The big guy distracts you so you won't watch the little guy...
Penn & Teller are an American double-act, comedians and stage magicians, with a regular gig at the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.Penn Jillette is the tall, talkative one with long dark hair. Teller is the short one who never speaks and makes amusing facial expressions on the frequent occasions when Penn exposes him to danger. They were introduced to one another by a mutual friend in 1975. Ever since then, they've done most of their work together, developing their own rather quirky style of magic.The pair have a wide fraud-busting streak, which got its widest exposure in their Showtime TV show, Penn & Teller: Bullshit!. A running theme in their work is truth, lies and deception, with many parts of their stage magic routine built around lampshading the fact that magic is all about deceiving the audience. Many of their tricks also play on the audience's visceral reaction to tricks that appear dangerous but are in fact completely safe, celebrating the fantasy that two guys can shoot guns into each other's mouths and emerge from it completely unharmed.
Aside from their various stage shows, Penn & Teller's body of work includes:
Penn & Teller's Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends, a 1987 straight-to-video release including punchlines for seven different tricks to play on one's friends and instructions for performing them.
The Unpleasant World of Penn and Teller (on-screen title: Penn and Teller), a 1994 UK TV series where the pair perform many of their best-known tricks in front of a studio audience, with several British celebrities including John Cleese and Stephen Fry appearing as guests.
Phobophilia, a filmed 1995 stage show where Penn and Teller perform various tricks and skits exploring Primal Fears. Noteworthy for including a full version of their famous double Bullet Catch trick.
Penn & Teller's Magic and Mystery Tour, a three-part 2003 documentary miniseries where they travel to China, Egypt and India to study the traditional culture of magic. Notably, Teller talks twice in the Egypt episode.
Penn & Teller: Fool Us, a 2011 ITV series, hosted by Jonathan Ross, where a variety of magicians attempt to fool Penn and Teller with tricks of their own. Those who succeed get to perform on their stage in Las Vegas.
Three jointly written books, Penn & Teller's Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends (1989), Penn & Teller's How to Play with Your Food (1992), and Penn & Teller's How to Play in Traffic (1997). They feature both instruction in simple magic tricks and practical jokes and various stories and anecdotes from the two of them.
Penn and Teller's Smoke and Mirrors, a 1995 video game that was never formally released but got leaked by a reviewer who had received an advance copy of the game. It is most famous for its "Desert Bus" minigame.
Lots and lots of talk show appearances and many cameos all over the place, including:
The Simpsons episodes "Hello Gutter, Hello Fadder" and "The Great Simpsina" (Teller speaks in both and acted as magic consultant for the latter)
The West Wing, where they performed one of their stage tricks, involving a flag-burning, in the White House
Fantasia 2000, where they presented the Sorcerer's Apprentice segment
Sabrina the Teenage Witch, with various appearances from Penn as Drell, head of the Witches' Council, and some from Teller too
Their own haunted house at Universal Studios Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights event in 2012: Penn and Teller New(kd) Las Vegas. Basic premise is: Penn and Teller try out a new trick involving a nuclear warhead...which predictably fails. Guests now have to travel through the mutant filled husk of a city that was Las Vegas while Penn and Teller (through various videos placed throughout the maze) try to convince the guests that everything is ''perfectly fine''. Penn and Teller had a significant role in the development of the house and even flew to Orlando to greet guests, hand out 3D glasses, and finally walk through the house during one set and spent part of the night standing in the finale scene. Takes extremeartistic license.
Actor Allusion: One rendition of the water tank trick featured John Cleese as the mark, with the failed "Is this your card?" having "Basil" written on it.
Alter Ego Acting: Penn & Teller each have a consistent on-stage persona which is not the same as what they're like in real life. For instance, Penn does not raise his voice at all in real life, and Teller, being a former classics teacher, is an extremely articulate conversationalist.
Black Comedy: Used in several of their tricks. The "Water Tank" trick, where Penn attempts to do a card trick while Teller is supposedly holding his breath in a tank full of water, is a great example. In the fictional narrative of the trick, Penn botches the card trick and Teller drowns in the tank as a result, which is pretty horrifying. But the way the entire trick is put together around it, including Penn's various lines ("No, screw it, he's braindead"), the audience volunteers who just don't know what to make of the whole thing, Penn's mock eulogy for Teller (where he claims to be planning a solo tour to be entitled simply "Penn"), and especially the final punchline ( Penn reaches into the tank to turn Teller's limp body around, revealing the audience member's signed card inside Teller's face mask - "AND IS THAT YOUR CARD?"), is priceless.
Bullet Catch: One of their most famous tricks is a double bullet catch, where Penn and Teller appear to each shoot a bullet into the other's mouth.
