Penn & Teller are having a ball (& cup) exposing the secrets of magic. Or is their exposé simply an illusion?

Bullet and gun

Penn & Teller shoot each other in the face nightly in their show at the Rio in Las Vegas.

By Aleza Freeman (

Revealing the secret behind an illusion is typically frowned upon in the world of magic. So how is it that Penn Jillette and magic partner Teller get away with breaking the rules?

The truth is: They didn’t always.

“We pull that off because we became successful,” admits Teller. Both magicians are also best-selling authors, Broadway veterans and stars of the Emmy-nominated series “Penn & Teller: B*llsh*t!” on Showtime. “When we were first out there and nobody knew who we were, magicians were furious.” (Read more quotes from Teller in the article, “Teller Talks”).

Early on, one magician even went as far as to take a swing at Jillette. (Read a Q&A with Penn Jillette).

“He was angry that we were exposing the cups and balls,” said Teller, “so we had a friend of ours go into our lobby at intermission and perform the cups and balls in the normal fashion. The audience was completely baffled, even though they had just seen our exposé of it. So, when we expose something, it’s something we’ve invented and in no way hampers anyone else from performing a trick.”

In their show at  the Rio

In their show at the Rio hotel in Las Vegas, the duo performs a very fast four-handed cups and balls routine.

In their show at the Rio hotel in Las Vegas, the duo performs a very fast four-handed cups and balls routine like nobody has done it before. (The Rio’s commemorates 20 years in Vegas this month … Read the full story).

“When you watch it, it’s like listening to a barbershop quartet and trying to concentrate on the tenor and the bass and each of the melodies at the same time, your mind is knocked all over the place trying to keep up with it,” said Teller. “It’s an intricate and beautiful intertwining of both of those experiences.”

That type of routine, he explained, is very different to compose than the typical illusion.

“But because we find the conflict between how something is done and how something looks to be such an interesting topic, we’ve invented a series for several pieces with the idea we would both show the effect and the method,” he said.

Not showing how a trick is done is a sound artistic rule. As Teller explained, it’s generally more interesting to see something that looks amazing than it is to see how it’s mechanically produced.

“Usually the way an effect is produced is not very attractive, it’s not very pleasing, it’s not very artistic,” he said. “It’s more like saying, ‘Oh, you were able to play that beautiful musical passage because you sat in
your room and practiced scales for hours.’ That’s not very pleasant, and that’s normally the case with magic.”

When Penn & Teller are creating a new illusion, many of original props are built out of the roughest plywood. That’s because working a magic idea is very different from working on a song on a guitar, said Teller. On a guitar, he said, the only thing that’s going to change are the notes and how you play them.

“A piece that involves screwing around with reality, which is what magic pretends to do, means you have to kind of invent a new guitar every time you invent a new piece,” he said. “That invention goes in many, many layered phases sometimes over the course of years, and it involves building an initial model, and then testing that and rebuilding and rebuilding. You do it in drafts, like you do a story.”

As a consultant to many great magicians, magician Johnny Thompson worked on an effect for Penn & Teller using an animated red ball, along with another magician named Mike Close. (Read all about the origin of the Vegas magician in the article, “Revealing the Las Vegas Magician.”)

Led by Teller, the red ball practically dances on stage. With the rhythmic way it jumps and moves around, taking on a life of its own, Thompson said it’s impossible to imagine how the illusion is done.

“We would watch it in rehearsals and it fooled us, and we know what he’s doing. That’s how brilliant it is,” said Thompson. “They have an opening line and they say ‘Here’s a trick that’s done with a piece of thread,’ and you think, are they telling us the truth or are they putting us on?”

Just explaining how a trick works is not a Penn & Teller bit. What is a Penn & Teller bit is creating the interesting experience that shows both the illusion and the workings of the illusion as a whole separate problem.

Teller’s favorite example of this is a trick in which he was locked inside a glass box. Jillette would then tell the audience that Teller was going to escape from that box. If they wanted to know how the trick was done, they should keep their eyes open. If they wanted to be amazed, they should keep their eyes closed. The choice was theirs.

“It tells you as an audience member more about what you’re going to go to the theater for,” said Teller. “Are you going to be astonished or are you going to try and figure things out? Both are perfectly fine motives. That piece was an acknowledgement of both of those motives.”

While more people kept their eyes open, Teller said the people he respects most kept them closed.

“Both are valid choices but it takes a tremendous amount of discipline for someone to say, ‘I’m cool enough that I’m not going to take the easy way,” he said. “I know one person who saw the show three or four times, and kept his eyes closed every single time. You’ve got to admit, you’ve got to be a very cool person to do that.”


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