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Penn Jillette ‘scared’ in first appearances without Teller

Updated December 21, 2019 - 3:10 pm

Penn Jillette mulls the concept and says, “I’m scared, scared to death.”

He’s not talking about juggling broken wine bottles. He’s got that stuff down. Rather, the self-described career “carny” is considering his first ticketed show in Las Vegas without his unwavering co-star, Teller.

“It’s so strange to do this,” Penn says during a phone chat as he prepares for “Penn & Friends,” running 9 p.m. Saturday through Jan. 4. “But you know, when everybody asks me what shows they should see in Vegas, I tell them they should see Mac King, they should see Piff and they should see Matt. So, I know they’re going to be fabulous.”

With Teller out for his third back surgery in 18 months, Jillette has assembled “Penn & Friends” with Harrah’s Showroom headlining magician Mac King, Flamingo headliner Piff the Magic Dragon, and comedy writer/stage performer/podcast star Matt Donnelly (who has developed “The Mind Noodler” magic act).

Jillette is with King and Donnelly for the first two performances this weekend. Piff, who is performing his own holiday shows at Flamingo as scheduled, moves in and Donnelly moves out from Dec. 23 to Jan. 4.

Jillette, on bass, and piano master Mike “Jonesy” Jones will continue to perform be-bop jazz prior to the show. Showgirl sidekick Georgie Bernasek still is in the production, assisting Jillette on his show-opening, fire-eating act.

“We’ve been telling people that the Penn & Teller show is tight, because we have been doing this longer than anybody,” Jillette says. “This show is going to be … not tight.”

Teller, meanwhile, is expected back Feb. 4; the duo’s 19th anniversary of headlining at the Rio falls during the “Penn & Friends” run, on Jan. 5.

The new format was required as the silent member of the duo continues to recover from a persistent back ailment.

Teller underwent his most recent surgery on Dec. 12 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. The legendary magician posted on Twitter, “My back surgery went great. I’ll be healed and healthy by the end of January,” and has thanked “my siblings” King, Piff and Donnelly for filling in.

The 71-year-old, silent member of the stage act originally underwent spinal fusion surgery in July 2018, then another procedure in October. Both times, P&T canceled a set of shows at the Rio.

Jillette says the multiple surgeries were initially “very, very alarming,” adding, “The first one, they thought went well, but were kind of, ‘Eh,’ and the second one was a much more minor, let’s see-if-we-can-fix-the-first-one kind of thing. This one is … they’re going to go in and really do it. I’m really, really pleased that his prognosis is so good at this point.”

Invariably, during his partner’s absences, Jillette has considered his career without his stage partner since 1975.

“Well, it’s forced me to think about that, and I don’t wanna,” Jillette says. “It’s funny. In my 20s, hopping trains and riding motorcycles, I often faced my own mortality and I always assumed I would either die onstage, literally, as I had so many times figuratively. Or, I would just go into a hospital after a show and not come out.”

But the 64-year-old Jillette says his career, and the P&T duo, is far from finished.

“I never really thought of there not being a Penn & Teller, and this would have been a heavier question had you asked me a week and a half ago,” Jillette says. “But Teller’s gotten all of his MRIs, and the doctor’s say he’s much, much better than expected and this seems like the final operation. So, I think I don’t have to confront that as seriously as I did 10 days ago, when you would have gotten a rambling, pondering Samuel Beckett-type answer.

“Now you’re getting a sunshine-y, Dolly Parton-type answer. Today, I am in very, very good spirits about Penn & Teller’s future and Teller’s health.”

The P&T empire otherwise remains in full operation. The upcoming season of The CW series “Fool Us” begins taping at Penn & Teller Theater in February. Jillette just returned from London, where he took part in the opening of “Magic Goes Wrong,” a production partnership with Mischief Theatre (“The Play That Goes Wrong”) at Vaudeville Theatre.

Also, on Friday, Jillette hosted the launch of the P&T “Bloody Days of Christmas” blood drive, a partnership with Vitalant Las Vegas which runs through Jan. 1 (those who participate receive a voucher for a Penn & Teller show at the Rio; call 877-258-4825 or go to bloodhero.com for information).

But the duo were disappointed to scrap a sold-out run at Sydney Opera House in Australia in January, a series that the duo’s manager, Glenn Alai, had planned for two years. The shows had sold 25,000 advance tickets, and was to be the final run at the Opera House before the venue undergoes extensive renovations.

Jillette says the intricate coordination — between the U.K., Las Vegas and Australia — was mentally and emotionally taxing for the duo, and for Alai. But King, Piff and Donnelly swiftly agreed to step in and keep the shows on the books.

“It’s funny, when I went through this with Piff, he said, ‘I have one question: Can we have fun?’ ” Jillette says. “Until that moment, it hadn’t crossed my mind. I’m up there with my closest friends in Vegas. The answer is, yeah, it’s going to be a blast and the audience will love it.”

A classic cat

We could call this show, “Bob & Friends.” You can catch Bob Anderson and his collection of legendary vocal interpretations at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Italian American Club. We can’t get enough or Mr. Anderson in these parts. He’s bringing tributes to such stars as Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Tom Jones, and Sammy Davis Jr. to the IAC Showroom.

Anderson headlined for decade at Top of the Dunes, ending in 1985, and appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson and “The Merv Griffin Show,” among other talk shows of the day. He’s also built the Sinatra show he headlined at Palazzo Theater from 2014 to 2015 for a Broadway run. General-admission tickets for his IAC appearance are $35; call 702-457-3866 or go to iacvegas.com for info.

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His PodKats podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram

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