A man, a ball, a hoop, a bench (and an alleged thread)… TELLER!

How a small but beautiful trick illuminates the mind of a master magician

Teller at his Las Vegas home.
Photo: Beverly Poppe
By Richard Abowitz

Editor's note: We’re debuting a new feature this week in which we dive into the archives to showcase some of the best stories from issues past. To kick things off, we revisit this tale of a man, a ball, a hoop, a bench (and an alleged thread)—how a small, but beautiful trick illuminates the mind of Teller.

Teller is one of the greatest magicians living in the world today. Teller is a guy who is constantly thinking, constantly reevaluating what he is doing. He keeps working on his material with really no care as to how long it takes. It might take a month or it might a year or it might be 10 years before it goes on.” —Lance Burton

It is impossible that this story be about anything other than a 3 ½-minute trick in the Penn & Teller show. It is a very beautiful trick that can’t be fully conveyed with words because it looks so simple: Teller makes a ball come to life. It isn’t a very exciting trick in that no knives, fire or risk are involved. A lot of their tricks have those.

And, to make matters worse, the trick I have the (partial) lowdown on, Penn doesn’t particularly like, or at least not until after he tells the audience how it is done—with a thread—before he walks off stage. And, therefore, yes, that’s right: This is going to be a story about a ball and a string—and Teller.

After Penn walks offstage, Teller, hoop in hand, slowly coaxes the ball to life and makes it do his bidding. Over the course of the trick the ball goes from indifferent to awakening to willing playmate. Though the narrative has Teller getting the ball to jump through his hoop, the ball’s most singularly beautiful moment is when it attains a perfect balance on the edge of the hoop. Audience applause achieved, the ball turns mischievous and follows Teller across the stage as if in need of more play. Teller tries to treat the ball with affection as he sits on a bench, gently petting it. But the increasingly aggressive ball finally chases the magician off stage: A little red ball brought to life and then pursuing its creator, a Frankenstein’s monster. It is all very magical, or would be if Penn had not told you there was a thread involved.

This trick, by the way, is called “The Red Ball,” for no more complicated reason than that the ball is red. The string, obviously, you don’t see from the audience. The audience member examining the ball never notices the thread either. The hoop and bench used for the trick go unmentioned in the title. But unlike the string you can see those onstage. And, like the ball, an audience member gets to examine the hoop to see that it is unrigged. Now that I think about it, no one examines the bench.

I am not sure that matters because, after all, we’ve been told about the thread. But there is a caveat: I have to take Penn and Teller’s word that there is a string. I have stood next to Teller as he practiced the trick, looking hard from every angle—even the ones that would normally be rude; watched video of him developing “The Red Ball” at a cabin in Utah on his vacation; talked to him for hours about the 100-year history of floating-ball tricks; and attended a lecture he gave to doctors at Lake Las Vegas, during which he discussed every phase of the trick’s development. But I have never actually seen the thread.

Still, when you are sitting at Teller’s house, and he is serving waffles and talking about the thread, you can’t believe he’s lying about it (though in the show Penn notes they lie frequently). So I have no doubt there is a thread. You can doubt and you won’t be alone. One person I know is sure there is a motor in the ball, run by a computer. That seems imbecilic. Why would you spend hours taping yourself practicing that in a cabin in Utah to watch how you looked if the computer was moving the ball? When I watched him practice onstage it was just the two of us after the show and no computers were involved. I saw only ball, hoop, bench and Teller. With Teller, you are literally dealing with one of the best illusionists in the world, and so you accept that believing doesn’t necessarily mean seeing.

Still, it is also true that despite an insatiable appetite for discussing “The Red Ball,” Teller never once suggested that I give the trick a try, or offered to let me see or touch the string. I am in good company. Penn readily admits, “The fact of the matter is, if you asked me to re-create the ball trick, even though I have seen it in the wrong lighting, I don’t understand how it is done at all.”