Butt Monkey: Teller is most often the one put in the "dangerous" situations and the one who has the bulk of the acting duty.
Burning the Flag: They burn an American flag wrapped in a copy of the Bill Of Rights as one of the tricks in their Las Vegas show as seen here. They do the trick to make a point about how American's have the freedom to burn their own flag if they wish. Additionally, the Bill Of Rights is unaffected by the conflagration symbolizing how it is unharmed. No they don't actually burn the flag. Teller has removed the flag before they ignite the flash paper.
Comedy Central: Penn was the announcer for the comedy network during the early 90s, and hosted the documentary This is MST3k.
David Letterman: Through the 80s and 90s P&T were regular guests on Late Night/Late Show with David Letterman
Don't Try This at Home: One of their TV specials is actually titled Don't Try This At Home! — and consists almost entirely of them doing things you couldn't do at home if you tried.
Early Installment Weirdness: Some of their earliest appearances, notably Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends, have Penn trying to hide his accent. To someone familiar with his distinctive voice, this can be very jarring.
Escape Artist: Penn and Teller engage in this on occasion. For instance, their stage show in the eighties opened with Teller hanging upside-down in a straightjacket trying to escape while Penn read the poem Casey at the Bat.
Everything's Worse with Bees: They did a trick once where they produced 100,000 bees, without using gloves or masks. The producing was a trick, but they really did handle all those bees without protection; they just made sure they weren't allergic to bee stings so they wouldn't suffer any permanent ill effects and sucked it up. Penn still got stung in some nasty places (Teller escaped with only three stings, mostly because he poured all the bees on Penn).
Genre Shift: While their three books all teach tricks, there is a noticeable shift from the somewhat mean-spirited practical jokes of Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends (1989), largely revolving around humiliating the target, to the more lighthearted How to Play in Traffic (1997). How to Play with Your Food (1992) is intermediate and, interestingly, features a story where Penn describes a spur-of-the-moment decision to buy a random guy at a restaurant a red Jell-O, after which he came to the realization that being randomly nice to people was actually quite fun. Their TV and film work also reflects this, with practical jokes, pranks and swindles being central to Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends, Penn & Teller Get Killed and Penn & Teller's Invisible Thread, while in later years their stuff is much more political and principled.
Heterosexual Life-Partners: A somewhat unusual case. They famously only socialize outside of work once or twice a year and their relationship developed as a strictly-business one built on mutual respect rather than friendship (or, as Penn puts it, "cuddly feelings"). However, as they've spent their entire adult lives working very closely together, they've inevitably come to be sort of best friends anyway - when their parents died, for instance, they went to each other, and Teller was the first person aside from Penn and his wife to see their kids after they were born.
Hidden Depths: Because Teller is mute and the Butt Monkey, often a lot of magic skills aren't called out or noticed - it can even seem like he's a subversion of a beauty assistant that other magicians have. But he is in fact a very talented magician in a great deal many magical disciplines.
Considering that assistants are also trained and an important part of their acts while trying to look like they're not, not that much of a subversion.
Hypocritical Humor: They enjoy this. In on of his shows, shortly after voicing his dislike for camera tricks, Penn run an entire credit scenes with shoddy jump cuts of them making their cast and crew (including a cameraman and his camera) appear and disappear verifying that no camera tricks were used.
Manipulative Editing: Inverted with Penn & Teller: Off the Deep End has some spectators told that their scenes will receive Manipulative Editing and give some impressive reactions to non-existent tricks; they are actually shown unedited.
Mean Character, Nice Actor: Penn is quite a bit more soft-spoken and amiable in person than his stage persona would have you believe.
Oh My Gods!: One of Penn's exclamations is "Jesus haploid Christ!", referring to the fact that since Jesus had a biological mother but no biological father, he would only have half of the normal set of chromosomes. (Note that Penn is most decidedly not Christian.)
One of Us: The writers at Wired were surprised that Penn scored very highly on their geekery-quotient test - higher than even Stephen Hawking.
They shouldn't have been, though; Penn wrote a column for PC Computing magazine for a good stretch of its run where he reflected on the intersection of technology and pop culture.
Only One Name: Teller. His parents gave him the usual number (he was born Raymond Joseph Teller), but he did actually change it at some point — all of his official documents, including his passport, identify him only as Teller.
Overly Narrow Superlative: Inverted. Penn Jillette has said, "I'm not the best magician in the world — I'm not even the best magician at the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, or the best magician in Penn & Teller."
Pick a Card: Penn & Teller have done several deliberately over-the-top variations, such as the one where the number and suit of the card are revealed to be printed on Teller's eyeballs. They also, as habitual highlighters of the fraudulent nature of stage magic, have a favorite card (the three of clubs) to make their marks "randomly" select.
