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Teller was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His parents were of Russian Jewish and Cuban descent. However, as Penn Jillette revealed in the Bullshit! episode dealing with reparations, he learned of his Jewish ancestry only within the past decade. He attended Central High School and Amherst College and taught Latin at Lawrence High School in Lawrenceville, New Jersey.
Teller is an accomplished sleight-of-hand artist and is considered an expert on the history of magic. He is also a talented painter. He is an atheist, debunker, skeptic, and Fellow of the Cato Institute (a libertarian think-tank organization which also lists his partner Penn Jillette as a Fellow). The Cato Institute association is featured prominently in the Penn and Teller Showtime TV series Bullshit!.
He collaborated with Jillette on three magic books, and he is also the author of "When I'm Dead All This Will Be Yours!": Joe Teller - A Portrait by His Kid (2000), a biography/memoir of his father. The book features his father's paintings and cartoons which were strongly influenced by George Lichty's Grin and Bear It. The book was favorably reviewed by Publishers Weekly:
When Teller, the quiet half of the Penn & Teller showbiz team, made one of his monthly Philadelphia visits to see his parents, Joe and Irene ("Pad" and "Mam"), he was shown 100 unpublished cartoons his father drew in 1939. These "wryly observed scenes of Philadelphia street life," as Teller describes them, are in a loose, sketchy style imitative of the great George Lichty (1905-1983), famed for his long-run syndicated "Grin and Bear It." Teller and his father's "memories began to pump and the stories flowed" after they opened boxes of old letters that Teller read out loud (learning for the first time about a period in his parents' lives that he knew nothing about, such as the fact that his father's name is really Israel Max Teller). Joe's Depression-era hobo adventures led to travels throughout the U.S., Canada and Alaska, and by 1933, he returned to Philadelphia for art study. After Joe and Irene met during evening art classes, they married, and Joe worked half-days as a Philadelphia Inquirer copy boy. When the Inquirer rejected his cartoons, he moved into advertising art just as WWII began. Employing excerpts from letters and postcards, Teller successfully re-creates the world of his parents in a relaxed writing style of light humor and easy (yet highly effective) transitions between the past and present.
Teller does not speak while performing although there are occasional exceptions, usually when the audience is not aware of it. For example, he did the voice of "Mofo the Psychic Gorilla" in their early Broadway show with the help of a radio mike cupped in his hand. Teller's trademark silence originated during his youth, when he earned a living performing magic at college fraternity parties. He found that if he maintained silence throughout his act, spectators refrained from throwing beer and heckling him and focused more on his performance.
Teller began performing with friend Weir Chrisemer as The Ottmar Scheckt Society for the Preservation of Weird and Disgusting Music. Teller met Penn Jillette in 1975, where they joined a three-person act called Asparagus Valley Cultural Society, which played in San Francisco. In 1981 they began performing exclusively together as "Penn & Teller", an act that continues to this day.
Books by Teller
- "When I'm Dead All This Will Be Yours!": Joe Teller -- A Portrait by His Kid (2000) ISBN 0-922233-22-5
- House of Mystery: The Magic Science of David P. Abbott (editor)
- Jillette, Penn and Teller (1992). Penn & Teller's How to Play with Your Food. New York: Villard. ISBN 0679743111.
- Jillette, Penn and Teller (1997). Penn & Teller's How to Play in Traffic. Berkley Trade. ISBN 978-1572972933.