Big Think Interview With Penn Jillette
Penn Jillette: Business partners, I mean, the most important thing about our partnership is it's not based on cuddly love and affection. I mean, over 35 years, I mean, by many definitions he has to be my best friend. I mean, he's the person I talk to when my mom and dad died. He was there when my, you know, right after my children were born. He's all of those things but we're much more like two guys who own a dry cleaning business, you know, many of your show business partnerships start in love.
I mean, Lennon and McCartney had a love affair pretty clearly. Martin and Lewis had a love affair, Jagger and Richards had a love affair. And when that goes south, when all of a sudden love fades away, it becomes a huge explosion. I mean, Lennon and McCartney hated each other. And with working with Teller there was no real attraction. We didn't want to spend all our time together. We spent all our time together but we weren't dying to do that. What we wanted to do was do a show together and we had much more respect than affection.
And I think there's a lot to be learned from how much stronger respect is than affection. For one, we understand respect and we don't understand affection. So it's a little easier to get your mind around and be able to manipulate. And so when Teller and I don't like each other, when we're not getting along, it doesn't change much of anything. You know, it's like when you work at the 7-11, you don't quite get along with the guy who's cleaning the Slurpee machine that day. You don't care that much, your life goes on.
So he's become my best friend but in a very circuitous route through respect and through work.
Question: What do you and Teller each contribute to the partnership?
Penn Jillette: I think if you were to picture what we do you'd probably be pretty right. I tend to have the responsibility for what I say. There are lines here and there that are Teller's—there are moments in the shape of the plot of things that are Teller's—but for the most part I'm in charge of what I say. And for the most part Teller is in charge of the magic. Now there are great lines in the show that came from Teller and there are slightly clever magic moments that come from me and we do work together on things.
But those are really the responsibilities. If you wanted to break it down in really traditional terms I think you would see Teller is kind of the director... kind of directs the show and I don't care very much about staging, lights, how things look. In my mind I'm always doing a radio show.
Question: 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.
Question: Does magic have to be performed live?
Penn 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.
And 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?"
If 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.
We 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.
But 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.
Question: How do you prepare before a show?
Penn Jillette: Same way Kennedy prepared for his debates: with a blow job and a cup of coffee. No. Teller and I have done so many shows, we were figuring the other day that - I think it's possible Teller and I certainly together, we've done more shows together on stage—more hours of shows on stage—than I believe anyone alive. I think if we keep going another 10 or 20 years, which we certainly hope to, it will be more than anyone ever has.
Individually we've spent a lot of time on stage, so because of that, you know, I went on stage the night my child was born, one of them. One of them was born when I had vacation. I went on stage the night my mom died. I went on stage the night my dad died. I went on stage the night my sister died. I've gone on stage when I've pulled IVs out of my arm, left the hospital, gone on stage, gone back, went back on morphine. I have done shows during horrible, emotional breakups. I've done shows when exhausted and after you've been through... however many shows you've done, 20,000, you know, tens of thousands of shows, maybe more than that, you no longer prepare.
We would be backstage off-Broadway—we shared a backstage area with he gentleman who were doing the Steppenwolf Show, you know, and wonderful, wonderful actors. I mean, fabulous actors. Tremendous. I mean, much better actors than us. I mean, we're not even actors. We shared the backstage area, and the great thing was that they would be there 45 minutes before the show meditating and going, you know, "Red, leather, yellow leather, red leather, yellow leather," and working with their whole instrument, you know, everything prepared. And Teller and I would be just finishing up tying our ties, while reading, and walk on stage directly in the middle of a conversation we'd be having about a movie we saw on TV last night. No preparation whatsoever and it's just because... well I like to think it's just because we had done so many more shows than they had. But you might also think it's because they're better than we are. I think either answer could be... you could make an argument for.
Question: How did you become an atheist?
Penn Jillette: In my church group in Greenfield, Massachusetts at the age of about 16 or 17, I had made a deal with my mom and dad—I was very, very close to my mom and dad. I'm a real momma's boy and got along with them my whole life, hardly even rough periods. And they went to the Congregationalist church: The Church of the Covered Dish Supper in Greenfield, Massachusetts. Massachusetts is an old enough state that you could not charter a town without having a Congregationalist church and this was the first one in out town. I mean, from back 200 years ago.
And I made a deal with my mom and dad that I wouldn't have to go to church services Sunday morning if I went to youth group Sunday night. So we had a pastor—that minister at that church—that was fairly hip, you know, he was trying to deal with the children, play a Jim Morrison song once in a while. Played the Beatles. Far out! And he sincerely wanted us to do some inquiry into theological questions and I took it very seriously. I may have been the only in the youth group that did take it seriously and I read the Bible cover-to-cover and I think that anyone who is thinking about maybe being an atheist... if you read the Bible or the Koran or the Torah cover-to-cover I believe you will emerge from that as an atheist. I mean, you can read "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins, you can read "God Is Not Great" by Hitchens... but the Bible itself, will turn you atheist faster than anything.
