Comic duo's 'Refrigerator Tour' is a tough magic act to follow


November 09, 1990|By Candace Burke-Block | Candace Burke-Block,Special to the Sun

NEW YORK — Penn Jillette, 35, (the tall one), of the magic team Penn & Teller, is munching on fire, savoring each dancing flame as it leaps toward his mouth from a shish kebab skewer.

Teller, 42, (the short one), tastes the flame and nods thoughtfully.

"I was run over by a truck this morning," says Teller. "It didn't hurt at all."

He's talking about a trick they meticulously planned. If one weight had shifted even a couple of inches, Teller would have been killed. But it worked and Teller is fine.

It's surprising to hear Teller talk at all. He almost never speaks in public. That's part of their act: Penn talks, Teller remains silent.

"When we paired up it was a given that I would be silent onstage and Penn would talk," says Teller. "And we played very well together that way. You can't believe how much fun we have with it!"

Last year the movie "Penn & Teller Get Killed" introduced the pair to nationwide audiences, while their stage show played around the United States. They have been on numerous TV talk shows, notably more than a dozen performances on "Late Night With David Letterman."

Those appearances are at least partly responsible for attracting the kind of youthful, thinking-magician's, upscale audience they like -- different from the folks who go to see guys in tall black hats pull a rabbit out of a hat.

Recently, Penn & Teller have been traveling around the country on their six-month "Refrigerator Tour," which stops in Baltimore at the Lyric Opera House tonight and tomorrow. Why "Refrigerator"? Because it opens with a huge refrigerator seeming to fall on the two men as they sit, unsuspectingly, onstage.

There is always a delicious sense of tongue-in-cheek humor with Penn & Teller -- even when they're doing things like sitting in a glass box filled with 100,000 bees.

Clearly they're out of the traditional magician's mode. Says Teller, "A lot of magicians define magic as: 'Here's a quarter. Now it's vanished. You're a jerk. Now it's appeared again. You're an idiot.' "

But not Penn & Teller. About the bee trick, Teller says, "We thought that would be neat, a very dramatic kind of situation. . . . We're safe because we're not threatening the bees. They're not protecting the hive."

Teller has perfected another new trick. Flying from a trapeze, he hooks his legs over the trapeze bar and swings out over a bear trap, brazenly plucking a sandwich from the trap's release pan.

Ordinarily, trying to remove anything from a bear trap (without metal tools) would mean a broken hand at the very least. Clearly the duo has learned what a lot of bears have not.

Unlike many magicians, Penn & Teller come up with the ideas for their own tricks and also figure out how to make the tricks work.

"We use miniatures a lot in the first stages of figuring things out," says Teller. "We work with diagrams and then the actual mechanical part."

Believe it or not, both Penn and Teller are intellectual types. When Teller has free time he is apt to be reading literary classics -- anything from "The Great Gatsby" to Sophocles.

Penn lives, as he puts it, "a rifle shot from Times Square" in New York -- and spends most of his free time with his computers. Or, he says, "My hobby is science and I'm a fan of rational thought and science.

"I'm a very big fan of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, which is associated with The Amazing Randi" -- a magician who has also debunked several self-proclaimed psychics and other ESP experts.

Penn is also a rock and roll fan, but he says his real passion is "particle physics."

Penn says at age 12 he was interested in magic, but he didn't like what he saw.

There on the TV screen would be "this guy in this bad suit with really horrible music, pushing women around. And really, the women did all the work. They had to climb into the boxes, get sawed in half, position themselves and work the traps and locks on the boxes. But the magician got all the credit."

It wasn't until Penn and Teller were introduced by a mutual friend in 1974 that either of them decided to actually work in magic.

Fueled by their sly, clever senses of humor, Penn & Teller devised a kind of dark, black humor. But when the twosome started out they received grief from fellow magicians. A big part of their act was doing standard magicians' tricks and then showing the audience how they were done.

"Why are [other magicians] condescending to people? . . . We try to go out there and say, 'We know this magic stuff is a big swindle, but it's kind of a nifty swindle,' " Penn says, grinning.

Penn & Teller

Where: Lyric Opera House, 1404 Maryland Ave.

When: Nov. 9-10, 7 p.m. and 10:30 p.m.

Tickets: $27.50, $23.50, $19.

Call: 481-6000.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.