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Teller talks! Behold amazing feats at show

Patrick Beach

You'll not be getting the Penn and Teller experience at the Paramount Theatre tonight and Friday that you'd get at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino, where the edgy magic-comedy duo have played six nights a week for about the last decade. "Penn and Teller: 35 Years of Magic and B.S." is more of a moderated Q-and-A with a few tricks thrown in.

Here's the upside: Teller will talk. In fact, Penn Jillette, the large, way garrulous half of the deception-celebrating duo guesses that his partner, typically the Harpo Marx of magic, might even get more words in than he does. That's some trick.

"Teller and I are always working together, and I rarely have an opportunity for Teller to make me laugh," Jillette said the other day by phone. "Teller was a high school Latin and Greek teacher, extremely well educated and articulate. It's wonderful to see the audience realize the silent guy is a really good talker. It's fun working in a two-person-talking comedy team, which we never get to do."

What began as a one-off for the Writers Guild in LA has grown into a show the act takes on the road with some frequency, which is nice because it means Penn and Teller can play places where it wouldn't be practical for them to roll their whole Vegas extravaganza in for a couple of nights.

And it sounds like these two really enjoy the interaction — even if it's with folks who consider themselves Christians. The loudly atheist Jillette has spent years criticizing the religion, notably but not exclusively on their show on Showtime, but Jillette says by and large the reaction he gets is mighty thoughtful. The show is a celebration of skepticism, "fair and really, really biased," he said.

"We can do a show on the Bible or Mother Teresa, and we can have a dozen people react inappropriately and get hundreds and hundreds of letters from evangelicals and fundamentalists who say, 'I've accepted Jesus but it's wonderful to see a show with honesty and passion and good jokes.' That's the overwhelming majority of letters we get from Christians. I've learned how wonderful American Christians are. It's amazing how much they can take a punch."

Although it's a wonder the guy or his partner has time to throw any. They've got books, plays and, last we heard, they'd signed on to play Vegas cops in an ABC series loosely based on themselves. They prank Nobel laureates. A few years back Jillette co-produced and co-directed "The Aristocrats," a documentary about the absolute filthiest joke in the English language. Around the same time, Teller was producing a particularly bloody (and sexy) staging of "Macbeth."

But what really gets Jillette going, aside from the astonished looks on audience members' faces, is chasing new tricks. They've been known to spend years and hundreds of thousands of dollars figuring out how to pull off a trick that lasts maybe three minutes. Their latest grail has taken three years and "I don't even want to think about how much money." The idea: Vanish a cow.

This, of course, is a winningly mean variation on something Siegfried and Roy might have done. But to up the ante, the cow will be dressed as an elephant, and audience members will be close by on stage.

Oh, and it might not work.

"If you can spend three years and who knows how much money trying to vanish a cow and it works, then it's worth it," Jillette said. "If you can spend three years and who knows how much money trying to vanish a cow and it doesn't work, then you're Penn and Teller," he said with a booming laugh.

At the time they moved to Vegas full-time, these two were pretty much the only act in town spending serious coin on a top-flight show, even though they could have simply moved their theater show back East and made a lot more dough. Nevertheless, were they worried about what moving to what was then Schlockville, USA, might do to their anti-establishment bona fides?

"Absolutely," Jillette said. "When you're living in New York City and doing shows off- and on Broadway and hanging out with the hippest of the hippest of the hip, and you say 'We're going to Vegas,' it's like being in a painters' circle and saying, 'I'm going to start working exclusively on velvet, and I'll only paint Elvis and Jesus, and they'll both be sweating and crying.' When we moved out here, Vegas was bad George Burns impersonators. It was horrendous. Anybody with a brain in their head who came here did it ironically. That was the whole gag."

Now the shows are better — well, maybe excluding Donny and Marie Osmond — but Penn and Teller are working harder than ever.

"What I never understood was people who got into show business to get out of show business: 'I'm going to tour for 20 years and then buy an island,'\u2009" he said. "If you'd told me when I was 17 that I would be living in Vegas and have what would seem to my 17-year-old mind to be an infinite amount of money and a warehouse and a crew and a shop and sit around with probably the best magical mind alive today, sit in a room with him and think up anything you want, and you'll get about 1,200 people a night to come and see it, I couldn't have imagined stopping.

"Anybody can buy a house in Aspen. How many people can vanish an elephant?"

pbeach@statesman.com; 445-3603

'Penn and Teller: 35 Years of Magic and B.S.'

When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday

What: Paramount Theatre

Cost: $40-$90 at austintheatre.org (Friday show nearly sold out at time of writing)