Penn and Teller


Today is Teller’s birthday! Teller indulged me with a lengthy, generous interview when I researched No Applause. He is quoted there at length and you’ll have to buy it to learn what he said (and he said it with his vocal chords. With a New Jersey accent).

Penn and Teller are of course Gods to someone such as myself. By happenstance a friend brought me to see their hit off-Broadway show in the late 80s. That and their television appearances of the time made a huge impression on me: the classy aesthetics of their act, tasteful right down to the threads of their clothing, which made them a heady antidote to what might be called the  “Vegas Crap” of most magicians of the era (even as now the team makes their base in Vegas, perhaps changing the town more than it has changed them). I love their breezy showmanship and the tone of their act, which gives off a mock seriousness that reminds me of Bob and Ray. So skilled, so funny, and so original. O, if only there were a proper vaudeville for them in which to headline! (Nah, who needs it, we have television, and they are masters of that medium).


Originally their act was a trio called the Asparagus Valley Cultural Society. That’s them above in 1975! The third guy was a funny musician named Weir Chrisimer, who remained with the act until 1981. Penn and Teller started to hit it big about four years later, with a unique, rationalist approach to performance that might be called anti-magic, which exposed the very techniques magicians use even while employing them. Inspired by James Randi, they made a career out of encouraging people NOT to buy illusions, and proved that such a thing could be entertaining. They began appearing on SNL and Letterman and getting their own TV specials and moved to the forefront of what was called New Vaudeville. In 1989 they starred in the movie Penn and Teller Get Killed, Arthur Penn’s last film. From hit Broadway shows, they moved to long runs in Vegas, and from frequent tv specials they went to hit series like Penn and Teller: Bullshit! (2003-2010) and Penn and Teller: Fool Us! (2011-present). Today I think it’s safe to say they are a widely beloved national institution.

To find out more about vaudeville past and present, including New Vaudevillians like Penn and Teller, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. 


And don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc


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