in conversation

In Conversation: Penn Jillette

Talking magic, truth, and Trump’s alleged Apprentice Tapes.

Photo: Bobby Doherty

The long and successful career of Penn Jillette, the bigger half (physically and personality-wise) of the magic duo Penn & Teller, itself constitutes a kind of trick. He’s a magician who’ll loudly disdain magic, a comedian who doesn’t do straight comedy, and a provocative public intellectual — often advocating on behalf of atheism and libertarianism — who makes the bulk of his living performing for tourists in Las Vegas. (And on TV, too: The fifth season of Penn & Teller: Fool Us is currently airing on the CW.) “I don’t know if magic has changed much since I’ve been doing this,” says Jillette, 63, sitting in his dressing room before a show at the Rio Hotel’s Penn & Teller theater in Vegas. “But, well, and I don’t know how honest I should be here, I’ve changed a lot.”

You once said that magic in this country is “controlled by retards.” What were you talking about? And do you still think that?
My only defense for using that word [“retards”] is that I’m from Western Massachusetts — Annie Baker and I understand how that word is used there. But when Teller and I were starting out in New York the image of magic was different than it is now. Magic was a greasy guy in a tux with a lot of birds who tortured women while fake Motown music played. And when we were getting into performing in New York, if we said “magic show” to one press person or in one ad, then nobody we actually wanted to see the show would come. Instead it would be divorced fathers dropping off their children. And that was a hard decision, because we could’ve said “magic show” and sold X number of tickets. But we wouldn’t say that. And we had this huge lie that worked for us, which was the New York Times saying something to the effect of, “They’re not doing a magic show. What are they doing?” Well, the answer is, we were doing a magic show.

But you wanted to be framed differently?
Yeah. My inspiration for that was Bob Dylan saying he wasn’t a protest singer for the whole time he was a protest singer. People within a genre try hard to fight their way out of it. So what I was doing back then with all my attacks on David Copperfield, Doug Henning, and the Magic Castle was trying to say, “If you wouldn’t be caught dead at a magic show, please come and see ours.”

And it worked.
It did. We would also do this deeply unfair thing: We would find a paragraph written by a magician in a newsletter that went out to 800 people — the paragraph where he said, “Penn and Teller are the worst things to happen to magic in the 20th century.” This was a guy writing for his friends, and then we would give that to David Letterman, and Letterman would use that in our introduction as though we were David fighting Goliath. We went out on TV in front of 8 million people and acted aggrieved because of a newsletter that went out to 800 people. So all of that, including the quote you mentioned, is an explanation of our marketing plan at the time. Now, Teller might think differently about all this.

In what way?
Teller got into magic at 5 years old. Everybody that I know in magic got in before they were 10 and they have a huge affection for that scene of older men — it was always men — with cigars talking in the basement of a library about magic. I hated that. I didn’t get into magic in any real way until I was 19 and met Teller. My whole life up that point was about dirty rock bands. And most of my friends in high school were girls. So the idea of a boys’ club that excluded them — which is what magic was — made me furious. Even now it fills me with rage that people ask if my son is into magic and don’t ask if my daughter is.

Has the popular image of magic changed in any profound way since you started?
It’s hard to say because, look, you can name about 10,000 musicians off the top of your head. And you, a guy who has been researching magic and wasting your fucking time preparing for this interview, can probably only name about 15 magicians.

More like five.
We’re counting Houdini, Thurston, and Blackstone. You can get to 15. But consequently any “trend” you see is completely wrong because you’re working with very small numbers.

But I’m asking you.
[Laughs.] That’s true. So the biggest trend I’m seeing in magic is what we saw in comedy 15 years ago, which is that the boys’ club is crumbling. Three years ago, it was maybe one girl every two years who would come up after a show and say she was interested in magic. Now it’s about three girls a week — 12-year-old girls with a deck of cards in their hands saying, “I’m going to be on Fool Us.” I will now violate a nondisclosure agreement.

