Penn and Teller Reveal How Their Magic Tricks Are Done Part 2 of 2

In this part we will analyse Penn and Teller’s opinion and goals, on their show, their careers and their relationship as partners.

Teller: What’s the end goal for any work of art? The answer is it’s not one thing. In almost every work of art there is on one level—and this is the level at which magic is, I think, the most fundamental—at which you must amaze the audience. When you’re an actor, you must, for the moment you’re there, convince the audience that you are possessed by the spirit of this character. And there is a level in which you go, “Wow, I really thought for that moment, that the character onstage was Hamlet.” That amazement is the bottom line of any work of art.

The deeper you get into magic, the more profound your amazement becomes. There’s an intermediary stage where you go, “Oh, is that all there is? It was just a thread?” And then when you work with a thread for four years, and you work out what must exactly be done to make that thread into something that is profound and difficult to imagine could be the cause of whatever it is you’re doing to it, you veer right into a different kind of amazement. It’s the amazement of the knowledgeable person. 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.

“There’s a trick I do in our live show based loosely on David P. Abbott’s Floating Ball. I experimented with that trick for 18 months to come up with a routine in which the idea was no longer the ball was going to float, but the ball was coming to life. I spend one hour onstage every night after my show experimenting. And the more I experimented, the more wondrous the situation got for me. I was no longer wondering at the same thing the audience was wondering at. I was in astonishment at how the simple idea of a thread with an angle of something riding on it; the variety of incredible illusory movements it could provide,” says Teller.

Penn introduces that trick in our show by saying, “Now here’s a trick that’s done with a piece of thread.”

Teller, the usually silent little helper of Penn who does most of the talking, proceeds to this exciting revelation below, saying: “Long ago, when we originated our clear “cups and balls” routine, we were taken to task by a number of magicians who said, “You’re exposing the cups and balls!” What they didn’t realize was the trick did not originate with the idea of exposure. The trick originated…I’ll demonstrate for you…[We’re sitting at a bar, and Teller gets a clear cup and balls of aluminium foil from a nearby table.] Penn and I were sitting in a diner, and I was messing around with rolled-up napkins. As I’m talking I’ll often fiddle with stuff. I noticed that when I did that move, one didn’t see the load, even though it was in full view. [Teller makes one ball disappear from his hand, and it reappears inside the clear plastic cup sitting on the table.] That phenomenon of your attention being taken away from something by a very natural action seemed to be truly, profoundly amazing. The subject for a piece of magic. So we developed a routine with clear cups, but of course, it would seem pretentious for us to say, “Note how you could both see the secret action and the ostensible action at the same time! Isn’t that an interesting counterpoint?” So we decided to present it as though it was an exposé, and magicians of course being terribly naïve, believed us.We were taken to task by one magician who came to our show and took a swing at Penn in the lobby for the evil that we were doing. Penn said, “Why don’t we just go to the diner and have a chat?” So this magician sat down with us and said, “All right, whose side are you on anyway?” That’s the fundamental problem with much of magical performance. Merely because a magician is trying to create a moment in which a spectator is astounded, the magicians often conceive of themselves as being in opposition to their audience. That is something Penn and I are violently against. We do not believe the audience is stupid. We believe many, many, many, many—perhaps most of the audience—is a great deal smarter than we are. Therefore, they need to be shown the respect to be treated as peers.”

As for the show that the unbeatable team has on TV, called Fool Us, Teller stated: “One of the problems with magic on television is home viewers generally have a feeling the depiction of the magical event is being slanted by the way it’s shot. Anyone who claims they can watch a piece of magic without trying to figure out how it’s done is lying. One of the fundamental joys of magic is it’s an intellectual art form at one level, and as a viewer, you’re trying to reconcile what you see with what you know. The joy of it is going, “That’s impossible! No it can’t be. Yes it is! No it can’t be. Yes it is!” And these two things are colliding—what you see is colliding with what you know. The sparks are coming from this dissonance between what all of your experience tells you and what you’re presently experiencing. The joy of that dissonance is considerable.But when you see it on television, you never feel that. “I’m not here in the room, I couldn’t control where my eyes are going.” Part of what Fool Us is designed to do is, without saying it, is to say what you’re seeing is really what somebody in the theater is seeing. We do that by focusing on this one silly and trivial aspect of magic, which is, how’s the trick done? We don’t even know what acts are going to be on the show. We’re genuinely trying to see if we can figure out what’s going on.”

Last Modified: Apr 3, 2019