Camera Tricks Are Not Magic

Question: Does magic have to be performed live?

Penn\r\n Jillette: There are performers who have built their whole career \r\ndoing magic on TV and can't really perform live at all—don't really have\r\n jobs and skills. And people watch those shows and seem to enjoy them. I\r\n don't think it's magic. I don't think it's valid and not because \r\nthey're doing camera tricks which they are, and not because they're \r\nusing plants, which they are. And not because they're using editing \r\ntricks, which they are. The problem is simply that what you've seen on \r\nthat screen, what you're competing with... I mean, once you've shown \r\n"Avatar" on video what does sleight of hand mean? It means nothing.

And\r\n you can't keep telling people, "We're not cheating. No honest, we \r\nreally mean this." What does that matter when your job is to lie? The \r\nmost amazing trick I could ever do for you is to be from one place to \r\nanother place instantly and that's done about three times a minute on \r\nevery TV show, even the news. So I don't think you can do that. Whereas \r\nin the theater Teller and I don't have to spend a moment saying: "We're \r\nnot using camera tricks." Because what we're doing there in that room is\r\n following the rules of physics and the rules of time that you've dealt \r\nwith since birth.

\r\nAnd that makes it bypass a certain kind of intellect that makes it \r\nfascinating to me. That's what I think, but there are many people that \r\nwatch Chris Angel and, go: "Ooh, that's a magic trick." It's not to me \r\nbut they are, "Ooh it is." So they're not wrong they just, you know, \r\nhave a different perception of what video does and I do. I mean, there \r\nare people that will watch things on Chris's show that to me are crystal\r\n clear how they're being done, and they seem to fool people. I mean, if \r\nyou want a very simple example: if you go out on the street with your \r\ncamera and you take a deck of cards and you let the person open the \r\ncards, shuffle them, clean deck, nothing, reach in, pick out a card, \r\npeek at it, put it down, and you say, "Is that the seven of diamonds?"

If\r\n you go out on the street in New York and do that for two hours \r\neventually you'll be right. You know, you don't have to do any other \r\ncheats other than editing, just pick the time it works. You know, show \r\nus the time it works and you've done magic and you don't have to design \r\nany of that. So to me that's really clear. Whenever I'm watching TV I \r\nhave a very real sense that I'm watching different tries of the same \r\nthing stuck together. And with that sense in my heart, with my sense in \r\nmy heart that when you're watching DeNiro do a take that he might have \r\ndone that 15 times. It's different for me than watching an actor in the \r\ntheater that i know is going directly into what he's doing now from what\r\n he did 10 minutes ago because we were both in the room in realtime. I \r\nthink it's an entirely different thing but most people don't.

Have you ever flubbed a trick in a live performance?

Penn Jillette: Well every night. I mean, I would say a \r\n100 percent of the time. It all depends on your definition of "flubbed."\r\n You're always wanting to be a little better. One of the great things...\r\n Michael Goudeau, who's the head writer on "Bullshit" and also a juggler\r\n in the Lance Burton show. Michael Goudeau said that variety arts were \r\nfor people who watched the movie "Groundhog Day" and thought it looked \r\nlike a good thing. It's wonderful to do things over and over again to be\r\n able to do them right. And you always strive to do them better.

We\r\n have had tricks not work. We've had embarrassment with that... not \r\noften. But the thing I'm most proud of in my career is that in 35 years \r\nof doing shows, not Teller, not me but as importantly, no one that works\r\n with us has ever been injured seriously. And by seriously I mean \r\nhospital overnight. You know, you're allowed to cut yourself, you can do\r\n that, you know, you can... within my morality you can even break a \r\nbone. We haven't had that happen but within my morality you can.

But\r\n people who get badly injured in show business that is... that's wrong. \r\nAnd the idea of doing stuff that's really dangerous is to me \r\ndistasteful. The idea of magic and performance is to celebrate life and \r\nhealth. And when you do a movie that is supposedly full of violence the \r\nrepresentation of violence and no one gets hurt, that's a celebration of\r\n everything beautiful. When you do a movie or a performance where \r\nsomeone really does get hurt it's in a certain... artistically, it's a \r\nviolation of humanity.

I don't know about this trend that David \r\nand Chris do where they do stuff that is supposed to convince people \r\nthey really hurt themselves, or that they're really suffering. That, to \r\nme, is not beautiful. I'm not interested in that. What interests me is \r\nthe fact that Teller and I do the bullet catch at the end of our show \r\nwhere we fire 357 Magnum into each other's faces and ostensibly catch \r\nthe bullet. And saying that... that's a trick and bragging that we've \r\nnever been hurt, and bragging that we can't be hurt isn't such a good \r\ntrick, to me is beautiful.

Recorded on June 8, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman

When the Penn watches televised magic, he has "a very real sense" that he's watching different takes stuck together.