Show: FRESH AIR
Date: OCTOBER 22, 1997
Head: Home Invasion
Sect: News; Domestic
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Nothing is more lame than a bad magic act, and no two people know that better than the magic and comedy duo Penn and Teller. They won't even call their act "magic" -- tricks, cons, and swindles are more like it -- pretty amazing ones.
My guest Teller stays locked in a water tank for longer than Houdini. David Letterman called Penn and Teller "evil geniuses" after he told them to trick him and they responded by magically releasing dozens of live cockroaches onto the set.
Penn and Teller have a new book called "How To Play In Traffic" and their new TV special "Home Invasion" will be showed November 11th on ABC.
Penn and Teller are a study in contrast. Penn is large and loud. Teller is shorter and never speaks on stage. In fact, he's rarely granted radio or TV interviews. I asked him why he's speaking now.
TELLER, ENTERTAINER/MAGICIAN, CO-AUTHOR, "HOW TO PLAY IN TRAFFIC": Over the years, we've grown to trust our audience more. It used to be that when I was in the lobby, I would stay silent after the show. And then it gradually dawned on us that the entire audience knows perfectly well that I can talk, and...
... it was kind of sign of respect to, when they said "we enjoyed your show," to say "thank you." And that's been extending over the years to the point where I've done print interviews for a long time. And then I started to do little pieces on NPR, on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. And now here I am with you.
GROSS: How did you start not talking in your performances?
TELLER: The first I remember not talking was when I was actually about maybe 10 or 11 and going out for Halloween. And I discovered that if I didn't talk, people never recognized me in my Halloween costume. They always recognized my voice, which was very distinctive to them. You know what I mean, 10 people on the same street, of course, they're going to recognize my voice.
And then as I began to work more in theater and magic, I became really interested in plot. And I started to pay attention to what magicians usually said, and what they usually said was things like: "here, I have a red ball. Now, I'm placing it into my left hand. And now, lo, it is gone" -- all stuff that the audience could see for itself.
So it became obvious to me that there ought to be a level of any piece of performance, especially in a piece of magical performance, that people can perceive by watching it.
So I thought this was a kind of interesting challenge 'cause nobody was doing it at the time at all. And I began to work on this with a college drama professor of mine. I went to Amherst College and I conned the drama department into doing a course called "The Figure of the Magician in Dramatic Literature." Right. Right. You know, what we -- this is -- Teller works on his magic act with a pretty cool drama professor.
And we worked on several pieces that were silent. I then tried the silent stuff at the fraternity parties and found, miraculously, that if I had gone in and started to try to shout down the crowd...
TELLER: ... you know, they -- I would have been heckled to death. Go in; don't say a damned thing; shine spotlight -- little spotlights -- on you; turn off all the other lights in the room; and lo and behold, the frat boys would momentarily remove their hands from their girlfriends' breasts...
... set down their cups of beer and pay attention.
GROSS: Now, since you didn't speak in your performances, and since you don't speak in your performances, were you ever afraid you'd be confused with a mime?
TELLER: Well, mimes generally don't use props and mimes generally have their faces painted white and behave much like a piece of sugar candy. And I don't think anybody's apt to confuse me with that because among other things I'm very unconscious of exterior manifestations of what I'm thinking.
That is, I don't think about making faces. I don't think about holding positions. And mime is sort of more akin to dance in that, you know, where people do think about their postures and the shapes they're making.
I just think about the evil thoughts I'm thinking.
... and that's how I work.
GROSS: You have evil thoughts in your head when you're performing?
TELLER: Oh, very often, yes.
GROSS: Like what?
TELLER: Well, in the show, you know, one of the things that I've done for the longest time is to slash a rose to bits by cutting its shadow apart. There's a sort of a white paper screen and a rose in front of it and a little lamp, and the lamp casts the shadow of the rose on the screen, and wherever I slash through the paper of the screen, the corresponding portion of the rose withers and dies.
There are very evil thoughts that go through your head when you're doing that. The punchline to that, which I'm very proud of because not that many pieces of magic have a good twist at the end, is that I accidentally prick my finger the knife, and when I'm holding my hand out to look at the wound, the shadow bleeds.
There's lots of evil thoughts around that.
GROSS: Now tell me more about why you got into this kind of malevolent side of magic -- thinking evil thoughts with magic. 'Cause magic for a lot of people is just this kind of pure delight and, you know, very kind of joyful and...
GROSS: Yes, right, yes.
TELLER: Joyful and insipid...
TELLER: ... or fraudulently mystical. I like drama. I like drama. It's very simple. I, you know, I -- and I always have. The things that have attracted me have never been frivolous sorts of comedies. You know, I'm -- the things I like -- my favorite movie is "Psycho." My favorite play is "Oedipus Rex." My favorite Shakespearian play is "Macbeth." My favorite short-story writer is Poe.
That's just me. You know, I don't know the -- I pulled magic in that direction so much as I was pulled in that direction by those desires. And the -- I've found a curious thing, which is that the darker the thought that I'm thinking, the funnier the audience finds it.
TELLER: It reminds me of the curse of Cassandra. I think Apollo came down and offered to make love to Cassandra, the Greek maiden. She turned him down and he cursed her, and the curse was she would always make correct prophecies and no one would ever believe her. And that's kind of the way I feel when I'm thinking the darkest of thoughts and the audience is laughing its head off, and I'm happy though.
GROSS: On your TV show, Home Invasion, which is going to be broadcast on November 11, one of the things you do is you get into the water tank. This is something you've done on stage, but in this show you're doing it in a family's living room.
Do the setup for us. Describe what's happening in this.
