Teller – Magic’s Silent Man of Mystery

April 1998

by Sheila Gibson

teller2You may know Teller as the singly-named “smaller, quieter half” of the comedy-magic team Penn and Teller. What you may not know is both he and his partner are longtime committed skeptics whose views are evident on stage and off. Both are on the masthead of Skeptic magazine and are strong supporters of leading skeptic James Randi and his educational foundation in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Teller was kind enough to grant an hour-long interview to the New England Journal of Skepticism during the pair’s recent two-week February run at the Shubert Theater in Boston. Part two of this interview will follow in the next issue of NEJS.

NEJS – When did you first realize you were a skeptic?

Teller – That’s very hard to say. My parents were from strongly conflicting religious backgrounds, and neither of them thought much of religion. The result is that neither of them were very religious, but they were also wonderfully open-minded in the sense of wanting me to make my own decisions.

There was a local Methodist church to which I went until just about the time when everyone else was joining the church. At that point, my parents said, “You know what? No. You’re not going to join the church now because you’re still a kid. But now you’ve been exposed to it, and you can decide to join it when you’re a grownup.” And that was a very good thing, because I learned all about how people think about all that stuff. And, if I had been inclined to join later, I could have. But instead, I led a more sensible life.

So I don’t know that I as a child was introduced at all to skepticism per se, with a name. It’s just that I was not given to have much traffic with faith without evidence. I don’t think I actually had the name skepticism for it until Penn and I knew Randi. Randi was really a turning point. Randi, without even really knowing that he was doing it, provided the subtext for the entire show, pretty much.

NEJS – You’ve both spoken about the effect seeing Randi had on you that first time. But what exactly was it you took away from Randi that changed the way you approached your performances?

Teller – It wasn’t just the first time. It was this gradual effect that knowing Randi has. Randi is – a lot of the people who are involved in the skeptical movement are dull. They’re really dull with a capital D. They’re not fun people, they’re fun-spoilers, and they revel in it as fun-spoiling, instead of what Randi does, which is revel in it as fun. It is a great deal more fun to understand how the world actually works than to go along with half-assed views of the world. Randi, however, is obliged to be relatively dignified. We can just say and do whatever we want with whatever amount of attitude comes into our heads… including the rampant atheism in the show. Have you seen any (other) show in a Broadway style-house in your entire life that screams, “There is no god?” (Laughs) Our opening number is a parody of any sacred rite you could ever want to have, done with a resurrection trick, no less.

Randi persists in being influential with us all the time. We’re great supporters of the James Randi Educational Foundation, and we keep learning from him.

NEJS – Have you ever deliberately set out to craft a bit or set up an effect to illustrate a skeptical principle?

Teller – If you create a piece of theater to illustrate an academic point, you get a kind of dry symbolism. If you come at an event with all sorts of different angles, and one of the angles is the skeptical angle, you get an interesting, lifelike thing. Otherwise, you’re into allegories or fables. That’s not quite what we do.

We’re involved in an art form whose essential moment is the moment of doubt – that is what magic is about – magic is about that moment when you’re looking at something and you say “You know what? I don’t think that’s real.” It isn’t this whole idea that many magicians promote, that magic is sort of fantasy and you sit back and absorb it. Because people never do that with a magic show. They’re always trying to figure it out. And there is that very intense sensation of looking at something that looks for all the world like reality, and you know it’s not, and trying to resolve that. Your participation in a magic show, even the crappiest magic show in the world, is as a skeptic. And it’s not just you. It’s that little kid in the fourth row who says “They couldn’t have really shot bullets in their mouths, could they?” That kid is a budding skeptic, because that kid knows that what he sees is not necessarily what he should believe. That’s intrinsic to the form. We are maybe the only people aside from Randi who spend a lot of time articulating the fact that that is what it’s about.

NEJS – I attended the JREF conference in October, and it seemed like there were a lot of magicians in attendance. To be an effective skeptic, do you have to learn magic?

Teller – To be an effective skeptic, you have to love real information more than anything else. It very much helps to have read particularly [Randi’s] Flim-Flam. That’s the clearest explanation of what it means to test an event for whether it is a mistake or a reality. But it really helps to just know stuff, because there are a lot of people who will spout things that are incorrect and misleading. If you don’t know things, you can’t say “Excuse me, that’s just wrong. Nostradamus didn’t predict this. Nostradamus said this.”

It’s really wonderful to know particular little pieces of history, like that wonderful astrology thing Randi did on the radio where he took a newspaper, cut up an astrology column, and put the pieces randomly in a hat. Then he posed as an astrologer, had people phone in, and he did astrological readings for them over the radio. They all told him how astonishingly accurate it was, but in fact for each person he had just randomly pulled these readings from a hat.

