Teller first became infatuated with magic around the age of 5, when he was bedridden with an illness and sent away for a magic set. “That toy became my obsession. I was magnetized to it. I worked these little gizmos till they frayed,” he says. “Nearly 60 years later, I’m still not cured.”
He is now known best as the smaller, quieter half of the performing duo Penn & Teller. In addition to being one of the world’s most famous magicians, he’s also contributed to the New York Times, the New Yorker and the Atlantic; written three books with Penn; edited two volumes on magic history; and published When I'm Dead All This Will Be Yours!, a memoir of his artist parents. Most recently, he directed a horror-influenced version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and in 2010 co-wrote and directed an Off Broadway show, Play Dead.
Teller spoke with Smithsonian’s Joseph Stromberg about the principles of magic, its relevance in everyday life and why used-car salesmen should make jokes when trying to close a sale.
In your article for Smithsonian’s March 2012 issue, “Trick of the Eye,” you write about performing magic in front of a Cub Scout troop when you were 11. Why do children so frequently get interested in magic?
Most kids go through a magic phase when they’re somewhere between 8 and 12, and it usually happens about the time they learn that the Easter Bunny isn’t quite what they thought it was. They learn it’s possible for adults to lie, and that there’s power in lying. Magic is the perfect way to exercise that power safely and ethically. So instead of taking up shoplifting as a hobby, the proper child takes up magic for a few years, then drops it upon maturing out of adolescence.
I came to it through sickness. When I was about 5, I got toxic myocarditis, a very bad heart ailment and was convalescent for many weeks. My family had just purchased our first television set, and one of the first shows I saw was a children’s program called “Howdy Doody,” starring a cowboy marionette and some lovable human friends, including Clarabell, the magic clown. They said if I sent in 25 cents and three candy wrappers, Clarabell would send me a Howdy Doody Magic Set.
So with my parents’ assistance, I sent in a quarter and the required wrappers, and “Lo!,” there arrived a magic set, entirely of flat cardboard pieces to be assembled by the magician-to-be. The set included the “multiplying candy bars miracle” (you put three miniature Mars bars in a little box and shook them around, and when you opened the box, “Behold!,” there were now six). In another trick you snipped a flat paper Clarabell the Clown in half and put him back together again.
It was wondrous. I sat alone for hours and hours in my parents’ third-floor back storeroom, with the afternoon sun shining in the grimy windows. The “Howdy Doody” magic set pierced me to the bone and chained itself to my soul.
You’ve also worked as a director and playwright. How does magic fit in with other forms of performance, such as music or drama?
In high school I lucked into a great drama coach, David G. Rosenbaum—Rosey, as we called him. Rosey was a sophisticated dramaturg, director and acting teacher. He taught us to move, speak and find the truth in a role. He was also a part-time magician. Rosey was my mentor and from the time I was 16 until his death decades later. We probed the riddle of magic in the theater. The closest we came to a definition was this: ‘Magic is a form of theater that depicts impossible events as though they were really happening.” In other words, you experience magic as real and unreal at the same time. It’s a very, very odd form, compelling, uneasy and rich in irony.
A romantic novel can make you cry. A horror movie can make you shiver. A symphony can carry you away on an emotional storm; it can go straight to the heart or the feet. But magic goes straight to the brain; its essence is intellectual.
What do you mean by intellectual?
The most important decision anyone makes in any situation is “Where do I put the dividing line between what’s in my head and what’s out there? Where does make-believe leave off and reality begin?” That’s the first job your intellect needs to do before you can act in the real world.
If you can’t distinguish reality from make-believe—if you’re at a stoplight and you’re not sure whether the bus that’s coming toward your car is real or only in your head—you’re in big trouble. There aren’t many circumstances where this intellectual distinction isn’t critical.
One of those rare circumstances is when you’re watching magic. Magic is a playground for the intellect. At a magic show, you can watch a performer doing everything in his power to make a lie look real. You can even be taken in by it, and there's no harm done. Very different from, say, the time-share salesman who fools you into squandering your savings, or the “trance channeler” who bilks the living by ravaging the memories of the dead.
