TranscriptQuestion: Describe the first magic trick you ever performed.
Penn Jillette: I was interested when I was very young in card magic... but I was interested in card magic, the kind that's like juggling. I mean, there are kind of a couple different—many, many but I'm breaking it down to two different styles of magic. There are people that are very concerned with "How do you fool people, what are they thinking, how do you get them to think something else?" Very important to Teller.
Then there's the part of magic that has to do with manipulation and when I was a child I cared very much about the manipulation stuff, which is the juggling side of magic. I mean, I wanted to learn a perfect shuffle so you could shuffle the cards 52 times and end up with the same order you started in. You know, that's what I was interested in. I was interested in manipulating the cards and holding things in my hands that looked hard. I was not very concerned with fooling people.
I was more concerned with the flourishes and the technique which is why I didn't spend much time in magic but moved right onto juggling, which is very much inline with my heart. I mean, juggling is very, very straightforward; very, very black and white; you're manipulating objects, not people. And that's always appealed to me.
Question: What is the future of magic?
Penn Jillette: Magic has so few people working in it that it moves very, very slowly. I would say that you don't get much, you know, you've got this huge burst of change in magic with Houdini, who did not event but popularized the idea of magician as a spokesman for skepticism. We've learned to lie to people now we'll teach you how there's no lying to you. That wasn't started with Houdini, but Houdini certainly made the most coin off of it.
Then you go on and you've got this... you've got Doug Henning bringing, you know, magicians with kind of a hippie sensibility, which doesn't mean much. You've got a bunch of other magicians doing that kind of torturing women in front of mylar to, you know, bad Motown music, in front of a mylar curtain. You know, I mean, that kind of stuff. Then you have the biggest break through done in our lifetime was David Blaine's "Street Magic," where his idea was to do really simple tricks but to concentrate... to turn the camera around on the people watching instead of the people doing.
So to make the audience watch the audience, which that first special "Street Magic," is the best TV magic special ever done and really, really does break new ground. Then a lot of people jump in and start doing it and turn it in to pure suck. I mean, that whole form is... sucks now. I mean, no one is doing good stuff but when David Blaine first did it, before he did all the "I'm really no kidding, honestly I'm not going to eat, swear to God I'm not eating, no really I'm not eating, no it's not a trick I'm really not eating." I don't know what that is.
But that first street magic thing was just brilliant. I don't think the future of... I think the future of magic... you don't want to forget Siegfried and Roy who invented the idea of doing an animal act while doing a magic act and invented the idea of full Vegas show. I mean, all of those are big break through but you don't get the kind of... you don't get the number of just the raw number of people like you have in music. When you have the number of people you have in music you can have, you know, instantly Hendrix and James Brown turn into Prince, you know, OK Go was able to pop up out of the lack of irony that comes in out of kind of punk but also emo. You don't have hundreds and hundreds of thousands, millions of people working in it. In magic you're talking about thousands of people. So being several orders of magnitude down you just don't get that kind of evolution.
So in 20 years I imagine magic will be damn similar to how it is now. Also, magic doesn't tend to work in the cutting edge of technology. I mean, you've got that... I believe he's Japanese, forgive me if he's not. That Japanese kid doing the stuff out of the iPad where he's pulling stuff out. And that's just film-to-life stuff.
That was stuff that was done a hundred years ago in France. There's no new technology there. The screen is different but the ideas are not new and most shows are shows certainly... but David Copperfield, Chris Angel, David Blaine, Lance Burton, none of us are using really what you call cutting edge technology. And the problem... the reason you can't is that people are more aware of what's possible with cutting edge technology than they are with threads and a line.
Recorded on June 8, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman