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)

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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. 

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