|2008 WORLD SAFETY CONFERENCE & EXPOSITION PREVIEW
Interview: Penn & Teller
For Penn & Teller, safety is more than slight of hand; it’s a moral obligation.
NFPA Journal®, May/June 2008
By Lisa Nadile
A performer for over 30 years, Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller gives up trying to recall the exact number of venues he’s worked in, settling on an estimate of "low thousands." Earlier in their careers, the entertainers traveled frequently, before finding a home at the Rio in Las Vegas and branching out into television, publishing, and the Internet. With a special brand of magic that includes tricks with fire and live weapons, Penn & Teller’s performances are not for the faint of heart. But they do celebrate fun, imagination, and the exercise of the Bill of Rights—everything that is Las Vegas, Nevada.
LN: What do you look to from a venue to help you keep your show and your audience safe?
PJ: We’re real proud of this. No one has been working as long as we have and doing the stuff that we do (that appears to the audience to be this dangerous) without any injuries. Zero injuries for both us and crew in 30 years. Now when I say injuries, I mean the kind that puts you in the hospital overnight, not something minor like a sprained thumb. The venues are pretty well checked out because we’re playing places that are theaters.
They’ve already been gone over pretty carefully for fire safety and so on. Our view of safety is on other things than the building.
LN: What is your main concern for safety during your show? People hitting their marks?
PJ: The biggest concern for safety is not really in the execution, but rather in the writing. If the blocking and execution were important to a trick, it wouldn’t be safe enough, because you can’t have something where people have to hit their marks or get hurt.
We did have one performance in Washington, D.C., when, in the middle of the bullet catch, we had a fire alarm, so we had loaded guns in our hands and we were in the middle of a trick. The amazing thing was the entire building was evacuated, and when people came back in, we gave them our word that we hadn’t tampered with the trick at all. It went on, and it went fine. If anyone thought that it was part of the trick that we had the entire building evacuated, we’d happily take credit for that. That would be pretty cool.
LN: When adding a trick that uses fire or that looks dangerous, do you brief the venue?
PJ: We do. We have a very good relationship with the fire people here in town. Teller and I have all our permits and our pyrotechnic licenses in all different places. With the fire that we do in the show, we are well, well within [the requirements of] the fire department. Plus, there is a fire extinguisher on stage with us hidden behind the couch, and there are two crew guys with fire extinguishers in their hands while we’re doing the bit. Not even ready to run for it, but just standing there!
To give you an idea of how much headroom there is on this, we’ve never used any of these things in any way; it hasn’t even come close to that. There hasn’t even been a moment where they’ve taken one step onto the stage, but we happen to have that big a level of safety.
There are cities where we couldn’t do certain tricks. The only place we haven’t been able to do the fire juggling is Chicago. We couldn’t use the guns in New York, even with both of us being firearms dealers and having all our permits and licenses. In D.C., we had to have the police hold on [to the guns at the end of a show and deliver] them to us before the next show, but even that wouldn’t work in New York.
LN: That must mean your show must be flexible?
PJ: Yes. The nice thing is we have about 5 hours of material and we usually do 90 minutes. All these stories are fairly old, because we really don’t tour very much anymore because we’re doing 250 shows a year in Las Vegas, and with our TV work, that pretty much fills our schedule.
LN: Our membership works to not only keep the performer and audience safe, but to give them the expectation of safety. Yet I take it the perception of risk is critical to a great Penn & Teller performance?
PJ: Yes. In terms of reality, they are on the same side as we are. In terms of public relations, we disagree very much. We want that visceral feeling. What we’re going for is a roller coaster. When you get on a roller coaster, your intellect and your viscera collide at a million miles an hour. Your viscera is saying, "We are going to die. There’s no doubt about it. This is the end of our lives." And your intellect is saying, "You know, if everyone on this ride died, their insurance premiums would be too high, and they’d have to close it down."
We want the audience to have the visceral feeling that the show is dangerous and life-threatening, but we want the reality to be that it’s completely safe.
We don’t ever do the stuff that Chris Angel, David Blaine, and other people do, where they try to pretend it really is dangerous. As a matter of fact, I believe we are the only magic act in history that has bragged about their safety because we believe that if you’re good enough, you can have people have that visceral feeling without having to cheat on the intellectual side.
LN: You don’t patronize the audience.
PJ: No. If I believed the show were actually dangerous, I believe it would be immoral to go to it. If I thought we really were reckless with the guns, then that’s not a show I would go to. Not only for my own personal safety, but because I believe it’s immoral. The idea that an audience is going to a show to see an accident, I believe, is going to base instincts.
I think that’s important. It’s all part of understanding fiction and being able to separate fiction from reality. The censors do a big disservice when they say fantasy violence is real violence, and the performers do a real disservice when they say it is real when it isn’t. They are working together to "sloppify" what should be a very clear line, which is that we are 15-year-old nerds putting rubber cement on our faces and acting. That doesn’t mean we want to be [hurt]. It means we’re celebrating health by saying we’re safe, and because we’re safe we can play with this fiction. I believe that when the audience knows you’re not going to be hurt, it’s a richer, more human show.
LN:I imagine that during your 30 years as a magician, you have gotten to know a number of people in the fire protection industry.
PJ: When we used to tour, we would work with the fire people in every city, and our relationships over the years have been very good. I imagine there have to be people in the [WSC&E] audience who have signed permits for us in various cities. We’ll have to do a blanket thank you to them.
Lisa Nadile is associate editor of NFPA Journal.