I’m a big fan of 19th century spiritualism lore. That’s one of the reasons that we finally got a seance into the show. I love those old spiritualism tricks, mostly because they transform the most practical magic tricks into things with cosmic meaning – taking basically an escape trick, and turn that into a sequence about life and death. Have you read the new Houdini biography by Silverman?

NEJS – I read your review of it, I haven’t read it.

Teller – It’s very interesting that he points out that Houdini comes right out of spiritualism. That’s a fascinating thing. The whole escape thing was seen before Houdini, but only in the context of spiritualism. And when Houdini brings this out and says “I am escaping,” he’s doing a wonderful thing. He’s bridging this world of superstition to the world of show business and saying, “It’s really just show biz, folks.” And it was very important.

The kind of escape cabinet tricks that Anna Eva Fay used to do forms the model for Houdini’s escapes. They’re generally done leaving-this is the really creepy thing- they’re done leaving the means of restraint intact. Isn’t that interesting? Normally, you’d think, okay, somebody gets out of some handcuffs, they would come out with the handcuffs open, right? If somebody got out of a trunk, you’d open the cabinet, and there’d be the open trunk. With Houdini, all of these things, part of his pride in it, was all of these things always ended up intact. They were closed. If he got out of a welded boiler, when he was out, the boiler would still be welded closed. And he would say, “This is just a trick.”

And there was this wonderful way in which that echoes the really weird transubstantiation of dematerialization and rematerialization, all those religious things, all those things that if religion were just show biz, would be great fun. The problem is some people believe in it. What Houdini did was he took the religion out of that religion, and left all the mystery there.

NEJS – One of the things that really shocked me as I dug deeper into Penn and Teller history was that you used to do seances.

Teller – We did. For a while we thought it would be really cool to do some intimate home seances, where we would come in and say, “This is trickery. You are about to witness trickery. But it’s very good trickery, and it’s really going to fool you.” We probably only did it half a dozen times, and we stopped doing it because we couldn’t stand getting people saying, “Oh, well, I know the part where the glass broke, that was some kind of magic trick. But when you were reading our minds in the beginning, that was for real.” We’d say, “No, it’s a trick,” and they’d say “No, it can’t be. I’m a smart person. I’d know if I were being tricked there. That was for real.” And people would look us in the eye when we were telling them they were watching tricks and tell us we were doing these things for real. And it was just insanely aggravating! (Laughs) It was unbearable to have someone look at you and dismiss your hard work, your art, with this superstitious explanation that contradicts everything we stand for.

NEJS – When you think of a skeptic, usually you get an image of a middle-aged guy. Do you think it’s an earned reputation, and what can be done about it? If anything?

Teller – I think just more talented people have to get out there and do it. More talented people have to find ways unashamedly to give forth their beliefs. There are a lot of people that if you sat them in a corner and said, “Is this for real?” would say “no,” but out of politeness hang back and say, “well, you’re entitled to your belief.” And… legally, you’re entitled to your belief, yeah, sure. But morally, I’m obligated to set you straight. Really. If you believe in rubbish, I am morally obligated to set you straight. The means vary enormously, from brutality to tact, and sometimes brutality is the right way, and sometimes tact is the right way.

I do wish that critical thinking would be more prominently taught as a routine part of a kid’s education. Even just in regular science education, it seems like there could certainly easily be an aspect to science education in which you addressed phenomena that were verified scientifically and found out why that was wrong. Again, I go back to the spirit mediums, because that’s my favorite area, but the scientists who decided they were going to measure the presence of spirits with scientific instrumentation — that’s a whole interesting story that really ought to be part of somebody’s science education. Mesmerism — you’d think that mesmerism — when you’re studying magnetism in school, why don’t we take one day of class and talk about animal magnetism and how people fell for that? Because that’s all part of the story of how science got to where it is — by making mistakes, by making really serious cognitive mistakes based upon bad testing methods. I think that would enhance any science course.

NEJS – I have something here that surprised me as well – I have an interview Chris Carter (creator of The X-Files) gave to the Skeptical Inquirer, talking about the meeting he had with you two. First of all, I’d like to know why you met with Chris Carter…

Teller – Some agents got us together. We had just seen the Jim Rose episode of the X-Files, which was funny, and which was so surreal that we didn’t think it was bad cosmology. Then we got into a room with Chris Carter and found out that the people on his team really do seem to believe the stuff they were writing about. They would say, “Well, what about this?” and we would say, “That’s just such-and-such.” There was a lot of information that we had that they didn’t have. We (eventually) said, “We will not play the roles of people who are going to be convinced by something. If you’re going to use us, use us as guys faking phenomena.” They said “No, no, no, we have to leave it up in the air about whether or not the thing exists.” The meeting went on for hours, and they kept bringing up things — “Well, what about dowsing? What about spoon-bending?” In each case, we would explain what was going on, and they would sort of smile, sagely, as though, “Well, of course, I guess some of those things could be fake.” So it never went anywhere.