Question: Why would reading the Bible make you an atheist?
Penn Jillette: I think because what we get told about the Bible is a lot of picking and choosing, when you see, you know, Lot's daughter gang raped and beaten, and the Lord being okay with that; when you actually read about Abraham being willing to kill his son, when you actually read that; when you read the insanity of the talking snake; when you read the hostility towards homosexuals, towards women, the celebration of slavery; when you read in context, that "thou shalt not kill" means only in your own tribe—I mean, there's no hint that it means humanity in general; that there's no sense of a shared humanity, it's all tribal; when you see a God that is jealous and insecure; when you see that there's contradictions that show that it was clearly written hundreds of years after the supposed fact and full of contradictions. I think that anybody... you know, it's like reading The Constitution of the United States of America. It's been... it's in English. You know, you don't need someone to hold your hand. Just pick it up and read it. Just read what the First Amendment says and then read what the Bible says. Going back to the source material is always the best.
When someone is trying to interpret something for you, they always have an agenda. So I read the Bible and then I read Bertrand Russell and I read a lot of other stuff because in the Greenfield public library the 900's of the Dewey Decimal System... I mean, one of the few people that still remembers it, the 900's are theology. They're only about this long but that's all on camera. Only about this long, the one armed guy who caught a fish this big. They're only about this long and so I read a lot of them. I started going go to class and, to his credit, the pastor who was a wonderful man, wonderful man would let me talk to him about this stuff.
And finally after—I don't know, it's so long ago—but after months of this platonic questioning every night at youth group, the minister called my mom and dad and said, "You know, I think maybe Penn should stop coming to youth group, he's no longer learning about the Bible from me. He is not converting everyone in the class to atheism." So I was asked to leave—very politely, very nicely—youth group. And then with the help of Martin Mull, Randy Newman, Frank Zappa, the idea that these three men were out-of-the-closet atheists was so inspiring to me and so important to me. And reading interviews with somebody...
And I remember being somebody in a religious—and not a religious community like wack jobs, but, you know, in a community where most everyone was Christian—having those people in interviews say the simple sentence "There is no God" meant the world to me and gave me joy and gave me passion and gave me love and gave me confidence. And I think the first time I was interviewed, as presumptuous as this seems—and please forgive me—I remembered Frank Zappa's interviews. And I wanted to give a chance for someone else reading that to not feel they were alone. Now that's less important now. I mean, the population of atheists in this country is going through the roof. I mean, I'm now on the side that's winning.
It's over 20 percent by some polls and I believe if you counted atheism as a religion it's the fastest growing religion in the history of the United States of America. So now I'm on the team that's winning which is an uncomfortable position for me. But back, you know, 30 years ago, 40 years ago, it still felt like it meant something, you know, it's... we're several years behind gay rights but we're following a much faster path at acceptance.
Question: Is religion responsible for a lot of the world’s problems?
Penn Jillette: What you've said, "a lot," sure. If you want to go to "most" or "all," then no but there is certainly people... there's a great quote by the physicist... What's his name? Weinberg. Steve Weinberg. The quote of with or without religion good people do good things and bad people do bad things but for good people to do bad things that takes religion. I'm not sure that's word-for-word, almost certain it isn't, but it's important. I think it's not religion. It's much deeper than that. My beef is not with religion per se; my difference of opinion is with objective and subjective reality.
Einstein said the big question is when you turn away is the tree still there? And I talk to Richard Feynman about this and Murray Goodman, there's a feeling that in particle physics the "experimenter effect," a lot of that stuff is distorted. I believe very strongly that there is a physical reality that my perception does not change. Now you can make the argument that we're all just brains in jars, the Matrix, and all of this is an illusion and that is an airtight argument. You can't refute it but let's just say it's not that. I think there's a real reality out there and the people who say "I believe in God because I feel that there's some higher power in the universe"—the problem I have with that is that once you've said you believe something that you can't prove to someone else you have completely walled yourself off from the world.
And you've essentially said no one can talk to you and you can talk to no one. You've also given license to everybody else who feels that. If you say to me "I can't prove it Penn, but I have a feeling in my heart that there is a power over everything that connects us," why can't Charlie Manson say "I can't prove it but I can have a feeling that the Beatles are telling us to kill Sharon Tate and that the race riots are coming?" Why can't Al Qaeda say "I have a feeling in my heart that we need to kill these particular infidels?" Why can't the men who tortured and disfigured Ayaan Hirsi Ali—why isn't what they feel in their heart valid?
