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Magicians, writers, and television and radio hosts – Penn Jillette and Teller have done it all, and they detailed much of it on July 22 during their Comic-Con International panel “Penn & Teller, 35 Years of Magic and BS.” Hosted by their longtime friend, writer/producer Eddie Gorodetsky, the panel was an in-depth look at the team’s career through various projects and media. Also, Teller spoke! Although Jillette did most of the talking.
The panel began with a video retrospective of the duo’s career, featuring various specials, talk-show appearances, and roles in movies and television series like “Babylon 5,” “The Simpsons” and “Celebrity Deathmatch.”
“We did one of these talks a couple of months ago at the Writers’ Guild in LA,” Gorodetsky said. “This is a much hipper crowd, but they had more people dressed as Wonder Woman, believe it or not.”
Gorodetsky then introduced Penn & Teller, explaining how the ampersand in writing means that two people actually work together, which is why Penn & Teller perform so well as a team. He then asked about a particular clip in the video regarding bees, which Penn said he would explain at the end of the night, because all anyone wanted to know was whether Teller would answer a question.
“No,” Teller answered.
Teller, who ordinarily doesn’t speak during performances, answered questions at the panel. He said he began the mute act because he was always attracted to the idea of lying without speaking. While in college, he started doing magic at the one place a college student could get work as a magician, fraternity parties.
“It was a lot easier to work the crowd, and it was harder to heckle back,” he said.
The two met while Teller was teaching and Jillette was a student at another high school. Eventually, Jillette moved to New York as a juggler. Teller had a job and would buy him dinner, which eventually led to them teaming up.
“David Blaine has shown us that people can get laid from doing magic,” Gorodetsky said, setting up his next question. “How do you feel magic is being portrayed now?”
“There are two schools of magic that are clearly marked, the David Blaine and the Penn & Teller,” Jillette said. “There are some magicians that believe it is very important to deal in trickery and that truth matters, and there are some magicians who believe they have to be jacked into the supernatural.”
Although they like Blaine and get along with him personally, they disagree with the basic philosophy behind his act.
“Three stupid motherfuckers are going to believe he actually has powers?” Jillette said. “The only question you want to ask David Blaine is, ‘Who the fuck do you think you’re kidding?’ The basic breakdown is there’s always this kind of cheesy feeling that we’re supposed to believe that as magicians, we’re supposed to help them believe it is the supernatural. It’s such a lie. We know when we’re making believe! It’s fucking bullshit!”
Gorodetsky used that to segue into a discussion of their Showtime television series, “Penn & Teller: Bullshit!”
“When in doubt, we always come down on the side of liberty, and that’s a position that is unassailable,” Teller said.
The team would like to do a show on tribalism, the idea that someone’s origins are a point of pride, something they find anti-American, but are having trouble convincing the network to let them tackle the topic.
“Scientology also,” Jillette said. “We haven’t done Scientology because Showtime didn’t want us to, but also because we want to do something people learn something from, and I’ve never met anyone who has believed that Scientology is anything but bullshit.”
The duo then took questions from the audience. When asked whether Teller ever said, “ouch or oh. shit” when a trick looked like it was going to go wrong, Jillette replied with a story about Teller saying “Jesus Christ” at the start of an act when Lou Reed was in the audience.
“Apparently he mistook Lou Reed for Jesus Christ,” he said. “It does bring up an interesting point, another difference we have with other magicians, especially David Blaine and Criss Angel. They like to do something that they explain to the audience is really dangerous, and I believe we are asking people when we do our show – when we drown Teller, when I put a nail gun to my head – we’re asking people to laugh at death and suffering, and they cannot do that if there is any element of reality in there whatsoever. There’s something that happens all the time, especially with gamers and comic-book people and movie people, saying they’re obsessed with violence. They are not obsessed with violence, there is no fucking violence, there is pretend violence.”
A gamer in the audience then asked whether they would ever make a return to gaming, after their attempt at making the Sega CD game “Penn & Teller: Smoke and Mirrors.” This led Jillette to recall the best-known level of the game, “Desert Bus,” which was a concept thought up by Gorodetsky, where players drive a bus for eight hours from Tucson to Las Vegas at 45 miles per hour with no stops. When you finish, you get one point.
“Janet Reno under the Clinton administration had come down on video gamers saying they shouldn’t be doing all this violent stuff, saying they should do things more peaceful and more like reality, because that’s what entertainment is,” Jillette said.
Finally, Teller told the story about the bees he teased at the beginning of the panel: During an act that employed bees, Teller was stung many times, triggering a massive allergic reaction and causing the skin to fall off his scrotum. That was when the evening ended, because, well, how could they top that?