Swallowing Needles and Disappearing Elephants? Learn the Making Behind Penn & Teller's Magic!

News   Swallowing Needles and Disappearing Elephants? Learn the Making Behind Penn & Teller's Magic!
Penn & Teller, the acclaimed magic-making duo, are back on Broadway for the third time, with a collection of their old favorites and stunning new tricks.


It wouldn't be prudent to pack a cell phone if you plan to catch Penn & Teller at the Marriott Marquis July 7-Aug. 16. At every performance, some poor patron is relieved of his-or-hers, but it surfaces later in the show — in an unlikely (and ungodly) place.

Top hats aren't advisable, either. "Pulling a rabbit out of a hat is the cliché of magic — a figure of speech, really — but, in 60 years of magic, I have never seen that," admits the mononymous Teller, and he intends to correct that oversight with this show. "I thought maybe there's a reason I haven't — and there is: you need a hat big enough to contain a rabbit. You can't pull that out of a baseball cap or a cowboy hat. You need a top hat, and, for it to be convincing, you have to borrow a top hat. You can't just drag your own on stage because people just figure there's a gimmick to it."

Penn and Teller
Penn and Teller Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

His partner, Penn Jillette, promises that their Broadway homecoming (which, like the installments of ‘87 and ‘91, has the no-frills moniker of Penn & Teller) will mix their Greatest Hits and Newest Tricks. "In a way, we've been working on this show for 40 years. There is some stuff that goes back to 1975 and other stuff, like Teller's One-Minute Egg, that's as new as — well, last month. We're really picking what we like the most and want to do the most — because who knows when we'll be back?"

One stunt involving "a vanishing, African-spotted pygmy elephant" has been six years in the making. "It's really a goofy comedy bit, but it has in it the hardest magic we've ever done," beams Penn. Teller's pride and joy is a Harry Houdini hand-me-down — swallowing 10 cast-iron needles and horsehair thread and bringing them up threaded. For this particular "acquired taste," he gave up eating razor blades at 20. Another bit — "The Little Teapot," based on the children's song — casts him as the teapot and Penn as the tea-pourer. That took three years and two months to perfect.

Penn comes in the large economy size, full of overbearing bluster, and Teller is the small church-mouse type who hardly emits a squeak when faced with being dunked in a huge tank of water or having to catch a bullet with his teeth. Twin blends of comedy and magic, they are Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel of their specialized field.

Wier Chrisimer introduced Penn to Teller, and they first performed together Aug. 19, 1975, eventually forming a short-lived trio called "The Asparagus Valley Cultural Society." As a duo, P&T hit Off-Broadway in April of 1985, and their producers — Richard Frankel, Thomas Viertel, Steven Baruch and Marc Roth — earned their fedoras by bringing them to Broadway once, twice and now thrice. (The producers produced The Producers, for which Penn & Teller would seem logical replacements.)

"When we were Off-Broadway," says Teller, "we were — and I still think of ourselves as — this curious little intellectual quirky magic show, whatever. I don't know what we are. When we got our Obie, it said ‘To Penn & Teller, for whatever it's called that they do.' We really appreciated the honor of being defined as 'Well, those guys...'"

Penn and Teller
Penn and Teller Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Despite being sexagenarians, both retain the same edgy, mischievous Peck's Bad Boy quality they had at the starting gate 40 years ago. "When I was five years old, I sent away for a Howdy Dowdy Magic Kit," Teller recalls. "I had dreams of growing up and becoming a magician, and I was told by virtually everyone, ‘No one really does that.'

"So I taught Latin for six years, but, when the opportunity arose to give it a try, I took a year's leave of absence from teaching school, tried it out and instantly knew that, if I could just eke out a living doing this, this would be the thing that I should do in life because the commodity of life is time. Whatever your income is, if you're doing what you love, you have won the game. Actually, I felt I had won the game — really — the first time I had done a street show in Philadelphia and made a hundred bucks off it."

Their partnership was sparked by their very first talk, according to Penn. "Wier got me to juggle and throw plungers in a show on Beethoven he did at Amherst, and Teller was there, reciting poetry in Latin and selling pencils. We got to talking about magic — how maybe it didn't have to be insulting, how maybe it could have a little intellectual bent to it. That conversation we started 43 years ago continues today." And beyond. Teller perishes the thought of ever retiring: "We want to die in office."

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