NEW YORK – Penn Jillette is capable of amazing things. Working with his professionally mute partner Teller, he's breathed fire, served as a human bee hive, survived a 450-pound frost-free refrigerator dropped on his head.
There's just one thing he cannot pull off, despite repeated attempts: Jillette can't stop baiting fellow magician David Copperfield. After hearing a few weeks back that Copperfield planned a new bit of magic — impregnating a woman on stage without sex — Jillette's mouth reflexively engaged.
"And I said, `Isn't it sad that's the only way he can think of?'" Jillette recalled. "And the second I said it, I'm going, `Oh, God.'"
Copperfield was angry. Jillette was apologetic. Teller, though amused, was silent.
And then Jillette moved on to something he found much easier: making an 800-ton submarine disappear from the bottom of the ocean, one of the anchoring acts in their two-hour NBC special "Off the Deep End" at 7 p.m. EST Sunday.
It's the first network special in eight years for the mismatched duo, although Penn warns there's nothing significant about the length of their absence.
Jillette and the slighter, soft-spoken Teller are in the restaurant of a midtown Manhattan hotel, explaining how their idea for a magic show done completely underwater will finally surface.
"It's an idea we'd had for 15 years," explained Jillette. "But the technology did not catch up with us until the last couple of years, when we could have enough cameras safely enough underwater that it would look as great as we thought it would."
The special was filmed over three weeks off the Bahamas, although neither Jillette nor Teller brought fond memories back to the mainland. Shooting was done between 5 p.m. and 5 a.m. to avoid conflict with the tourist trade. And the tropical weather was less than kind.
"Sweaty, rainy, insect-filled, miserable, drowning," summarized Jillette, while Teller said it was the most physically demanding work of his career.
"In the real world, if you want to turn to your right, you just turn to your right," Teller said. "Underwater, it takes five minutes. You get in there, and you find out nothing you envision is going to work."
After 30 years as a team, they're hardly sentimental.
"It's a business partnership," Jillette said. "And I think we do better stuff together than we do separately. It's very easy — we have the same values and morality. ... I think the nice thing is we care about the show more than we care about each other."
Teller, the measured antithesis of Jillette's jacked-up carny persona, offered a gentler but similar assessment: "You know, we have separate houses. Close enough that we can drive to one another's house if we need to."
The pair are two-time Emmy winners (including one for their current Showtime program). Their regular gig is six shows a week, 46 weeks a year, at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino in their home base of Las Vegas; Penn and Teller are booked there through 2010.
The special, typically, will include Penn and Teller revealing the methods behind their magical madness. Letting the audience in on the tricks is a staple of their act from its earliest days.
"Every other magician says, `We're over here and you're there, and we're supposed to try and fool you because you're idiots,'" Jillette explained. "We've never done that. We've always tried to be on the same side of the audience.
"It's kind of treating people as adults. Or friends."
Which bring things back to Copperfield, a Jillette pal for 20 years. Jillette quickly admitted that he has repeatedly promised Copperfield a verbal cease-fire, and inevitably failed to follow through.
"Please print that I promised him I wouldn't do it," Jillette said. "I feel awful about it. I wish I hadn't done it."
There's a breath and a pause before Jillette finished his thought.
"As much as I wish I hadn't done it, if I could go back in time and you could set me up again ... I know I would say the same thing."