"When you pulled out three balls in 1973, what was going through people's minds was 'I saw a deformed midget do that once.' But when you pulled out three balls in the '80s, it was 'a guy in my dorm room used to do that.' I can't put up with something so common."
It is safe to say that, in the world of variety arts, Penn & Teller are BIG. They sell out large theatres wherever they go, they host television specials, they star in their own movies. They have risen slowly and steadily from being street performers to becoming Broadway stars.
The duo first met in 1974, when they were introduced by a mutual friend. At the time Teller (his complete name) was a high-school Latin teacher in Trenton, N.J., and Penn Jillette (the tall, talkative one) was a street performing juggler in Philadelphia.
Penn had grown up in Greenfield, Mass., and began juggling with his next door neighbor, best friend, and recent MacArthur grant recipient Michael Moschen. That was in 1967, when juggling was viewed much differently than it is today. Penn said, "Juggling was still a very arcane performing skill. It was something that creeps did. If you did it at a party it was like sticking a nail up your nose. It wasn't exactly grotesque, but it wasn't normal fare."
But the prevailing opinion didn't discourage Penn and Moschen, who continued practicing. They performed together for several years, doing club passing, but their individual styles developed in markedly different directions.
Moschen worked on fluid, dance-inspired movements. Penn developed smooth, technically strong juggling, but the juggling became a backdrop for perceptive comedy. There was also "The Attitude," an essential ingredient in Penn's desired effect - a funny, entertaining and impressive show. "I always tried to juggle as though I was too cool to ever have practiced," he said.
Some kind of attitude is important, he believes, for juggling to be something more than an "Olympic event" in which the only message conveyed is how much the performer has practiced.
He said, "For the most part, with juggling you have someone being virtuosic about being virtuosic. They do something that has no content, but do it really, really well. Take for instance, Eddie Van Halen playing the guitar. You always have something more to concentrate on than his fingers moving and the practice he's put in. You have music, you have art, you have emotion."
The basic physical moves of juggling, he believes, contain no emotional impact to keep people interested. There is just the awareness of a great deal of practice. "You can't perceive, in an artistic way, the difference between five balls and seven balls," he said. "You can do the work, you can do the math, but there's not even a subtlety there. When Eddie Van Halen plays a riff a little faster, it means something within the emotion. The worst you can say about a guitar player is that he has some chops, but no content, no taste. But with juggling, your taste is your chops."
Penn cites his old partner, Moschen, as someone who has blended content with his juggling. Penn said, "When Mike Moschen does stuff, you have a real-time visual beauty. He creates in motion, in real time, what a painter or a dancer would."
That's a high compliment from a man not long on compliments. And there's more! Penn continued, "If people choose to look back at juggling in 100 years, the only name they're going to mention is Mike Moschen. The only real substantial change in juggling in 100 years... Mike is doing deeply different things, deeply gut-level different things. He's out where you never see people in the variety arts go."
Penn said most people can't imagine that he and Moschen were once juggling partners. "I would love at some point to have a videotape of Mike and I actually juggling together, because I have yet to find anyone who can really picture the two of us working together," he said.
But they did work together. They performed at Great Adventure amusement park, doing club passing. "We used to dance around the room if we could hold a nine club pass together, even for a minute. We thought we were geniuses because we could hold eight comfortably. Of course, one person can do eight by himself now," he added.
Penn admits that juggling technique has improved greatly since the days when he was juggling for a living, but he doesn't like the way the public's perception of juggling has changed.
"When you pulled out three balls in 1973, what was going through people's minds was 'I saw a deformed midget do that once.' But when you pulled out three balls in the '80s, it was 'a guy in my dorm room used to do that.' I can't put up with something so common," he said.
Another experience that soured Penn on juggling happened during his street performing days. "After I was working juggling in San Francisco for a while, a juggler who will remain nameless took a good 4-5 minutes of material from me and did it on the Tonight Show, and in Sugar Babies... People began asking me if I had gotten the material from him, because he was more famous than I was at the time. That really hurt me."
So Penn decided to blaze his performance trail with magic, rather than juggling. He also points to certain aspects of magic that make it a more interesting and lucrative art to explore.
Penn said, "Magic is a despicable art form, and magicians are more despicable people than jugglers. All you're really doing with magic is lying. In that sense you're taking a basic societal taboo into the artistic realm. That's a very fascinating thing to do, very hip, very happening. Also, magic has irony built into it, and irony is one of the strongest things you can do in theatre. Even done badly as sarcasm, irony always works. In magic you have something that looks one way, and is actually being done another way. That's tension, that's theatre, that's Beckett."
