Penn & Teller – Actor Illusions and Comedy

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“Penn & Teller”


Penn & Teller (Penn Jillette and Teller) are Las Vegas headliners whose act is an amalgam of illusion and comedy. Penn Jillette is a raconteur; Teller generally uses mime while performing, although his voice can occasionally be heard throughout their performance. They specialize in gory tricks, exposing frauds, and performing clever pranks, and have become associated with Las Vegas, atheism, scientific skepticism, and libertarianism.


Penn and Teller were introduced to one another by Weir Chrisimer. From the late 1970s through 1981, the three made up an act called “Asparagus Valley Cultural Society” which played in San Francisco at the Phoenix Theater. This act was sillier and less “edgy” than today’s Penn & Teller act. Chrisimer helped to develop some bits that continued, most notably Teller’s “Shadows” trick, which involves a single red rose.

By 1985, Penn & Teller were receiving rave reviews for their Off Broadway show and Emmy award-winning PBS special, Penn & Teller Go Public.[1] In 1987, they began the first of two successful Broadway runs. Through the late 1980s and early 1990s, the duo made numerous television appearances on Late Night with David Letterman and Saturday Night Live, as well as The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Today, and many others.

Penn & Teller had national tours throughout the 1990s, gaining critical praise. They have also made television guest appearances on Babylon 5[2] (as the comedy team Rebo and Zooty), The Drew Carey Show, a few episodes of Hollywood Squares from 1998 until 2004, ABC’s Muppets Tonight, FOX’s The Bernie Mac Show, an episode of the game show Fear Factor on NBC, NBC’s The West Wing, in a two-part episode of the final season of ABC’s Home Improvement in 1998, four episodes during season 1 of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch in 1996, NBC’s Las Vegas, and FOX’s The Simpsons episodes Hello Gutter, Hello Fadder and The Great Simpsina and Futurama film Futurama: Into the Wild Green Yonder in 2009. They also appeared as Three-card Monte scam artists in the music video for “It’s Tricky” by Run-DMC in 1987, and were thrown out of a Las Vegas hotel room in the music video for “Waking Up in Vegas” by Katy Perry in 2009.

Their Showtime Network television show Bullshit! takes a skeptical look at psychics, religion, the pseudoscientific, conspiracy theories, and the paranormal. It has also featured critical segments on gun control, astrology, Feng Shui, environmental issues, PETA, weight loss, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the war on drugs.


On Bullshit!, the duo describe their social and political views as libertarian.

They have also described themselves as teetotalers. Their book, Penn & Teller’s How to Play in Traffic, explains that they avoid absolutely all alcohol and other drugs, including caffeine, though they do appear to smoke cigarettes in some videos. Penn has said that he has never even tasted alcohol, and that his tolerance for certain drugs is so low that his doctor only had to administer a minute amount of anesthetic relative to what one would expect necessary for a man of his size to undergo surgery.

The pair have written several books about magic, including Penn & Teller’s Cruel Tricks For Dear Friends, Penn & Teller’s How to Play with Your Food, and Penn & Teller’s How to Play in Traffic. Since 2001, Penn & Teller have performed six nights a week (or as Penn puts it on Bullshit!: “Every night of the week . . . except Fridays!”) in Las Vegas at the Rio All Suite Hotel and Casino.

Penn Jillette hosted a weekday one-hour talk show on Infinity Broadcasting’s Free FM radio network from January 3, 2006 to March 2, 2007 with cohost Michael Goudeau.[3][4] He also hosted the game show Identity, which debuted on December 18, 2006 on NBC.

Penn & Teller have also shown support for the Brights movement and are now listed on the movement’s homepage under the Enthusiastic Brights section.[5] According to an article in Wired magazine, their license plates are customized so they read, “Atheist” and “Godless”, and when Penn signs autographs, he often writes down, “there is no God” with his signature.[6]


Off-Stage Relationship

Penn Jillette has told interviewer Larry King that a big part of the duo’s success and longevity is due to their never having been close friends. They enjoy working together immensely, but have little in common besides magic. As a result of their drastically different lifestyles and interests, they rarely socialize or interact when not working. Jillette believes that their partnership succeeds precisely because they give each other a great deal of space off-stage.



Their tricks include Teller hanging upside-down over a cushion of spikes in a straitjacket, Teller submerged in a huge container of water, Teller being run over by an 18-wheel tractor-trailer, Teller swinging going through Penn’s hands. Many of their effects rely heavily on shock appeal and violence, although presented in a humorous manner.

