Penn and Teller comprise a pair of Las Vegas headline entertainers whose act is a mix of illusion and comedy specializing in gory tricks, clever pranks and unmasking frauds, although much of these are presented in a humorous way. To a large extent, the shock appeal of their special effects on stage provides the vital ingredient to their popularity and success. Known for their penchant for scientific and religious cynicism, the duo maintains a Libertarian skepticism of government authority. Both entertainers, who are research fellows at the Libertarian think tank called Cato Institute, have often been critical of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Internal Revenue Service and took an opposing view on prohibitions against drugs, guns, prostitution, nuclear energy, profanity and even bare breasts.
The shorter and silent half of the Penn and Teller pair of illusionists was born as Raymond Joseph Teller on Valentine’s Day, 1948 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania who legally changed his name to just “Teller.” A graduate of Amherst College, he taught Latin and English at Lawrence High School in New Jersey where he asked his students to just call him “Teller.” As magic was his hobby all throughout his student days, he became an accomplished sleight of hand artist and at the age of 27, he gave up teaching and started performing illusions in places where there was money to be earned. He began his trademark silence on stage early on when he noticed that the less he spoke, the more his audience paid attention to his act.
On the other hand, the taller and more loquacious half of the Penn and Teller magical duo was born as Penn Fraser Jillete on 5 March 1955 in Greenfield, Massachusetts. His cynicism manifested early in his life when he became disenchanted with illusionists who presented their acts as genuine works of magic. But he regained his respect for the art at the age of 18 when illusionist, James Randi, publicly acknowledged the craft as a fine art of deception aimed to entertain and not an unnatural, magical power. Graduating from Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Clown College in 1974, he worked with a high school classmate in developing and fine-tuning his juggling act.
In 1974, Weir Chrisimer, a mutual friend of Penn and Teller brought the two together to form a three-person act called the Asparagus Valley Cultural Society that performed in San Francisco, California and Amherst, Massachusetts. While the trio’s performance called for Penn to juggle and Teller did the illusions, their act had no outrageous touch because Chrisemer who was deeply religious was against anything that was offensive. And so, in 1981, Penn and Teller teamed up as a duo and went on to perform on stage in their trademark shocking and offensive way that not only entertained their audience, but also reaped tons of rave reviews.
Because of their uncanny ability to relate to audiences and their deep understanding of magic and illusion, Penn and Teller attracted serious attention from academia. The duo was invited to lecture at the Smithsonian Institution and Oxford University and served as Visiting Scholars at MIT. Their acceptance of the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award in 2001 served as a fitting accolade for their 30 years of mind-boggling performances.
As their way of sharing success, Penn and Teller actively support the AIDS Walk Las Vegas fundraiser and yearly offer free tickets to their show anyone who donates blood.