When you first hear Teller’s voice, it is a bit unnerving. Not because he has a deep, measured tone and is super articulate. It’s simply because you never hear it. He has, after all, made a career of being the short, silent half of magic duo Penn & Teller. While Penn Jillette is boisterous, Teller is mysterious, with communication that revolves around miming or being the consummate guinea pig. It’s the juxtaposition between physiques and personalities that drew Penn and Teller together as an act in 1975.
Offstage, Teller—despite the fact that he did legally change his name to just “Teller”—is his own man. He is known as an intellectual, an avid reader (he’s currently reading a biography of magician Howard Thurston), a sharp writer (he’s published four books), and a proponent of libertarianism and atheism. He does join forces with Jillette for at least one nonbusiness occasion each year: to support Aid for AIDS of Nevada. They are serving their 10th consecutive term as the grand marshals for the charity’s 21st annual Aids Walk on April 17 (see afanlv.org for details).
What do you tell people when they wonder why you’ve devoted so much time to AFAN effort?
It’s sort of a silly question to ask why it would be important to help people, if you have the capacity to help people. I shouldn’t take too much credit for what gets done with Penn & Teller and the AFAN walk. All of the hard work is done by my office. Really, all I do is have a lovely walk on a beautiful day with some nice and generous people, and then match their contributions. That’s an easy thing to do. All of that organization goes to my staff Laura Foley, Glen Alai and the gang. Why? Because I can.
People probably have a strong reaction when they hear you speak.
Yes, it’s as if people have been looking at a goldfish in a bowl for a very long time and suddenly it starts to talk to them.
When fans see you not onstage, what is the first thing they ask you?
Very often it’s something to do with talking or not talking. I’ll be in the supermarket and someone will say, “Excuse me, sir, what time is it?” and I’ll go, “3:10,” and they’ll go, “You talked!” They’re not really surprised, but it’s their nice, sweet way of saying I’ve seen you before and like what you do. I was once walking through Times Square and it was very crowded and all of a sudden a policeman stuck out his nightstick right in front of my chest and stopped my walk forward. He said, “Name?” And I said, “Teller.” And he turned to his partner and said, “See, I knew I could make him talk.”
You’ve been performing with Penn for 35 years. Do you ever have a hard time coming up with fresh ideas?
Well, it’s our job, therefore part of what we do is we meet on a regular basis with the idea of sitting down and coming up with ideas that interest us. So many things in the world do interest us that it’s really not that hard. Put two of us at a Starbucks talking about things we’d like to put in our show, and we will come up with ideas. Most people in magic just look at what has historically been done in magic before and they try to come up with some new way of dressing that up. I think if we were trying to do it that way then we’d be stuck, but that isn’t really what we do at all.
Penn said when you first met you told him magic was an intellectual exercise, and that sort of changed his view.
In its most fundamental form, magic is about what happens when what you see differs from what you know. You seem to be seeing something that is really happening, you know it can’t be happening, and those two forces come into collision. That purely intellectual element of magic, where what you know about the world is being challenged by what you think you’re seeing, is, I think, a very pure intellectual form. It’s one of the reasons why even bad magic still entertains people. Even if you see someone producing a chicken out of a hat, if you believe that the hat is empty and suddenly someone is able to remove a chicken from it, there is a level of entertainment there, whether the person has any wit, any taste, any ideas or not. So a lot of bad magic exists because the form itself is intellectually so strong.
Do you still believe that?
Well, yes, the grammar of magic is this apparently impossible event happening before your eyes. It’s not enough for Penn and me; we need to have that event then actually have some humor or point or sense or powerful emotion or political implication or whatever. We need there to be as much content there as you would demand in a play.
Your juxtaposition with Penn is natural, but also apparent in other ways. Did that happen all organically?
He is a wonderful talker, and always has been. When I first met him I had decided that what I was most interested in was stripping away language from performance all together and just sort of forcing the audience to look at me and me at them, and have them make sense out of what I was doing. I like the idea of lying without speaking, and that’s the way I was working. So when the two of us started working together, we first did two acts on the same bill and then we started to work together. We kept the integrity of the work we had done before. That turned out to work very well.