The Untold Truth Of Penn And Teller

Together, Penn Jillette (known professionally as Penn) and Raymond Teller (known both professionally and personally, simply as Teller) make up one of the most successful acts in the history of magic. Over a glittering career in the industry, spanning a whopping 40 years, this dynamic duo have accomplished some incredible feats, from catching moving bullets to making elephants disappear into thin air, but how did they get from passionate amateurs to having their very own stars on the Hollywood walk of fame?

While the diminutive Teller has traditionally remained as quiet off the stage as he is on it, his hulking partner Penn has never been one to keep his opinions to himself, often revealing details of their past and making his voice heard in debates both in and outside of the illusionist community. From their humble beginnings and appreciation of each other's craft to their controversial opinions on religion, authority and everything in between, this is the untold truth of Penn and Teller.

They started as a trio

Now one of the world's most famous double acts, Penn and Teller actually began their long and successful careers as illusionists as part of a trio. The Asparagus Valley Cultural Society was a three-man show that was active between 1975 and 1981, combining elements of comedy and magic with wacky music. While Penn and Teller took care of the humor and illusions, responsibility for the accompanying tunes fell to a man named Weir Chrisemer. The three parted ways in 1982 which, according to Penn, granted him and Teller the freedom to incorporate their personal beliefs into their shows.

During an interview at The Amazing Meeting 2012 (an annual celebration of science, critical thinking and skepticism) the pair revealed that Chrisemer, who was the son of a Lutheran minister and a very religious man, had them walking on eggshells during their time together, which inspired them to create a "screamingly Atheist project" named Mrs. Lonsberry's Seance of Horror — which may have been the reason for the trio becoming a duo.

They are staunch Atheists

Mrs. Lonsberry's Seance of Horror was the first of many Penn and Teller projects that would attack Christianity, with the pair making a name for themselves as two men who were not afraid to speak out against organized religion in all its forms. Both have made it clear they don't believe in God (something this interviewer just can't seem to wrap her head around) and they have actually been known to jot the words "there is no God" next to their names while signing autographs. In a piece he wrote for CNN, Penn explained that the September 11 attacks had forced many Americans of a similar mindset to stand up and make their Atheist views heard:

"After 9/11 we could no longer pretend that faith in god was harmless. The writing had been on the wall for a while, but now the walls were a-crumblin' down and innocent people were dying. Thousands of innocent people of all faiths died in that religious terrorist attack, including atheists." The outspoken pair won the Richard Dawkins Award back in 2005, an accolade handed out by the Atheist Alliance of America to those who have successfully raised public consciousness of Atheism that year.

They have received death threats

While their views on God (or the lack thereof) have made them heroes to some, just as many people have been outraged by Penn and Teller's criticism of the church and all it stands for. American Vision called duo "atheistic frauds" and criticized Penn for having the licence plates "ATHEIST" and "GODLESS" registered in Nevada.

They aren't the only celebs to have found themselves in the crosshairs of the devout, however. According to Penn has been bombarded with death threats since going public with his views about God and 9/11, and he finds it amusing to compare them with the ones received by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and South Park co-creator Trey Parker. "Yeah, I've got hate mail. I've got hate mail where the police have been called in... There's the macho thing that I used to do with Richard Dawkins and Trey Parker, we'd pull out out death threats and compare them. [We would say] 'Look at these people that want to kill me!'"

Penn wants to legalize drugs in the United States

Despite never having dabbled in them himself, Penn has piped in on the drugs debate on numerous occasions, particularly in the defence of marijuana users. The illusionist has taken issue with Barrack Obama's drug policies, pointing out that if the outgoing President had been charged under his own law when he smoked cannabis as a college student, he would not have been able to go on and become the leader of the free world.

As far as Penn is concerned, legalizing drugs is the best way deal with the problem, as the War on Drugs is really a fight against the dealers: "It's safer for children to have them legal, in a way. When you have drugs illegal you give people that live outside the law a great deal of power. McDonald's and Burger King don't have gang wars. If you make it legal, there will be a lot of downsides. But maybe those downsides will be less against innocent people."

They have also spoken out in favor of pornography

Being anti-religion and pro-drugs just about ticks all the boxes as far as infuriating conservative Americans is concerned, though Penn and Teller put the icing on the cake when they came out in support of the pornography industry. In season 6 of their myth debunking show Penn & Teller: Bullsh*t! the pair tackle the so-called War on Porn from both the performer and consumer angle, profiling busty porn actress turned businesswoman Brandi Love. The main focus of the episode was to address the movement to censor online pornography and to prove experts that claimed mainstream porn turned ordinary men into rapists and pedophiles wrong. Which, of course, they did.

Penn was close friends with legendary New York pornographer Al Goldstein right up until the latter's death from renal failure aged 77. When the online adult industry began to put printed porn out of business, Goldstein wound up losing everything and became known as Manhattan's most famous hobo. Penn, who had always admired the big-boned Goldstein on account of his First Amendment activism, paid for a Staten Island apartment for him and looked after the former porn guru until he passed away in 2013.

Penn has clashed with Donald Trump

In 2011 Penn was chosen as a candidate for the fifth season of The Celebrity Apprentice, joining a varied cast of savvy celebs vying to impress billionaire businessman and future President Donald Trump. The magician lasted until the eleventh task, after which he was fired by Trump for failing to design a satisfactory in-store display and a signature slogan for his latest cologne. In the run up to the election, Penn spoke openly about his opinion on Trump and warned that the American public ought to be careful what they wish for:

"I'm feeling so, so, so guilty, because I feel like, along with millions of other people, I played right into this. The cynicism of the Clintons, the careful, tightrope walk of all politicians, forced me, as an Atheist, to get down on my knees and pray that someone would come along with some kind of authenticity. Well, someone called my bluff, goddamn it."

Penn blew the lid off the show after leaving, revealing he was given the chop because he refused to endorse the host's election campaign and insisting that Trump wasn't smart enough to be President. Funnily enough, it was a comment Penn made in his book Every Day Is an Atheist Holiday about Trump's hair (he likened it to "cotton candy made of p*ss") that set him off. The fair-headed mogul took to Twitter in the early hours of the morning to hit back at Penn, calling him a "boring guy" and mocking the Penn and Teller Broadway show.

They've appeared in numerous TV shows

The Celebrity Apprentice was a rare solo outing for Penn, who is used to having his partner by his side in almost everything he does professionally. The dynamic duo have worked on tons of TV projects over the years, and not just their own. They have made cameo appearances as themselves in a number of shows, from Muppets Tonight in which they perform some signature tricks and some questionable dancing to The West Wing, where they cause a stir by burning an American flag (wrapped inside the Bill of Rights, no less) inside the White House.

They have never been afraid to take on actual roles and work on their acting chops, either. The pair were part of the original witches council in Sabrina The Teenage Witch, playing Drell (Penn), the powerful and short tempered leader and Skippy (Teller), a mild mannered mute. Other notable appearances include a turn as salesmen in the fourth season of Friends and a stint on the fifth and final season of Babylon 5, where they dazzled the President as comedians Rebo and Zooty.

They've also popped up in music videos

One of Penn and Teller's earliest cameos actually came in a Ramones music video that parodied the Hands Across America benefit event and the USA For Africa charity single by bringing in lookalikes of Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie and Cyndi Lauper. Penn and Teller were part of a large group of real celebs supporting the fictitious charity "Hands Across Your Face," an intended swipe at charity bandwagon jumpers that the magicians wanted to be a part of. With punk ticked off the list, their next move was hip hop.

The devious double act (who were slowly gaining notoriety after several appearances on Saturday Night Live over the previous two years) agreed to feature in RUN-D.M.C's video for their 1987 single 'It's Tricky', in which they hustled with cards on a street corner and donned traditional RUN-style Adidas sneakers and trilby hats. Again, the dance moves were questionable at best, but the song helped to expose Penn and Teller to a whole new audience and it was a trick they planned on using again. They recently popped up in Katy Perry's video, "Waking Up In Vegas," where the resident magicians are kicked out of their hotel room by the buxom pop star and her lucky boyfriend.

Their planned video game has been called 'the worst ever'

The canning of Penn and Teller's very own video game was hardly a day to mourn in the gaming community. The cheeky tricksters had planned to release Penn & Teller's Smoke and Mirrors on the Sega CD in 1995, compiling a series of mini-games and virtual tricks that were all designed to be used to play tricks on friends. Well, all except one. Desert Bus is a simulation of a real life bus journey from Tuscon to Las Vegas that is played in real time. The player cannot exceed 45 mph and, seeing as the mini-game cannot be paused, it takes 8 hours of continuous driving to reach the end and earn a single point. You have to drive all the way back for your second point, and back again for your third. The highest number of points you can score is 99, which this insane gamer found out for himself.

So why did they make such a horrendously crappy game? Did they honestly think people would enjoy playing this? No, actually, they did not. Their intention here was to take a dig at the anti-video game lobby by showing the world what removing all the fun stuff from video games would look like. "The route between Las Vegas and Phoenix is long," Teller told The New Yorker. "It's a boring job that just goes on and on repetitiously, and your task is simply to remain conscious. That was one of the big keys — we would make no cheats about time, so people like the Attorney General could get a good idea of how valuable and worthwhile a game that just reflects reality would be."

In case you want to try Desert Bus yourself, it's currently available on iOS and Android.

Their houses are as crazy as their shows

It probably won't come as a surprise to learn that both Penn and Teller live in rather unusual houses. The latter's humble abode is rigged with variety of bookcase-covered secret doorways and trick mirrors and comes complete with a collection of art that celebrates the history of magic through the ages. Although Penn was recently forced to put the home he built for himself in the desert (the Atheist haven affectionately nicknamed 'The Slammer') up for sale due to his expanding family, the larger-than-life conjurer let fans in on a few of its secrets beforehand. Penn admitted he owned a bible cut into the shape of a handgun and that he had built an underground dungeon complete with a sex swing. Seeing as he built the house so his parents could move in there with him, it's safe to assume the dungeon and all its delights were off-limits to Mr. and Mrs. Jillette.

Penn has a long-running beef with David Copperfield

Named the most commercially successful magician in history by Forbes, David Copperfield has developed a love-hate relationship with his closest professional rivals over the course of their long and illustrious careers, openly offering his opinion on Penn in particular. The two Vegas showmen have had an on-off friendship lasting decades, partying in penthouses together one week and then slanting each other publicly the next. Penn kickstarted the beef in 2005 when he mocked one of Copperfield's tricks in which the illusionist makes a woman suddenly appear pregnant on stage. According to Penn, the trick was created because "the only way Copperfield can reproduce is with a cheesy magic act."

Copperfield hit back, telling the New York Daily News that his fellow magician likes to talk a big game in the media but is a different person face to face. "Penn invokes my name whenever he needs publicity, which is often," the Emmy winner said. "We're actually pals. Privately, he treats me like a king. In fact, his nose is blacker than his fingernails from being up my a** for 20 years. If his reputation were as big as his gut, he wouldn't need to include me in his press release."

Vegas has gone to the dogs for them

According to Penn, Las Vegas just isn't what it used to be, and that has nothing to do with David Copperfield's shows. The influx of Electronic Dance Music (or EDM, to those in-the-know) means there are less jobs for magicians as the powers that be now prefer to spend their money on top European DJs instead. As club culture takes root in Vegas, the face of America's party capital is changing once more, something Penn has seen happen more than once over the years.

"In the Sixties Vegas was the happening place. You had the Rat Pack, and it was socially very relevant. Then by the 80s people went there ironically. No one ever went to see a real show in the 80s. You had George Burns impressionists, and just terrible acts... now in the 21st century, Vegas becomes the EDM capital and the DJs run everything. The shows are secondary to the nightclubs, and the finances of Vegas center around EDM."

Despite the changing tides, Penn insists his and Teller's act is "doing fabulously" as they continue to attract the over-30 crowd and those who don't like the idea of getting tanked up and thrashing around to Armin Van Buuren for six hours straight.

They rarely see each other socially

Despite having worked together for more than four magical decades, Penn and Teller have always had a predominantly professional relationship. Their infectious chemistry on stage suggests they share a close bond off it, though while Penn has admitted their time working alongside one another has lead to them becoming best friends, they still don't actually socialize very often. "Teller and I maintain what seems to be one of the best working relationships in showbiz by having a business relationship," the funny man told fans during a Reddit AMA. "Over all these years, he's become my best friend, but we didn't start with affection, we started with respect. We keep things pretty formal. We probably hang purely socially about three times a year."

Teller shares a similar story of mutual respect and admiration for his partner, calling Penn's "hilarious" and "unnerving" street act the greatest he has ever seen. He admitted they do still bicker, however, but he sees disagreements as essential to their unique creative process. "There are lots of times when Penn does not like me, lots of times when I do not like him. And that's what you want in a partner, an artistic partner. You want someone you're going to disagree with, and an idea that is third, that is other, will emerge from that."

Teller used to teach high school Latin

Little is known about the tight-lipped Teller's past, though it was recently revealed he spent six years teaching Latin at New Jersey's Lawrence High School before hanging up his chalk to pursue a career in magic. The revelation came about when a former student of Mr. Teller turned up at the premiere of his documentary Tim's Vermeer with an old faculty book asking for an autograph. Teller obliged his former student, though before he signed the old head-shot he made sure to cross the name 'Raymond' out. When pressed further about his days as teacher, Teller said that he was able to hone his skills as a performer in the classroom, where holding attention was key. "The first job of a teacher is to make the student fall in love with the subject," he told The Atlantic. "That doesn't have to be done by waving your arms and prancing around the classroom, there's all sorts of ways to go at it, but no matter what, you are a symbol of the subject in the students' minds."