The problem is if you have a sense of fairness simply by saying you believe in a higher power because you believe in it, you've automatically given license to anyone else that wants to say that. So I would rather be busted on everything I say and I am, you know, when you've put yourself out on television and on radio as someone who really does believe in objective truth there is not a sentence that I will say in this interview that won't get three or four tweets of somebody with information busting me on it. And they're right, you know, very rarely am I busted on something where I'm right. If someone is taking the trouble to let me know I've said something wrong, chances are I'm wrong.
But that's the world I live in. I want to live in a world of a marketplace of ideas where everybody is busted on their bullshit all the time because I think that's the way we get to truth. That is also what respect is. What we call tolerance nowadays, maybe always—I'm always skeptical about the "nowadays" thing. I don't think things get that much different. What we call "tolerance" is often just condescending. It's often just saying, "Okay, you believe what you want to believe that's fine with me." I think true respect... it's one of the reasons I get along so much better with fundamentalist Christians than I do with liberal Christians because fundamentalist Christians I can look them in the eye and say, "You are wrong." They also know that I will always fight for their right to say that.
And I will celebrate their right to say that but I will look them in the eye and say, "You're wrong." And fundamentalists will look me in the eye and say, "You're wrong." And that to me is respect. The more liberal religious people who go "There are many paths to truth you just go on and maybe you'll find your way"... is the way you talk to a child. And I bristle at that, so I do very well with proselytizing hardcore fundamentalists and in a very deep level I respect them and at a very deep level i think I share a big part of their heart. I think in a certain sense I'm a preacher. My heart is there.
Question: Why is it important to mistrust the government?
Penn Jillette: I believe that our country, uniquely for the time, was founded on mistrust for the government, which is such a heady and beautiful idea. The idea that we have all the rights in the world. We have complete and utter freedom and we give up very specific freedoms in order to have a government that will protect the other freedoms.
Such a profound idea and so deep, and so wonderful. And I think that it was so weird to see all the people who said that dissent was part of their job during the Bush Administration turn around and say that we were all supposed to rally behind Obama. I mean, I disagreed with Bush and Obama tremendously... and on the exact same issues. And the only issue that really matters to me is wars and killing people overseas. I'm against them... and I was against them when Bush was doing it and now that Obama is doing it more I'm against it too. And I think that it's part of the joy and the wonder and the brilliance of the ideas of the United States of America that whoever is in power is questioned and beat up.
I was asked... and I'm going on the Joy Behar Show later today and you get questions ahead of time, unlike here. They lay stuff on you ahead of time. And it was Obama said he wants to figure out whose ass to kick and that before he was busted for being not emotional enough—too cold. And now he's being busted for being too straight. How can he win? And my answer is: he's not supposed to win. He's the President. They're supposed to be millions of people disagreeing with him on everything and busting him on everything.
That's the way the country is supposed to work, and that's not something to bemoan the fact that the government can't rally everybody to work together. That's to be celebrated. The government being is hamstring and as closed off and as clumsy as possible is exactly what we want. The last thing we want is a government that can get things done. A government that can get things done all they will get done is taking away freedoms. Its been shown over and over again. We want a clunky, sloppy, slow-moving, small, insignificant, weak government there all the time. And that's a government we can love and protect.
Question: What is the biggest misconception people have about libertarians?
Penn Jillette: Well it's the same misconception that everybody seems to have about everyone else and it's the same misconception libertarians have about liberals or conservatives have and that is we sometimes tend to forget that everybody is trying for the best. Everyone's goals are the same with very small differences. I mean, the goal of a socialist and the goal of a libertarian are exactly the same. The goals are happiness and security and freedom and you balance those.
But I think the biggest misconception that I find about libertarians is that there's a lack of compassion and I think that there is as much compassion on libertarians as there is among liberals. It's not what the problems are, it's how to solve them. Everybody wants clean, safe, energy. Some people think nuclear is the way to go. Some people think coal is the way to go. Some people think wind is the way to go. And there's always balances on that. Libertarians tend to put freedom as a goal in itself and also a way to attain other goals. Liberals tend to put security as a goal in itself and a way to obtain other goals.
I think the biggest misconception is that libertarians... I guess the cliche would be don't care about the crack babies. I just think you can deal with people in trouble using compassion. One of the things that bothers me about statism is that they take away my compassion. When you take money from me by force, run it through the government to help other people... I think there's less compassion than me being able to do something. What I say about libertarians verses liberals is I will gladly help you build a library; I will not use a gun to get someone else to join us in helping to build that library.
I want credit. I want credit for helping. I want to feel like I'm helping and giving money to the government does not seem like the best way to help and forcing other people to give money the government seems immoral to me. I think that if I want to cure cancer I should work on curing cancer. You can't force other people to give money to cure cancer then you're not really helping or you're helping in a way that I don't think is right. So the question on health care was not if you saw someone laying in the street who needed help would you run over and bandage them. The question is really if you saw someone suffering in the street would you run, get a policeman, have that policeman find a doctor, have that doctor forced by everybody around to take a vote and then come in and help.
But I think that it's forgotten that what everybody is trying to do is help the people that need it. Everybody is trying that and I will say that about every political group and I think that I would love to see people using the word "wrong" more and using the word "evil" less. Obama is a really good guy, a really smart guy, and every moment, every second of every day is spent trying to do what's best. I disagree with him. But there's no sense that he's evil and this is something I'll say that a lot of people will freak out at. I think the same was true for George W. Bush. I think every second he was trying as hard as he could to do what was best. I disagree with him very, very, very intently—but that's back to the fundamentalist atheist thing.
To be able to say "you're wrong, and here are the reasons," is respect. To say "you're evil" is antihuman because the people that I've met in my life who were truly bad and are truly evil is such a small number. I mean, if you take the six billion people on the planet and round off the numbers about six billion are good.
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.
Tommy 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 things.
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 up.
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.
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 Is 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.
Question: Explain your famous water tank trick.
Penn Jillette: We wrote the water tank for Saturday Night Live. We wanted to do something big, it was for the Madonna show, a kick off show the year we were on and we want to do something big. And we wanted to do something that... our favorite Penn and Teller stuff is the stuff that the big trick is ignored. When David Blaine does a water tank all he's talking about is, "I'm in the water. I'm going to drown. I might die." Our way of doing the water tank is "I'm going to do a card trick, the card trick is what matters, I have supremely skilled hands. I'll do the beautiful card trick and oh by the way Teller is holding his breath during it." That to me is much more interesting.
So we started with that and did it for the first time for "Saturday Night Live" and then it was the bit we did the most. We did it on just about every show. We did it on "Letterman." I mean, a bit that he did on "Saturday Night Live" and on "Letterman" and a lot of other shows and also we had our own show over in England called the "Unpleasant World of Penn and Teller." We brought John Cleese on as a guest and he played the audience member part in the water tank.
Question: What was the inspiration behind your “Looks Simple” trick?
Penn Jillette: Teller and I were fascinated by how stupid magic is, that magic is going through all these elaborate machinations to make something look one way that's really another. And it struck us as really funny to do a magic trick that accomplished reality.
And we went through many, many things. We were going to originally do it with cooking or something like that but after weeks of trying to write this bit we came up with the idea of how about taking out a cigarette, lighting it, putting a cigarette out, and then pulling out another cigarette and lighting it. How about if we did that trick exactly like that with all accomplished by trickery. Stuff you could do simply. And that seemed to have such a purely existential feel to us. Going through incredibly complicated machinations to get to a very simple end.
Question: As an atheist, how do you raise a family in a society that seems to condemn atheism?
Penn Jillette: Well with the kids it's really tough. Just the other day my daughter just turned five, you know, she was playing with her cousins and one of the cousins came to my wife and said, "Moxie said God is mean." Moxie.... that's my daughter did not say "God is mean." She said, "There is not God." One of the older children said, "Oh my God." And she said, "You shouldn't say that because there is no God." She's cobbled together "You shouldn't say that" from school with "There is no God" from us. And it's really hard. I think it's really tough because people understand atheism so poorly.
I mean, the number of people that say is atheism Satanism still is remarkable. I mean, atheism is as far from Satanism as you can get. Christianity is close to Satanism. At least they, some of them think they're Satan. Atheism couldn't be further away.
It's a little hard and I think that I am very sympathetic to people who are surrounded by Christian people - religious people, I'm sorry, surrounded by religious people, theists, and have to be a little more closeted. You know, I don't believe in... I mean, I believe the parallel to gay rights is exactly the same. I don't want to out anyone, you know, against their will. I don't even think it's immoral to be quiet about it. It's just not in my makeup to be quiet about it but my sympathy.
I just spent—I'm not going to go into it too much because it's very personal—but I just spent a wonderful dinner with there men who were Hasidic Jews, payos, the clothes, English was not their first language, although they were born in Brooklyn. Never read a book in English until they were 25 years old. And completely within this religious community—their wives, their children, the extended families. And they had become atheists, and were talking to me about how they were losing their whole community and their whole families. And I think they expected me to say, I think maybe they even wanted me to say, "Well suck it up there's no God, do what's right." And that was as far from my feelings as possible.
I said, "Oh man, you love your children. You love your family, you've got to keep loving 'em. And you got to make a lot of concessions for 'em. And I'm just glad I'm not going through it." And I think that's my answer to someone who says they're having a hard time. "I'm glad I'm not going through it." You know, my mom was an atheist at the end of her life. My dad died a Christian and I loved him with every part of my heart and I would never have let religion get in the way. Fortunately he felt the same way.
Recorded on June 8, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman
A conversation with the magician.
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