I haven't been published in a while, but here are some of my ancient pieces...now that some newspapers have started scanning archival material, I'm all over the interwebs!
Will Durst Preview (Chicago Tribune)
Gilbert Gottfried Interview (Chicago Tribune)
David Copperfield Review (Chicago Tribune)
Larry Reeb Review (Chicago Tribune)
Blake Clark Preview (Chicago Tribune)
Bobcat Goldthwait Preview (Chicago Tribune)
Emo Philips Review (Chicago Tribune)
GayCo Productions' "Everyone's Coming Out, Rosie!" (Chicago Tribune)
"Weird Al" Yankovic Profile (1996)
George Carlin profile (1994)
Tom Savini profile/preview (1993)
Jerry Seinfeld review (1992)
Howie Mandel preview (1991)
Bill Hicks preview (1991)
KDKA Radio History
Weekly reviews and promotion of improv show
The Fine Art of Lying (1995)
No capes, no magic words, no white doves. There is a bunny, but no top hat. Instead, Penn & Teller run their bunny through a chipper-shredder.
Penn Jillette, the tall one, harsh in voice and manner, and Teller, the silent one who endures the more physical stunts, are so far-removed from the wand-and-sequin rabble that their tricks often lampoon traditional magic.
"We never started off calling the show a magic show," says Teller (yes, he speaks). "Absolutely never. When we went off-Broadway, our producer said to us, 'From now on, magic is the M-word,' because if you say the word 'magic' in connection with the show, they will either think that it's some sort of dance spectacle, like David Copperfield, or they'll think it's a show that you drop kids off at."
What truly separates them from the flashy David Copperfields and the mystical Doug Hennings is the fact that Penn and Teller recognize the intelligence of the audience.
"I think Penn and I are the only people who do tricks who are willing to acknowledge the fact that the culture is savvy to magic," says Teller. "They're not benighted savages. They're sophisticated and enlightened dwellers of the 20th century."
To appreciate a Penn and Teller show, audiences should sharpen their minds rather than suspend their disbelief.
"The more you know about the physics of the real world, the more you'll enjoy us lying about the physics of our world," says Penn. "The more you go 'Aw, come on,' the more fun it will be."
Penn credits his partner of 19 years with the concept of magic for thinking people. "Teller's idea was that magic is essentially an intellectual form. And that the idea that you're being fooled is the interesting intellectual idea, not the actual special effect," he says. "What's going on is not a special effect. What's going on is a trick."
The distinction is significant, Penn says. "We come out and say, 'We are doing this trick. What are the implications of that?' Copperfield comes out and goes 'watch this!' And those are really different. One is very passive, very victim-like. You sit there and I will blow this by you."
People naturally want to examine the illusion that the performer presents, according to Teller. "You can't sit and watch a magic trick passively. You can't let it just wash over you and say, 'Ah, yes, the dove and birds from nowhere.' Even the lousiest dove act makes you go, 'Well, it looked one way but I know it has to be another.'"
As grand masters in the sport of lying, Penn and Teller have created a body of work around ingenious hoaxes. Their first book, "Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends," was packed with instructions for advanced lying. In fact, the directions themselves contained coded lies to confound the casual reader. "How To Play With Your Food," their second book, continued on the theme of lying to friends for fun and profit. A third book is in the works.
Their film, "Penn and Teller Get Killed," portrayed them lying to one another until only the title spoke the truth -- they got killed at the end.
Their short feature for Showtime, "Invisible Thread," based on a story originally penned by Penn, deceives on two levels. The secret within the story is that invisible thread doesn't really exist, but there's a gimmick to make people believe in it. The real secret is that the gimmick to make people believe in invisible thread is itself fictional.
Even Teller's silent style stems from his attraction to lying without talking. "I just love being able to tell a fictitious story without the benefit of the verbal lie," he says. "The idea of being able to tell a lie, in artistic circumstances, just fascinates me. Lying is usually relegated to speaking falsely. The idea that you could act and have that same kind of effect on a person, I just find sort of psychological bedrock."
Though his first introduction to magic was a set of Howdy Doody toy tricks, Teller says he was disillusioned by simple gimmicks as a child and instead was drawn to more cerebral trickery.
"I watched all the Alfred Hitchcocks and got into my head the idea that it was fun to watch something where there was an uncertainty where make-believe left off and reality began, which was a major theme of the Twilight Zone, and certainly a major theme of the Hitchcock shows, where it always had some sort of twist at the end which made you see the whole thing in a different perspective."
Years later, he and Penn would devise ways to apply that twist at the end. A classic example is their television trick in which they sit behind a desk and appear to defy gravity, making several objects leap mysteriously out of their hands toward the ceiling, while Penn insists they employ no special effects. At the end, the camera pulls back to reveal that the scene was shot flip-flop and the two men were suspended upside down, so the only special effect was gravity.
Tradition forbids magicians from revealing their tricks, but Penn and Teller share secrets for certain stunts if the revelation of the secret is more amazing than the trick itself. "You need this big 'aha,' this big release, and that's usually visual and it has to be very visceral," Penn explains. "Because otherwise it's not satisfying."
The complexity of Penn and Teller's tricks makes their show spectacular in a minimalist way, free from decorative glitz and girls. "I was brought up that torturing nameless women was not part of entertainment," says Penn. Instead, they torture one another, introducing the dramatic aspect of exploring their relationship onstage.
This results in images like Teller dangling over spikes and trying to escape before Penn finishes speed-reading "Casey at the Bat" as though he didn't care what happened to the little guy.
Although they studied magic independently from the time they were children, Penn and Teller were first introduced to one another in 1975 in Amherst, Massachusetts, near Penn's home town of Greenfield. A mutual friend invited them to perform with him, Penn juggling plungers while riding a unicycle and Teller reciting poetry while feigning blindness.
The trio worked around Philadelphia and later San Francisco, using their illusions at renaissance festivals and seances while developing a club act. In 1985, three years after the third guy left, Penn and Teller earned national recognition by dumping Madagascar hissing cockroaches on David Letterman's desk.
Currently, Penn and Teller are preparing material for a Broadway show to commemorate their 20th anniversary. Some of the new stuff is already in the act, hence the title of the show, "The 37% New Tour."
Actually, the show is 100% new for us since this is their first visit to Pittsburgh, not counting the time Penn flew in to see Lou Reed's concert, which was canceled, forcing Penn to wander around Station Square for an evening.
While in Pittsburgh, both Penn and Teller plan to visit the Andy Warhol Museum. It seems Andy was a fan, and he even had a cameo in "Invisible Thread." After seeing their show in New York, Warhol suggested an idea that involved staging a classic play like Arsenic and Old Lace with random effects throughout the production. They haven't done it yet, but Teller says they considered it. "We thought about it a lot, because he's certainly not known for bad ideas."