A Magic Story from Penn and Teller

Who knew that the entire process of inventing a magic trick is, quite simply, the process of absolutely unforgiving storytelling? Penn and Teller's Teller, for one.

In a recent This American Life podcast, Ira Glass told the story of a magic trick six years in the making – the non-floating, floating ball trick seen in duo Penn & Teller’s live magic shows. (Watch the trick.)

The story began with Teller learning the mechanics from a magic book written nearly 100 years ago. He was obsessed – he practiced daily. Alone, on the stage, after their shows. He took the props on vacation with him. Teller spent 11 months coming up with new moves and a routine. Only then did he show his partner, Penn Jillette.

You can’t look at a half-finished piece of magic and know whether it’s good or not. It has to be perfect before you can evaluate whether it’s good...Either it looks like a miracle or it’s stupid.
— Teller

And Penn hated it.

So Teller kept going – he realized mechanics weren’t compelling enough on their own. He needed a plot. He added one.

Penn hated it more. Both thought the trick lacked an “essential dramatic idea.”

There’s no better partner than Teller. He’s not the smartest or most creative person I’ve ever been around, but he’s the hardest working.
— Penn Jillette

Teller went back to work, and after 18 months, his trick came together.

I have a certain dog with a slipper quality about me.
— Teller

And Penn still didn’t love it.

But after six years, they added a final element – a Penn-style grace note. 

I do trust my gut. This trick that we do in the show is not the trick I thought we were going to do. But it is the trick that was calling out to me.
— Teller

For insight into your own storytelling (and the making of a successful 40+ year partnership), listen to the podcast.

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