Updated: Friday, May 18, 2012, 8:07 AM
It's been more than a decade since Penn & Teller established their still-thriving residency at the Rio hotel in Las Vegas. Since then they have been seen on a variety of television shows (including their own Showtime cynic-fest "Bull----"), while Penn Jillette, the verbal half of the magic-comedy duo, is a New York Times bestselling author (last year's "God No! Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales").
The point is that after almost 40 years together, the pair have earned the right to rest on their laurels and coast a little bit. But that doesn't appear to be an option. To hear Jillette tell it, he'd rather burn his face off with the torches he uses in his fire-eating bit than to simply phone in a performance.
During a recent phone call, the leather-lunged entertainer who, with the mono-monikered, Center City-raised Teller, returns to Harrah's Resort Atlantic City Friday and Saturday, spoke of Las Vegas headliners who "worked so hard to have a certain amount of success in show business and then use that success to kind of sort of do nothing.
"The number of people who work up an act and go to Vegas and continue to do that (same) act until they die…so they have more time to what? Play golf? I don't even know what they do.
"Teller and I always marvel at the fact that--with a little bit of exaggeration-every other show in Vegas is exactly the same as every other show in Vegas was 10 years ago. Our show is two-thirds new. Since we moved to Vegas (in 2001) we've written about five hours of new material."
Over the course of time, explained Jillette, the duo's singular act-a hilarious and mind-bending blend of magic and wise-guy humor-has changed in other ways besides content, including the addition of John Thompson, who has long been considered "the magician's magician," by those in the business, as a creative consultant and show director. The format, in terms of how the individual segments are executed, has also evolved.
"We used to think, 'We have this nice trick that we kind of like, how can we make this into 10 minutes?'" offered the garrulous, 57-year-old Jillette. "Now we think, 'We've got this incredibly complicated thing, how can we get it done in two minutes?'
"We finished up working on this one particular trick-sawing a woman in half-and (Thompson) just said, 'Any other magic act in history, after this much work, would have made this the second half of the show, after 35 minutes of build-up and hype and celebration. And you guys get through it in 2½ minutes. And people will get home and go, 'Wait a minute, that was f-----' impossible!'
"We have so much material now we can be very promiscuous with it. Stuff that we would have, even 15 years ago, put as a centerpiece and held on to, we can now slide right over."
Usually when Penn & Teller play Atlantic City, they tend to stick to more of a "greatest hits" menu. This weekend, however, audiences will see illusions of a more recent vintage.
"We're doing a few new things in Atlantic City because we've fallen into the habit of doing the new things in Vegas," he said. "We've played Atlantic City enough recently that we want to change that. We're doing the opener from our Vegas show, called 'Cellfish,' which is a magician-killer. It destroys magicians. And (audience members) know it's a wicked good trick, they just don't know (how good).
"We're also doing 'Helium.' It's one of those impossible tricks we get through in about 3½ minutes that we worked on for two years."
Because they spend most of their time in Vegas, many Americans know Penn & Teller through their joint and individual TV appearances. In recent years, Jillette has been a contestant on two of the highest-rated celebrity-competition shows, "Dancing With The Stars" and "Celebrity Apprentice" (where he can still be seen in the current run. Although he was fired by Donald Trump a few weeks ago, he is a key member of finalist Clay Aiken's team).
According to Jillette, The Donald terminated him because he refused to be a part of the trumped-up (pardon the pun) drama that is part-and-parcel of any reality show worth its ratings. And that, he admitted, is probably why he doesn't see himself being the star of a program that would focus on his personal life.
"It's been talked about a little bit; I'm not enthusiastic about it," he said. "What I'm mostly trying to do is get attention for our live shows so people will come out and see it, and we can keep writing new stuff and doing new stuff and have people come and enjoy it. I think if I got into something ongoing like that it would be a slight change in what I really, really want to do.
"If you woke me up in the middle of the night and asked me what I do for a living, I would say,' I'm a writer who works in the Penn & Teller show.' If you ask me to list how I see myself, I don't think "celebrity" comes up in the top 100. I understand I've been on (celebrity-oriented) shows - but it's not my self-image.
"There's a part of reality shows that just feels like the same as gossip. And that's the part I really don't enjoy. My happiest moment on 'Celebrity Apprentice' is when people comment on the idea I got for the (public service announcement he did for Aiken's charity fundraiser). The rest of that show was talking about things I considered to be akin to gossip. And that moment was talking about an idea.
"How much Clay (Aiken) or Lou (Ferrigno) got on my nerves just isn't something I'm very interested in."
Show time is 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Admission is $75. Call 800-735-1420, or go to www.ticketmaster.com.
Helping hand from Hagar
Rocker Sammy Hagar will be on hand Friday afternoon to open Sammy's Beach Bar at Bally's Atlantic City. The golden-maned former (and possibly future, for all we know) Van Halen front man isn't just making the scene on the strand to beat the drum about the al fresco saloon that is named in his honor. He'll also be handing over a check for $10,000 to St. Nicholas of Tolentine R.C. Church, which has fed the homeless for years.
After the ceremony, Hagar will head up the Boardwalk to Showboat Atlantic City where he'll gig at House of Blues with his band, Chickenfoot, which also includes six-string deity Joe Satriani, Red Hot Chilli Peppers' drummer, Chad Smith and former Van Halen bass man, Michael Anthony.
Show time is 9 p.m. Admission is $62.50, $54.50 and $49.50. For tickets, call 609-236-2583, or go to www.hob.com/atlanticcity.
Read full story: Penn & Teller still driven to create