DAVID "FROZEN IN TIME" Blaine may have survived his temporary ice lodgings last month for unknown mystical reasons, but to Penn Jillette, who is willing to give the man due credit, Blaine's utmost contribution to the world of magic is somewhat more earthbound.
Penn and Teller
Moore Theatre December 12-17
"David Blaine has a huge breakthrough because he's the first good-looking person," he explains, tongue only slightly in cheek. "Everybody else that's ever done magic is a troll and has to pay people to hang out with them sexually."
Jillette's friendly bluster is easily as big as his own decidedly unathletic, 6-foot-5 frame, which is a good thing since he's the one who talks as half of Penn and Teller, the mischievous magic team due in Seattle for performances at the Moore Theatre. Teller, a smaller guy a few years Jillette's senior, remains impishly silent in performance, which, actually, suits him just fine: "I'm not a quick-witted person who just loves to spout off clever sayings," he says plainly. "So I don't exactly miss the duties of being the show's narrator."
To talk to each half of the duo in separate phone interviews is to experience two sides of the same coin. Jillette is loud, peppers his speech with comically emphatic expletives, and communicates an articulate earnestness: "The real truth is to speak something deeply from your heart and allow that to go out there." He has a boldly ingratiating irreverence; at the beginning of our conversation, he tells me that "our relationship starts with you knowing that my attitude toward you is 'fucking bullshit interview.' If you can forgive me for that, our relationship can grow." Teller, in the manner of the Latin teacher he used to be, speaks more deliberately, with a mellow quirkiness that wouldn't be out of place on National Public Radio (he has just produced a winning, affectionate memoir about his parents called When I'm Dead All This Will Be Yours).
After 25 years of friendship, the two have inevitably reached the same conclusions about what they do. And what they do, of course, is some of the most ingenious, off-kilter wonders ever to be classified as magic. Whether shooting guns at each other, tossing bunnies into a chipper-shredder, or—in a new bit they both mention with great pride—burning then reconstructing the American flag in a manner that's both patriotic and provocative, they've achieved a sort of wildly thoughtful outrageousness.
"The whole goal is to come up with really interesting ideas," says Teller. "Ideas that delight us and that we would remember and that would make the little hairs stand up on the back of our necks—all of that stuff. But the idea is the thing that's at the core of it. Nothing gets very far in our show if it's just an effect."
HIS LARGER PARTNER agrees. "We always seem to be more didactic than others," Jillette maintains. "We always, always have what we mean by a piece. Always. We never do a bit that's just 'Wouldn't it be cool to wrap a bandage around your head?' There's always something. And then you try to conceal the art."
"I think it's the chance to see thoughts that are normally not acted on, acted on," Teller says of the team's sometimes devilish appeal. "The classic example in our show would be the bunny in the chipper-shredder. You know perfectly well that every single person who has ever operated a chipper-shredder has contemplated a passing puppy and said, 'Hey, boy, what if I threw a puppy into that?' Everybody's done that. And, of course, people don't really do it in real life because it's immoral. However, take an immoral act like that and put it on stage where everybody knows it's fake and you have a very exhilarating thing to watch."
Though also capable of an in-depth analysis of their art, Jillette sees the mutual love of the work simply translated. "When all is said and done—and as intellectual as you want to get, as pure as we want to get—we still really enjoy fooling the living fuck out of people."