In truth, for Penn the thread was the only thing that intrigued him about Teller’s hobby of practicing a floating-ball trick. Or, more specifically, Penn was fascinated by the way the magician’s magicians whom Penn and Teller know, folks such as Johnny Thompson and Mike Close, were the ones most impressed by Teller’s skills with the ball, a fact Penn considered counterintuitive:

“What I was most interested in about the bit was that the people who knew exactly how it was done were blown away by Teller’s version, and the people who didn’t know how it was done thought it was okay. You shouldn’t have the people who know how it was done liking a trick better than the people who don’t. The most important part of a trick you see a traditional magician do is ‘how did they do that?’ But I saw the ball trick, and you really couldn’t be further outside my taste. It doesn’t have anything in it I would like. It is completely visual. The plot is: He has a ball that can do shit. It doesn’t hit any of the things I am interested about in art. I really, really didn’t like it and that is documented with e-mails.”

The silent partner

For a long time Teller tried to make the trick satisfy Penn and for a long time it did not.

In the program available for purchase at their show at the Rio, Teller writes an essay about practicing “a hundred-year-old trick the called the David P. Abbott ball.” When Teller wrote this essay in the summer of 2007 the trick was not in the show, and there were no plans to put it in:

“When the theater is empty I like to go out on stage. It’s lonely and beautiful. I look at your empty seat and think about you being in it. … Then I practice. I often practice stuff you’ll never see. For the past few weeks I’ve been working on a hundred-year-old trick called the David P. Abbott Ball. It is a very, very hard trick, almost like juggling. I put in an hour almost every day. I try to get the tricky moves so deeply into my muscles and brain that I can forget I’m doing a trick. Soon I’ll know whether the ideas I have for this trick are possible. But I won’t know that till I learn all the moves and invent my own. If the trick doesn’t work out, you’ll never see it, and I won’t be sad. I had fun every second I was working. I love the stuff you never see.”

“The Red Ball” trick grew out of a project that had nothing to do with Penn & Teller. In 2005, Teller co-edited with Todd Karr a two-volume collection of writings by David P. Abbott, a legendary amateur magician who performed only at his house in Omaha, Nebraska. These days Abbott does not merit even a Wikipedia entry. But, as Teller notes, for decades before his death in 1934, “Abbott’s shows were so baffling that Houdini, Kellar, Ching Ling Foo and Thurston—all the greatest in magic—made pilgrimages to Omaha because Abbott’s living room was the one place they knew even they could be mystified.”

Penn & Teller - from YouTube.com

It is in the second of the Abbott volumes that, in densely written pages that read like a foreign language to nonmagicians, Abbott lays out his method for the floating-ball illusion using a thread. He clearly does not expect the magician to mention the thread, however. He can barely bring himself to mention the thread. His writing goes on for pages describing how the trick works and looks to the last detail before he finally gives up the secret. The floating ball trick is the one illusion that, in a book meant to reveal tricks, Abbott was reluctant to expose. The reason? There were other methods for working the illusion, yet Abbott knew that even those who practiced the other tricks could not touch his version. “The effects that I have evolved are so superior, and the illusion is thus made so beautiful, that I took a certain pride in being the only performer using no assistant and producing it in such a matter.”

In trying to fully work through how Abbott did the trick—even with his helpful photographs, further augmented by written explanations and more art supplied by Teller—the best I can offer is that at one point the thread is attached to the magician’s ear. It is a trick that requires an amazing physical dexterity to produce the most simple of illusions: a ball moves through the air as if by magic.

The two volumes of Abbott’s writings were published a few years after Penn and Teller traded in three decades of being on the road— since 1975, when they began working Renaissance fairs, through their 1985 breakthrough with a public television special and an off-Broadway show that became a Broadway show, not to mention 20 appearances on David Letterman, plus national and world tours—for their residency at the Rio in 2001. There was a certain casual serendipity of personal reasons for the move: both already lived here; both wanted to spend more time with their aging parents.

But unlike the traditional Vegas act, which comes here to ride out its final years, Penn and Teller used the stability of Vegas to embark on what both think of as the most creative years their partnership has seen since they first flourished in the ’80s as magician-hipsters the MTV generation could enjoy. The most obvious emblem of their current success is the television show, Bullshit, on Showtime, which is entering its seventh season. However, the show at Rio is anything but static; in the past few months the duo has rotated three new tricks into the show, a large number even for them.

Meanwhile, outside of Penn & Teller, the Vegas years have allowed time for the duo to develop projects outside the partnership. They have both written books. Penn tried a radio show. Earlier this year Teller spent months co-directing a critically acclaimed (at least by the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Washington Post) version of Macbeth, which wound up with a long and successful booking at the Folger Theatre in Washington, D. C.

Still, the first thing that came to Penn’s mind when I asked him how moving to Vegas has impacted Teller: “I think it focused Teller a lot and allowed him to do stuff that he always wanted to do but never really had time to, like staying after the show and working on the ball trick.”

One of the things Penn and Teller share is work ethic of extreme dedication. They have never canceled a show. They take far fewer vacations than most Vegas headliners. When he was doing Dancing with the Stars, Penn never missed a Penn & Teller show. Nor did Teller miss a show to direct Macbeth. The partnership always comes first between the two men, who are sort of famously not close friends offstage. Penn describes the early days of their relationship this way:

Teller at his Las Vegas home.

“My relationship with Teller was 100 percent intellectual as opposed to emotional. That was the basis for the next 30-whatever number of years. It wasn’t planned; I would never have said to you, find a business partner that you don’t feel affection for but just respect. That is the advice I give now. Teller is one of the first people that I really respected and was very interested in and didn’t have any affection for. There was no cuddly feeling. It was like an Internet friend.”

But this story, while accurate, sometimes leaves the impression that in the absences of a positive there is a negative. The idea being that offstage they don’t get along or don’t speak. Not true. They work constantly, which means they speak constantly. Of course, crucially, they have a lot in common, too, aesthetically and politically (they’re both essentially libertarian); both are atheists. Penn and Teller use the word “respect” in a way that many would consider consistent with friendship.

Yet, the fact remains that outside of work the two don’t have much contact. As a result, Teller says, “We will always do some version of Penn & Teller.” From the Beatles to Martin and Lewis, groups based on friendships have split up. But Penn and Teller have kept enough distance to protect Penn & Teller. Still, there is clearly a great deal of affection when the two talk about each other. How could it be otherwise? Few married couples spend as much time in each others’ presence. Despite ostensibly not having much to say to each other outside of the things they share, because they have shared so much for so long and never plan to stop doing so, a lot is being said. That does not mean they do not disagree and even argue. But they never have the argument where they stop speaking to each other, and they never will.

As creative partners they complement each other in a manner not too different from their stage personae. Penn is voraciously social and Teller more introspective. Penn likes to think big-picture so much that he has actually run out of gas driving to his show at the Rio, more than once. Teller, on the other hand, has a great love of detail and an endless patience for massaging tiny elements.

“There is no one more like a puppy with a slipper than me,” Teller says. But he sounds more like a pit-bull with a locked jaw: “I latch on to something and I will not unlatch from it until I am completely satisfied with it.” He adds, “It is not a good characteristic.” In fact, it’s very good for a creative partnership. In the essay Penn contributes to the program, he explains why he does not hate Teller. “I like the chair being where Teller thinks it should be, but I don’t want to watch him find that place. I love talking to Teller about the bits. I love doing the bits, but I don’t like getting them onstage. That’s Teller’s job. If Teller made me come to the Penn & Teller rehearsals, CNN would have already covered his funeral and my trial. I never want to see his ‘process.’ In the P&T world, the line is straight if Teller says it’s straight while Penn is at Starbucks reading the paper.” Since I have seen Penn hanging out in the Starbucks next to their Rio showroom, that might be literally true.

But because Teller’s interest in the floating ball grew from his interest in Abbott, and because he really did not have a trick yet for the Penn & Teller show, and because more than most tricks the “The Red Ball” required hours upon hours of practice, the trick became very atypical of their collaboration.

