Penn & Teller know no boundaries. And that, they say without hesitation, is easily the best thing about being Penn & Teller.
"It's being able to do whatever you want," says Penn Jillette, the thicker, taller and audible half of the illusion-obsessed duo, whose act will be on display at the Lyric through Sunday.
"It's having really only one other person in the world that I have to clear something with before I put it in the show," says Teller, who's actually got a fine, measured speaking voice, even though it's never heard in the act. "For the Penn & Teller show that you see here, if we say it goes in, it goes in. That's an amazing freedom."
It's that freedom, bordering on anarchy -- the guys even shoot at each other on stage, and in one famous bit unleashed a horde of cockroaches onto the set of "Late Night With David Letterman" -- that has made Penn & Teller probably the most popular illusionists performing today.
As well as the most difficult to describe. Even the term "illusionist" doesn't do them justice.
Yes, they're magicians, but much of their act consists of explaining away the tricks that magicians have been thriving on for years. Yes, they're comedians, but forcing them into the same category as Jerry Seinfeld, Don Rickles and Henny Youngman stretches that tag beyond the breaking point. And yes, they're entertainers, but they also like to think of themselves as teachers and perhaps even moralists, urging audiences to look behind what their eyes see.
"If you say what we do is magic," says Penn, "then people are really going to come expecting ... box tricks and bird tricks, and that's really not what we do. Although what we do is by any sort of real definition magic, we still try to avoid that a little bit.
"And, yes, what we do is funny, but 'comedy show' tells you so little, because everything is a comedy show. We would always rather just go with 'Penn & Teller' and make that mean something."
Exactly what that something means has been building for more than 25 years. It was in 1974 that Penn Jillette, then a 19-year-old street performer and clown college alum, hooked up with 26-year-old Teller, a Latin teacher at a Trenton, N.J., high school. "We met through someone we knew that sold me a stereo and went to college with Teller," is how Penn remembers it.
(Actually, the duo started out as a triumvirate -- the stereo seller was fellow street-performer Wier Chrisemer, who eventually parted company with the duo and got out of performing.)
Penn & Teller honed their craft at Renaissance fairs and tiny performing-arts theaters, eventually landing appearances on the Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin variety shows. Ferocious word of mouth and an Emmy-winning PBS special followed in 1985, cementing their reputations as ... well, as Penn & Teller.
Today, they're everywhere, including frequent appearances on Letterman, Leno, Conan O'Brien and "Saturday Night Live." They have recurring roles on ABC's "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch." They've been on Broadway. They're starred in a movie ("Penn & Teller Get Killed") and had their own variety show on FX ("Penn & Teller's Sin City Spectacular"). They've lectured at the Smithsonian, guest-starred on "Babylon Five" and headlined in Las Vegas, where both live.
On this cold Baltimore afternoon, sitting down for a much-needed lunch after a round of media appearances that began at 5 a.m., Penn & Teller clearly revel in their image as the bad boys of magic.
They know some of the questions that are coming; they've been asked hundreds of times. Teller doesn't speak, he says, because years of working college frat parties taught him the best way to get someone's attention is to be quiet. "I would go in and, momentarily, the boys would set down their cups of beer and remove their hands from their girlfriends and pay attention to me."
And, yes, Teller once had a first name. "My first name was Absent-Minded Toad," he deadpans.
And, yes, the pair's reputation for mischief-making may be a bit overblown.
Sure, they've exposed a few magic tricks over the years and taught audiences how to breathe fire, for instance. Some magicians took umbrage at such seeming insolence -- "I hear you can still get in a fight in a magic store by bringing us up," says Penn. But they're not exactly pariahs.
"We get along very well with most magicians," Penn says. "All that talk is just a shorthand way to let people know they're not going to see a greasy guy in a tux with a lot of birds at our show."
Tellers admits they weren't above fanning the flames. "Once we had one little incident, we didn't hesitate to amplify that," he says.
But rather than simply making mischief, Penn & Teller say their act is mostly about respecting their audience's intelligence. "People are a lot smarter than entertainment by and large gives them credit for," says Teller.
"When you listen to politicians or entertainment producers, you very often hear people treating the public as though it's an ignorant robotic mass that's only going to see exactly what it's seen before in some slightly different-colored clothing. I don't think that's true. That's one thing that we demonstrate, that people really are willing to consider something that's quite different from what they've seen before."