He continued, "Even really, really bad magic will hold your attention, because there is some intellectual content. With juggling you have to ask yourself 'What is the content?' Look at Houdini's ad slogan - 'Self Liberator' - For a Jew at the beginning of the century, self liberation. 'I defy the jails of the world to hold me.' That has tremendous impact beyond just physical skill and practicing. Look at Ignatov in that same context and you get 'Guy who practiced a real lot because his government let him.'"
Their idea of satirizing magic, and combining it with a variety of other art forms, is unique even now. But it was even more unique in 1974 when they first developed it.
Penn explained, "At that time, we both really hated magic, along with everything going on in show business. So that made magic a natural. There's a quote from the Residents, an avant garde music group in San Francisco, that goes 'If you hate supermarket music, then for Christsake start making supermarket music.'"
So they started on a magical mystery tour, one which started on the streets of Philadelphia where much of their style and substance was forged. Street performing was still very much illegal, which Teller feels made it more special for both the performer and the audience. He said, "Street performing is good when it's illegal. When it's legal it's much too tame. The charm of street performing is that you don't expect to find it there. You come out of a restaurant after a lovely dinner and you're walking along a cold city street in the middle of winter and suddenly, out of nowhere something that you've never seen happens, there on the sidewalk. It's kind of a miracle.
"If you look at street performing now, in San Francisco they run on a schedule, it's run by hippies, and it's tame. It shows in the performance too, because there's nothing wild about it. There's none of that exotic mystery of where the hell did this person come from."
From the streets of Philadelphia the two men eventually made their way to San Francisco, where a producer booked them into the Phoenix Theatre, a 153 seat venue. It was another important step in their development, allowing them the chance to "log in-flight time," in a theatre setting, according to Teller.
They performed 965 shows at the Phoenix Theatre in three years and learned a tremendous amount about the art of performance. Teller said, "I know that's where I learned how to move in relation to Penn. When we move on stage, the stage always seems to balance itself. We've been on stage long enough together that I know how to balance it... I take care of the video, he takes care of the audio."
The most noticeable part of Penn & Teller's performance has not changed at all since the beginning. Penn as the talker and Teller remaining mute made sense to them from the very beginning, and was based on their prior experiences. Teller said, "It seemed right because I had always worked silent and Penn had always talked. So when we got together, it was natural. But only in the last 10 years have we really learned how to make that an intricate interaction. Now it is very complex and very nice..."
Another basic point of performance they have developed is deciding how not to describe their show. They don't classify themselves as any particular brand of artist, and it has paid off well. After all, how do you describe routines where ducks get smashed by anvils and an electrified gorilla does card tricks? It's not the same kind of magic as guys in tuxedos pulling birds from their sleeves.
Teller explained that in their first major success, a 22-week sold out run off-Broadway at the Westside Arts Theatre, they didn't advertise a description of the show at all. He said, "So when critics came we did not say this is a magic show or a juggling show. We said it's a show called Penn & Teller, come and decide what it is for yourself. And that's what I like most about it, that there aren't any rules. We don't describe it as anything so we can do anything we jolly well please."
And they do anything they please. The basis of the show has always been magic, but juggling, fire eating and other variety arts sneak from time to time. They haven't juggled since 1986, though, when Penn & Teller ended their run off-Broadway.
That has been a disappointment to many jugglers, as well as Penn's father. Penn said, "My father believes that I no longer do anything in the show. He used to think 'you juggle, Teller does the needles, and it's really good. Now they don't think you can do anything, you just talk.' Taking juggling out of the show made my father crazy, but he pulled his hair out when we took out the fire eating. Now he sees his son on stage for 2-1/2 hours not doing a damn thing."
But Penn promises that juggling is not gone forever. "I still have in my mind that in the future there will be, in the Penn & Teller show, another juggling bit," he said. "There's one bit I wrote with Teller several years ago which we've never done. It was a television bit written for me, Teller, and Mike Moschen."
With comedy and creativity as the foundation, and magic as the tool, Penn & Teller have earned star status. Not bad for a couple of guys who merely wanted to make enough money to eat and sleep. "My wildest dreams were that I would be able to support myself doing what I wanted to do," Penn said. "Teller and I did that within a year of working together. And that was shocking to me. Deep in my heart, I didn't think I had a chance."
Now people come up to him in restaurants and on the street to commend him for his work. Penn says he would just as soon pass on mega-star status. "I've been out with Don Johnson, I've been out with Madonna - neither in dating situations - and there is a good amount of inconvenience that comes with real fame," he says.
But who's to say they may not feel the heat of a manic public themselves? Unless they are careful, Penn & Teller are going to continue climbing in popularity by doing the same things that have gotten them this far, mixing comedy, magic, juggling, and anything else they jolly well please into the hottest show around.
Dave Jones is a Juggler's World staff writer living in Altoona, Penn.