NEJS – But he said something in this article I’d like you to respond to: “I asked them if they believed in God, and they said no. And I asked: Do any scientists believe in God? And they said: ‘None of the important ones.’ I just found that somehow, I don’t know, very disturbing. I think that the need to believe is, in fact, even with the most hardened atheist. I think that there must be at some point in their lives a need to at least search for some kind of personal answers for existence itself.” I thought that was very interesting — as if atheists aren’t looking for some kind of personal answers for existence itself.

Teller – Atheists do look for answers to existence itself. They just don’t make them up.

NEJS – Well, what do you think about that comment — the need to believe being with even the most hardened atheist?
Teller – I think he’s wrong. I might qualify as the most hardened atheist, and I have not the slightest need to believe in stuff that is not in some way verifiable. I believe in art, mind you. I don’t believe that art is supernatural. I think that beauty and humor are wonderful things, and quite important to us — in fact, one of the major distinguishing features between us and some of the lesser species. My mother, who is 89 now, says “Oh, you know, I see these old people going to church, and I really envy them. It must be so consoling for them to be able to believe in that stuff.” (Laughs) I think she genuinely envies people who are suckers in the sense that there are some things that might be a little easier to confront. It’s not going to change her point of view, because it doesn’t make any sense to her. It seems like nonsense. And it is! (Laughs)

NEJS – CSICOP is about as old as the union of Penn and Teller. You’ve had a chance to watch skepticism as it has grown over the years. And in the last two years, skepticism seems to have picked up momentum — people are talking about it in terms of a movement. I was wondering what your opinion was on this — what are the implications?

Teller – I think I’m right in saying that I think that there are always periods of time that sort of alternate. The periods of skepticism alternate with periods of big belief. When you’re talking about the Founding Fathers, you’re talking about people who were basically paying lip service to God, and who are very much concerned with the provable real world. And then, when you’re talking post-Civil War America, when industrialization is taking place, the reason for the rise of spiritualism was primarily that people realized that science had some merit. Science was now popularly understood in a better way that it had been previously. So the idea of taking a religion on faith really bothered a lot of people. So the rise of spiritualism was an attempt to create a scientific religion – a religion with verifiable phenomena that would not just be words in an old book of mythology, but it would be something that you could prove. Of course, that eventually passed away. These periods of religious fervor and belief tend to be shortly after large wars. Imagine that.

I think there is more good information around now about testing suspicious phenomena than there really ever has been. And so, I would not be surprised if we have an increasing number of people well-equipped to observe correctly. Simultaneously, we do have the Psychic Friends Network. . . well, we did, which does not give one great cause for hope. That kind of extraordinary popularization of crap does not indicate that we have a groundswell of overwhelming power in our hands. Which is okay. I think people are . . .

NEJS – Well, skepticism isn’t sexy, is it?

Teller – And it’s been strange that it’s not. We need to get the right person in there. Penn has a wonderful phrase for this. Penn says, “You should carry your intellect the way James Dean carried a cigarette.”

NEJS – Do you think we are in one of those periods of big belief right now?

Teller – Yeah, we are. We are.

NEJS – The media isn’t amplifying it any?

Teller – The media have this problem. They have a larger empty canvas than they’ve ever had before. We have a gazillion television channels that all have to be filled with something. Filling it with colorful shit is pretty easy, and they do a great deal of that. They also do a lot of good stuff, but it’s much easier for them to fill it with something they can just make up out of their rather lame imaginations than it is for them to fill it with information. And there is that real problem of what a skeptic does is say “no.” And “no” is not terribly photogenic. Randi knows how to make “no” photogenic. And we certainly try to take whatever we’re doing and make it mean what we want to mean but at the same time, make it worth looking at.

NEJS – I’ll close with this. In reading the Penn and Teller books, people who pass off magic tricks as miracles are described as “scumbags.” But there’s a lot of incentive in this world to be a scumbag, if you’re willing to do it. Look at the Psychic Friends Network. But you were directly tempted — you did seances at one time. You could have chosen to be a scumbag, but you didn’t.

Teller – Correct. I had a correct moral upbringing. (Laughs) My parents told me it was wrong to do evil. (Laughs) And so I don’t do evil. In fact, most of the really, really successful people I have encountered have not been scumbags. You become a scumbag when you can’t cut it by legitimate means. It is not the person who has all the talent of a professional sleight-of-hand artist who becomes a pickpocket. The people who have that talent become professional sleight-of-hand artists. They don’t become pickpockets, because to be a pickpocket, you don’t have to be as good. You can resort to things like stepping on the arch of the other person’s foot and beating them up while you’re picking their pocket. People of inferior abilities and inferior morality have always done wrong things. And people of quality have never been tempted by that.