When you go to a magic show, you expect a spectacle: flashing lights, suspense and a magician who enthrals the audience. Usually, of course, the performer would use his words to capture the crowd’s imaginations. But you won’t get that from Raymond Teller, the seemingly mute half of magic-making duo Penn and Teller. And now Teller’s partner, Penn Jillette, has finally revealed the surprising reason why Teller won’t utter a single syllable on stage.
Perhaps surprisingly, then, magic hasn’t always been Teller’s career focus – although he did perform as an amateur. The famous magician actually graduated from college with a degree in classics and went on to teach the subject to high schoolers. But after his path happened to cross Penn’s in the 1970s, the pair started collaborating. And from there, the dynamic duo have skyrocketed to become superstars.
Even before he met Penn, though, Teller had ceased speaking on-stage. Yes, something had happened in the early stages of his career to quieten him. Of course, Penn understands why his partner remains silent when they perform. And, on an episode of Oprah: Where Are They Now?, the vocal magician shared Teller’s reasoning with the world. Surprisingly, too, it isn’t just part of the act.
Mind you, Penn Jillette had always wanted a career in the spotlight. He took up a very specific hobby as a pre-teen, in fact, just because he thought it was his gateway to stardom. He said on Oprah: Where Are They Now?, “I started to juggle… because I thought that I could learn to do that and then automatically have a job in show business, which isn’t true.”
But Penn didn’t stop with juggling – and even qualified from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College in 1974. That year would prove to be a fateful one, too, although it had nothing to do with Penn’s mastery of clowning. Instead, 1974 was the year that he would have his first meeting with Raymond Teller.
Whereas Penn had always wanted to work in show business, though, Teller had taken a traditional career path. As we’ve heard, the silent partner graduated from Amherst College in Massachusetts and put his classics degree to work, teaching Greek and Latin to high school students. But on the side, Teller did perform as an amateur magician.
But after Teller met Penn, he eventually left teaching behind altogether. The latter magician said, “Teller, you know, had a path in life that he was knocked off partially by me.” But the pair didn’t achieve overnight success. At first, in fact, the duo performed with musician Weir Chrisemer as a trio called “The Asparagus Valley Cultural Society.”
But Chrisemer decided to leave show business in the early 1980s, allowing Penn and Teller to form their now-famous two-person act. And things started to take off for them around 1985. At that time, you see, the pair produced a well-received off-Broadway show as well as a PBS special called Penn & Teller Go Public, which won them an Emmy.
Soon enough, too, Penn and Teller upgraded their live show to Broadway and started making TV appearances. They also performed on popular shows such as Saturday Night Live and Today. Then, in the 1990s, the magical couple took their show on the road – and their national tours garnered even more praise from critics.
In 2001 Penn and Teller secured the ultimate gig: their own Las Vegas show. In fact, they continue to perform the show to this day at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino. Back then, though, the duo never planned to stay in Sin City as long as they have. You see, Penn told how the show came about to Vegas Magazine in 2013.
Penn said, “There was never a plan to play here more than a month a year. But we found that in New York it was too hard to build stuff, too hard to get rehearsal space. And it was really expensive to use as a headquarters. We owned places in the most expensive real estate market in the country, yet we’d be on the road for eight months.”
So Teller suggested that he and Penn make a move to greener – and sunnier – pastures. Penn recalled, “Teller finally said, ‘We should live someplace cheaper and warmer. It needs to have a good airport that flies everywhere.’” And it was this decision that completely revolutionized their career, as we’ll now find out.
For you see, Penn and Teller “have full run of the Rio theater,” according to Vegas Magazine. Plus, after landing their regular show, the magicians nabbed a TV deal as well. The subsequent series, Penn & Teller: Bullsh*t!, ran on Showtime from 2003 to 2010. And it showed the duo attempting to debunk everything from psychics and gun control to conspiracy theories and the paranormal.
Still, Penn and Teller’s most iconic moments have taken place on stage. And one of their most spectacular tricks is the bullet catch – an illusion so difficult that some magicians have died doing it. During the act, you see, the duo simultaneously fire guns at each other – and both of them catch the bullets in their mouths.
In 2014 the pair claimed to Time Out that the bullet catch could only be performed at their home theater in Vegas. And this, apparently, was because of diverse gun laws elsewhere. As Penn joked, “It seems like the only place in the world where we can do that trick now is Las Vegas, where you can have prostitutes, drugs, tobacco and firearms.”
In fact, not all of Penn and Teller’s magic travels well – nor can it easily be performed live. For example, their “truck trick” falls into that category. Penn said he came up with the idea at clown college – but never thought it’d actually come to fruition. He revealed, “I would always pitch it as a joke.”
But then a bigwig at NBC heard of Penn’s vision and approached the pair to see how much it would cost. So the truck trick did become a reality, just as Penn had dreamed it. In it, a tractor-trailer drives over Teller – and he immediately stands up afterward, magically unscathed.
Another example of an exciting Penn and Teller trick involves a nail gun. Penn picks up the power tool and quickly alternates between firing three-inch nails into a piece of wood and himself – never once piercing his own skin. The magician later told Time Out that he memorizes the order of nails to blanks so that he fires it safely.
The nail gun trick is actually representative of the majority of Penn and Teller’s repertoire. Yes, rather than thrilling their audience with fear, the magicians strive instead to lightheartedly entertain them. As Penn explained, “There are a lot of magicians… who seem to think that real danger, real pain, have some sort of macho quality to them that I don’t find interesting at all.”
So the pair reveal to the audience beforehand that Penn is not in any physical danger while he performs. As Penn explained, “It’s really important to have people enjoy the excitement of it and to know that you’re really safe. We’re asking you to come and laugh at fake suffering. If you can laugh at real suffering, you’re not the kind of person we want in our audience.”
Penn and Teller’s show – and the tricks it includes – is often reviewed by the pair for improvements as well. According to Vegas Magazine, the pair typically convene once a week to discuss new ideas. But designing a new magic trick isn’t an overnight process. For, Teller revealed, ideas usually simmer for a while as both magicians brainstorm it.
Teller said, “We sit and we talk about all the things we’ve been reading or learning, all of the little ideas or tricks that have inspired us, and we have a conversation. Out of that conversation emerges ideas – or half an idea. That half-idea will sit out there in space for a while, until the other half comes in. It very often happens that one half of the idea will come from one guy and will sit there, and six months later the other half of the idea will come in.”
So the duo tend to have a trio of new acts in development at all times. They also have their own crew to help them turn these envisioned tricks into reality. And together, the pair make small changes to perfect the show at the Rio theater, folding new illusions in with their tried-and-true spectacles.
Through it all – over more than four decades – Penn and Teller have also apparently maintained a great working relationship. And it’s clear to many that they have serious chemistry as performers on stage. Interestingly, though, they reportedly don’t spend much time together off-stage, choosing instead to keep things more professional than personal.
Penn described their unique bond during a question-and-answer session on social media platform Reddit. He said, “Teller and I maintain what seems to be one of the best working relationships in showbiz by having a business relationship. Over all these years, he’s become my best friend, but we didn’t start with affection, we started with respect.”
Penn added that they “keep things pretty formal” and get together socially only three times a year. And Teller told NPR in 2015 that their relationship is different than what people expect of their favorite stars. He said, “The idea that you can respect someone without wanting to sit by a fire and snuggle with them is maybe not a very popular idea in show business, but it is a very true one.”
Clearly, though, the set-up that Penn and Teller have works for them – and it has since they joined forces in the 1970s. And, even as their careers have taken off, at least one thing about their original routines has remained the same. Yes, Teller has always been silent on stage during their shows. But the question is: why?
Well, Penn took a moment during an interview on Oprah: Where Are They Now? to explain his partner’s on-stage behaviour. And sadly, it seems, Teller’s silence is more than just a creative decision. In fact, it has to do with some unpleasantries that Teller had anticipated experiencing at the start of his career.
Penn explained, “His silent stuff predates working with me. I get no credit or blame for Teller not speaking. I mean, Teller speaks very well. But he decided to work silently in magic because he was working rough environments where he was apt to be heckled.” So perhaps keeping his mouth shut calmed down lively audience members?
Penn continued, “Teller just found if he was quiet they grew weary of heckling him.” In an interview with NPR, Teller explained the decision for himself. It seems that some of his earliest gigs had him performing at fraternity parties at his alma mater, Amherst College. And Teller had felt that his average stature of 5’ 8” did little to help him command the room.
Teller explained, “I was playing fraternity parties… And I am a small man of not particularly imposing proportions or voice. And if I had tried to assert myself over a room full of drunken kids… they would not have paid any attention to me.” So Teller decided to try a different approach to getting the room on side.
First of all, Teller “turned off all the lights except for a few lawn spotlights” that he brought with him. Then, with the glow on him alone, he “did creepy things like swallowing razor blades,” he told NPR. He said, “I found that when I did that sort of thing, they paid attention to me in a way that if I had tried to assert myself over them, they wouldn’t have. It sort of undercut any kind of heckling.”
Apart from that, though, Teller has other reasons for going silent during his routines. For it also comes down to a personal preference. He said, “I resented magic patter, especially as a late teenager, because magicians were always saying redundant things. ‘Here I am holding a red ball.’ Well, yes… I can see that.”
So Teller wanted to avoid the same rambling in his own shows. He also told NPR that he had asked himself, “Could you tell the story of a piece of magic just by doing actions and letting the audience watch and put the pieces together themselves?” Well, he obviously found out that the answer to that question is “yes.”
Performing without words has afforded Teller more than that one benefit, too. For he has realized that it made his performance stronger by requiring the audience to draw its own conclusions. He explained, “Nothing fools you better than the lie you tell yourself.” Teller explained more to NPR in the same interview as well.
“So, when you let an audience figure out what is going on, and they tell themselves the beautiful lie that a good piece of magic is, it becomes convincing in a way that if the magician asserts that, the magician doesn’t get through nearly as well,” Teller explained. “So that’s part of the idea of not talking.”
In Penn and Teller’s interview with Vegas Magazine, the latter explained this concept even further. Teller said, “I actually think it helps, my silence, because of my almost annoying level of clarity when I talk. When I turn that off, it turns into a clarity of action onstage. The silent thing on stage allows for a kind of intimacy that no conversation can have. If I just shut up, we’re forced to look at each other and really confront that moment.”
As we all know, however, one person does talk on stage during Penn and Teller shows: Penn. And his partner knows that he’s the right man to take on that role whenever speaking is required of the magicians. Teller said, “I have a guy who talks in fire as my co-conspirator.”
Touchingly, Teller could only sing Penn’s praises, both in his ability to speak well and to pause when necessary. He went on, “He is great, and I love listening to him. The audience loves listening to him, but I also think the audience loves the breath of being able to stop and say, ‘Now I need to figure out what’s going on.’”
So you see, this balance of speaking and silence is just one of the ways that Penn and Teller have perfected their act. Nowadays, then, the pair’s audience consists partly of second-generation fans. As an almost emotional Teller went on to explain to Vegas Magazine, “That’s pretty hard to beat, as a compliment, for someone to bring their kids to see what we do. It’s pretty special.”