In magic the outcome is healthy. There’s an explosion of pain/pleasure when what you see collides with what you know. It’s intense, though not altogether comfortable. Some people can’t stand it. They hate knowing their senses have fed them incorrect information. To enjoy magic, you must like dissonance.
In typical theater, an actor holds up a stick, and you make believe it’s a sword. In magic, that sword has to seem absolutely 100 percent real, even when it’s 100 percent fake. It has to draw blood. Theater is “willing suspension of disbelief.” Magic is unwilling suspension of disbelief.
The principles you mention in the article—did you develop these on your own, or did you learn them from others?
Thirty-seven years side by side with Penn has taught me a lot. Together we’ve discovered some of the principles. Others I’ve learned from old pros or research or experimentation. And that article was just the tip of the wand-shaped iceberg. There are no “Seven Basic Principles of Magic”—get that out of your head. It’s just not that simple. People who don’t know magic believe it’s all just a simple trick. They say, “oh, it’s all just misdirection.” And they think misdirection means you’re watching the performer, and all of a sudden a gorilla jumps out of the closet behind you, and you turn around and look, and meanwhile the magician has done something sneaky onstage.
Misdirection is a huge term that means whatever you use to make it impossible to draw a straight line from the illusion to the method. It’s an interruption, a reframing. It comes in so many varieties and is so fundamental, it’s quite hard to formulate in a neat definition—rather like the term “noun” or “verb” in grammar. We all know what these are, but only after seeing lots of examples.
“A magician never reveals his secret” is a common cliché. Do you have any reservations about sharing this information in your books or in a magazine article like this one?
Your readers could go to their library, as I did, and learn everything that I learned from books. I do think that with magic, if you explain a trick in an oversimplified way, it can dull the glamor for the casual viewer. On the other hand, to the serious connoisseur, understanding magical methods enhances the beauty.
How are the concepts of magic relevant in everyday life?
Well, let’s take what magicians call a force, where the magician gives you a false sense of free action by giving you an extremely controlled choice. In Smithsonian I compared that to choosing between two political candidates. But I see it everywhere. When I go to the supermarket, I have a choice of dozens of kinds of cereals—all made by the same manufacturer of essentially the same ingredients. I have the gut impression of variety and freedom, but in the end, the only real choice I have is not to buy.
Pretty much every one of those magic principles has an analogue in the everyday world. When you’re about to buy a used car and the used-car salesman has a great sense of humor, he’s doing much the same thing that I’m doing when I make you laugh right after I do a move. He’s incapacitating your rational judgment by making you laugh.
What sorts of reactions do you get from people you deceive? Are people ever upset?
Some people have a grudge against magicians, and that’s easy to understand. Lying respectfully is a terribly delicate art. You must proceed from the proposition that the audience is smarter and better educated than you are. That’s the fact, you know. And I don’t just mean surgeons and physicists and car mechanics; I mean that virtually every spectator has read a magic book or owned a magic set at one stage of life. One is not performing for benighted savages. Some preening airhead magicians forget this and give their audiences an earful of bullshit along the lines of “Is this merely an illusion, or might I have some mystical psychic powers….?” The audience is right to resent that kind of treatment.
We try to convey our attitude in one of our signature pieces: It’s a version of the ancient Cups and Balls sleight-of-hand trick. But we use clear plastic cups, so that the audience sees every secret move. But they’re surprised. Because in the Cups and Balls, body language plays so much of a part in what makes that trick deceptive, that even as you’re seeing the balls being loaded into the clear plastic cups, part of your mind is not seeing them. That’s a very interesting experience, and lets folks know that we know how smart they are. And the smarter the audience is, the more they naturally enjoy magic. The more you know about gravity, the more amazing a good levitation is. What other art form offers such tingling intellectual stimulation?
Still, when we first took our show Off Broadway, back in 1984, our producer, Richard Frankel, said, “Lads, the word ‘magic’ will not appear in connection with any advertising on this show. If you say ‘magic,’ people will drive their station wagons in from the suburbs, drop their children off at matinees, and no first-string reviewer will ever take you seriously. Let’s think of ‘magic’ as the m-word.”
So when we opened, we simply called the show ‘Penn and Teller.’ It was the best advice anybody ever gave us.