Glenn Beck Is a Nut—But I Like Him

Magician and Entertainer
Penn says his tolerance for crazy people "is I think as high a tolerance as you're ever going to find."
  • Transcript


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.

Recorded on June 8, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman