Known primarily as the silent partner in magic’s most unorthodox act, Raymond Joseph Teller doesn’t have to be as concerned about maintaining his mute persona—apart from onstage and on Penn & Teller’s television show Fool Us—as he used to. He spoke with Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen about the direction he and Penn Jillette’s long-running show at the Rio has taken lately, and new elements that rekindle the joy of discovering magic for both Penn & Teller and their audience.
The addition of new bits such as the participatory “Love Ritual” card trick and “King of the Animal Traps” closer make the show seem fresh. Have you been consciously moving it in a new direction?
This show has a slightly different feel from previous shows, and the sense that I have is that it’s a little more sort of totally inclusive of everybody. Everybody gets to participate in the “Love Ritual” card trick, and then right after that we invite everyone onstage and surround our African spotted pygmy elephant Elsie before she disappears. And so there’s a sense towards the end of the show, everybody is really part of the gang, and it feels really friendly and happy and generous and sort of innocent to me. And I like that feeling a lot. The closing bit in the show, instead of being about the risk of death, which is always fun, is a sort of a sweet reminiscence of childhood, albeit completely fraudulent.
Your new bit “Dracula” is adapted from the Penn & Teller Fool Everyone Magic Kit. Did you start out with a magic kit as a kid?
Everyone has been through the experience of encountering something that changed the course of their lives in adolescence. For once person it might be a book. For me it happened earlier. It happened when I was five. I was sick and I had to be at home recuperating for a long time, drinking tea and toast, and watching the primitive TV we had in those days. On it came a television kids show called Howdy Doody, and I ordered the magic set from the show. My life has been a consequence of that ever since.
So, you’re tapping into that innocence of discovering magic by doing the “Pygmy Elephant” and “Love Ritual” card trick.
What I really mean those two things are about everybody participating, and about the silliness of the gigantic shared joke. And we close the show with “Animal Traps,” and how you encounter that thing when you’re a kid that changed your life. It’s partly, I think … you know for almost a decade we did a television show called Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, which was a skeptical show, and I loved it and people loved it. But that show was also very rough in its language. It had a lot of nudity and sex and stuff, and so out audiences tended to lean toward the pure adult. Now that we’re doing the show Fool Us on the CW network, that’s a very family-friendly show and suddenly our audiences reflect that with more kids coming to the audience. Somehow or other this show may have a touch of not only that audience, but the fact that Penn now has two young children … I don’t think we would have done, for example, the new bit called “Dracula” with the children’s magic set if Penn’s kids had not been tremendously interested in vampires and zombies.
The narrative and use of the camera onstage is great. I know for close magic you need to have yourselves on video for that, but the way you guys react to the camera is really what it’s about. I got distracted from watching your faces, which is probably what you want.
That was actually inspired by Jimmy Fallon some time ago. He had rock ‘n’ roll bands on playing their hits on kids’ instruments, and we asked ourselves what is there in the Penn & Teller magic set that we can use with sophistication, but with a children’s prop. I have to say much of the physical routine had been worked out, and then one day Penn, having spent a lot of time with his kids, walked in and his head was full of vampires and zombies, and suddenly it became about Dracula.
It’s fun. I mean, those balls have absolutely no relation to vampirism whatsoever by tactile or visual representation.
(Laughs) Well it’s red, I guess. Dracula supposedly had red eyes.
That’s what a child would do, too. A child will take a group of red balls and personalize them. It does feel like a shift in the tone of the show. I think it does tap into the child in you.
This show is huge fun to do. Had you seen the rabbit in the hat before?
I’ve seen that before, yeah.
One of the things that drives the amazing amount of new material right now is doing Fool Us, because Fool Us requires that we close every show with a new bit that hasn’t been on that show before. Yesterday before the show I went in with Penn and Johnny Thompson, who is our managing mentor. He’s 81 or 82 years old, and he knows everything. He’s just the sharpest, smartest magical mind alive.
I read about him in Presto! How I Made Over 100 Pounds Disappear and Other Magical Tales, Jillette’s 2016 book.
Yes, yeah. So we went in from 11 to 2 yesterday and worked on two additional new bits. I think there will be three new bits in the show by the end of the year (2016). That’s my prediction. Maybe a songwriter can sit down and write five, six songs in an afternoon. I don’t think you can do that with magic because with magic you don’t just pick up the guitar. You invent the guitar and then you learn how to play it, then you write your song, revisions that will be ready for next week. Everything takes four or five drafts.
I’ve seen the show four or five times and a lot of the material at the most recent one seemed unfamiliar. My takeaway was you guys must be really inspired right now. I understand you have weekly development meetings at coffeehouses, but how do you find the time to execute new ideas?
Considering how much performing we do and how many extra-curricular activities we have, if we didn’t just love it … my very favorite thing to do, maybe even more than performance, is those weekly sessions where we work on new material. We have the greatest crew imaginable, so between our weekly sessions the crew’s working it’s ass off, not just on the show and the sustaining of the show, but the crew and one wonderful builder in town called Thom Rubino are constantly working on whatever we were thinking of. For example, the stuff that we worked on yesterday will now go back to the builder’s shop for revisions and will be ready by next week when we come in. With a piece of magic you don’t just conceive it and go, “Oh, that’s how it’s going to work,” because it never does. Everything takes three or four or five drafts in steel and wood and all the materials they might be using.
Can you tell me which bit I saw was the newest?
The newest two that you saw were “Dracula” and the magic circle card trick, which we call “Circle Stop.” They came in simultaneously about four weeks ago.
Were they both conceived this year?
Yes. They both were. The Dracula thing I think was about six months, and the “Circle Stop” was about four or five months.
“Dracula” seems deceptively simple. The subtleties and nuances probably took a lot of rehearsal.
We also had to figure out how the hell to do it. The trick is, as it’s put in the magic set, you take the ball out of the vase, you put it in your pocket and it appears back in the vase, then it goes away from the base and appears back in your pocket. And it’s a perfectly fine trick, but it’s not what we’re doing there. It’s a multiple ball production that is exceedingly complicated, including two moves that happen in full view that the audience doesn’t register.
Problem solving seems like the best part of what you do.
There’s great fun in putting together new material, and there’s great fun in polishing material that is relatively new, and then there’s great fun in performing pieces that are pretty refined because then you can get refinements on them that are quintessential refinements. Now you’ve learned all the techniques. Now all the work has gone away. Now all you can do is think about how to refine the idea, how to do it more economically, more tastefully, more humorously. There are things, for example … I’m in Biloxi, Mississipppi, right now. One of the things that we’re doing tonight is the trick I’ve done for, oh gosh, 45 years, with the needle swallowing, and I daresay I’m better at it than I was 20 years ago because I’ve simplified things. I’ve made what used to have to be a big indication of something can now be a subtle indication of something. So it’s gotten more real and therefore, I think, better.
How do you manage to tape Fool Us while maintaining a show schedule at The Rio?
We tape those by shutting down the Penn & Teller show for about nine days and they bring in this television set, which has been adapted to our set and our stage. The two sets are quite different in look, but they actually interlock nicely so we can do bits … we like to have a bit polished in the live theater before we do it on television if possible. Sometimes it works better the other way, but it’s best if we settle into it calm and happy and delivering something we know how to do. That means they can fly in bits of our regular set if we need them as backdrops for the particular pieces, and then fly them out and use the television set for the bulk of the show. It’s a huge enterprise as you can imagine, just trucks and people from Los Angeles. It’s a major shoot.
How to you get the people in?
Audience obtaining is not my job, but we advertise it on Facebook and Twitter.
I’ve missed this. (Fool Us host) Alyson Hannigan was in Vegas?
And her great, beautiful children. She has two daughters who are just glorious, and I’m hoping this year we can get one of them to do a trick with us. They were a little too young last year to quite do it, but there’s a trick we created many years ago when Moxie, Penn’s daughter, was a toddler, we had her do on The View, and we made a variation on that we want Alyson’s daughters to do, assuming that she does the show this year, which I think she is.
Have contestants appeared in the Penn & Teller show yet?
Oh yeah! They do. It’s really quite wonderful. We do the entire show as a warm-up act for them, and then they come on and do their piece as the closer for the show. It works out very well, because by then the audience is quite warmed up and ready to rejoice in whatever they present. Of course the coolest guy we had on there was Mahdi Gilbert. That’s the guy who doesn’t have hands but who does amazing card tricks. He does, essentially, sleight of hand. He’s working on doing the cups and balls without hands. He is just the coolest guy. He’s got such perspective on life, a great sense of humor. He brought me a bright red “Make Magic Great Again” hat.
You seem to age very slowly. I was surprised to hear that you were 68, mainly because you’re so agile onstage.
Well, thank you. I work out obsessively. I swim 20 minutes every day. I do what I can to stay as well as I can. I can’t remember the last night I had a cold in spite of the fact that I greet 1,500 people a night after the show in person, so I imagine my immune system is pretty strong.
Do you think the show or your approach to magic would have been different if you had not been a teacher?
Everything influences, doesn’t it? Yeah, I taught Latin for six years. That did something to me. I learned certain kinds of skills from that. I did my own series of Latin textbooks, which I drew the pictures for myself. When Penn & Teller started to work together, I was initially our graphic designer using only the things that I had learned from my father who was in commercial art, and the stuff that I had learned while I was a Latin teacher. It’s hard to separate out any of those things.
How did you develop your “quiet one” persona? As you said in an interview in The Atlantic, there’s a delight that’s so ever-present in what you do, and it’s so crucial to enjoying Penn & Teller. Could you reiterate that for Las Vegas Magazine’s readers?
It’s a subject that I’m quite familiar with, strange to say! Yes, I’ll reiterate it. When I was growing up, anything I saw as the stuff that magicians said, which they disgustingly called “patter,” which suggests exactly how much respect they have for the lines they speak (laughs). They think of the lines they speak as the raindrops on the roof. They’re doing the tricks, and they generally don’t have very much more content than “pitter-patter, pitter-patter, pitter-patter”—a little something to say while you’re doing the important stuff. But I hated magic patter as I saw it back then. It was all either insulting or redundant. The insulting part is: “I can genuinely read your mind.” Yeah, right! Or it’s redundant in the sense of: “I’m holding this 2-inch red ball.” Well, yeah!
Instead of a vampire.
Yeah. They simply tell you what they’re doing with a reasonable dose of lying going along with it. So I rebelled against that very strongly, and my rebellion came in the form of, “Can I strip this down and make people tell themselves the story that I want them to be making believe in?” That is to say, can I put out the evidence in front of them of what I am thinking about and what I am trying to do onstage, and have them create the story? Now there’s of course one huge advantage to this, which is once you’ve created the story for yourself, you don’t oppose it. You don’t fight that story nearly as much. So if I say “I am going to swallow a hundred needles and six feet of thread, and bring the needles up threaded,” you sit there and go, “Oh, bullshit! Nobody can do that.” On the other hand, if I have an apple that’s bristling with needles and I take them out 30 or 40 at a time, stick them on my tongue, flip them, apparently, down my throat and then have an audience member look in there and find I have no needles in my mouth, you are forced to tell yourself the story of “I just saw those needles go into his mouth, and now there’s an audience testifying that they’re no longer in there. I guess he swallowed them.” And by you telling that story to yourself, not only do you participate more, but the story acquires a kind of credibility that is sort of fun when you’re watching something impossible. The way I have always put is this: “Nothing fools you better than the lie you tell yourself.” So having done this, I decided to try it out. I tried it out first in college, and the only shows I could get there were little shows in dorm basements and frat parties. But I found that if I went into a frat party and turned off all the lights except for a couple of flood lights that I carried with me that were shined up on me, and shut up and did intense, nerve-wracking or funny things, that I would be able to get the kind of attention out of the audience that I couldn’t get if I tried to shout down the guys with their cups of beer. So I felt it was giving me a kind of authority, and only later did I really understand that the authority is partly that when you don’t speak, you’re going out in a very naked way. I then realized that there’s something else that comes out of being quiet, and that is intimacy. If you’re sitting and chatting with someone, the things that come out of your mouth are kind of a cloud or a buffer between you and the other person. If you sit and you just look at another person, it gets intimate real fast. When I’m onstage and an audience is watching, and I’m looking back at them, there is a sense of intimacy that is hard to reproduce by any other means. Now I understand that this is not necessarily a means of conveying very complex verbal ideas, but that’s what I have Penn for (laughs). Penn has wonderful verbal ideas, and he does all the work that silence can’t do by being a great speaker.
I think the Penn & Teller magic set came out in March. Was that also related to Penn’s children reaching that age …
Yeah, Penn’s kids were reaching the age when they might want a magic set. I was delighted. I’ve been eager to do a magic set for years. It also seemed like the right time to do it, but also we’d been trying for several years to find a production company that could produce a quality magic set in a classic tradition. I’m not interested in reinventing the magic set, because right along with my respect for Latin and Greek comes my respect for conjuring tricks that have been around for 400 years. Some of the tricks in that set are palpably traceable back to tricks that were around in the time of Shakespeare. So we wanted to do a magic set. Penn was occupied with something else at the time so I did most of the rewrites on the directions, and then Penn made it funnier and hit other angles on it, and then we sat down for several days with the kit and video camera, and did our own directions to give kids a little bit of the benefit of what we’ve learned by being professionals all this time. One of the things that’s really important to tell kids is the first several times they do a trick, they are likely to fail and get caught, and that’s OK. It happens to us onstage sometimes where we will fail and get caught, and you just have to … you don’t give up! You just say, “OK, that’s the nature of this business.”
What was your reaction when Penn told you he had been invited to author a Spiderman/Deadpool comic (No. 11, released Nov. 9, 2016)?
It’s fabulous! He made me a character in a Marvel comic!
And you didn’t have to do anything!
I know! Lazy as a slug. And then, or course, after he was done, his part of the work, Marvel f*cking artists making the thing! That’s amazing!
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