Penn Jillette
Author, "Every Day is an Athiest Holiday"

Camera Tricks Are Not Magic

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When the Penn watches televised magic, he has "a very real sense" that he's watching different takes stuck together.

Penn Jillette

Penn Jillette is an American magician, comedian, and author, and is half of "Penn and Teller." Jillette began his career as a juggler, graduating from Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, and in 1981 he teamed up with his friend Teller for a famous off-Broadway show. Since 2003, Penn and Teller have hosted the popular television show "Penn & Teller: Bullshit!" in which they debunk popular misconceptions or pseudo-scientific beliefs. Jillette is an outspoken advocate of atheism and libertarianism, and is the author of the novel "Sock."

Question: Does magic have to be performed live?

Penn Jillette: There are performers who have built their whole career doing magic on TV and can't really perform live at all—don't really have jobs and skills. And people watch those shows and seem to enjoy them. I don't think it's magic. I don't think it's valid and not because they're doing camera tricks which they are, and not because they're using plants, which they are. And not because they're using editing tricks, which they are. The problem is simply that what you've seen on that screen, what you're competing with... I mean, once you've shown "Avatar" on video what does sleight of hand mean? It means nothing.

And you can't keep telling people, "We're not cheating. No honest, we really mean this." What does that matter when your job is to lie? The most amazing trick I could ever do for you is to be from one place to another place instantly and that's done about three times a minute on every TV show, even the news. So I don't think you can do that. Whereas in the theater Teller and I don't have to spend a moment saying: "We're not using camera tricks." Because what we're doing there in that room is following the rules of physics and the rules of time that you've dealt with since birth.

And that makes it bypass a certain kind of intellect that makes it fascinating to me. That's what I think, but there are many people that watch Chris Angel and, go: "Ooh, that's a magic trick." It's not to me but they are, "Ooh it is." So they're not wrong they just, you know, have a different perception of what video does and I do. I mean, there are people that will watch things on Chris's show that to me are crystal clear how they're being done, and they seem to fool people. I mean, if you want a very simple example: if you go out on the street with your camera and you take a deck of cards and you let the person open the cards, shuffle them, clean deck, nothing, reach in, pick out a card, peek at it, put it down, and you say, "Is that the seven of diamonds?"

If you go out on the street in New York and do that for two hours eventually you'll be right. You know, you don't have to do any other cheats other than editing, just pick the time it works. You know, show us the time it works and you've done magic and you don't have to design any of that. So to me that's really clear. Whenever I'm watching TV I have a very real sense that I'm watching different tries of the same thing stuck together. And with that sense in my heart, with my sense in my heart that when you're watching DeNiro do a take that he might have done that 15 times. It's different for me than watching an actor in the theater that i know is going directly into what he's doing now from what he did 10 minutes ago because we were both in the room in realtime. I think it's an entirely different thing but most people don't.

Have you ever flubbed a trick in a live performance?

Penn Jillette: Well every night. I mean, I would say a 100 percent of the time. It all depends on your definition of "flubbed." You're always wanting to be a little better. One of the great things... Michael Goudeau, who's the head writer on "Bullshit" and also a juggler in the Lance Burton show. Michael Goudeau said that variety arts were for people who watched the movie "Groundhog Day" and thought it looked like a good thing. It's wonderful to do things over and over again to be able to do them right. And you always strive to do them better.

We have had tricks not work. We've had embarrassment with that... not often. But the thing I'm most proud of in my career is that in 35 years of doing shows, not Teller, not me but as importantly, no one that works with us has ever been injured seriously. And by seriously I mean hospital overnight. You know, you're allowed to cut yourself, you can do that, you know, you can... within my morality you can even break a bone. We haven't had that happen but within my morality you can.

But people who get badly injured in show business that is... that's wrong. And the idea of doing stuff that's really dangerous is to me distasteful. The idea of magic and performance is to celebrate life and health. And when you do a movie that is supposedly full of violence the representation of violence and no one gets hurt, that's a celebration of everything beautiful. When you do a movie or a performance where someone really does get hurt it's in a certain... artistically, it's a violation of humanity.

I don't know about this trend that David and Chris do where they do stuff that is supposed to convince people they really hurt themselves, or that they're really suffering. That, to me, is not beautiful. I'm not interested in that. What interests me is the fact that Teller and I do the bullet catch at the end of our show where we fire 357 Magnum into each other's faces and ostensibly catch the bullet. And saying that... that's a trick and bragging that we've never been hurt, and bragging that we can't be hurt isn't such a good trick, to me is beautiful.

Recorded on June 8, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman