Penn Jillette Talks Magic, God, and Government

Penn and Teller are not like other famous duos, says Penn Jillette, the larger and more talkative of the two magicians. Lennon and McCartney, Martin and Lewis, Jagger and Richards—these relationships were rooted in love and affection, and "when all of a sudden love fades away it becomes a huge explosion." Penn says his relationship with Teller is "much more like two guys who own a dry cleaning business." After 35 years of performing magic together (and, Penn claims, more hours on stage together than "anyone alive"), they have grown to be best friends, "but in a very circuitous route through respect and through work." 

In his recent Big Think interview, Jillette revealed much about his long partnership with Teller and about how he first became interested in magic. As a young man, Jillette was "not very concerned with fooling people." Instead he was drawn to juggling, which dealt with flourishes and techniques: "You are manipulating objects, not people, and that's always appealed to me," he told us. For the same reason, Jillette is not that interested in televised magic. "Whenever I'm watching TV I have a very real sense that I'm watching different tries of the same thing stuck together," he said. Watching live performances, whether theater or magic, is an "entirely different thing."

Jillette also spoke about how he became an atheist at a young age, despite his Christian upbringing. The Bible, he says, is what convinced him that there was no God: "If you read the Bible or the Koran or the Torah cover-to-cover, I believe you will emerge from that as an atheist." When people excerpt passages from scripture, they skip over things like the "hostility towards homosexuals, towards women, the celebration of slavery." Ultimately, Jillette says he sees "no sense of shared humanity" in the Bible.

But as a libertarian, Jillette advocates for everyone's voice to be heard, no matter if he disagrees. He believes the world should be a "marketplace of ideas where everybody is busted on their bullshit all the time because ... that's the way we get to truth." In fact, he thinks that respect is for two people to look each other in the eyes and say "You're wrong," which is why he prefers fundamentalists to liberal Christians. One such person is Glenn Beck, whom Jillette enjoys despite the fact that he is "a nut—I mean, a deep, deep nut." But when it comes to the government, Jillette shares some of Beck's deep-seated mistrust. "The last thing we want is a government that can get things done, " he said. 

Finally, Jillette walked us through two of his most famous tricks, giving commentary and background.  The first features Jillette doing a card trick in the foreground while Teller just so happens to be trapped in a water tank in the background. This, Jillette thought, was "much more interesting" than the sort of water tricks that David Blaine does. The second trick is called "Looks Simple," but it really isn't. Teller appears to light a cigarette, stamp it out, and then light another—but in reality there are many sleights of hand going on unbeknownst to the audience. Jillette says, "it struck us as really funny to do a magic trick that accomplished reality."
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