Still, Penn would make a crucial contribution before the trick was allowed to enter their show.

“You could do your entire story on just the red ball trick,” Glenn Alai says. He probably knows I have to do so, because he has spent the past 15 years, most of his post-college life, working for Penn & Teller. Alai’s tenure is not unusual; many of Penn & Teller’s employees have been with them for a decade or longer. He started as a personal assistant doing such crucial errands as buying Penn’s underwear, eventually moved into selling merchandise at shows and doing public relations and now manages the duo in Vegas.

“I met Teller something like the first day I was working for them. He was nice, he was charming, very helpful with things and very welcoming,” Alai recalls. “Teller liked the details. He told me how I should answer the phone. I thought that I was going to be mentored in a very nurturing environment. Then I met Penn a couple days later, and he completely blew that out of the water. They could not be more different. They are polar opposites. But they love the idea of Penn & Teller and they do have the same core values, especially with the artistic, in that everything they create has an idea behind it.” This would become crucial when Teller finally showed Penn his painstakingly developed variation on Abbott’s floating ball trick for the first time.

A classic Penn & Teller bit that is in the show now springs, as Penn tells it each night, from Penn and Teller wanting for years to examine patriotism by burning or not burning an American flag onstage. They figured out how to explore that idea in a trick that also calls out the Chinese government for failing to grant basic rights to its citizens, totally exposes how they do the trick, then twists everything they have shown you into an even more impressive and totally unexplained trick that, not coincidentally, focuses all of the themes of freedom and patriotism into a perfect finale that remains open to audience interpretation. Idea and trick merge.

So, when Teller finally demonstrated his floating ball trick for Penn, his partner’s reaction sent Teller back to the drawing board. As Teller recalls in his lecture:

Teller at his Las Vegas home.

“He sat in the back of the theater. When I was finished, I asked him what he thought. Yes, as I’d feared. Without knowing the original floating ball, the trick seemed commonplace. And worse, the wandering, lonely rehearsal vibe struck Penn as Cirque du Soleil; in other words empty, pretentious, ponderous crap. I told Penn what I liked about the trick. He understood but couldn’t see how to solve the core problem: This is a groundbreaking trick only for magicians.” Most crucially, there was still no idea with the trick: nothing Penn & Teller. The trick was Teller.

Still, Penn wanted to put the trick in the show anyway. Having a trick in the show he did not like was in itself interesting. Why should Penn & Teller be limited by Penn’s tastes?

But Teller was more stubborn, puppy dog with slippers; the trick needed Penn’s active approval as opposed to simple tolerance. It had to be Penn & Teller. He went back to work redesigning and reworking and endlessly experimenting. After a full 18 months of development, practicing each night, after the show, practicing on vacation, watching the tape of his practice to make improvements, discussing it with Penn and endlessly working up a language for ball and transforming it into a narrative for the trick, Teller again presented “The Red Ball” to Penn.

“It’s a great trick,” Penn told him the second time. “But we need something to make a person say, ‘Only Penn and Teller would do this.’”

Teller reminded Penn of the magicians who were so impressed by Teller’s innovations with the Abbott floating ball. Penn recalls that in the breakthrough conversation Teller suggested to him simply telling the audience how the trick was done.

Penn amended Teller’s suggested explanation, offering “Now, here’s a trick that’s done with a piece of thread” in its place. Suddenly Penn was happy and excited. There was an idea. “That’s all,” Teller remembers Penn saying, “Just give them that much. That gives them so much and puts them on our side. Nobody else in the world would do that.”

Why does the one line make such a difference? Penn explained it to me backstage at the Rio:

“What I like about that sentence is its simple declarative quality. It says how we do it at the top, because there has to be something else important in this. There has to be something else that Teller fell in love with. And any other magician would absolutely flip at the word ‘thread’ being said. If Lance [Burton] were doing the trick, he wouldn’t allow you to say ‘Follow the thread of the idea’ four bits earlier. That word would not be spoken. But that line gives you the way to wonder how you want to think about magic. We have told you how it’s done. Now, you can be the sort of person that goes through the whole cancelling thing (to find the thread), or you can simply not care about that.”

In short, the line supplied an idea and thus made all of Teller’s labor into a Penn & Teller trick. It entered the show this summer. Penn probably hasn’t given it another thought.

Of course, Teller isn’t finished with the trick. He has been making endless little adjustments. In case you haven’t figured it out, “The Red Ball” is what is on Teller’s mind these days, and given the meticulous nature of his mind—example: He has scripted “Red Ball” lecture down to the least detail, such as saying “please” to the person starting a video segment—inevitably “The Red Ball” is what we mostly talked about, which is why this story couldn’t be about anything else. But because it’s a great trick, talking about it reveals a great deal more.

“The red ball” is not all Teller’s world consists of. The opposite is the case. He is working on new bits for Penn & Teller. His computer has a substantial to-do list of a dozen major projects. He mentions all of that in his beautiful house on a hill. Now there is encroaching development, but the house must have been quite isolated in the desert when he had it built. The building is angular with abstract odd shapes protruding from outside, but the inside is very neat, orderly yet spacious. If there is an overwhelming feeling in Teller’s house it is of bookcases everywhere, filled with books about most everything. The books line almost every inch of available wall (that is, wall not being used for shelves lined with movies) and speak to interests from contemporary fiction to Shakespeare, with a particular focus on magic.

In the courtyard, there is a sculpture of a giant bear that appears to speak to visitors and also has a knack for card tricks. (I learned from Teller’s introduction to the Abbott books that the talking bear is based on an idea from Abbott.)

Teller at his Las Vegas home.

Teller likes to cook and he offered waffles to me and the Weekly photographers. He has a lot of hardware in his computer room, kept discreetly out of sight, and while he is a wizard replying to e-mail, I never saw him so much as glance at his BlackBerry. It is like the string—I never see the effort, only the result. I know he is doing a lot simultaneously, but when Teller is spending time with you he does not have a cell phone in sight or glance at text messages. You are the object of his full attention.

When we sat for an interview, it was in a room with a very special souvenir, one of Abbott’s actual balls. After examining it, Teller spoke at length about “The Red Ball” trick some more, as he had when we spoke backstage, as he had when I watched him practice it, as he had when he gave the lecture to the doctors at Lake Las Vegas.

What Teller loves about the trick is the same thing that made Abbott so reluctant to reveal the secret: its beauty. But unlike Abbott, Teller is anxious to expose the secret in the hope of allowing a fuller appreciation of that beauty. To allow you to be one of those people, like me now, who loves the beauty and also admires that he can’t see the thread, even though I still look for it.

Of course, matching wits with Teller in his field of choice is silly. I will never see the thread unless Teller wants me to. But I can appreciate his skill more, because I know about the thread. And because Teller loves collaboration and feedback, my reaction is another he will add into his endless revision of “The Red Ball.” That is where is his mind is, deciding exactly where the chair will go.

Not being Penn, this does not make me want to kill Teller; rather such total dedication to craft and art in a Las Vegas show causes me to admire the incredible focus Teller still has on improving, revising, thinking over this one brief trick. More than two years since he first began playing with the Abbott ball, he is still professionally obsessed with it and he loves every moment spent practicing and pondering improvements. How long will this last? Near the end of his lecture he says, “In six months or a year, it will start to settle into my bones. ... In 10 years it’ll be perfect.”

Then, as with the flag trick or their famous “Magic Bullets” trick, there will come a point where Teller finds everything perfect and “The Red Ball” will be just one more trick in the oeuvre of Penn & Teller. That will free Teller’s mind to endlessly work over whatever trick he thinks needs that focus on next. As Teller says, while looking at the Abbott ball, “I am never bored. I never understand people who say they are bored. I wish they could just wrap up those hours and give them to me.” Most people would get bored being Teller, spending hours upon hours, year after year, practicing and refining a single trick. But, if you are not Teller, the payoff is one beautiful 3 ½ -minute trick done with just a ball, a thread, a hoop, a bench and Teller.


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