Fool Us to make the magic feel live, and it does feel live.
Are there any twists or challenge fans can expect on the new season?
JILLETTE: The twist is, I don’t mean to get all American exceptionalism, this time we used American magicians. There’s more of them, and do I dare say better? They’re really good. The real twist is that I think the people who are going up are much, much better.
TELLER: There was nobody cut out of these shows. They made a whole extra show out of all the wonderful people we had. Also this time around we had a few more shocking moments because we’re never allowed to know who’s on the show. And all of a sudden we look up and, “Oh wait, there’s a guy I used to know in Philadelphia. He used to come over to my parents house and do magic for them on their anniversary.”
Comedy is also a part of your routine. Are there any comedians you’re loving these days?
JILLETTE: Gilbert Gottfried is the best of our lifetime. Gilbert Gottfried is Stravinsky, he’s Picasso, he’s the best. I’m always amazing by anything Gilbert does.
You’re in Sharknado 3 this summer.
JILLETTE: Which our whole careers led up to.
What can you tell fans about your appearance?
JILLETTE: We’re afraid of sharks. Sharks that are flying in a tornado frighten us. I think Sharknado 3 will live up to 1 and 2.
TELLER: And we got to sit across a diner table from David Hasselhoff. That was one of my life’s ambitions.
After 40 years, it seems like you’ve been everywhere and worked with almost everyone. Is there anyone left you’d like to collaborate with, or any projects you’d still love to do?
JILLETTE: In the ’90s, we wrote a bit for Bob Dylan to do magic for us. We were all set to do it and whatever the network was cancelled our show. There’s a trick called Sam the Bellhop where you use a deck of cards to tell a story. I’ve always wanted to do a version of that storytelling card trick with Bob Dylan.
But you have your show at the Rio indefinitely, so you could still make that happen. How long do you think you two will keep performing?
JILLETTE: We intend to go way beyond when we’re terrible. I would like to die on stage. I would like the last two years of our shows to be awful. I would like to be barely crawling through. I will not leave at the top of my gam like [David] Letterman and Johnny Carson. I will leave at the bottom of my game. Our show will end when they pry the wand from my dead, cold hands.