Why Penn and Teller Find Purpose In Deconstructing Magic And Revealing Their Tricks

The great escape artist Harry Houdini once said of magic, “The great trouble with magicians is the fact that they believe when they have bought a certain trick or piece of apparatus, and know the method of procedure, that they are full-fledged mystifiers.”

Sometimes the best way to create something new is to take something really old and re-imagine it. Duo Penn and Teller blew the lid off the world of the ancient art of magic, by doing something never done before, in a show infused with comedy, they let the audience behind the curtain, and deconstructed the methods to some of their illusions. A classic odd couple, loquacious giant Penn, and tiny and ironically named mute Teller are also serving as mentors, and keeping the love for the art of magic alive for future generations.

Giving away some methods doesn’t make their act any less magical. For Teller, magic is all about the ability to amaze. He spent 18 months to develop a trick with a ball and a string, and the trick could take decades to reach perfection. He says of his craft, “The deeper you get into magic, the more profound your amazement becomes.  It’s the amazement of the astronomer who has studied everything about the stars that is available, and who sees and understands the mechanisms that we know about, but is able to appreciate how mysterious it all is in the larger picture.” Revealing some mechanisms enhances the experience for the audience, as they can appreciate the work that has gone into it, but some magicians take offense. Teller explained the ethics of magic, “There’s an aesthetic rule in magic that to allow the audience to be amazed, you don’t explain your trick. That part of your job is to withhold and conceal certain pieces of information in order to bring the audience to a level of astonishment. It is an aesthetic rule, not a moral rule,” and he firmly believes, “A little learning can spoil magic. A lot of learning enhances it.”

Teller, a former high school Latin teacher who taught using materials he wrote himself, found his life’s purpose in magic. The Fédération Internationale des Sociétés Magiques award winner, frequently gets teary eyed with reporters. In an interview with the Telegraph he explained the joy his job gives him, no matter how many times he has performed the same trick, “Doing beautiful things is its own reward. If you do something that you’re proud of, that someone else understands, that is a thing of beauty that wasn’t there before – you can’t beat that.”

Penn isn’t as poetic when discussing his views on magic. He recently told a reporter, “I have always hated magic. I have always hated the basic undercurrent of magic which Jerry Seinfeld put best when he said: ‘All magic is “Here’s a quarter, now it’s gone. You’re a jerk. Now it’s back. You’re an idiot. Show’s over.’” The philosophy behind his approach to magic is more studied and nuanced, “Can you do magic without insulting the audience? Can you do magic that is intellectually satisfying? It is those questions, rather than the magic itself, that fascinates me. Those are the question that we have been playing with for 35 years.”

Penn and Teller are mentoring future up and coming magicians with their platform, the reality talent competition, Penn and Teller: Fool Us. The winner of the competition wins an opening slot at their long-running Las Vegas show. Penn has described his motive for the show as a way of giving back, “accepting our position, and doing something good with it. Magic is confrontational. It always has the tone of mansplaining, conceptually, but we’ve always wanted to change that.” The show never gives anything away, and they communicate how the magicians may have fooled them, or done a trick in a way Penn and Teller can’t figure out in a way that doesn’t spoil anything for the audience, or give any secrets away, but at the same time it serves as a resource for burgeoning magicians, “I speak in code, and the code I’m speaking is for the 15-year-old Penn and Tellers out there watching. When they hear what I say, I’m actually giving them key word searches, so that they can go to the web and search for what I’m talking about. If you just want to watch it as a great magic show, you’re allowed to enjoy it that way, but if you want to be a magician, you can take what I’ve said, do those key word searches, and discover the techniques being used on Fool Us.”

Penn’s daughter Moxie Crimefighter has inspired him to use his voice to advocate for a higher profile for women magicians. “There’s never been a major female presence in magic. It just hasn’t happened. I’m predicting very strongly that in 10 years’ time, the biggest forces in magic will be women. That’s the way it should be, and that’s exactly what’s going to happen. It’s still bad, though, because people usually ask me if my son is into magic first. The question they don’t ask is, “Is your daughter into magic?” The answer is, “Yeah, my daughter does card tricks for her friends. My son couldn’t care less.”

They have championed magic as an art form, and are creating a platform for other magicians to be recognized. Penn and Teller with their 15 year residency in Las Vegas are two of the most highly paid and successful modern day magicians. Their creativity and passion have spilled over into other pursuits, including writing books, the TV series Penn and Teller: Bullshit! where they debunked myths, they made a movie, the 80s cult class Penn and Teller Get Killed, and Teller directs Shakespeare plays, and made a well-received documentary Tim’s Vermeer, about the unusual techniques used by the classic painter Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer.

While provocateurs of magic with an adrenaline charged show that includes guns, fire, and danger, they are old school about the craft behind their work, and have collective distain for hype and stunt performers. Penn believes, “If you try to tell people that stuff is real, then you have to starve yourself, or crucify yourself, or freeze yourself, or lie in a box of your own shit. You’re not supposed to be torturing yourself. You’re not a magician.” Teller concurs, “While it may be necessary for a soldier going to war or a fireman saving a bunch of school children to risk his life, it’s never worth risking your life for a trick.”

“We do stuff that matters more to us than anything else in the world. That’s the only magic secret: Being willing to work hard on things people would never believe anyone would work that hard for.” —Penn Jillette

Author Bio: Tara Collum

Tara Collum lives in Toronto and grew up in Muskoka. She is the volunteer social media coordinator for the Death Row Support Project @COB_DRSP and co-writes a web serial at splitsvilleblog.wordpress.com. She is all about tea, books, mumblecore, music, long walks, and self-improvement. Follow Tara on twitter @99percentsun