Question: Does magic have to be performed live?
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.
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?"
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.
Question: 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.
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.
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