Sometimes, the pair will claim to reveal a secret of how a magic trick is done, but those tricks are usually invented by the duo for the sole purpose of exposing them, and therefore designed with more spectacular and weird methods than would have been necessary had it just been a “proper” magic trick. For example, in the “reveal” of one trick, while Teller waits for his cue, he reads magazines and eats a snack.[clarification needed] Another example is their rendition of the cups and balls, using transparent cups.

Penn and Teller perform their own adaptation of the famous bullet catch illusion. Each simultaneously fires a gun at the other, through small panes of glass, and then “catches” the other’s bullet in his mouth. They also have an assortment of card tricks in their repertoire, virtually all of them involving the force of the Three of Clubs on an unsuspecting audience member as this card is easy for viewers to identify on television cameras.[7]


The duo will sometimes perform tricks that discuss the intellectual underpinnings of magic. One of their acts, titled “Magician vs. Juggler”, features Teller performing card tricks while Penn juggles and delivers a monologue on the difference between the two: jugglers start as socially aware children who go outside and learn juggling with other children; magicians are misfits who stay in the house and teach themselves magic tricks out of spite.

In one of their most politically charged tricks, they make a U.S. flag seem to disappear by wrapping it in a copy of the United States Bill of Rights, and apparently setting the flag on fire, so that “the flag is gone but the Bill of Rights remains.” The act may also feature the “Chinese bill of rights”, presented as a transparent piece of acetate. They normally end the routine by restoring the unscathed flag to its starting place on the flagpole; however, on a TV guest appearance on The West Wing this final part was omitted.[8]


One of their more recent tricks[when?] involves a powered nail gun with a quantity of missing nails from the series of nails in its magazine. Penn begins by firing several apparently real nails into a board in front of him. He then proceeds to fire the nailgun into the palm of his hand several times, while suffering no injuries. His pattern builds as he oscillates between firing blanks into his hand and firing nails into the board. While performing he states that the trick is merely memorization, and explains that the fact that he does not flinch when he could be firing a nail into his hand should be a sign that the trick is not actually dangerous. A later revision to the trick replaced the false claims of memorization with a more open explanation, allowing the audience to enjoy the rhythm of the nail gun without fear of a serious mishap.[9]

A trick introduced in 2010 is a modern version of the bag escape, replacing the traditional sack with a black trash bag apparently filled with helium. Teller is placed in the bag which is then pumped full of helium and sealed by an audience member. For the escape, the audience are blinded by a bright light for a second and when they are able to see again, Teller has escaped from the bag and Penn is holding it, still full of helium, above his head, before releasing it to float to the ceiling. The duo had hoped to put the trick in their mini-tour in London; however, it was first shown to the public in their Las Vegas show on 18 August 2010. In June 2011, Penn and Teller performed this trick for the first time in the United Kingdom on their show Fool Us.[10




Year Film Role Notes
1987 Penn & Teller Get Killed Themselves
1989 Penn & Teller’s Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends Themselves
2005 The Aristocrats Themselves Penn also co-directed the film


Video Clip




Year(s) Title Role Notes
1985 Penn & Teller Go Public Themselves On KCET Los Angeles
1985 – 1986 Saturday Night Live Themselves 7 Episodes
1993 FETCH! with Ruff Ruffman Themselves They taught one of the show’s contestants, Rubye, to perform magic tricks.
1994 The Unpleasant World of Penn & Teller Themselves
1995 Phobophilia Themselves
1995 The Drew Carey Show Archibald Fenn & Geller 2 Episodes: “Drew Meets Lawyers” (1995) and “See Drew Run” (1997)
1995 – 2008 The Tonight Show with Jay Leno Themselves 4 Episodes: 14 November 1995, 27 November 1998, 13 May 2004, & 25 November 2008
1996 & 1997 Sabrina, the Teenage Witch Drell & Skippy 4 Episodes: “Pilot” (1996), “Terrible Things” (1996), “Jenny’s Non-Dream” (1997), & “First Kiss” (1997)
1997 Muppets Tonight Themselves Episode: “The Gary Cahuenga Episode”
1997 – 2003 Late Night with Conan O’Brien Themselves 3 Episodes: 16 October 1997, 7 June 2000, & 23 January 2003
1998 Babylon 5 Rebo & Zooty Episode: “Day of the Dead”
1998 – 1999 Penn & Teller’s Sin City Spectacular Themselves 24 Episodes
1998 – 2000 The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Themselves 2 Episodes: 13 August 1998 & 5 June 2000
1998 – 2004 Hollywood Squares Themselves 60 Episodes
1999 Home Improvement Themselves 2 Episodes: “Knee Deep”
1999 & 2011 The Simpsons Themselves 2 Episodes: “Hello Gutter, Hello Fadder” (1999) and “The Great Simpsina” (2011)
2002 Grand Illusions: The Story of Magic Themselves Discovery Channel documentary: Penn & Teller present 200 years of the history of stage magic
2002 Fear Factor Themselves Episode: “Celebrity Fear Factor 3”
2003 Las Vegas Themselves Episode: “Luck Be a Lady”
2003 Penn & Teller’s Magic and Mystery Tour Themselves 3 Part mini-series
2003 The Bernie Mac Show Themselves Episode: “Magic Jordan”
2003 – 2010 Penn & Teller: Bullshit! Themselves 85 Episodes
2004 The West Wing Themselves Episode: “In The Room”
2004 – 2010 Last Call with Carson Daly Themselves 6 Episodes: 13 July 2004, 16 November 2005, 5 April 2007, 16 June 2008, 5 April 2010, & 5 May 2010
2007 & 2008 Late Show with David Letterman Themselves 2 Episodes: #15.32 & #15.113
2009 Futurama: Into the Wild Green Yonder Themselves
2011 Penn & Teller: Fool Us Themselves 7 Episodes (ongoing)
2011 Penn & Teller: Tell a Lie Themselves Starts Fall of 2011




  • Penn & Teller’s How to Play in Traffic (1997, ISBN 1-57297-293-9)
  • Penn & Teller’s How to Play with Your Food (1992, ISBN 0-679-74311-1)
  • Penn & Teller’s Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends (1989, ISBN 0-394-75351-8)
  • Sock 2004, ISBN 0-312-32805-2 (Penn Jillette sole author)
  • How to Cheat Your Friends at Poker: The Wisdom of Dickie Richard 2006, ISBN 0-312-34905-X (Penn Jillette and Mickey D. Lynn)
  • When I’m Dead All This Will Be Yours: Joe Teller—A Portrait By His Kid 2000, ISBN 0-922-23322-5 (Teller sole author)


Other Media


  • The horse you rode in on by Pigface (Penn Jillette only)
  • Penn & Teller Present: Music To Look At Boxes By (With Mike “Jonesy” Jones)
  • Never Mind the Sex Pistols, by Bongos Bass & Bob (Penn Jillette with Dean J Seal and Bob “Running” Elk)
  • Tattoo of Blood by the Captain Howdy (Penn Jillette with Mark Kramer)
  • Money Feeds My Music Machine, by the Captain Howdy (Penn Jillette with Mark Kramer)
  • It’s Tricky video, by RunDmc” Penn and Teller shown throughout the video and at the end appear to take over the persona of RunDMC

Jillette also toured with the Residents during the Mole Show, and hosted Ralph Records’ 10th Anniversary Radio Special (1982). There is some mild controversy and confusion surrounding this. While the premise of 10th Anniversary Radio Special revolved around Jillette having never heard of the label or any of the bands on it (the Residents included), he was credited as a collaborator on the 1981 album Mark of the Mole,[11] and he can be heard giving news bulletins in the first track. This has led some to speculate that Jillette may have been a Resident at one point.

  • Penn and Teller also appear in the video of Katy Perry’s single, Waking up in Vegas in which they are kicked out of their hotel room by Perry and her boyfriend. They later kick Perry out again.


In 2008 Teller co-directed a production of Macbeth in Red Bank, New Jersey and Washington, DC.[12]

Video games

  • Penn & Teller’s Smoke and Mirrors 1995 – Absolute Entertainment for Sega CD & 3DO, Unreleased.
  • Sabrina, the Teenage Witch: Spellbound 1998 – Simon & Schuster for PC – Voices for Drell & Skippy




  1. Booking Entertainment: Penn & Teller bio
  2. Penn & Teller on Babylon 5
  3. Infinity Broadcasting article on Penn
  4. Penn & Teller website
  5. The Brights’ Net: Enthusiastic Brights
  6. Gagnon, Geoffrey (November 2006). “The Illusionists”. Faces of the New Atheism. Wired Magazine.Retrieved 14 March 2010. “Never shy about their atheism (Penn’s got the Nevada license plates ATHEIST and GODLESS), the two have been raising their voices – even the oft-silent Teller – to decry the muddying line between church and state… Sometimes they’ll even sign autographs with “There is no God.”” 
  7. Penn & Teller on force trick
  8. Guide to West Wing on Penn & Teller
  9. Penn Says: Nail Gun Trick
  10. [1]
  11. Residents Web: Mark of the Mole information page
  12. Teller’s MacBeth



External links