Exit Interview: Teller
For a guy who’s made a living of the silent treatment, Teller has plenty to say when he’s not performing with his partner, Penn Gillette. This month, the duo release season six of their Showtime series, Bullshit!, on DVD, and bring their live act to Atlantic City on May 22nd-24th. Teller, 61, called from his Las Vegas home, and along with talk of his singular name and stunts using power tools, he casually referenced Aristotle and the “psychological bedrock” of his childhood. As if Exit Interview needed to feel any dumber.
Are you really talking, or is this some sort of voice synthesizer, à la Stephen Hawking? Well, there would be no way of convincing you one way or the other, would there?
True. Why did you decide to go mute in your act? I was just intrigued by the idea of lying without speaking. Magic is the moral and artistic way to lie. I love the idea that people observe what’s going on and come to their own wrong conclusion without my having to help them.
So it wasn’t an attempt to hide a Philadelphia accent? Well, you judge for yourself. Some words are there. I don’t say “reaund and reaund.” Mind you, I love the Philadelphia accent. There’s something tremendously honest about Philadelphia. It’s like New York without the fakery, without the pretense.
Did your interest in magic develop when you were growing up here? Yeah. When I was five, I had a heart ailment and came close to dying. During a long recuperation period, I sent away 15 cents and three Mars bars wrappers for a Howdy Doody magic set. For some reason, that simply hit psychological bedrock. As soon as I could read, I walked over to the Logan Circle library and sat in the 790s, which is where books on magic and other embarrassing skills lived.
Then you performed for your Cub Scout troop and were pelted off the stage with hard candy. Right now, if you put me in front of some Cub Scouts, I’d be terrified. That’s the toughest audience ever.
When did people stop calling you by your first name? This is a subject that if you were delicate about it and didn’t drop the name, you would make a lot of fans happy.
Is this a sensitive issue? It’s just irritating. When I was at Central, we all called each other by our last names. I became Teller to all my friends. So when I went into show business 35 years ago, I simply legalized that. My driver’s license and passport just say Teller.
And your parents called you … Teller, once I went into show business. We should acknowledge their sacrifice of a first name by not mentioning it in your article. [Fans, please direct your hate mail to Exit Interview’s editor, who insists we mention that his name was Raymond Joseph.]
For folks who haven’t seen your cable series, Bullshit!, what’s coming up in the new season? This year, we’re covering organic foods, which are a bluff. The Vatican — another kind of bluff. The furor over video game violence — that’s the equivalent of playing cowboys and Indians leading to actual arrow murders. We bring in scientific evidence and our own experiments. We broke the bottled water story. Once we exploded the myth that there’s a difference in taste or wholesomeness between tap and bottled water, everyone else followed.
You’re like Woodward and Bernstein, but with F-bombs and magic. And nudity!
What will folks see in your live show? We try to present the best combination of old and new material — what Aristotle would have called a good mixture of the familiar and the strange. [Unlike] our TV show, our live show is squeaky-clean. I won’t say there aren’t misuses of household tools. Penn does a memory stunt with a nail gun that will make your toes curl.
Can you magically teleport all the low-rent A.C. hookers somewhere else? Not as part of the show. [laughs] We’re all in show business, so whatever those hookers want to do is fine.