Only if you want to.
I know you’ll use it properly and if you don’t, I don’t give a fuck anyway. This year on Fool Us we had six women magicians working solo. And out of those six, five fooled us. Now the average rate we have for being fooled is 12 percent. But solo women fool us almost 100 percent of the time. The reason for the difference is that there is a way of thinking about magic that doesn’t have anything to do with the boys’ club. And as much as I’ve railed against that boys’ club, I’m 63 years old and every book I’ve read, every magician I’ve seen, is based on the boys’-club way of thinking about magic. Women who were excluded from that club have rhythms and styles and nuance to the way they do magic that I don’t understand. And that’s great! I’ve been wanting to see that for 50 years.

What does it say about magic that the two most famous magicians in the country are David Blaine and David Copperfield?
First of all, magic is hard and David Blaine and David Copperfield are good at what they do. But magic is also a strong intellectual thing that people don’t see as intellectual, and it’s weird that David Copperfield never addresses that. In his act he goes into “let’s talk about dreams; let’s talk about fantasies” as if he had magical powers. David Blaine does the exact opposite. He wants to present everything as though it were real and not a trick. That’s strange to me morally. I don’t agree with wanting people to leave your show believing something that’s not true. But the fact that David Blaine and David Copperfield are both called the same thing — a magician — when they’re doing the opposite work is something you don’t see in other art forms. That’s the funny thing their success says about magic: Copperfield is going this is totally a fantasy and David Blaine is going this is totally real and yet they have the same job.

Where does Penn & Teller fall between them?
Right in the middle: “Oh, hey, guess what? This looks real, but it’s not. Isn’t that nutty!”

I want to talk about a trick in your Vegas show. When you introduce Teller’s routine with the ball and the hoop you say, I’m paraphrasing, “Here’s a trick Teller does with string.” You’re explaining how the illusion is done. But even though you do that, it’s clear that the audience is still emotionally invested in …
It’s a trick I don’t like.

Why not?
I think it’s a fabulous trick. The audience loves it. It’s really good. And I don’t like it. I don’t like it because it could be in another magic show. You put that in Copperfield’s show, it’s great. But the introduction with the thread and then cutting the thread at the end helps it work for me. That said, it’s not right in the pocket for me. And everything else in our career: right in the pocket for me.

But why is the audience willing to get emotionally engaged even after you’ve explicitly said the trick is done with thread?
It’s because there’s a secret that I would like to take credit for uncovering: The audience is smart. That’s all. Our goal when we started was “Let’s do a magic show for people smarter than us.” No other magicians have ever said that sentence. I hated the whole idea that some smarmy motherfucker who couldn’t get laid was out there saying, “I can do this; you can’t.” So when Teller and I first got together I said, “I want to do a magic show that’s honest and has complete respect for the audience.” And when you start being honest with the audience, they start to play a game within themselves. Here’s an example that kills me: People who have just talked to Teller will come over to me after the show and say, “I think it’s great that Teller never says anything.” Internalizing a counterfactual is just something people can do.

Is our ability to internalize counterfactuals a problem for society?
Well, that’s interesting. One of the most important things society needs is agreement on how we determine truth. It does seem that there are people who disagree not on the facts — we don’t care about that — but on how you ascertain whether something is true. But I’m also a little skeptical about how much that gets underlined for entertainment.

What do you mean?
We know a guy walked into that pizza place with a gun because of Pizzagate. We know he believed in that. We also know that hundreds of thousands of people knew about the Pizzagate conspiracy idea. But those are two very different facts. We don’t know how many of the people who knew about Pizzagate shrugged it off. All we know is that one guy took it seriously. Probably more than one guy did, but it’s very hard to get real data on that. It’s like how I have all these friends who have a clear vision of who a Trump supporter is — with no evidence that the person they’re imagining actually exists.

So what you’re saying is that you’re skeptical that there’s been a shift, which is often attributed to Trumpism, in those people’s willingness to believe things at odds with facts?
But when you say “those people” you’ve made a huge error because there are no “those people.” They don’t exist. You hear stuff like, “Trump supporters are homophobic. Trump supporters are misogynist.” This is a mistake that was made by Democrats. They would accuse Trump supporters of being things that Trump supporters knew they weren’t. There are Trump supporters that have best friends who have gay sex. They do. You can’t put a “they”-type thing on that. For 50 million years our biggest problems were too few calories, too little information. For about 50 years our biggest problem has been too many calories, too much information. We have to adjust, and I believe we will really fast. I also believe it will be wicked ugly while we’re adjusting.

How will that ugliness manifest itself?
Donald Trump.

You’ve talked in the past about how the antidote to bad ideas is more ideas. But doesn’t the way things are shaking out online suggest that actually what we need are better ideas and not just more of them?
I believe in the marketplace of ideas but you’re right, we now have algorithms that push people crazy. YouTube is set up to push you crazy. If I search for vegan recipes, I’ll end up with 9/11 truthers. But it’s like the first time people saw movies, and the train on the screen was coming toward them …

And everyone jumped out of the way.
That’s right. They were screaming and yelling, but then it only took a millisecond for people to realize what was going on from that point forward. So even with all this bad stuff happening, yes, I still think people are overwhelmingly good, ideas are overwhelmingly good, and if you have Nazis being able to reach 10 million people, those same 10 million people will also be reached by Martin Luther King.

Why do you think that? Isn’t the marketplace of ideas as it now exists online intentionally designed to send people further down a given rabbit hole rather than towards contrary ideas?
Yes, algorithms are weighted in favor of that, but that’s not the problem. If you’re worried about craziness in the next ten years, I don’t have any hope for you. Fifty years? No problem. It’s like when we first saw advertisements: they worked entirely. But now I can show you a TV ad and you don’t even reach for the phone. The words didn’t change, but you learned to tell that it was bullshit. We’re going to see that happening with the internet. People will learn to separate the good from the bad. But that whole idea that everybody else is going crazy on the internet sickens me. I can tell when something is garbage. You can tell. Who are all these mysterious people that can’t?

So you think liberals who talk about Trumpism’s effect on a declining discourse are being hysterical?
I do. But I’m not sure I want to talk about you as being part of one team and me as being part of another. I was being interviewed the other day and a guy said to me, “You speak for atheists and libertarians.” And I said, “I do, but if I were starting out now I wouldn’t.” There was this sentence said to me — at the time I heard it, I ridiculed it and now it seems like the most profound thing ever said. You know Siegfried & Roy?

Of course.
I was having lunch with Siegfried and he was telling this story about dating a woman. I guess he saw a quizzical look on my face and he said in his German accent with his coiffed hair, “I am not gay. I am not straight. I am Siegfried.” I think that’s the only real truth I’ve ever heard. I don’t want to be atheist, libertarian, gay, straight. I don’t even want to be a man anymore. The only team I want us to be talking about is all 7 billion of us human beings.

I want to get back to showbiz-related stuff but, like you said, you’re a well-known libertarian. I can’t figure out how to think about libertarianism in a way that feels morally comfortable, to me anyway, but you’ve obviously thought about the subject a lot more than I have. So I’m curious: What do you see as the weakness of libertarianism?
It’s really weak in that libertarianism appeals to optimists and people who crave clarity — two flaws that I have to the nth degree. But to me the bigger flaw of libertarianism is that I come to it as a peacemaker: I want to minimize force against other people as much as possible. So the argument you give me for libertarianism is that the only thing the state should be able to use violence for is what I would use violence for: to stop rape, to stop murder. But can the state use violence to build a library? That’s the question, because we can do things more efficiently in groups by applying a tiny bit of force. So the flaw in libertarianism is that maybe a small amount of coercion might be worth it. The other problem with libertarianism: it may not be modern enough. Libertarianism has to do with everyone being able to find meaningful work. Doug — the comic. What’s his name?

