Part of the joke is also that most magician acts consist of a magician, who talks a lot, and his beautiful assistant, who does not. In Penn & Teller’s case, the beautiful assistant is played by a short, balding man.
Teller is an incredibly skilled magician who is physically small and not necessarily gifted in the being assertive or handling hecklers department.
Penn is a huge man who takes up more psychic space than Cthlulhu, and can hold up his end of the conjuring.
Somehow, they found that a good fit back in the day, doing Ren Faires and frat parties. They seem to think it still works.
I would suggest that you take your question directly to them. There is no possible way that could go hilariously wrong. I would certainly not pay to see it. I would especially not pay with the money from your wallet, which Teller sent me because I posted this.
I could understand people thinking it was stupid on Bullshit, but their actual act? It works beautifully. On the show, Teller is little more than a mascot or pet. In the act, although Teller is the magician, you get a feeling of perfect balance between them. It’s like they are two halves of the same person.
Teller is widely admired within the world of magic as one of the finest creators of new magical routines and effects, and also as a very talented writer and performer.
Penn Jilette trained as a clown and juggler, and has learned enough about magic to be half of Penn & Teller.
When they were young and began their performing careers (separately), they both arrived at different solutions to the challenges of winning attention, holding an audience and dealing with hecklers. Penn Jillette’s solution was to be the biggest, baddest, loudest person in the room. Teller didn’t have those options, so he decided to perform silently, and to involve elements of the weird, the strange, the dangerous and the gory.
When they started working together, they decided to stick to these roles and it worked beautifully. Penn is the great showman, the fairground barker, the man who handle any crowd and any audience. Teller is the quiet genius who devises all their material.
By the time they came to do their TV show, their respective personae were so well established and part of the P&T brand that they carried on the same way.
There are many things about P&T that are funny - as you will know if you ever go and see their live show. And when they do chat shows and interviews, they can also be very funny. But the fact that one doesn’t talk and the other never stops is not, in and of itself, meant to be funny.
Teller was silent before he paired up with Penn. The purpose of his silence isn’t to amuse you.
I can’t remember if it was from their show or one of their lectures but they said that he originally became a silent performer when he was working as part of a troupe in his youth. By remaining completely quiet and unassuming he would avoid having things thrown at him when the performance inevitably bombed.
Here is a clip of Teller giving a lecture/demonstration at the ‘Magic of Consciousness Symposium’ in June of 2007. Sorry that the audio is so poor…
I don’t know what to say - I’ve loved Penn and Teller for years. On one level, Teller’s silence and Penn’s motormouthed patter is a just a gimmick that helps you remember who they are.
On another level, Penn is there to act as a distraction, misdirecting the audience’s attention at critical times. Not that Teller seems to need much help - he seems quite capable of fooling the audience even when their attention is fully focused on him.
On another level, it is part of a much older theatre/clown tradition of playing Joey, Auguste and Ringmaster. (Wiki article on clown.) It plays well into the illusions where it appears that the larger, noiser Penn is putting the smaller, quieter Teller in danger and it makes it creepier that Penn has ‘killed’ Teller in a number of their shows.
I want to add in another voice for it not really being funny - but a standard magician trick of diverting attention from the real magic.
My husband does some slight-of-hand, which means I do a lot of help in the vein of, “No, no… that’s too obvious, you’ll have to palm two from you left pocket a step back…” Right now he’s working on The Miser’s Dream, a classic slight-of-hand routine. We’ve watched almost every version of it on YouTube, and in all of them, we can say “Oh, he has two palmed there, and he’s grabbing one from there, and he’s already swapped hands there…” Except for Teller’s. It’s just stunning, and we’ve been spending the last few days dissecting it, and we still don’t understand every step.