Magician legend Teller: Love for magic remains ‘palpable’ 60 years later

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By Jackie Moe

No other duo in the world is more dynamic, talented, and hardworking than the magician legends Penn and Teller. 

In between working on their successful CW television show “Penn and Teller: Fool Us” (now in its eighth season) and performing their residency shows at the Rio in Las Vegas, the famed magicians will bring their touring production to Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts on Jan. 28 for a sold-out show. 

Teller, the notoriously “silent” half of the pair, is as vivacious and passionate as ever after over 45 years of professionally performing magic with his partner Penn. Aside from magic tricks, Teller has a load of talents in his bag of tricks, including being a painter, actor, film director, and co-director of magic-infused theater productions of “Macbeth” and “The Tempest.” 

Teller shared some of the greatest moments of his long career, what he and Penn have planned for their touring show, what it takes to produce magic trick after magic trick, and more. 

Without revealing any of your tricks, what is your audience going to experience in your current touring show? 

Sure. Although, you know, revealing our tricks is kind of a trademark for us. (laughs) 

First of all, I would like to say that we are being very conscientious about COVID. It’s very important to us to allow the audience to participate in the show, but instead of doing it face to face, as we might have done in previous tours, we have some really clever ways around it. 

We have one trick that uses every single person in the audience, all doing it together. And it’s really fun. Actually, we have two tricks that involve the entire audience. We have three in which we’ve built a special little sort of space capsule for an audience member to come up on stage and be in. So they’ll be protected, and yet they can fully participate. I feel like there’s a lot of fun, while at the same time, our job is to create fun. Our job is not to hurt anybody. And so we’ve been very careful about that. 

The show’s about an hour and a half and it is suitable for all ages. It uses quite a lot of new material. There’s a few classic things in there from our repertoire. But if you’ve seen this before, you’re gonna see a ton of new stuff. You will see a chicken vanish with the assistance of a gorilla. We will teach you some of the secrets of how you navigate your way around stage with the secret markings that go on the stage. 

Penn will challenge himself to remember the exact order of a strip of nails in a nail gun so that he doesn’t puncture himself. He will also juggle broken balls. We will teach the audience to do a classic piece of magic. We test the idea that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven by dressing me as a camel.

We’ll try to deal with my terrible gambling problem. It’s a sad thing, but every time I go into a casino, I always win. And that’s something we’ve been fighting for years. And we think that with the assistance of the audience in Cerritos, we may finally be able to convince our casino executives that I can lose, but we’ll see. 

Is there a specific theme for this touring show? 

One of our favorite themes is letting the audience decide whether they’re fooled or not. And we have one trick whose special function is to give the audience a choice between how they watch the trick. Do they want to be fooled or would they like to take away a mystery? Do they wanna take home an answer? Different people have different feelings about that. 

Something that I am just fascinated with is the production side of things. How do you remain fresh? How do you keep coming up with these tricks and these illusions? 

When I was five years old, I got really sick with a bad heart ailment, and I was watching TV and there was a kid’s TV show on called “Howdy Doody.” That was a cowboy marionette. And he had a magic clown on the show, and the magic clown fascinated me. 

And while I was recovering from my long illness, my parents agreed to send 50 cents and three Mars bars wrappers to the “Howdy Doody” show. And in return, I got this flat envelope. And in it were all sorts of little colored pieces that you punched out and made into little boxes and things. And I began to play with that. This was a “Howdy Doody” magic set, and I began to play with that. And for some reason it intrigued me like nothing else in my life.

So as a kid, I became crazy about magic. Then I became more crazy about magic in high school. I realized that very often magic is not the best way to make a friend because probably when you wanna make a friend, the first thing you don’t do is lie and magic is lying to somebody. 

So I got into theater more, and that was good because I learned a lot about how to handle myself on stage. Then for several years, I took a sidetrack and became a Latin teacher, but always kept the magic going because I can’t stop it. It must be like the feeling that people get when they shoot up drugs. It’s just always so exciting to me. 

I’m not sure exactly why it is so exciting. It has something to do with the fact that when you experience magic, you’re experiencing two things at the same time: you’re experiencing something that seems to be and something that is, and those two things are in conflict. There’s tension. It’s really hard to watch. 

People don’t sit around and watch magic tricks and let them flow over them. You might lie on the couch and listen to music, and the music would just flow over you. You might sit back and watch a movie some night and it would just flow over you. You can’t really do that with magic. Somehow it’s the nature of human beings to enjoy magic, where they simultaneously want it to be impossible and want to figure it out.

That tension is so fascinating to me that I just never get bored with it. I’m also very, very lucky in that I work with a person, with Penn, whose background and taste and talents are so different from mine that we are able to combine reality and make believe magic together. So anything we work on is an exciting adventure, because it’s never quite easy. It’s always a discussion. Sometimes it’s an argument, but that’s wonderful. That’s how we make progress. 