Doug Stanhope.
Yeah, Doug Stanhope said isn’t our goal 100 percent unemployment? Isn’t that a good thing? But if there aren’t meaningful jobs, is there any reason for libertarianism? I have been very seduced lately by the basic universal human income. But would we be able to find work that would fulfill us if we were on a basic universal income? Really, though, my libertarianism has come down to trying to get into the thought process on any question of Is there a way to solve this with more freedom instead of less? Sometimes the answer’s no. But I think libertarianism is a good thing to have in the conversation. If you told me right now that the United States is going to go to a fully libertarian government I think I’d be against it. But do I want that idea to be discussed? Yes.

Does Mark Burnett have tapes of President Trump saying damaging things during Celebrity Apprentice?
Yeah, I was in the room.

You’ve heard him say …
Oh, yeah.

Can you tell me what you’ve heard him say?
No. If Donald Trump had not become president, I would tell you all the stories. But the stakes are now high and I am an unreliable narrator. What I do, as much as anything, is I’m a storyteller. And storytellers are liars. So I can emotionally tell you things that happened racially, sexually, and that showed stupidity and lack of compassion when I was in the room with Donald Trump and I guarantee you that I will get details wrong. I would not feel comfortable talking about what I felt I saw in that room — because when I was on that show I was sleeping four to five hours a night. I was uncomfortable. “Stress” is the wrong word, but I was not at my best. Then at the end of a day, they put you in a room and they bring out a guy [Trump] who has no power whatsoever and he’s capricious and petty and …

You’ve got to pretend to care what he thinks.
Yeah! It’s your job. You sit at this table and this man rambles — pontificates is giving him too much credit. And because you live in the modern world you’ve heard Trump ramble. But you’ve heard Trump ramble when he thinks he’s being careful. Imagine when he feels he can be frank. And I will tell you things, but I will very conscientiously not give you quotations because I believe that would be morally wrong. I’m not trying to protect myself. This really is a moral thing.

Just so I’m clear: It’s a moral thing because it would be wrong to misquote him or because you don’t want to unduly have an effect on politics?
If he hadn’t become president, I would be telling stories all day long. And if someone were to say, “Penn didn’t get that exactly right,” you’d go “Who cares?”

But now being accurate matters more.
Yeah, the stakes are really high. Not for me. Nothing I can say here hurts my career. But for the world the stakes are higher. He [President Trump] would be reading. And what I’m trying to do here is tell you the story emotionally without telling you specifics.

Okay, I think I follow your logic.
He would say racially insensitive things that made me uncomfortable. I don’t think he ever said anything in that room like “African-Americans are inferior” or anything about rape or grabbing women, but of those two hours every other day in a room with him, every ten minutes was fingernails on chalkboard. He would ask one cast member if he’d rather have sex with this woman or that woman. He would be reading on the web about a real-estate deal he’d made — like he’d sold his house for a certain amount and someone on some blog had said he should have gotten more. Then he would turn and say that making X amount on a house makes him a good businessman, right? I would say to him, “What are you talking about? You don’t know who it is reporting that. Is that Forbes?” He had no idea. So when it came to think about supporting him for president, I digested that information from being on the show with him and said, “Absolutely not. He would be a terrible president.” And because I’d been around him and some people cared what I thought, I said that publicly every chance I got — while also saying he’s a good reality show. You want someone capricious and petty and narcissistic to be on your reality show. And boy, I hate to say this, but playing tapes of him doing that job might be unfair. I want those tapes to be used against him, but it might be unfair.

Because whatever he might’ve said was occurring in the larger context of being on a reality show?
Yeah. You have friends who would say stuff to you over supper that, if you pulled out that chunk, you could ruin their career. But you’ve known them their whole life. You know the exact context. Context is really tricky.

