January 1

There are 4 entries for this date: The Amazing James Randi Harry Houdini Penn Jillette Teller



    On this date in 1948, Teller was born Raymond Joseph Teller in Philadelphia, Pa. (Teller changed his name legally to his stage moniker, “Teller,” and has a U.S. passport issued with a single name.) Teller graduated Amherst College in 1969 and taught English and Latin in New Jersey before leaving to work as a magician in 1974. Teller and fellow magician Penn Jillette have been collaborators since 1975, at first as two of three members of The Asparagus Valley Cultural Society.

    Since 1981, the two have performed exclusively as Penn & Teller. Teller is the “silent” half of the duo, performing stunts and magic tricks while Penn talks. He is so well known for his silence that video of him speaking is considered a novelty. According to an older version of Penn & Teller’s website, Teller began performing silently at fraternity parties because he found it was the best way to get party attendees to actually pay attention to his magic tricks.

    Since 2001, Penn & Teller have performed their magic act at the Rio in Las Vegas, although they do occasionally continue to tour. In addition, they have appeared in several television specials as well as having created, produced and starred in two television shows, “Penn & Teller: Bullshit!” which aired on Showtime from 2003 to 2010, and “Penn & Teller Tell A Lie,” which aired on the Discovery Channel beginning in 2011. They started another hit TV contest show for aspiring magicians titled “Fool Us” in 2011 which returned in 2015 and ran for several years.

    “Bullshit!” focused on challenging and debunking beliefs that are not questioned by those who hold them, including many religious views. “Penn & Teller Tell A Lie” focuses on portraying several true but astonishing facts as well as one urban legend. (The lies were revealed at the end of the episode.) In 2014 he and Aaron Posner adapted and co-directed a critically acclaimed and commercially successful production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” featuring songs by Tom Waits, at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. Iterations of the production followed in Chicago, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. They followed that up with a Shakespearean “Macbeth” adaptation in Chicago in 2018.

    Teller describes himself as a skeptic and atheist, and is a fellow of the libertarian Cato Institute. He has collaborated with Jillette and others to write books about magic and has written a biography of his father, “When I’m Dead, All This Will Be Yours!” Joe Teller: A Portrait by His Kid (2000). In 2003, Penn & Teller were the recipients of FFRF’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award.

    “It’s fair to say that the Bible contains equal amounts of fact, history, and pizza.” 

    “The Bible: Fact or Fiction?” Season 2, Episode 6 of “Penn & Teller: Bullshit!” May 26, 2004

    Compiled by Eleanor Wroblewski

    Penn Jillette

    Penn Jillette

    On this date in 1955, entertainer Penn Jillette was born in Greenfield, Mass. He embraced atheism as a teen and has been outspoken about it and his libertarian political views. After high school, he attended Ringling Brother’s Clown College for a year in 1973. In 1975 he first worked with silent magician Teller (his legal name) as part of an act called The Asparagus Valley Cultural Society before starting their longtime collaboration as Penn & Teller. They gained critical acclaim for their off-Broadway show in 1985 and have since had two Broadway runs, and toured the country extensively throughout the 1990s.

    Teller traditionally stays mute during their magic acts in Las Vegas. The duo started hosting a documentary on Showtime in 2003 called “Penn & Teller: Bullshit!” On the show, Teller continued to not talk while Penn provided commentary. The stated aim was to debunk myths and share the truth with the public, often through a combination of interviews, narration and other documentary techniques.

    Their topics often included religion and skepticism, for example, the episodes “Creationism” (2003), “The Bible: Fact or Fiction?” (2004) and “Holier Than Thou” (2005), which criticized Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama. Their recurring TV show “Fool Us” first aired in 2011. In their stage shows, they debunk supernaturalism and explain some of their magic tricks. They were presented with FFRF’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award in 2003 in Nevada for their “plain speaking” on the shortcomings of religion.

    During the 2006–07 season, Jillette hosted the prime-time game show “Identity” on NBC. In 2008 he was a contestant on “Dancing with the Stars” and was the first celebrity eliminated. He was a contestant in 2012 on “The Celebrity Apprentice” season 5 and was fired by Donald Trump during the Week 11 episode. Also in 2012, along with Michael Goudeau, he started the podcast “Penn’s Sunday School,” still airing as of this writing.

    Jillette has published eight books, including the best-selling God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales (2011) and Every Day is an Atheist Holiday!: More Magical Tales from the Author of God, No! (2012). After high blood pressure landed his 6-foot-6 frame in the hospital in 2014, he lost 105 pounds and in 2016 published Presto!: How I Made Over 100 Pounds Disappear and Other Magical Tales.

    He married film producer Emily Zolten in 2004. They have a daughter, Moxie CrimeFighter, born in 2005, and a son, Zolten Penn, born in 2006.

