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Published on September 4th, 2009 | by Yellow Magpie3
Penn and Teller: The Loud And Silent Side Of Magic
Penn And Teller Photo By Angela George Creative Commons ShareAlike Licence
Penn and Teller are one of magic’s most durable acts. Performing together for over three decades, their act has transformed the way magic is perceived.
Penn Fraser Jillette was born in Greenfield, Massachusetts, on March 5, 1955, to Valda and Sam Jillette. Penn worked in a local cinema as a teenager while also juggling and performing illusions with Michael Moschen, a now world-renowned juggler.
In 1974, he graduated from Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Clown College. Penn’s introduction to Teller started him down the route of a career in magic.
Nonetheless, Penn was at odds with the philosophy of contemporary magic. He disliked deceiving the audience and was uncomfortable with the necessary lies of illusion and conjuring. ‘I hadn’t thought of the psychology and I was kind of against it. I was always obsessed with the idea of telling the truth and magic was diametrically opposed to that.’
Penn became enraptured by magician and skeptic, James Randi. Randi’s approach to magic provided Penn with a method to satiate his own quest for a truthful performance. This viewpoint was shared with fellow magician and illusionist,Teller, and together they paved the future direction of magic allowing the audience to be included.
‘I met Randi, James Randi, and Teller, and they both taught me by dealing with it in an art-form that dealt with lying in a safe way, you could address the idea of truth.’
The act of lying while simultaneously telling the truth appealed to Penn and reconciled his own moral code of representing a higher truthfulness with illusion.
‘That idea of being able to do magic without condescending and without anymore than fantasy-lying, once you come to a Penn and Teller show, you know that I am going to lie to you – the proscenium says that. Lying is an interesting infraction. It is the only amoral act that you put a proscenium around and automatically it is okay. All performances are lies. Robert DeNiro is not really Travis Bickle driving a taxi cab in New York.’
Penn maintains that truthfulness in magic is part of a larger quest that all aspects of humanity adheres to.
‘I believe that one of the most important things that human beings have to do is ascertain truth. You need to do that to trust a friend. You need to do that to get to the moon. You need to do that to cure cancer. And I think it [magic] is a burlesque, it is a light, safe, version of what is so important to us, which is ascertaining truth.’
As well as co-writing several books with Teller, Penn has written a murder mystery novel called Sock which is eccentrically narrated by a puppet.
Teller, the older and seemingly quieter of the duo, was born Raymond Joseph Teller in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on February 14, 1948, to Irene Derrickson and Joseph Teller.
A former Latin and English public school teacher, Teller has a passion for theatre and has put on several productions including Macbeth. Teller credits his high school drama teacher, David Rosenbaum, for much of the ideas behind his magic performances.
Teller Of Penn And Teller Photo By David R. Tribble Creative Commons ShareAlike Licence
Skilled in magic and well versed in classical drama, Rosenbaum would put on memorable plays before the school using magic to make the performances more dramatic.
An expert sleight of hand performer, Teller is also an authority on the history of magic. Like Jillette, Teller is a debunker, skeptic and atheist.
He seldom speaks whilst performing with Penn. Although this has now become almost a stylistic trademark, it was not always so. While he was performing magic at college parties he would frequently get heckled by the audience.
To try and combat this he decided to remain silent. He found that this reduced the heckling and focused people’s attention on his performance.
Many people perceive Teller as being quite small. He is actually of average height, 175 cm ( 5 feet 9 inches). Penn’s 2 metre (6 feet 7 inches) frame makes Teller appear small in comparison.
As well as co-writing three magic books with Penn, he has also written a book about his father, entitled ‘When I’m Dead All This Will Be Yours: Joe Teller — A Portrait By His Kid‘.
Penn and Teller
Penn and Teller’s introduction to one another started an inevitable route towards professional magic. Along with mutual friend, Weir Chrisimer, the trio formed the Asparagus Valley Cultural Society playing in relatively small venues in Amherst, Massachusetts, and San Francisco, California.
In 1981, Penn and Teller became a duo and the familiar format of Penn speaking, with Teller remaining silent was adopted and honed. Their Off Broadway show, Penn and Teller Go Public, won critical acclaim and was made into an Emmy award-winning PBS television special in 1985.
They habitually made appearances on Saturday Night Live, Letterman, and The Tonight Show with both Johnny Carson and Jay Leno as host. They have had recurring roles on Sabrina, The Teenage Witch and have guest-starred in numerous TV programmes.
Magic and Truth
What makes Penn and Teller so unique is their approach to magic. At a time when they started to perform as a duo there were only two approaches a magician could take when performing illusion.
‘At the time we were performing, all the other magicians were doing this come-along-with-me-on-a-magical-journey, it was Doug Henning and Copperfield and so on. It is funny but the idea of once you try to force upon people the willing suspension of disbelief, once you say to them come on a magic journey with me, you are then competing with Star Wars and any movie that has been on. You are doing special effects’ Penn stated.