But isn’t there enough of an established behavioral pattern with President Trump that tapes of him saying racially or sexually demeaning things maybe fits into the larger context of who he is and what he thinks?
That is fair. But I can’t stress this enough: I do not respect Donald Trump. Don Junior said — and I’m proud of this — that of everybody who had been on Celebrity Apprentice, I was the one who enjoyed it the most. By the way, I didn’t enjoy it. And I was also the one who liked his father the most. Don Junior said to me, “Why do you like him so much?” And I said, “I made a movie called The Aristocrats.” [Laughs.] I like people when they don’t have filters. I like Tiny Tim. I like Bob Dylan. I like Neil Young. I like Sun Ra. I love the Beat poets. Which means if I’m in a room with Trump I’m happy to hear him talk. But I’m also happy to hear Charlie Manson talk. I have nothing good to say about Donald Trump as president.

There’s a line from Whoopi Goldberg in The Aristocrats when she says something about how people aren’t shockable anymore. Thirteen years later, does that ring true?
We often think we’re talking about the world when we’re really talking about our age. There are things happening today with college-age people that I don’t understand and that’s okay. But when Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld agree on anything, it’s an important moment, and they’re talking about not being able to play colleges because the audiences are too sensitive.

That’s not quite right. They were saying they didn’t want to play campuses because they thought students were too sensitive. Not that they aren’t able to play them.
You’re exactly right, I said that bad. There’s a new sensibility at campuses that’s completely blown my mind because I always default to “The kids are all right.” Every time adults say something against kids, through recorded history, they’ve been wrong, whether it was video games or comics or rap. I’ve never quite been able to see sensitivity as being in the same category as those other things but I’m worried that maybe I should.

In one of your books you make a passing reference to the 12-minute street-juggling routine you used to do years ago, way before Penn & Teller, as maybe the best thing you’ve ever done. What was so special about it?
I was from a small town and I had this desire to be in show business and no idea how to do it. Music did not come easy to me, as much as I loved it. But I love to practice, so I learned to juggle, and at that time, juggling was not a thing that jocks did.

Is juggling a thing jocks do?
It’s college-y. Anyway, I learned to juggle and got pretty good, and I started doing shows in nursing homes and talent shows and making pocket money with Mike Moschen. Then I got out of high school, went to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, the Greatest Show on Earth, Clown College. I was not a good clown. They offered me a contract but I wasn’t good — never could get a laugh physically. It was always meta laughs I got. But my juggling got better, and then I hitchhiked around and the only money I made was juggling and passing the hat. In a very short period of time, I had developed a routine that was crowd-gathering, ball-juggling, knife-juggling, blindfolded knife-juggling.

Crowd-gathering literally means being able to draw a crowd in a public place?
Yeah. I was unbelievably loud. I could hold a crowd — outdoors in the wind — of probably 500 people. I was aggressive and confident and I would not do stuff other street performers did. I would not look poor. I wore a $3,000 watch. I was doing these shows at Headhouse Square in Philadelphia and the money I was making was unbelievable. Now the 12 minutes I did, you’d have to be a real student of variety arts to understand what was good about that. I had gone to the television museum [The Paley Center for Media] in New York and watched video of every single juggler and variety artist I could find and I got things that were important to me: One was that the audience must never be able to picture me practicing. So I would never miss [a throw], because if I did the whole show falls to pieces. And I would talk in very disparaging ways about the juggling as though I were watching it from a distance. So I was two very clear characters: the performer and someone talking about the performance. That style of juggling became very popular in the ’70s and ’80s, but many people who follow the variety arts thought that started with me. There was also a purity to the show.

Because it was just you and a crowd and your juggling?
No microphone, no stage, no support from anybody. Twelve minutes and then at the end, I’d get about $600 — in the ’70s! Teller says those 12 minutes are best thing I’ve ever done and he’s seen everything I’ve ever done.

