Penn says his tolerance for crazy people "is I think as high a tolerance as you're ever going to find."
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: You've appeared a few times on the Glenn Beck show.
What do you think of him?Penn Jillette:
He's a nut. I
mean, he's a deep, deep nut. On a one-on-one level I like him. My
tolerance for crazy people is I think high a tolerance as you're ever
going to find. I love being around David Allen Coe. I would have loved
to hang out with Tiny Tim. I can listen to Sun Ra on a tape-recording
rant. I have... it's not patience, it's love for people who are... live
outside the law. And Glenn Beck is that. I mean, I compare Glenn Beck
mostly to Abbie Hoffman, you know. When I was a child I would read
"Woodstock Nation" and "Steal This Book." And I didn't really agree with
very much of any of it because it was essentially socialist and
collectivist and didn't really ring true for me. But I loved the way he
did it. I loved the outrageous poetry of it and I loved that my
arguments with my dad about it where my dad thought he was a dangerous
nut. And I thought he was a fun nut.
And my arguments about Glenn
Beck are exactly the same as I used to have with my dad about Abbie
Hoffman. I'm so upset that someone else compared him to Abbie Hoffman
publicly before I did because I've been telling all my friends. Liberals
do misunderstand it. They... liberals think the medium is the message
and I believe is the message is the message and I had Tommy Smothers
tear me apart for going on Glenn Beck, and he was right. Tommy Smothers
was 100 percent right. He said that by going on I gave some credence and
support to some very bad ideas. I think it's exactly right.
Smothers is a hero of mine. I think he's completely right to bust me on
that and I think I'm also completely right to say, "But you should go
on shows that you don't agree and tell the truth as you see it." I think
that's also completely right. He said to me—did not say this to me on
air but he said to me off air—"If Hitler had a talk show you would go on
it." And I answered, "Yes and I'd try to tell the truth." And I think
that's - when I went on Glenn Beck I argue with him about gay rights. I
argue with him about Mormonism. I agree with Glenn Beck on a few things,
those aren't the things I talked about when I went on the show. I went
on in order to argue.
But it is misunderstood and I think that...
I mean, my appearance is misunderstood. That wasn't your question. Your
question was is he misunderstood. There's something I see done with
Howard Stern. I want on Howard Stern, I've done dozens and dozens, maybe
hundreds of hours with Howard Stern. I'm not a big Howard Stern
listener but if you listen to Howard Stern everyday, you develop a deep
context for who Howard Stern is, what's important to him, what's
important to Robin, what his morality is, what his relationships are,
what his heart is. And I'm not talking about listening for a week, I'm
talking about listening to Howard Stern for months.
And I'm not
talking about, you know, a dozen hours over a month. I'm talking about
hundreds of hours, you know. You get to know Howard Stern and when he
says something it's automatically in a very deep and very big context.
And when someone who hates Howard Stern—there are plenty of them—pull
something out of context, even if you get the context, even if they play
you 15 minutes before and after you're really missing the context. And I
think—and I don't listen to Glenn Beck very much, so I don't know—but I
think with someone like Glenn Beck if you listen everyday you
understand that the rage is also tempered by the outrageous things are
tempered with a certain kind of humanity and certain kinds of other
Now I disagree with him on a lot of things but I'm just
saying that there's a full person there and I think what we often forget
when we're reading media, you know, you pick up a paper and read "this
is what Obama said," that you forget that there is not the context of
the quote but the context of the public figure. And I think that with
Abbie Hoffman when you'd read something about revolution and the violent
overthrow of the United States government, unless you'd seen all the
pranks and the playfulness and the fun, and the sexiness, all kind of
rolled in you couldn't possibly understand. You're also not supposed to
because these are all grownups and Howard Stern knows he'll be taken out
of context. Abbie Hoffman knew that. Glenn Beck knew that. So they do
have a reasonability.
But for me once you listen to somebody a
lot on radio or on TV you develop a relationship with them that's not
entirely different from "I got this crackpot uncle and he said this
thing about how guns should be carried by deer so that they can defend
themselves." And you kind of laugh about it and everybody you're talking
to knows that crazy uncle and they know what he does at Christmas time.
You know, and they know that at Thanksgiving he was dancing in a hula
skirt and they know all this stuff. And they also know that when their
car broke down at three in the morning that was the uncle that showed
They know all those things. And I think that with public
figures they're not supposed to be given that much leeway but I still
do. I still read something Howard Stern said and even if it's directly
contrary to something I believe I never think, "Well Howard's evil." You
know, because I know he's not evil. I know he's a good guy and even
when Glenn Beck says stuff that's reprehensible I say, "I sat in a room
with Glenn. He's not trying to kill people. He's not hurting children.
He's just thinking and sometimes he's thinking half-assed." I do think
he's sometimes taken out of context but I think that's also part of his
job and it's okay.
Recorded on June 8, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman