NEW YORK CITY—The first act Penn Jillette ever saw Teller perform, in the summer of 1975, remains one of Penn’s favorites. It’s known as “East Indian Needle Mystery,” and its props are 100 needles, a strand of thread and Teller’s throat.
Teller produces the needles for the audience to see, then seemingly gulps each one, first convulsing as if ready to retch as each disappears. He then sucks down the thread and slowly pulls the end of the strand from his lips to produce an orderly line of needles, glistening under the theater’s spotlight.
“I have seen him do this act thousands of times, probably 12,000 times.” Penn says backstage. “And it’s better today than the first time he did it.”
That’s 1.2 million needles in a 40-year span, a testament to Teller’s discipline and attention to the craft. But achieving such an impressive statistical benchmark is never his motive, he says as he speaks of his career—yes, he speaks offstage—during a late lunch at one of his favorite Manhattan restaurants, Frankie & Johnnie’s Steakhouse on West 37th Street.
“We have only cared about doing the show that we want to do,” he says as he picks over an order of smoked salmon delivered by a grinning waitress with a Russian accent. “We have never particularly cared about what the venue is. We have only cared about doing the show we want to do.”
The restaurant isn’t far from Marquis Theatre, where Penn & Teller have embarked on their first Broadway run in 23 years. The production plays like a sampler platter of the best acts they’ve performed since 2001 at the Rio, and even before, when they honed their production in any variety of performance spaces in San Francisco, Philadelphia, LA and, yes, in New York.
As they often remind, by the time Penn & Teller opened at Bally’s Celebrity Room in January 1993, they were firmly affiliated with New York, having performed two off-Broadway and three Broadway runs. They were experienced showmen by the time they hit Vegas, and as Teller says, “We always said that wherever our show was happening is the most important place in the world, whether it’s for 50 people or anywhere else.”
The 67-year-old illusionist recalls an early appearance at a black-box theater in Philadelphia, his hometown. Only the most experimental shows were staged in this room, on the fifth floor and accessible solely by elevator. Having achieved no fame of any measurable scope, Teller walked in and immediately reconfigured the seating, ordering bleachers to be moved in and taping the chairs to those metal planks. That approach to detail has only intensified over time.
“We would be exactly as belligerent and insistent in getting our own way [at Marquis Theatre] as we would be anywhere,” he says. “We have never targeted the show at anybody but us.”
Penn & Teller’s professional relationship is rooted in weekly sessions at Starbucks, each Tuesday morning, where they set aside time to brainstorm, discuss and debate. “The only person I have to argue with is Penn, who is beneficial to argue with,” Teller says. “You don’t want an artistic partner who agrees with you all the time. You might as well not have a partner, right?”
The recent manifestations of these summits are the “One Minute Egg” routine, in which the duo breaks, separates and repairs a raw egg in 60 seconds; a contemporary take on pulling a rabbit out of a hat (featuring a spring-loaded rabbit prop) and the famous Vanishing African-Spotted Pygmy Elephant act. All are in the Broadway show.
The duo is also proud of its competition show Fool Us, which taped this spring at the Penn & Teller Theater at the Rio. The format calls for aspiring (or even established) illusionists to perform an act that stumps the two judges. The show’s debut on July 13 was a ratings hit for CW, with the cable network drawing its largest audience in the time slot in nearly five years. As is the case with the Broadway run, Penn & Teller are willing to put themselves at risk for high entertainment.
“There is no competition show on television where the judges have anything at stake, you know?” he says. “On America’s Got Talent, these guys go, ‘Oh, that was lovely, or that was awful,’ but nothing ever happens to them. They are not going to look foolish. But when we are fooled, we look like idiots.”
Over time, Teller has managed to develop an identity outside the context of Penn & Teller. His production of The Tempest, in which he has partnered with Aaron Posner, is headed for Chicago’s Shakespeare Theater from September 8-November 8. Teller will tend to the show next month during breaks from the Broadway production.
Also, expect to see his stage show Play Dead return to Las Vegas for a Strip residency beginning in the spring, moving into the space once home to the Act at the Shoppes at Palazzo. (Teller himself is not verifying any details about Play Dead.)
Toss these projects into Teller’s professional cauldron, and it’s clear he remains as ambitious and creatively vigorous as the day he met Penn. “The same thing motivates me that has always motivated me. This is what I want to do,” Teller says, rising from his chair. “It’s the way I want to spend my life. I’m the luckiest guy in the world, to be able to do what I want, the way I want to do it, and actually make a living at it. I’m blindingly lucky.”
With that, the lunch ends. The theater is calling.