Teller Speaks on the Enduring Appeal of Magic

The magician famous for being mute as a performer says that magic is all about the unwilling suspension of disbelief

Illusionist/director/writer Teller of the film "& Teller 2" poses for a portrait during the 11th annual CineVegas film festival held at the Palms Casino Resort on June 13, 2009 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Charley Gallay/Getty Images for CineVegas)

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.”

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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. 

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