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Penn & Teller’s popularity is no illusion

Penn Jillette (left) and Raymond Teller.
Penn Jillette (left) and Raymond Teller.Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images/file 2013/courtesy of Penn & Teller

There is little about Penn & Teller that is easy to explain. According to Penn Jillette, the vocal half of the team that mixes comedy and magic, they are best friends who don’t socialize often. They are magicians who came to prominence in part by playing off a widespread disdain of their art. And they are stars who, Jillette says, would be perfectly happy spending their twilight years as a carnival sideshow.

“I expected, and aspired to, really, being carny trash,” Jillette says, speaking by phone about his near 40-year partnership with Raymond Teller.

Penn & Teller, who play the Citi Shubert Theatre Friday and Saturday, have performed on Broadway, spent the past 13 years headlining their own show in Las Vegas in a theater that bears their name, had their own movie, published books, and staged high-profile tours. They’ve even had success on their own: Jillette has published books, hosts a podcast (which he’ll tape at Laugh Boston Sunday for two shows), and has appeared on several reality shows. Teller is working on an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” for the American Repertory Theater set to debut in May.

Jillette says their success is more than they thought they’d achieve. “We’ve gone way beyond where we should have gone, and we’re just kind of patiently waiting for the market to correct itself,” he says. “There will be a market correction on Penn & Teller, and we’ll be back to playing for 200 or 300 people, which is where we belong.”

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He and Teller were thrilled to play Broadway, he says, but his aspiration as a kid growing up in Greenfield was to be able to do a little better than his father, who was a jail guard. He loves his job and working with Teller, whom he calls “one of the most brilliant magical minds that’s ever lived.” He may have exceeded his own expectations, but the pair worked hard and strategized to promote their act.

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Jillette and Teller were introduced by their mutual friend Wier Chrisimer, with whom they formed a trio. Jillette was a natural talker, and Teller had already worked as a “mute” magician in a solo act, finding that silence helped him tame rowdier crowds. Chrisimer left the act eventually, leaving just the duo. When Penn & Teller started their ascent in the 1980s, they were fighting attitudes that magic was for children and magicians were too dismissive of their audience. “We very, very much did not want to be a magic show in that way,” says Jillette. “So what we had to do, our job, artistically, was to give people something to sink their teeth into other than ‘this is a good magic show.’ ”

To get to a wider audience, they would need to define themselves as the “other.” They would tell the audience how they did certain tricks, which caused them grief among some fellow magicians. But some bigger names in the business would play along by pretending to be offended, offering nasty quotes that Penn & Teller would use to promote their act.

“Our point was, we are the ones that the magicians hate,” Jillette says. “So if you don’t like those other magicians, you should come see us. Which was really our point, but it was being said in a whimsical, theoretical way.”

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While other magicians could be condescending, Penn & Teller didn’t expect their audience to believe they were doing anything supernatural. It’s all a trick. “The secret of magic is all ugliness,” says Jillette. “What you’re looking for in life, one of the biggest joys you can experience, is the feeling of ‘aha!’ That you’ve figured something out.”

It’s satisfying to be able to lean over to your date during the show and point out that the magicians are using a mirror to pull off their illusion. Penn & Teller play with that. “What I’m doing as a magician is trying to rob you of that ‘aha!’ by making you think it’s a clear, easy answer, and then making sure it isn’t,” he says.

They go to great lengths to invent something beautiful to explain to the audience, a trick they can understand. They once explained the “man in a box” routine by doing it with a regular box, then doing it with a transparent box so the audience could see Teller slithering around underneath the stage, popping up to make it appear as if his head, hands, and legs are in different pieces of the box. The beauty of the trick they explain is in direct contrast to the unexplained tricks in the rest of their act, pulled off with gaffer’s tape and secret compartments and dozens of complicated steps.

“What Teller and I would do is we would write methods that really were fascinating, and then give those away as though that’s the way all magic was done,” says Jillette. “So the big lie in the Penn & Teller show is, we go out in the first or second trick and show you how a trick is done. And what we have taught you then is, this is the level of cleverness and beauty that all our tricks have, and we don’t tell you the rest. And the rest of them are ugly.”

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Jillette and Teller have also played it somewhat loose with the public perception of their personal relationship. Onstage, Teller is often maimed or mistreated in a trick at the hands of his partner. It would be tempting to transfer that theatrical hostility to their relationship offstage, and they have often said they’re not really friends. That’s partly true in the sense that aside from working together, the two don’t hang out much. But they are always happy to see each other.

“My relationship with Teller has always been what would feel like an e-mail relationship,” says Jillette. “It’s entirely intellectual and is not in any way cuddly or friendly. That having been said, over 39 years, he’s clearly my best friend. And for any important thing that happens, like the birth of my children, the death of our parents, any sort of real problem, we go to each other.”

They agree on just about everything about life, and very little about their art. Jillette says he values having a “clear intellectual point to make at every moment,” while Teller prizes beauty more highly. They never compromise but work to find something that satisfies them both.

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“That’s a long process, but when you hit that, you’ve got something that you like more than the original thing and he likes more than the original thing,” Jillette says. “And, boy, isn’t that great? And it turns out that two very eccentric people with very eccentric tastes, if they find that place where the Venn diagram overlaps, turns out a bunch of other people like it, too. More than we expected.”

More information:

PENN JILLETTE

Recording his “Penn’s Sunday School” podcast

At: Laugh Boston, Sunday,

1 p.m. and 3 p.m.

Tickets: $25, 617-725-2844, www.laughboston.com


Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at nick@nickzaino.com.