What is your creative process like together? 

We do every possible configuration. I think the most common thing we do is sit down and drink tea together and talk. We’ve nicknamed our work sessions Starbucks sessions because for a long while our talks were at Starbucks; now they’re anywhere. And now they’re very often on Zoom because it’s just what we have to deal with. So it’s a conversation, but it’s also independent stuff. 

The last Zoom session I had with Penn, I brought him two ideas, he brought me three; then we batted them around and said, well, yes, this is good about this and that’s good about that. Or what if we did this. We won’t be together until Thursday, so we’ve been just sort of working on the ideas separately during the week. It’s great. 

Every time, it’s like playing with your friends. When you’re a kid, you just get so excited and play, like I’ll be in the fort this time and you be the alien. So, there is that sense that is absolutely palpable, and that has not changed since I was 10.

Of course, nowadays I have luxuries that I didn’t have when I was 10. I have a crew of people who just work with magic for me. And these are people who are skilled at building things, and they understand the art form because they’ve been working with us. Most of them have been working with us for at least a decade, some sometimes longer. 

So when we have a work session, which we’re gonna have later this afternoon, I’ll go into the theater. And all of the things that we were working on last week will have made some progress. If there were props that needed to be adjusted, they’ve been adjusted. And our stage manager will lead us through a rehearsal that she’s planned out in which we deal with each of these things to see what kind of improvements can be made.

And then we take it step-by-step, and sometimes ideas fail. Sometimes ideas are just not good ideas. But magic has this awkward thing where you really never know whether a potentially good idea is good until you actually see it. 

You have to see it actually really done and it has to be pretty deceptive, or you don’t know whether that will be the right feeling for the audience. I mean, I’m pretty good at guessing what’s going on, after being in it since I was five, I’m pretty good at guessing what might be good, but I really never know what’s really good until we get out there.

What a life you lead! I don’t think there’s anything like it. 

I am the luckiest guy in the world. I did not ever expect to be able to earn my living doing what I love. Turns out that’s really thanks to Penn, and a mutual friend that we were with for the first six years we worked together. We were a trio and then our friend sort of dropped out. But, it’s thanks to Penn that I resigned from my position as a teacher in New Jersey and went into this line of work. So I owe that to him and to our old friend Weir.  

What would you say is the most memorable show you’ve put on?

I can tell you several things because there’s not one that’s most memorable. The most memorable television appearance we ever did, I think, was back in the 1980s. We did a piece on Saturday Night Live that was unbelievably difficult and really it’s perfectly conceived for television. 

I can’t really ever remember a piece of performance that had me more terrified and thrilled at the same time. And when I came down from what we were doing, every core puzzle in my body was pulsing with joy.

With that said, we’ve done three Broadway runs. And the Broadway runs are always of joy, because when you’re in New York, you have all of the best artistic people with you. We have a wonderful set designer that we use when we can have a set. It’s nice to have the best designers and things there. We also have a wonderful lighting designer who travels with us. 

Other times that are terribly memorable, was playing London. We did a television series going to Egypt, India, and China that were physically miserable to do, because that kind of travel is very stressful. And some of the countries are terribly, terribly impoverished, but it was a fascinating adventure. It will stick in my mind forever. 

And of course, for me doing both the Tempest and Macbeth as a director were a big deal. We’re doing a new production of the Tempest with the same script and music this spring and this next fall in Maryland. Assuming that there’s still theater by that time. Who knows?

I was actually going to ask if you were planning to pursue theater again in the near future. 

Right now, most of my artistic life is devoted to creating new material for the television show (Penn and Teller: Fool Us is on its eight season, with the second half starting last week). Which we are told is very likely to be renewed. And that requires us to come up with 14 brand new tricks to end each of these shows. 

So we work really hard at that. Sometimes we’ll start with the nugget of some preexisting trick and then completely transform it. Sometimes we just start with an idea that is exciting. I just bought a ventriloquist figure the other day, because we have an idea for a trick to do with one, which we’ve never done before. It’s just a constant adventure and I just don’t believe I could be happier.

That’s wonderful. You are truly a legend, yet you have continued to remain a hardworking professional. 

It’s the combination of working with a partner, which of course, is at times challenging, but it’s so helpful to me. If I had been a solo artist, I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere. It’s the combination of things. Penn and I have worked together for 46 years. So now it’s like an old marriage that really works. 

Our disagreements are no longer bitter; they’re present, but they’re not bitter. In the first six years, we did a lot of yelling at each other and saying, “Get off the stage, you idiot.” But it’s been 40 years since those first six years that have improved things a bit. So it’s just a pleasure to work really all the time. I’ve had all kinds of back problems and stuff like that. All of those things fade away in the big picture, because this part of my life is so important.  

Penn & Teller

Where: Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 18000 Park Plaza Drive, Cerritos

When: 8 p.m. Jan. 28 

More info: cerritoscenter.com

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