Eccentric's Corner: Super Humanist
A die-hard skeptic with a fetish for the occult, Teller is all hocus and no hokum.
By March 1, 2008 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016published
Claim to Eccentricity: Silent half of bad-boy duo Penn and Teller
You may know Teller in conjunction with his larger, louder associate, Penn Jillette. These illusionists, comedians, and devout advocates of freethinking are often called the Bad Boys of Magic. When they're not pulling wool over eyes in Vegas, they're yanking blinders off on their Showtime series Bullshit! Though Teller acts as the silent punch line to many a morbid trick onstage (think water tanks and 18-wheelers), he doesn't spare words while off. With a degree in classics from Amherst, he taught high school Latin for seven years, writes on politics and literature for magazines, and just finished codirecting a humorous and horrifying East Coast production of Macbeth.
Why are you silent onstage?
To strip away absolutely everything except the purest action. Occasionally in college I did fraternity parties, and I found out that if I didn't talk, didn't use music, and just got these compelling stories going that people had to put together, there was a power to that, a power that completely disabled hecklers.
Are you friends with Penn?
We have the benefit of not having started off as friends. The dynamic is two guys who work together and share artistic taste, fighting their way to new ideas. We disagree all the time and we don't disagree very politely.
Describe your house.
My house looks from the outside like an Escher drawing. It's the house that I would have had if I could have made a house when I was 12. I have the obligatory secret library door that leads into my study. I have a dining table with a glass top and a flat sculpted skeleton underneath on a torture rack. I have a huge antique bronze bear in my courtyard that tells visitors what cards they're thinking of. I have a big black cross that Houdini used to escape from.
And a framed letter from Houdini.
One of the sensations Houdini talks about in this very touching letter (from 1913) is what it's like to have just lost his mother. It's a very good description of the pulling out of the rug from under you that you feel when your parents have died—if you were close to them, as I indeed was.
Have you wanted to do magic since your parents gave you a kit at age 5?
Usually around 8, kids realize that adults can lie to them, and that there's a power to lying but the only way to lie ethically is to tell people that you're lying. So kids all fall in love with magic. Most kids mature and move on. Some of us don't.
What's your interest in Macbeth?
At 12, my father directed me to Act 4, Scene 1, the cauldron incantation, and I fell in love. There festered in my evil, little heart the notion that someday I should do a production of Macbeth that treated the gore and supernatural stuff with the full regard that Shakespeare would have given it. My codirector, Aaron Posner, and I came up with the phrase, "supernatural horror thriller." If it's happening in Macbeth's head, we want you right along with him. So if he sees the Weird Sisters vanish, you should see them vanish.
Does your atheism enhance your appreciation of the supernatural?
Absolutely. If you think there really is a possibility that, say, witchcraft is valid, you can't appreciate it as art—as invention and poetry.
Many atheists argue that science doesn't explain away wonder and awe, but delivers more. Do you ever think in those terms when deciding whether to reveal a trick?
Some magic tricks are better as an experience when explained. They're more interesting, more multileveled, more ingenious. [In one act, we get to watch Teller wiggle through tight spaces.] Most are disappointing, except to a real connoisseur. To me, a carefully timed palm of a card may seem like a beautiful thing. Someone else might say, "Oh, so he just took the card in his hand? Big deal." You make the choice on aesthetic grounds. Virtually all the tricks Penn and I have explained were invented with an eye to explaining them.
How do you find new tricks?
The fact that you assume actions are done the same way each time can be used against you. If I clearly drop a coin in a bucket, I may then pretend to drop another, but this time drop one hidden in my left hand to make the clunk. But I still have a coin in my right hand.
So your goal is to foil people with their own intelligence?
That's my tool. My goal is to create beautiful ideas that come from some deep region of my own heart. Sometimes they're funny and sometimes they're more serious, but in any case they're layered, and they're the things I really love and believe in.
On that note, as a libertarian and fellow at the Cato Institute, do you work politics into your acts?
We do the most patriotic flag burning you'll ever see. We roll the flag in a copy of the Bill of Rights and ignite it, leaving only the rights, which are what's important about the flag.
Is innovation difficult in magic?
In any really original piece, you don't just write a new song, you invent a new instrument, build it, and learn to play your piece on it. And you're doing something that has to look impossible. The audience will forgive a wrong note. The audience will not forgive a magician who slips up.