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 live in Sin City, yet you don’t gamble and you’ve never used drugs or alcohol. Why not?
Penn Jillette: Oh I don't know. It's a complicated question but I will separate those. When I say I haven't used recreational drugs, I mean, not a puff of marijuana. Now of course I've been on morphine in the hospital for intense pain but not recreational. When I say I haven't drank alcohol, I've never had one sip of wine. I've never had one sip of beer but, you know, vanilla, in your cake, has come alcohol content. There are foods that have alcohol in it and it doesn't all boil off but I've never had recreational alcohol. I have gambled. When I first got to Vegas, I did want to play every single game for $20 so I spent about $200, played a lot of different games and about broke even.
And I will occasionally, because my wife loves it, play poker—and I'm friends with all the Full Tilt guys. I'm not a good player and I don't enjoy it very much. Any game where the winner goes the longest seems to be a bad game. I want games where the winner goes the shortest so you can get on to other stuff. The reason I don't, I give a lot of different reasons, you can look up... I give a different reason almost every time I'm asked because I don't know is the only honest answer.
My mom and dad we teetotalers, my grandparents were teetotalers. There was never any discussion of alcohol or drugs. It never was... my mom and dad never had a serious talk. They never sat down and said, "You know, don't drink alcohol." I was never told not to. It was just understood that as a Jillette we didn't. I mean, it's just... it was so funny, there wasn't even a bottle of wine in the house. On New Year's Eve we watched TV and ate ice cream. We ate all the ice cream we wanted. We had butter pecan ice cream and it wasn't we're doing this instead of champagne. It was just... "everybody eats ice cream on New Year'ss Eve."
I didn't know about it. So the first people I learned about drugs and alcohol from were 14-year-olds getting drunk and getting high. And also I graduated from high school in 1973, which is the height of drug use in rural America. So I was seeing acid at 14 or 15—people eating LSD. And that's not the prettiest way to see it. I also... I looked up tremendously to Lenny Bruce, read all of his books, memorized big chucks of his routine. And in a simplistic view of the world, when I was young I kind of vilified drugs for killing Lenny. If Lenny Bruce hadn't died of drug overdoses I could have seen him live. I would have seen him live. I might have met him.
That upset me and then Hendrix. That upset me. Because I think most people if they were alive today wouldn't be doing great stuff. Bob Dylan is still doing great stuff. I think Hendrix would have been doing great stuff now, and I blame drugs for that. That's another answer. The other answer is I've always wanted to be smarter than I was. I've never been that smart and I've always wanted to much, much, much, much smarter and the people that I saw doing drugs and alcohol were getting stupider and I hated that.
Now, Christopher Hitchens is shitfaced a lot of the time and is a zillion times smarter than me. So as I've gotten older I've met people a zillion times smarter than me that are drunk and on drugs. But I'm afraid the die has been cast, you know. I'm afraid we're dealing with emotional decisions that I've made when I was 14 and 15 and I tried very hard to change my mind emotionally when given the different data... sorry, intellectually given different data. But I think that a lot of changing yourself emotionally is a harder thing or at least something I have less of a handle on. I've never been very good at changing my personality and my personality seems to include no alcohol and no drugs.
It's also something, you know, when I first was hitchhiking around and street shows, you know, I'd meet really tough guys, you know, bikers: tough, tough guys. And one of the ways I stood out was "This is my fucked-up friend Penn man, he's never had a drink of alcohol in his life and he doesn't believe in anything man. He's an atheist and he doesn't drink or do drugs. How crazy is that?" And that was a nice way for me to walk into a room. It gave me some parameters that said, "Okay this is the way he's a nut." And it was better for me than, you know, pissing on people or throwing up or some of the other techniques that people use to be noticed. It was a better technique for me than Johnny Rotten's would be.
Recorded on June 8, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman
When you can’t have something, when it’s not going to work out for you, find a way to not want it.