Penn Jillette reveals the magic behind ‘Penn & Teller on Broadway’

It’s safe to say that the duo Penn & Teller are one of, if not the finest, magic acts of …

It’s safe to say that the duo Penn & Teller are one of, if not the finest, magic acts of the past 40 years. They’ve taken their mind-boggling skills across the world and are now appearing again on Broadway for a brief run.

But that’s not the only place you can see them. Their show “Penn & Teller: Fool Us” airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on The CW, and Penn Jillette has done “Celebrity Apprentice” twice, was a winner this year on “Celebrity Jeopardy” and was featured in the 2013 documentary “Tim’s Vermeer,” which Teller directed.

amNewYork spoke with Jillette, 60, about the Broadway show.

How is the Broadway show going to differ from your Vegas show?

The Vegas show, we’re always putting in the newest stuff. Teller and I write all the time. So we have to keep knocking stuff out and putting new stuff in. And we try to keep a mix of old and new stuff. But still, it tends to concentrate a little more on the past five to 10 years with a couple old bits here and there. But coming back to Broadway, we haven’t been here in — whatever it is, 23 years. That’s what we’re saying; no one ever checked it. … No one ever bothered looking at a Playbill to see. Coming back after that amount of time, and also having been together as of kind of sort of right this second 40 years, we really wanted to look over all the stuff we did, have done and put together a real show that’s up to date in more ways than the Vegas show is because the Vegas show tends to be new. And new is not up to date. So we really looked over all 40 years. Big stuff from both Broadway runs we’d done before. Both Off-Broadway runs. And even stuff that … actually predates Penn and Teller.

So this will be like a greatest hits?

It’s not just 90 minutes of our favorite stuff. It’s 90 minutes of our favorite stuff that hangs together and kind of tells a story and culminates. … I mean I really do believe that this will be really the best Penn & Teller show we’ve ever done. And I also believe it’ll kind of be, kind of the definitive one. Teller and I haven’t talked about this too much, but if you had to pick one Penn & Teller show to say, “This is what they did,” I think it’s this one coming up on Broadway.

What does it mean to you to play on Broadway?

Well, when we first went on Broadway, people would ask us a lot, “Is this fulfilling a lifetime dream, and what does it mean?” And it was so hard to answer that respectfully and honestly because the truth of the matter is, I never thought about venues. There’s a magician in Vegas who would say, “My whole dream was to have a Las Vegas show.” And every time I see him saying that, I go, “How the [expletive] can you … have a dream of a location?” Because my dream was to do these ideas and to work with Teller. My dream was never based on a venue. So when we got to Broadway, we were very happy to be doing the show here, but what matters is the show. I realize that sounds obvious, but I guess it isn’t because I’ve seen people say that they only wanted to be on Broadway. I’m telling you right now, if you offered me the exact same level of fame and success and money and however else you want to measure it, and said I was doing a different show on Broadway, I’d have no interest. I want to do this show.

Did you ever expect to reach such fame?

Teller and I may be the only people in show business who believe we’ve been more successful than we deserve. … We expected to play for two or three hundred people. We’re off by almost an order of magnitude. We keep waiting for that market correction to happen and for us to go back to being carny trash, which we really are. But the market correction hasn’t happened yet. And so I am — even 23 years later, or whatever the number really is — I am still pretty surprised and flattered to be here. … There is no place in the world I’d ever rather be than New York City. I’m very happy in Vegas, but you’re either in New York or you’re somewhere else.

Have you seen that magic has been resurging recently in New York?

I guess so, I guess so. But it’s always resurging, and it’s always waning. I mean the thing that’s so odd about magic, or the thing that’s, I guess, rather obvious about magic, is, if I asked you right now to name every musician that you could think of living or dead, you’d probably hit, by the time you were done, about 10,000. If I asked you to do that with magicians, you would probably be able to hit about 10 or maybe a dozen. And that difference of several magnitudes means that just one show opening somewhere makes it feel like a resurgence. When Houdini was the most famous magician, he wasn’t the most famous magician: he was the most famous entertainer. And one of the reasons [why] was that electronic media had not taken over. Magic is a form that can only work live. I mean when we go on TV, we do bits about magic; we don’t actually do magic very often.

If you go: “Penn & Teller on Broadway” plays at the Marquis Theatre through Aug. 16. 1535 Broadway, pennandtelleronbroadway.com

Scott A. Rosenberg