In Penn & Teller's How to Play with Your Food, they give instructions for making an arrangement with your favorite pizza place so that when you order a "P&T crust", you would receive a pizza with the three of clubs made of pepperoni on it. You would then use this to pull a "was this your card?" switcheroo on your friends: "Was your card the four of diamonds? No? Oh well, I'm only learning. Let's order pizza." The pizza then arrives and your friend opens it to discover their card on the pizza.
There's also the Penn & Teller Cenotaph, a monument to them with the three of clubs and bearing the quote "Is this your card?" "Oh well, still need practice. Wanna go for a walk?"
It's revealed in one of their books that their road manager is also in on the joke; among his many tattoos is a three-of-clubs drawn on the palm of his left hand, which he has to get re-inked every five years or so.
Plot-Based Voice Cancellation: One trick has Teller speaking... after he turns on a woodchipper loud enough to drown out his voice. Another trick has him speaking... with a helium voice.
The Reveal: They're widely known as the magicians who actually show everyone how their tricks are really done, and for the most part they donote though in respect of intellectual property, they only reveal tricks they have developed themselves specifically to be revealed or very old, simple tricks or elements of tricks such as the card force, cups-and-balls trick, and methods of sleight-of-hand or diversionary tactics...
The Unreveal: ...only to introduce more complicated and impressive elements or variations, none of which they explain in advance. They are magicians, after all. Their rendition of the Cups and Balls trick (possibly as old as ancient Egypt, you can buy it in nearly every magic kit) with clear plastic cups is so smooth that at full speed you still can't see well how it's done without repeated study.
Penn:[juggling three of the balls in mid-trick] This is NOT juggling. This is called MISDIRECTION.
Saw a Woman in Half: With a large buzzsaw, with the addition of making the audience think it's gone horribly wrong. Bonus points for doing so immediately after explaining all the safety measures in place.
One of the tricks in How to Play in Traffic is about choosing between two potential sex partners and opens with a lengthy disclaimer about how since magicians are socially awkward nerds who are the antithesis of sexy, the trick is pure Speculative Fiction as far as they're concerned.
In one TV special, when they were about to perform the Bullet Catch trick, they told an anecdote about how when Harry Houdini planned to attempt it, the magicians' guild sent him a letter imploring him not to try it, because it was too dangerous, and if anything went wrong it would be a horrible loss to the profession. Penn then reveals that the guild, when hearing they would attempt the trick, also sent a letter, reading, "Go for it."
When beginning a demonstration of a card force trick, Penn asks Teller, playing the part of the mark, "Wanna see a magic trick?" Teller immediately turns around and starts to walk away.
Take That: All but one episode of The Unpleasant World of Penn & Teller had Penn aim one of these at British magician and non-fan of theirs Paul Daniels ("This trick is so simple, Paul Daniels could do it!"). The only exception? When they had that week's guest Dawn French do it ("Welcome to The Paul Daniels Magic Show. I am, of course, (his wife and partner) Debbie McGee...").
Tastes Like Diabetes: Invoked in How to Play with Your Food, which features a chapter purported to be a story for children. It starts with an extremely overly sugary opening to a Halloween story... before breaking off to explain that now that the grown-ups have all left they can get to the point, which is of course a bloody trick to play on one's parents.
The Television Talks Back: A Penn & Teller variation of the old "is this your card?" trick is designed to be done with the TV on in the background. The person doing the trick holds up a card — "Is this your card?" — and it isn't... and then a moment later the guy on the TV stops what he's doing, holds up a card, and says "Is this your card?" — and it is.
Three-Way Sex: A trick in How to Play in Traffic revolves around playing a Knights and Knaves-esque game supposedly to choose which of two potential sex partners you have a better "connection" with. It ends with you supposedly reading both of their minds (courtesy of the trick, of course), concluding that you can't possibly choose, and inviting both of them to your hotel room together. (This is followed by a parenthetical note that you could in theory just pick the one you like better instead, but who in the world would do that?)
Subverted on a celebrity edition of Fear Factor; Penn and Teller maintained their stage personas over the course of the competition, but after Teller completed the final stunt and Joe Rogan told him that he had taken the lead, a happy Teller pumped his fist and whispered, "Yes!" rather audibly.
Oddly enough, no one present was shown to react to Teller's unexpected break of character.
That's because it's just a stage character. While he takes a lot of effort to maintain it, there have been a number of occasions (even specials and shows) where in a non-professional environment, he'll speak.
Played with at times; when Teller got "volunteered" for the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge by Penn, he let out a whole series of expletives when Penn dumped the ice water on him, every one of which was bleeped over.