Penn & Teller, the longtime entertaining magicians and scientific skeptics, will finally make up their 2021 date at Northern Quest Resort & Casino on Friday.
Teller, 74, the smaller and silent member of the veteran duo, called from Las Vegas, where they have headlined for decades, to discuss his start in magic, how he selects guests to join the duo onstage and what he would rather do than work with Penn Jillette.
You’re finally making the trip to Spokane after postponing due to the pandemic.
We had no choice but to postpone since we were at a point in which we couldn’t count on what would happen tomorrow. I still don’t think we can count on what will happen tomorrow. However, everything is more probable now. This is an unprecedented part of my life. Anyone who hasn’t been vaccinated, get the vaccine.
Do you find it baffling that a healthy percentage of Americans haven’t been vaccinated?
I do find it baffling since I’m from the generation that was around when the polio vaccine was introduced. When Penn’s sister saw him being vaccinated, she cried with joy knowing he wouldn’t be stricken with polio. The difference between then and now is that crazy people didn’t have a forum. There were layers of gatekeepers to stop them from babbling nonsense back then.
Are we de-evolving?
That’s a hard question in the middle of a pandemic. When Russia decides to go back to the 1960s, it’s difficult. It’s a hard question since I’m always optimistic.
I asked Steven Wright when he knew that his comedy was different. He said he didn’t realize it until he read the first review of one of his shows. When did you realize that you and Penn were doing something different?
Just like Steven Wright, we didn’t know we were doing something different. We just wanted to stage something that we would like to see. For years, we never admitted that there was magic in our show. People would ask us if there was magic, and we would say no. Penn hated magic for years. The two of us got together like we do now and came up with interesting ideas. You can call it whatever you want.
How did you get into magic?
I was a TV kid with a heart condition. I watched a show called “Howdy Doody.” There was a clown named Clarabelle who used to do magic tricks. One day, Clarabelle said we in TV land could get a magic set by sending three Mars bars wrappers and 50 cents. I ate the Mars bars, and my parents sent in the 50 cents, and I received a flat envelope.
It was a magic set in which you could punch holes in it and make different shapes. It was fascinating knowing something could be true to your eye but false to your mind. It was not a small matter to a kid. At the age of 5, I struck psychological bedrock.
What were you doing before you hooked up with Penn to become one of the most enduring duos in entertainment?
I was teaching Latin in Trenton, New Jersey. I discovered that I would rather do something else rather than wake up at 4:30 in the morning being miserable marking papers in a smoke-filled teacher’s lounge at school. I discovered that what Penn and I were starting out that this was the life for me.
Once you discover that you can live life without those parameters, you’ve won the game.
Agreed. I can tell from the way you talk that you love what you do. It seems that both of us have won the game. What people don’t understand is that the goal is not how much money you make as much as time. Time is the real commodity of life. Spending countless hours consumed by making money isn’t the route to victory.
If you can spend the majority of time in your life doing what you like or love to do, then you’ve won the game. After we finish our conversation, I’m going to get a haircut and then drink a turmeric latte outside in Las Vegas with Penn. I’ve led an amazingly fortunate life.
What do you look for when you bring a member of the audience onstage?
I look for someone who doesn’t have an agenda. I look for someone who looks like they’re enjoying the show. I avoid someone trying to be noticed, waving their arms frantically. I avoid the intoxicated. We just want someone sane and calm to join us for some fun.
What’s the worst thing that happened to you when you brought a member of the audience onstage?
Once in a while, you pick somebody who is not sober. A gentleman walked up onstage, and when he got to the top step, he proceeded to move across the stage on his knees. We sent him back to the seats after I had the audience give him a nice round of applause.
You and Penn show no signs of slowing down.
I don’t plan to retire.
You shouldn’t. Retire to what?
I agree. I was just reading a lovely book called “The Show Won’t Go On,” which is about performers who work until they die onstage. I hope to be one of those performers who performs and drops dead right after I’m done. I’ll die happy. But until then, I’ll perform.
I’m triple vaccinated and will be quadruple vaccinated by the time I get to Spokane. I don’t want to be one of those people who retire and sit around with my memories and drink coffee and watch “Columbo” reruns. That’s not my idea of retirement.
According to something I read, a high percentage of those who retire die within one year after hanging it up.
Of course that’s true. You and I have something in common. We work in occupations that are unlike football players or ballet dancers. There’s not going to be a limit to how many years we can do this. We can adapt to what we do with our abilities. It reminds me of the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt. She was playing “Hamlet” onstage after she lost both legs. She performed in a wheelchair. She expressed herself through her voice. I understand that.
What would you rather do than work with Penn?
Nothing. The key to work is that it’s not viewed as drudgery. You have to enjoy the act. I understand how many people would rather be playing with their dog in the sun, but working is pleasurable to me. My favorite thing in the world is collaborating on a new creative idea with Penn. It’s more important and pleasurable than a meal at a fine restaurant and more pleasurable to me than sex – and I enjoy sex quite a bit.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Spokane7 email newsletter
Get the day’s top entertainment headlines delivered to your inbox every morning.