Jonah is joined by none other than Teller himself to discuss his history in magic, the challenges of producing Fool Us during a global pandemic, and how he views a world where every magic secret can easily be researched online.

Not Always The Silent Type

Teller wasn’t always silent and he opens up about his early days struggling as a magician performing for fraternities that wouldn’t pay attention to him and would throw hard candy and cups of beer at him. As he got more silent in his routines he found that the audiences got drawn in and would pay more attention. As Teller puts it, he discovered he had an innate skill for lying with his body. 

Before he was one half of the most famous magic duo in the world he was a public school teacher. Invited by Penn to a renaissance fair, he took a leave of absence to explore the possibility of working as a magician full time and never returned to his old job. But it would be years of performing in relative obscurity mixed with a dash of major financial losses from failed attempts before they would end up performing off Broadway in the 80’s and begin to change the magic business forever. 

Magic For TV

From their infamous appearances on David Letterman, to their mind warping presentation on Saturday Night Live, to producing Fool Us today, Teller has had a great deal of opportunity to consider how to create magic for a television audience. He and Penn learned quite early on that the best way to perform on camera was to perform towards someone, like David Letterman, and to use the stage as an opportunity to bring the audience backstage with them and become culpable in the acts, like on Saturday Night Live where the audience in the studio could see they were upside down long before the audience at home was aware of the illusion. All of those lessons they have learned have culminated into Fool Us where instead of performing for the camera the contestants on the show perform for Penn & Teller. 

The Game of Magic

Fool Us also breaks one of the other “rules” of magic and encourages the act of trying to figure out how the trick is done. Teller is honest about his feelings that for many people watching magic that’s a major part of the fun of magic. By framing their entire show around trying to guess how a trick is performed they’re also able to acknowledge and embrace how most people consume magic while still speaking in code to preserve secrets and not truly bring the audience backstage.

While most people attending a magic show are trying to figure out how the trick is done, in reality they probably don’t really want to know how it’s done as Teller points out that most magic secrets are really very dull, boring, and usually involve grueling mundane tasks. The better the trick looks on the stage the more dull the trick is back stage. So for Teller it becomes a balancing act of finding out how much “backstage” to appear to let the audience in on while in reality preserving the fantastic qualities of what the audience thinks is really going on. 


Endless Chain

Teller thinks we would have great fun with Piff The Magic Dragon and one magician that Teller finds absolutely fascinating is Bob Farmer

What do you like about modern magic? What do you not like?

Teller likes the proliferation of magic on the internet like being able to watch performances online that you otherwise wouldn’t see.

Teller doesn’t find very satisfying magic that is just being done for the camera lens and doesn’t give him the fair chance to do the intellectual part. If it just looks impossible and is impossible then it doesn’t feel like the “game” part of magic is as fun. 

Take home point

“My definition of misdirection is the story you get the audience to tell itself. If you think about that for a while you may find it a very fruitful definition of misdirection. What you’re trying to do is to get the audience is to tell itself a story. You’re inducing them to tell that story to themselves. And what’s you start thinking of those terms, it’s a helpful concept”. 


If you think you have what it takes to appear on Fool Us then you should e-mail and you will be invited to send a videotape of what you are proposing and Teller will never know about it.

If you’ve never watched any of the zombie movies that Teller made with Ezekiel Zabrowski then you really should look into it.

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