    “I have so much love in my life. So many people who love me and I love back makes the idea I need more from a God insane. I look at my children and I’m overwhelmed with this pure love that is not filtered through any sort of God.”

    —Jillette interview, Humanist Network News (Dec. 19, 2012)
    Compiled by Eleanor Wroblewski; photo by S_Bukley, Shutterstock.com

    Harry Houdini

    Harry Houdini

    On this date in 1874, Erik Weisz was born in Budapest, Hungary. His parents were Rabbi Mayer Weisz and Cecília Steiner. In 1878 the family emigrated to America and settled in Appleton, Wis., before relocating to New York City in 1887. He chose his stage name because he admired the French magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin. Houdini began his magic career in 1891, initially performing traditional magic tricks but later focusing almost exclusively on escape acts.

    In 1894 he married his wife Bess, a fellow performer. Houdini toured Europe beginning in 1900 and became well-known for an act where police would restrain him in handcuffs which he would then escape. He toured America with variations of this act and other escape routines, including escaping from a straitjacket and the famous Chinese Water Torture Cell, where Houdini would escape from a water-filled cell where he was hanging by his ankles. He served as the president of the Society of American Magicians from 1917 until his death.

    Although many magicians of the era claimed to have supernatural powers,  Houdini never did. In the 1920s he began to focus on debunking psychics and mediums, using his training in magic to expose techniques that created the illusion of their so-called “supernatural” powers. He was part of a Scientific American committee that offered a cash prize for successful proof of supernatural abilities, a prize that was never awarded.

    He made a pact with his wife, who was also his stage assistant that she was to make regular attempts to contact him after his death, including an annual séance on Halloween. If it was possible, he said he would convey to her a secret phrase they agreed upon to prove it was really him. He never made contact.

    After 10 years, Bess bestowed the responsibility for the ritual to trusted magician friend Walter Gibson. The tradition has been passed down to other magicians who have preserved it to this day, with no contact with Houdini ever reported. James Randi carried on Houdini’s challenge, offering $1 million dollars to anyone who could demonstrate supernatural ability.

    Houdini died in 1926 of peritonitis and appendicitis, aggravated by punches to the stomach. (Houdini famously was asked by J. Gordon Whitehead if he could sustain punches to the stomach; after Houdini’s affirmative response, Whitehead immediately punched the magician, who was not prepared for the blows.) He was buried in a Jewish cemetery in Queens, but his gravesite pays homage to his career in magic rather than his Jewish heritage; in fact, a bust of Houdini was placed at the grave in 1927, although a “graven image” was not allowed according to Jewish law. D. 1926.

    “I have made compacts with fourteen different persons that whichever of us died first would communicate with the other if it were possible, but I have never received a word.”

    —Houdini, "A Magician Among the Spirits" (1924)
    Compiled by Eleanor Wroblewski

    The Amazing James Randi

    The Amazing James Randi

    On this date in 1928, Randall James Hamilton Zwinge, known as the Amazing James Randi, was born in Toronto, Canada. Randi used his international reputation as a magician and escape artist to investigate and expose claims of the paranormal. He exposed both psychic “spoonbender” Uri Geller and “faith-healer” Peter Popoff on “The Tonight Show” hosted by Johnny Carson. His numerous awards and recognitions include a “Genius” Fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 1986. In 1993, PBS-TV’s “NOVA” dedicated a one-hour special to coverage of Randi’s work, particularly his investigations of Geller and various occult and healing claims being made by scientists in Russia.

    His books included: The Truth About Uri Geller, The Faith Healers, Flim-Flam! and An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural. Randi was a founding fellow of CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. He established the James Randi Educational Foundation in 1996. The foundation offered a $1 million standing prize to any eligible applicant who could demonstrate evidence of any paranormal, supernatural or occult power or event under test conditions agreed to by both parties. A version of the challenge, similar to one that freethinker Harry Houdini was part of in the early 20th century, was first issued in 1964. More than a thousand persons took up the challenge and all failed. The foundation ended the challenge in 2015.

    Randi retired at age 87. He had come out as gay at age 81 in 2010, announcing: “This declaration of mine was prompted just last week by seeing an excellent film — starring Sean Penn — that told the story of politician Harvey Milk. … I’m in excellent company: Barney Frank, Oscar WildeStephen Fry, Ellen DeGeneres, Rachel Maddow, are just a few of those who were in my thoughts as I pressed the key that placed this on Swift and before the whole world.” He died at age 92. (D. 2020)

    PHOTO: James Randi Educational Foundation under CC 2.0.

    “[T]here are two sorts of atheists. One sort claims that there is no deity; the other claims that there is no evidence that proves the existence of a deity. I belong to the latter group, because if I were to claim that no god exists, I would have to produce evidence to establish that claim, and I cannot.”

    —James Randi, newsletter at randi.org (Aug. 5, 2005)
    Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor and Bill Dunn

Freedom From Religion Foundation