‘All-Star Celebrity Apprentice’ finalist Penn Jillette talks Trump, honesty

05.17.13 5 years ago 7 Comments


I suspected Penn Jillette was going to make the finals of “All-Star Celebrity Apprentice.” No, I’m definitely not psychic. I’m not deeply in tune with the production, or worse, Donald Trump. But I had a feeling before the show even began that the magician who makes up half of Penn & Teller might go a little further on the franchise this time around. 

Why? After his appearance on “The Celebrity Apprentice,” he included his experiences in his most recent book, “Every Day Is An Atheist Holiday.” What he said was funny and revealing and yes, pretty caustic. You have to expect a guy who had a Showtime series called “Penn & Teller: Bullshit!” not to pull punches. 

Though he admitted “Apprentice” was “more honest” than, say, “Dancing with the Stars,” the show was more honest “in that creepy kind of way that the guy who admits he’s racist is more honest.” He had more to say than that, of course.

After admitting he went onto the show as a kind of “work/study thang,” he described “Apprentice” as “venal people clawing at stupid, soulless shit in front of the modern-day Scrooge McDuck in order to stay famous.” He painted a picture of Trump’s hair as “cotton candy made of piss.”

He took aim at himself, too. He admitted his hair is “worse” than Trump’s, that he was (as the rest of the cast was) made a little nuts from ego depletion and the generally crazy-making nature of reality TV. He vividly describes an argument with Clay Aiken in which he’s still kicking himself for not telling the “American Idol” runner-up to “shut the fuck up.” 

As much as he was able to make fun of himself and the show, what comes across in the book is Jillette’s frustration with a reality competition that is, despite outside appearances, completely arbitrary. He quotes his friend (and fellow “Apprentice” survivor) Annie Duke in describing the show as “a pretend game, about pretend business, where you get pretend fired.” He recalls how Trump just does what he wants, and, because “Trump can”t be manipulated…the show isn”t even fair in that way.”

No matter what you think of Penn Jillette, he’s a smart guy. I can’t help but think that dealing with fragile celebrities to do meaningless tasks only to have to nod and smile as Trump “pontificat[es] to people who are sucking up to him” wasn’t his ideal gig. 

Before his season of “Apprentice,” I spoke to Jillette briefly at a TCA event. He was perfectly cordial and answered all my questions, but he didn’t seem all that enthusiastic about the show. Back then, I was pretty sure he didn’t make it to the finals (he was eliminated for the 11th task). 

Why he returned to the show to tackle the all-star version, I’m still not sure. When I spoke to him at the TCAs this time around, his response to the question was to instead answer a question that had yet to be asked. “I really, really loved it the second time… It was entirely different.  It turns out that who you”re around makes a big difference.” In other words, the absence of Clay Aiken on “All-Star Celebrity Apprentice” helped plenty.

He was chatty, jovial and perfectly happy to field any question about “The Celebrity Apprentice,” even as I peppered him with questions about the sometimes cutting things he’d said about the show in his book. He didn’t refute anything he’d written, mind you, not even that “‘The Celebrity Apprentice’ is junior high with a better brand of acne cover-up.”

He still doesn’t agree with Trump on the “birther thing,” hasn’t changed his perspective on Trump’s hair (or his own). He did concede that he “might have modified somewhat, not a lot” his opinion that Trump cared more about what he thought of him than the reverse.

Still, he followed that with the comment, “It comes to the definition of courage. The definition of courage is not absence of fear, it”s action in the face of fear.  And I think that Donald Trump is able to be exactly who he wants to be, even though he does care what people think. That”s a certain kind of, I was going to say strength of character, but you can also say eccentricity of character.” I’m pretty sure this is the first and last time I’ll hear anyone suggest that Trump might be courageous, eccentrically or otherwise, but Jillette seemed serious enough. 

He added, “I really, really liked everybody this time. And also, the first time I had this constant feeling that it might be dishonest.  Every other reality show I”d ever done, and I”d done a bunch of ’em, were deeply dishonest. And ‘The Celebrity Apprentice’ isn”t. Everything is straightforward. They don”t even redo things. You know, on every other reality show they say, say that same thing but over here. They don”t do that.”

But, I argued, everything’s arbitrary. “Completely arbitrary,” he agreed. “But arbitrary is not dishonest… It”s capricious and arbitrary but all that is out front.  You know, the slot machines in Vegas give intermittent reinforcement.  And every study has shown that the most powerful reinforcement is intermixed. If you can predict something, you lose interest in it.  Even if it’s tremendously positive for you, you still lose interest.  You need to have intermittent reinforcement…  

So, if you’re going to have a show like this, if you had somebody running the show who was following an algorithm that everybody knew, there”d be no surprise. You need to have Trump being arbitrary.  But I believe, and I think Adam Corolla disagrees with me on this and he may have cases but none that I”ve seen, that there is no editing that”s disingenuous.  Now they”re telling one story, there”s ‘Rashomon’ that”s still there, but their point of view seems valid. And once I relaxed, you know, I was mostly disillusioned by other shows.” 

So, yes, Jillette seemed a lot happier about doing press this time around than last. I’m sure it’s easier to be in a good mood knowing you’ve gotten to the finals. But watching the show this season, Jillettte seemed a lot happier from the jump, and I don’t think the absence of Clay Aiken entirely explains it.

One thing Jillette mentions in his book is that after being on “Apprentice,” he read Daniel Kahneman”s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” which he says introduced him to the idea of ego depletion. As Jillette writes, the book explains that “studies have shown that if you make someone very self-conscious about everything they do and say, their self-control just gets tired out. The ego can be exhausted. It”s the very trying to be one”s best on camera that puts one at one”s worst on camera. You just can”t keep it up that long. You want to be at your best, but pretty soon the internal censors are exhausted, take a break, and pretty soon sweet Arsenio is yelling things like, ‘I”ll tell you what a fucking bitch whore she is!'”

Knowing that people were acting crazy for reasons they couldn’t fully control — and knowing that his own behavior was just as easily explained — had to have helped. 

I’m sure it also helped that a lot of the contestants Jillette found himself teamed with this time around were people who seemed pretty cool under pressure, like Lisa Rinna, or who were so ridiculous they barely registered as anything other than amusement, like Gary Busey. But, as Jillette explained, the first time around “I treated everyone like Teller.” He said that, though he and Teller have never had conflict or even raised their voices to one another in the 38 years they’ve been together, “I dealt with everybody as though they were Teller. And that makes everything pretty rough and pretty aggressive, because he”s a tough guy.  And that”s the way we love it. So this time around, I just didn”t treat people like Teller.” 

More importantly, he seemed relaxed on the show his second time around. He did the job, put in the effort, but didn’t seem to be unduly invested in the results. Knowing the outcome is arbitrary, realizing that his teammates didn’t want or expect him to be tough, he became the Zen center of the show in a way Trace Adkins, his fellow finalist, usually is but hasn’t been in the last few challenges. Jillette was still funny, still had opinions, but didn’t seem to be fighting to create order where none can exist.

Adkins, on the other hand, admitted in last week’s boardroom that he hadn’t been excited about his ideas over the last few weeks. Though he promised to fight hard, he seemed worn out. It didn’t help that in the final challenge, he picked a macadamia-maple flavored ice cream while Jillette picked a less unusual chocolate vanilla swirl with mixed in turtle candies.

So, I think Jillette can win this thing. Plus, macadamia-maple sounds kinda gross to me. Arbitrary, yes, but perhaps fittingly so. 

Are you watching the season finale at 9:00 p.m. this Sunday? 

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