The second alternative for conjurers was to blur the lines between illusion and reality by emphasising a mystic aspect or even to claim outright that the magician had supernatural abilities. Penn and Teller found this disconcerting, maintaining that this treated the audience unfairly. As Penn explained:
‘As soon as you do the David Blaine-kind-of-mystical-stuff you have got two choices. One is you can think he has real magical powers, a small percentage are going to believe that. The second thing you are going to think is: “He thinks I am an idiot. He is lying to me.” And neither of those choices is [sic] attractive to me.‘
Teller Of Penn And Teller Photo By Eqdoktor
The approach that Penn and Teller decided to take was to let the audience know that an illusion was occurring.
‘If I say to you “I have the power to read your mind” then you either believe me or you don’t, it doesn’t matter. If I say to you “No one has the power to read your mind, but I can do tricks to make it look exactly like I am reading your mind.” Then I have made a political statement, I am talking about advertising, I am talking about politics. I am talking about everything all at once and it is so much richer.‘ As a result of this, the duo have revealed many of their tricks to the audience.
The West Wing and Freedom
Penn and Teller made a guest appearance on hit show, The West Wing. In a clever sketch dealing with the First Amendment of the US Constitution and freedom, the duo appeared to burn a US flag in front of the president’s daughter and White House staff. This outrages the staff of the White House and causes consternation amongst the public.
Freedom plays a large part in following a libertarian philosophy, a philosophy that Penn and Teller share. Penn stresses that true freedom is not to follow the status quo but to trail a path that has not been previously followed.
‘I believe that the definition of freedom is the freedom to do something stupid. You don’t need any freedom to do what everybody else thinks is a good idea. What you need freedom for is stuff that others may think is self destructive and others may think is silly and wasteful.’
Penn and Teller have also done some specials for television networks. Penn & Teller’s Magic and Mystery Tour featured the duo travelling to countries exploring the culture and traditions of magic. Teller, in a rare moment, speaks about being duped by a fellow magician.
Penn & Teller – Off the Deep End is an underwater special. They perform many of their tricks in a watery environment. The highlights include a straitjacket escape, sawing a mermaid in half, and vanishing a 75-foot submarine.
Penn And Teller Books
Penn and Teller have co-written three books together, Penn & Teller’s How to Play in Traffic, a book which deals with magic and odd musings on various subjects, Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends, a book which, like the title suggests is about deceiving your friends and Penn and Teller’s How to Play with Your Food.
Penn And Teller Bullshit
Penn and Teller’s show, Bullshit, first aired on subscription channel, Showtime, in 2003. Having been critically acclaimed the programme is currently in its seventh successful season. It has had a total of 11 Emmy nominations as well as winning the Writers Guild of America Comedy/Variety Award.
A rare mix of comedy and seriousness, Bullshit is based upon debunking the pseudo-scientific. Some of its topics include, supernatural beliefs, the Bible, PETA, alternative medicine and circumcision.
The title Bullshit is considered an obscenity in the United States and is often abbreviated to BS.
‘When we pitched it we wanted to use the word that Houdini used. Which would be hokum. It is actually a better word than the BS title. But then it puts you in the category of an archaic word. It is not a word that anyone uses. It is a word that in Houdini’s time…To say hokum, to say ballyhoo, to say any of those kind of great-grandparent words was certainly more shocking than us saying BS. It was the equivalent of a stronger word than the word quack.
There is also another reason for using Bullshit for the title. In a show which is about debunking charlatans and dubious practices, describing anyone as a liar or a quack could prove to be highly litigious. Using profanities and obscenities obscures the boundaries of acceptable and non-acceptable language.
‘There is another reason for the obscenity. There is comedic and gratuitous obscenity. There is more than you need and there is more than is justified in that show. The reason that came about is once you got the title you might as well go further. Al Goldstein said to me that if you call anyone a liar, a fraud, it goes right to court. However, if you use obscenities it gets really tricky.’
The programme reflects the personalities of Penn and Teller and is closely associated with their views on libertarianism and scepticism. Bullshit follows in the footsteps of the great escape artist, Harry Houdini who pioneered debunking through the media, and James Randi, fellow magician and sceptic.
Penn And Teller Controversy
The programme has received criticism for its claim that second-hand smoke from cigarettes does not cause cancer. At a sceptics meet, Penn acknowledged that new research disputes this claim to be fallacious. ‘There probably is danger in second hand smoke.’
Penn and Teller’s Bullshit is highly recommended. Funny, irreverent, and insightful it is a mix that is rarely found in any medium, let alone TV. You can get Penn & Teller – Bullsh*t! – The First Season and Penn & Teller – Bullsh*t – Three Season Pack here.
For Germany: Penn & Teller-Bullsh*t!.
For France: Sock, ‘When I’m Dead All This Will Be Yours: Joe Teller – A Portait By His Kid’.
Penn And Teller
Magic And Truth
The West Wing And Freedom