TELLER: Well, we have sent a family out of their house. We've gotten their consent to be on a television show. They don't know anything about what we're going to do. So we sent them out of their house and set up our lights and set up our water tank -- which is a thing that looks like a phone booth full of water -- in their living room.
And it's an unpleasant looking thing because I am inside the water tank and I am locked in there with bars keeping me from getting my face to the surface of the water. We then drape this entire thing with a piece of fabric so they just saw this red monolith in their living room. Brought them back in and sat them down.
And Penn announced that he was going to do a little bit of closeup magic -- something very un-Penn and Tellery -- just a piece of closeup magic -- but to keep the home audience interested, at which point he whips away the sheet, revealing me in the water tank -- "Teller," he says, " will hold his breath until Penn finds the correct selected card."
Now, this is something we do on stage and it's pretty effective. But putting it in somebody's living room and having them suddenly find a couple of hundred gallons of water in a large tank in the middle of their living room with a man holding his breath in a life and death situation, is quite another thing.
GROSS: While a card trick is being done.
TELLER: While a card trick is being done. And also, in the theater, you know, there's something about the frame of a theater...
TELLER: ... that makes you know that everything's going to come out just fine in the end. Well, when it's happening in your living room, where real things happen, it has quite a different feel. And as the plot unfolds, Penn fails to find the card, but I insist on remaining in the water tank. And Penn acknowledges my heroic insistence to remain in the water tank and then ignores me while I completely drown.
And the thing ends up with Penn shrugging and basically telling the people that from now on, it's a pretty easy trick, as this corpse is floating there in their living room and leaving -- leaving them in their living room with -- it's -- I think it's four or five people -- with a large tank of water and Teller's corpse.
The final moments of the show are just very pleasant in watching these people trying to deal with the fact that they now have a corpse in their living room.
GROSS: Which makes the trick even better because of course you're not dead, which means that you are under that water even longer than we could have ever imagined you'd be able to survive there. You've been under so long that you have -- that you're forced to play dead to be credible.
TELLER: It's exceedingly unpleasant to do.
GROSS: I was going to ask you that, especially, I should point out, you're wearing a suit and tie -- your standard, you know, theatrical garb, in that water tank. So in addition to what you must be going through with air, you know, you're wearing a suit and tie in there.
TELLER: No, the suit and tie doesn't bother me very much...
GROSS: That's nothing, huh?
TELLER: ... that -- nothing compared with the strain on my lungs.
GROSS: Tell me what it feels like? I don't -- you know -- I have no clue how you make this trick work.
GROSS: But whatever it is, I'm sure it's not pleasant.
TELLER: No, it's not. If it were only the claustrophobia of being in that confinement...
GROSS: If would just be like an MRI.
TELLER: ... yeah, it would -- that would still be pretty unpleasant.
TELLER: But I'm used to it now. You know, I've done that thing for 10 or 15 years.
TELLER: And I've grown comfortable with it, and all the physical things that I need to have good and strong and workable are very comfortable and workable now. When I first tried it, it was very strenuous. The first time we ever did it was on national television on Saturday Night Live.
And there were serious problems that very first performance, and if you should ever see it in re-broadcast on TV, they do closeups of my face, and my eyes look very full of anxiety. And they are very full of anxiety.
Now, not actually full of anxiety over death. They're full of anxiety over embarrassment, because we never do anything that would actually risk my death or Penn's death. It's extremely important if you're going to do dangerous things to always have several levels of safety precaution on them.
And in that particular one on Saturday Night Live there was a particular gesture that if I made this gesture, one of our assistants would run out, unlock the tank, and drag out my waterlogged body before I had a chance to drown.
GROSS: Just tell me one thing about the water tank.
How much of that really depends on you holding your breath for a long time? Or breathing in a most minimal way?
TELLER: You're asking questions about how we're doing the trick? Is that what you're asking?
GROSS: Do I get punished by the magician's union for this?
TELLER: No, no, no you don't. You just get reminded that a good piece of the pleasure in watching one of these things is wondering how real it is. You know, that's really an interesting feature about watching a magic performance. It isn't just wondering how it's done. It's wondering where reality leaves off and trick begins. That's one of the most interesting things, and it's one of the things that magic can teach.
It's -- you know, every kid goes through a magic phase. And they go through a magic phase when they're about 10. Did you not, at some point when you were 10, read a biography of Houdini or...
GROSS: Not. I didn't.
TELLER: ... you didn't?
GROSS: I think I had an uncle who took pennies and nickels out of my ear and that was like "no way."
GROSS: Not going near this thing.
TELLER: ... that may have been a product of -- I think when I was growing up, not all young women went through that. They now do. What happens is you get to about the age of 10 and you realize that maybe the Easter Bunny wasn't real, which means that maybe adults sometimes lie to you. And the power of prevarication is very attractive.
And if you are a kid with good morals, you then say, well, I'm going to learn about this through art. And of course, the perfect form of art to do that with is magic. If you're a kid without morals, that's when you start shoplifting.
GROSS: So anyways, we're just going to let me wonder about...
GROSS: ... where that line is.
TELLER: We're going to let you wonder, but...
TELLER: ... not, but not...
GROSS: That's OK.
TELLER: ... not without saying that magic seems to have a very useful function in society, and that useful function consists in making people realize that even when people are lying straight in their faces and saying "I am lying," that they can still be fooled.
And that means that when they turn on their TV the next time and someone lies straight in their faces -- someone dressed, usually, exactly like Penn and Teller in gray business suits, they view it with a little more -- a little more skepticism. And that's a very salutary effect.
GROSS: Teller of the team Penn and Teller. Their new book is How To Play In Traffic. Their new TV special Home Invasion airs November 11 on ABC.
This is FRESH AIR.
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