Teller was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Irene B. (née Derrickson) and Israel Max (later Joseph) Teller (1913–2004). His father was of Russian Jewish descent, born in Brooklyn, New York and grew up in Philadelphia. His mother was from a farming family in Delaware; the two met as painters attending art school at Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial. His mother was Methodist, and Teller was raised as "a sort of half-assed Methodist". He graduated from Central High School in 1965. In 1969, Teller graduated from Amherst College with a Bachelor of Arts in Classics.
Although he and his partner, Penn Jillette, do not drink or use drugs, Teller did drink alcohol in his early 20s but stopped after that saying "It made me stupid and careless and I disliked that. It also ruined my sleep. I'm just scared of drugs. Messing with your brain seems really dangerous."
Teller taught English and Latin at Lawrence High School in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. In 2001, he was selected to be a member of the Central High School Hall of Fame.
Teller began performing with his friend Weir Chrisemer as The Othmar Schoeck Society for the Preservation of Weird and Disgusting Music. Teller met Penn Jillette in 1974, and they became a three-person act with Chrisemer called Asparagus Valley Cultural Society, which started at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival and subsequently played in San Francisco. In 1981, they began performing exclusively together as Penn & Teller, an act that continues to this day. On April 5, 2013, Penn and Teller were honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in the live performance category. Their star, the 2,494th awarded, is near the star dedicated to Harry Houdini. The following day they were recognized by the Magic Castle with the Magicians of the Year award.
Teller almost never speaks while performing. There are exceptions, such as when the audience is not aware of it; for example, he provided the voice of "Mofo the psychic gorilla" in their early Broadway show with the help of a radio microphone 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 paid more attention to his performance.
Other exceptions to his silent act include instances in which his face is covered or obscured, as when he spoke while covered with a plastic sheet in the series premiere of Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, and when he was interviewed while in shadow for the 2010 History Channel documentary, Houdini: Unlocking the Mystery, while Teller spoke at length in an NPR story on Houdini in 2010. He was also interviewed, with his mouth obscured in shadow, in the Nova ScienceNow episode "How Does the Brain Work?" Teller appears to say "Science!" in a falsetto voice in Penn and Teller's appearance on the television show Bill Nye the Science Guy, episode "Light Optics," but it was actually spoken by Penn, using a ventriloquist technique combined with the movement of Teller's mouth. Teller also spoke in his 1987 guest appearance in "Like a Hurricane," a fourth-season episode on NBC's Miami Vice and had speaking parts in the movies Penn & Teller Get Killed (he speaks in the final scene), Long Gone and The Aristocrats. He gave voice to an animated version of himself in two episodes of The Simpsons ("Hello Gutter, Hello Fadder" and "The Great Simpsina"), and voiced a series of cloned store clerks in "Zoey's Zoo," an episode of Oh Yeah! Cartoons, as well as the English version of the 1988 animated feature Light Years (original French title: Gandahar), where he was the voice of Octum. Teller speaks at length about magic performance and sleight-of-hand in the documentary "Penn & Teller's Magic and Mystery Tour". Teller has been shown screaming and swearing in the "Anger Management" episode of Penn & Teller: Bullshit!. Teller has a brief speaking part in Atlas Shrugged: Part II, where he advises Dagny Taggart (played by Samantha Mathis) to go out the side door of the Taggart Transcontinental offices.
Teller did break his silence in his portrayal of Mortimer in the 1995 film version of The Fantasticks, though almost all of his dialogue was edited out of the film's final version (his "Dying isn't easy" scene is included among deleted scenes on the DVD release). He appeared as a "cat" in the Dharma & Greg season 1 episode "The Cat's out of the Bag". He also appeared in an episode of Tosh.0 giving "advice" to a fellow magician. He stood staring at the gentleman for several seconds before uttering "Practice once in a fuckin' while" while walking away. Teller spoke at length during an interview on the Charlie Rose television program on January 27, 2014. During their performance in the series premiere of Penn & Teller: Fool Us, Penn is rambling on and Teller yells out his name, Teller can then be heard telling Penn to "shut up". Also, during their performance on the season 1 finale, he tells Penn that he is okay after breathing helium and while he is in a trash bag. In another episode, he says "Fuck, no!"
Teller's voice can be heard on season 13 of Celebrity Apprentice, "Episode 10: The Mayor of Stress Town", when speaking with contestant Penn Jillette over Penn's mobile device. He also spoke about Tim's Vermeer, the feature documentary he directed, on KCRW's The Treatment.
Teller collaborated with Jillette on three magic books, and 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 100 unpublished cartoons which were strongly influenced by George Lichty's Grin and Bear It. The book was favorably reviewed by Publishers Weekly. Teller's father's "wryly observed scenes of Philadelphia street life" were created in 1939. 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 World War II 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 is a co-author of the paper "Attention and Awareness in Stage magic: Turning Tricks into Research", published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience (November 2008).
In 2010, Teller wrote Play Dead, a "throwback to the spook shows of the 1930s and '40s" that ran September 12–24 in Las Vegas before opening Off Broadway in New York. The show stars sideshow performer and magician Todd Robbins.
In 2008, Teller and Aaron Posner co-directed a version of Macbeth which incorporated stage magic techniques in the scenes with the Three Witches. In 2014, Teller and Posner co-directed a version of The Tempest, which again made use of stage magic; in an interview Teller stated that "Shakespeare wrote one play that's about a magician, and it seemed like about time to realize that with all the capabilities of modern magic in the theater."
Teller directed a feature film documentary, Tim's Vermeer, which was released in 2014. He and Jillette served as executive producers, with distribution by Sony Pictures Classics.Jillette, Penn; Teller (1989). Penn and Teller's Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends. New York: Villard. ISBN 0-394-75351-8.
Jillette, Penn (1992). Penn and Teller's How to Play with Your Food. New York: Villard. ISBN 0-679-74311-1.
Jillette, Penn (1997). Penn and Teller's How to Play in Traffic. New York: Berkley Trade. ISBN 1-57297-293-9.
Teller; Teller, Joe (2000). "When I'm Dead All This Will Be Yours!": Joe Teller – A Portrait by His Kid. New York: Blast Books. ISBN 0-922233-22-5.
Teller; Karr, Todd; Abbott, David P. (2005). House of Mystery: The Magic Science of David P. Abbott. Marina del Rey, California: Miracle Factory. Retrieved April 4, 2013.