Skip to content
Who's in the Video
Penn Jillette is a cultural phenomenon as a solo personality and as half of the world-famous Emmy Award-winning magic duo Penn & Teller. In the mid-'80s, Penn & Teller went[…]

“Damn similar to how it is now,” says Penn.

Question: Describe the first magic trick you ever performed.

Pennrn Jillette: I was interested when I was very young in card magic... rnbut I was interested in card magic, the kind that's like juggling. I rnmean, there are kind of a couple different—many, many but I'm breaking rnit down to two different styles of magic. There are people that are veryrn concerned with "How do you fool people, what are they thinking, how do rnyou get them to think something else?" Very important to Teller.

Thenrn there's the part of magic that has to do with manipulation and when I rnwas a child I cared very much about the manipulation stuff, which is thern juggling side of magic. I mean, I wanted to learn a perfect shuffle so rnyou could shuffle the cards 52 times and end up with the same order you rnstarted in. You know, that's what I was interested in. I was interested rnin manipulating the cards and holding things in my hands that looked rnhard. I was not very concerned with fooling people.

I was more rnconcerned with the flourishes and the technique which is why I didn't rnspend much time in magic but moved right onto juggling, which is very rnmuch inline with my heart. I mean, juggling is very, very rnstraightforward; very, very black and white; you're manipulating rnobjects, not people. And that's always appealed to me.

rn What is the future of magic?

Penn Jillette:  Magic rnhas so few people working in it that it moves very, very slowly. I wouldrn say that you don't get much, you know, you've got this huge burst of rnchange in magic with Houdini, who did not event but popularized the idearn of magician as a spokesman for skepticism. We've learned to lie to rnpeople now we'll teach you how there's no lying to you. That wasn't rnstarted with Houdini, but Houdini certainly made the most coin off of rnit.

Then you go on and you've got this... you've got Doug rnHenning bringing, you know, magicians with kind of a hippie sensibility,rn which doesn't mean much. You've got a bunch of other magicians doing rnthat kind of torturing women in front of mylar to, you know, bad Motown rnmusic, in front of a mylar curtain. You know, I mean, that kind of rnstuff. Then you have the biggest break through done in our lifetime was rnDavid Blaine's "Street Magic," where his idea was to do really simple rntricks but to concentrate... to turn the camera around on the people rnwatching instead of the people doing.

So to make the audience rnwatch the audience, which that first special "Street Magic," is the bestrn TV magic special ever done and really, really does break new ground. rnThen a lot of people jump in and start doing it and turn it in to pure rnsuck. I mean, that whole form is... sucks now. I mean, no one is doing rngood stuff but when David Blaine first did it, before he did all the rn"I'm really no kidding, honestly I'm not going to eat, swear to God I'm rnnot eating, no really I'm not eating, no it's not a trick I'm really notrn eating." I don't know what that is.

But that first street magic rnthing was just brilliant. I don't think the future of... I think the rnfuture of magic... you don't want to forget Siegfried and Roy who rninvented the idea of doing an animal act while doing a magic act and rninvented the idea of full Vegas show. I mean, all of those are big breakrn through but you don't get the kind of... you don't get the number of rnjust the raw number of people like you have in music. When you have the rnnumber of people you have in music you can have, you know, instantly rnHendrix and James Brown turn into Prince, you know, OK Go was able to rnpop up out of the lack of irony that comes in out of kind of punk but rnalso emo. You don't have hundreds and hundreds of thousands, millions ofrn people working in it. In magic you're talking about thousands of rnpeople. So being several orders of magnitude down you just don't get rnthat kind of evolution.
rnSo in 20 years I imagine magic will be damn similar to how it is now. rnAlso, magic doesn't tend to work in the cutting edge of technology. I rnmean, you've got that... I believe he's Japanese, forgive me if he's rnnot. That Japanese kid doing the stuff out of the iPad where he's rnpulling stuff out. And that's just film-to-life stuff.

That was rnstuff that was done a hundred years ago in France. There's no new rntechnology there. The screen is different but the ideas are not new and rnmost shows are shows certainly... but David Copperfield, Chris Angel, rnDavid Blaine, Lance Burton, none of us are using really what you call rncutting edge technology. And the problem... the reason you can't is thatrn people are more aware of what's possible with cutting edge technology rnthan they are with threads and a line.

Recorded on June 8, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman