Penn & Teller

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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 on stage 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 gets 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.
  • Penn & Teller's Invisible Thread, a 1987 Showtime made-for-TV movie about how a stupid magic trick saves the human race from being wiped out by aliens for being redundant.
  • Penn and Teller Get Killed, a 1989 Black Comedy film directed by Arthur Penn (no relation to Penn Jillette) in which fictionalized versions of Penn and Teller perform tricks, play practical jokes on one another and try to escape from assassins.
  • The Unpleasant World of 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: Bullshit!, a highly successful Showtime series that ran from 2003-2010, where they call out various pseudoscience and political causes they consider to be bullshit.
  • 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.
  • Penn and Teller Tell a Lie, a 2011 Discovery Channel show where each episode presents six or seven unbelievable stories, one of which is a lie.
  • 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 & 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 Futurama movie "Into the Wild Green Yonder"
    • The Babylon 5 episode "Day of the Dead", as Rebo & Zootie, the 23rd century's greatest comedy duo
    • One of the Celebrity Fear Factor episodes (as one contestant; Teller performed all the stunts while Penn stood around talking and betting on the outcome)
    • 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
Penn & Teller provides examples of the following tropes:

Tropes for works linked above go on those pages.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Bloody Hilarious: They are rather enamoured with this trope.
  • 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.
  • 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
  • Decon Recon Switch: Integral to several of their magic routines. See The Reveal/The Un-Reveal below.
  • Disappearing Box: One of their stage routines.
  • 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.
  • Driving Game: Penn & Teller's Smoke and Mirrors famously included a minigame simulating an eight-hour drive from Tucson to Las Vegas -- in real time, with no pause button, in a bus with a top speed of 45 mph and a tendency for the steering to drift (which meant that you couldn't just leave it running unattended or the bus would crash -- whereupon it would be towed back to Tucson, still in real time, and you'd have to start again).
  • 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.
  • Embarrassing Old Photo: One of the tricks in Penn & Teller's How to Play With Your Food warns children that once they start dating their parents will be sure to embarrass them in front of whomever they're interested in by bring out stupid photos of them dressed up in Halloween costumes. It then proceeds to teach them how to make sure their parents will never want to remember Halloween.
  • 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).
  • Fat and Skinny: Penn and Teller, respectively.
  • 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 and 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 in a way be 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.
  • No Indoor Voice: Penn's on-stage persona.
  • 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: Penn stated openly on Wait Wait Don't Tell Me's "Not My Job" round that he's a video game nerd. Imagine what it'd be like to chat about video games with him.
  • 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: 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 lampshaders 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 do[1]...
    • The Un-Reveal: ...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 cups is so smooth that at full speed you still can't see well how it's done without repeated study.
  • Saw a Woman In Half: With a large buzzsaw, with the addition of making the audience think it's gone horribly wrong.
  • Self-Deprecation: They're rather fond of it.
    • 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."
  • The Silent Bob: Teller
  • Silent Partner: Teller
  • Silent Snarker: Teller
  • Stage Magician: Penn & Teller
  • Stolen Good, Returned Better: Played with in this segment from The Unpleasant World of Penn & Teller. Stephen Fry reluctantly parts with his expensive watch, which Penn & Teller proceed to ... improve.
  • 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.
  • The Three Stooges: They have performed a stage version of a Stoogesque sketch.
  • 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?)
  • Unwinnable by Design: In Penn & Teller's Smoke and Mirrors, hyperbole is not in any way involved in the naming of the "Impossible" difficulty level.
  • The Voiceless: Teller's on-stage persona, although he has spoken in non-"Penn & Teller" contexts, such as the film version of The Fantasticks and has even been a voice actor.
  1. 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