There's not a lot that comedy duo and "magicians extraordinaire" Penn & Teller haven't done.
The pair's show at the Rio Hotel and Casino is the longest-running, headlining act in Las Vegas history. They've starred in movies and television, had shows on- and off-Broadway, written books and now run a MasterClass in teaching magic. They even starred alongside Run DMC for its 1987 music video, "It's Tricky."
But in their nearly 50 years of performing, Penn Jillette and Joseph Teller had never performed for American troops on a USO tour -- until recently, that is.
The pair were joined on the tour by singer-songwriter Brett Young, former New England Patriots player Vince Wilfork, illusionist Justin Flom and actor Dulé Hill ("The West Wing," "Psyche").
Joseph Teller, known to remain silent during shows, tells Military.com it was the first time the USO ever asked them to join such a tour.
"I always pictured, in my mind, Bob Hope on stage with some glamorous woman and a bunch of guys in uniforms," says Teller. "And it wasn't that. Weirdly, we had no woman on the show. It just seems like if you're going to entertain a group which is predominantly men, you would think you would have at least one woman. But I guess they couldn't find somebody there to join us."
The gaggle of entertainers deployed to Europe this past December for the 2023 USO Holiday Tour, a whirlwind trip that took them to RAF Lakenheath before visiting bases in Romania, Poland and elsewhere.
"Penn was very keen on it, just because it's this kind of showbiz experience that neither of us ever had," Teller says. "Penn said, 'Oh, yeah, I'm going to give that a try.' And I am always game for trying stuff."
What the duo found was an audience particularly open and willing to volunteer for anything. After all, volunteering for things is how most of that audience ended up in uniform in the first place. It was in tune with their brand of magic and comedy, which mostly takes place at the Rio Hotel and Casino just one block away from the Las Vegas Strip.
"First of all, they were sober, which is very nice," Teller says. "They were great volunteers; every single one of them [was] in the spirit of it. Very intelligent and nice ... They were always so great on stage ... really receptive and fun and smart. I was impressed by it."
But not every U.S. service member got the full show Penn & Teller would no doubt have loved to perform at every stop. It turns out a full USO tour, even a European one, is hard work for the performers. Getting up at 0410 to depart at 0500 is not something to which two gentlemen with a Las Vegas theater named after them are accustomed.
Teller said he was already jetlagged when he arrived in theater, and the schedule thereafter was pretty tough.
"I am used to being at my best at 9 p.m.," he says. "The idea of someone telling me we'll be departing at 5050005 [sic], or whatever the exact term is, for a two-hour bus ride, followed by a plane for two hours and then another two hours on a bus before we do another show ... That was harder than most touring for me."
As part of the tour, the performers did not always know where they would stage their shows or even how much time they might have. Luckily, years of street performances had prepared Penn & Teller for these moments.
"There was a level of military secrecy about exactly where we were going," he says. "It was a little strange to be playing in a cafeteria with half of the audience on the far side of the salad bar. Still, it went over well, because we used material we had developed from street performing. That's our go-to material for an unknown situation, when we wouldn't have much control over the lighting or the circumstances, dances or anything."
Teller, by his own admission, says he is not a service member; he is as far from anyone who likes to get up at 5 o'clock in the morning as he could get. Though he was of perfect draft age during the Vietnam War, and many of his friends would serve in Vietnam, this USO trip was his first real interaction with American troops. Both Penn and Teller were suitably impressed.
"I know he liked the troops that he met," Teller says of Penn. "The fact that both of us are essentially pacifists makes it a little bit complicated, but it's people trying to do their job. So we got along with everybody. It was interesting to see the attitude of the troops when demonstrating and talking about their equipment. There was a certain innocence, I'm sure that they understood clearly the purpose of what they were doing, but there was a sort of sweetness about them that I was rather touched by."
As long as the schedule could be made less rigorous, it was an experience both would love to undertake again. Upon leaving their military venues, the performers were given the most ubiquitous of military tokens of appreciation: handshakes filled with challenge coins. But Penn & Teller left something with the troops in return.
"I'm proud to say that we gave out a lot of marked cards, so that would facilitate cheating at card games," Teller says. "We felt sort of obliged to corrupt the Air Force."
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