I know that when you guys were still doing Penn & Teller: Bullshit! you had the idea to do an episode that would call bullshit on the show itself. But I’m more interested on what it would mean to call bullshit on Penn Jillette. What’s your bullshit? 
The things I worry about the most is that I’m completely uneducated. You couldn’t even really give me credit with a high-school education. That troubles me a lot. If we had to discuss trigonometry I would have to go and actually do homework before I could talk about it. I also just don’t have a solid liberal education. People who are very well-educated always tell me that education means nothing. But that’s because they have it. I also know, because I keep a very elaborate journal, that I am unreliable in terms of what I’m talking about. These are all things which come down to my worrying about not knowing what I’m talking about, and that’s the worst kind of bullshit. Also, like anyone who’s had success, I tend to give lip service to luck. Mike Nesmith — fascinating guy — has talked to everybody and whether it’s Bill Gates or Steve Jobs he says the thing that everybody shares is going, “Wow. I guess I’ve been lucky.”

Does Peter Thiel think he got lucky?
He was just here.

He was?
Yeah, and he seemed to think he’d gotten lucky.

Peter Thiel?
He seemed to think that.

He doesn’t come off like a guy who’d attribute much of his success to luck.
He did to me. I like him a lot. And he contrasts with Trump, who never showed the slightest glimpse of humility.

Reading your books, I was surprised how much you wrote about your sex life. When did you realize you were into kinky sex? 
So in the ’80s Howard Stern would say, “You know, neither of us ever had sex and then we got successful.” And I would go, “Howard, it’s just not true.” Let’s put all humility aside: I was genius. I should have won the Nobel Prize for the idea I had in high school to fuck smart girls. The girls in high school I wanted to have sex with and then who chose to have sex with me were reading Henry Miller, Simone de Beauvoir. They were fully prepared and there was not one single guy in school hitting on them. So it took nothing from me. Absolutely nothing. It was “Want to do this? Wouldn’t this be fun?” So that became very, very easy, and I’ve always had sex with people that I trust and that I’m friendly with. So in terms of kinky, I never denied it, you know? But that reputation all comes from Stern. Stern would ask, “Have you had sex with a porn star?” And my answer would be yes. “Have you done this?” “Yes.” But in the real world of kinky sex, I was about as vanilla as they come. And now that I’m 63, more so. But you know, it was also no drugs and no alcohol.

You always find a way in interviews to bring up that you don’t drink.
It’s really important.

Why is it so central to you?
Because of all the things that have kept me an outsider, that may be the major one. Still I’m not invited to things where my friends are going to drink.

If everyone were into sobriety, would you be more likely to drink?
I think so.

Has the way you think about Penn & Teller changed over the years?
The big change was Celebrity Apprentice. For years I was this aggressive “Fuck you, magic’s run by retards” guy. Then I went on Celebrity Apprentice, where I had cameras on me for 15 to 18 hours a day. And if you have a camera on you for that long, you are unable to fake it. What blew my mind was that things went okay when I committed to being totally myself. After that, in interviews, I started talking more like I was talking to a friend. And in the past four or five years, when Teller and I have been writing, I do this thing that I never did: I try to see the audience as friends who I can level with. Consequently there’s been a huge change in my tone onstage. I used to think honesty had to be screaming and aggressive. I didn’t think honesty could be gentle. I haven’t addressed your question.

Not quite, but that’s okay.
So, 30 years ago, when Teller and I were in a room trying to figure what we were going to do, easy was a positive. Like, “Hey Teller, here’s a funny idea, we can just do this really simply.” Now if I say to Teller, “This might be too hard for us” he sits up straight and goes, “Okay, let’s go! Let’s do it!” Because at some level we are only doing things for ourselves now. We have enough old material to last the rest of our lives. Our career goes exactly the same if we do old material as if we do all new brilliant stuff; we’ve got a few tricks coming out that we’ve been working on for years, and they won’t change how many people buy tickets to our show. But they’re better tricks than we’ve done before. They just are. And that’s beautiful.

This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.

Annotations by Matt Stieb.

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