Mention celebrity magician Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller fame to anyone, and one of two thoughts will immediately pop into their head. Either 1) “Isn’t that the guy whose magic partner doesn’t speak?” or 2) “He sure does like to talk about religion and politics a lot.” Both thoughts are true, as Jillette has demonstrated time and time again his willingness to speak his mind on all kinds of subjects — be it President Donald Trump, his political affiliation with the Libertarian party, or his atheism.
Yet the outspoken half of the longest-running headlining act in Las Vegas isn’t necessarily driven by these well-known traits. While promoting the fourth season premiere of Penn & Teller: Fool Us he revealed that one of the primary driving forces behind Jillette’s late career isn’t success or argumentation, but his daughter. “Not every night, but maybe three nights a week, a young girl will come up to me after a show with a deck of cards in her hand,” he tells me. “Having daughter who is 12 years old, nothing could fill me with more joy than this.”
Hence why, as Jillette explains below, he and Teller have endeavored to increase the profile of female magicians and performers on this season of Fool Us. Considering who he met during his recent trip to Florida for the high IQ society Mensa’s annual meeting there, however, I couldn’t resist poking the bear at first.
How was your trip to Florida for the Mensa Annual Gathering?
It was good. I had a good time. I have a friend down there and we went fishing together. I posed with Roger Stone to start a fight. Every once in a while you want to get attacked on Twitter, so you stand next to somebody who isn’t too popular, take a picture with them, and all of a sudden everything they’ve done in their life is your fault.
All joking aside, was that your actual intent?
Not at all. It wasn’t done with any cynicism. I bumped into a guy that I don’t agree with on much of anything, and we chatted a little bit. It was very, very pleasant. He asked for a picture, and I wanted a picture, so we took the picture and I posted it if anybody online would be interested, and that was it. It’s very likely that a lot of the people I bump into and have pleasant conversations with wouldn’t agree with me on certain subjects. It’s possible my barista is a white supremacist. I don’t know.
Thanks to shows like Penn & Teller: Bullshit! and others, you’re opinions on politics, religion and other subjects are well known. I suspect, aside from magic, that people often ask you about these things.
We spend a lot of time — I guess because it’s sexy, and it makes us feel like we’re heroes with rage — talking about how whatever the groups we’re in are victimized and attacked. People have talked about the culture of victimization in a way that suggests whoever gets hurt the most wins. It’s just a lie. It’s simply not true. I speak to Christian groups, and they are polite and kind. I speak to Democrats and Republicans who are polite and kind. Roger Stone was polite and kind, even though I am actually on Trump’s enemies list, and Roger Stone is a friend of Trump’s.
We live in a country that is incredible civil, but we go online and pretend it’s not. We’re just pretending, and we all kind of know it. People come up to me and say, “I’m a big fan. I follow your atheist stuff. I’m a born again Christian. I don’t agree with your atheism at all, but I like your passion, you’re really funny, you’re always very polite to people, and I hope you find Jesus Christ in your life, because He’s done a lot for me.” And I’ll answer, “Well, I hope that you, your friends, and loved ones are some day strong enough so that you don’t need Jesus, but I’ll continue searching, and I hope you’ll do the same.” We shake hands and that’s it. I don’t see how that can be considered being a warrior or fighting a good fight. It’s just interacting with people. I wasn’t brought up to think you’re supposed to agree with every person you smile at.
True, but we also don’t want to ignore the realities of victimization.
Of course not!
I wonder if your approach to these thorny subjects, then, actually increases your audience instead of lessening or alienating parts of it.
I just don’t know. We don’t get to run a counter-factual experiment. We don’t get to consider how successful I would be had I kept my atheism quiet, or had I been a Christian. We don’t get to run that experiment in real life. Who knows? Maybe I’m Beyoncé, but my atheism has held me back. We don’t know that for sure. It also could be that I’m Joe Piscopo, and my atheism has actually helped me. We don’t know, and we never will though. I’m happy not to know, because I don’t think I really am Beyoncé.
Of course, though you have to admit it’s a fun exercise.
Penn & Teller: Fool Us has exploded — not just because it’s into its fourth season, but for all the return guests and launched careers the show possesses. Combined with your and Teller’s decades in magic, that’s a hell of a legacy. Ever catch yourself thinking about that?
Absolutely. It’s funny that I think it’s a standard pattern. We often think of ourselves as being outside patterns, and then we just live them. Teller and I started out way back, 30 years ago, when we were first presenting ourselves as this duo. It wasn’t really true. It was mostly a lie. We were presenting ourselves as these two guys who were hated in magic — just utterly despised in magic — because all of the other magicians hated us. That wasn’t really true. The old-timers always liked us. They always got what we were doing. Younger magicians always liked us too, but there was a few middle-aged magicians, a little older than us and kind of our peers, who didn’t dig us. We blew it out way out of proportion. In other words, we lied about it.
There was this guy who wrote a little newsletter that went out to about 500 people — that was his subscriber base — who said bad stuff about us. So we went on David Letterman’s show, which was going out to about eight million people, and had him read it. We made ourselves out to be the persecuted ones, but it was all hype and we knew it. It was playful, though there were some magicians who really didn’t like us. We spent a lot of time defining ourselves as different from other magicians, which is really important whenever you’re starting out. I think it was Alfred Hitchcock who said, “When you want to make movies, you don’t go to see great movies and say, ‘I’m going to do that.’ You go see awful movies and say, ‘At least I won’t do that.'”
When you’re starting out in a creative field like magic, you watch David Copperfield, Doug Henning or Harry Blackstone, Jr. and go, “I hate this, this, this, this, this, this, and this.” You watch every magician you can possibly see and tell yourself, “This is what I hate.” You’re trying to define yourself, like a teenager does in life, against whatever else is out there. In the arts, you try and define yourself as what you are. I think it was Salvador Dali who said, “It’s the job of every artist to hate every other artist, but he shouldn’t be surprised when the audience doesn’t share that.”
Now you and Teller are the ones being watched.
That’s right. They’re watching us and doing what we were doing back then — trying to tailor ourselves in that way, to show the world that we had something to offer they weren’t already getting from other magicians. That’s when and how you find who you are. Then you’re no longer threatened. You have a real sense of what your style is, and the audience has a real sense of what you are, and right after that, you start calling yourself a magician. Consider a much grander scale, like Bob Dylan in the realm of music. He started out as this new, different thing that wasn’t like anybody else, and after a little while he was saying, “I’m just a songwriter. I just tell songs. I just play songs.” After you settle into that groove, you start saying, “I’m just a magician.”
Sure, but according to many up-and-coming magicians — let alone lay television audiences — you and Teller are the magicians.
We’ve been on the scene long enough, and we’ve changed enough, that old-timers, younger people and our peers are on par with what we’re doing. I mean, we went from literally being thrown out of the Magic Castle to being Magicians of the Year three separate times. That actually happened. Though we’re still banned by the Magic Circle in London, but that’s a whole different thing. We’ve come around, but we also haven’t.
My point still stands, though. If I were to ask any random person to name a magician, they’d probably mention you and Teller.
A lot of magicians these days, who are just getting their start in the business, were watching us on television. All of a sudden we’re someone they may look up to. Realizing that sort of makes all that artistic hostility I was talking about fall away really quickly. It’s no longer needed. Hence Fool Us, which I see as the two of us finally moving beyond all of that, accepting our position, and doing something good with it.
Teller and I intensely dislike talent shows on television. I dislike them mostly because you have these judges who pretend to know things, but they actually don’t. I mean, how the fuck would figures like Bob Dylan or Tiny Tim have done in these shows? How would they do it? When I see somebody — who, as far as I can tell, hasn’t contributed one artistically valid piece of work to the world — say something like, “This doesn’t really hit me the right way. I don’t think you’re going to be a big star,” my only reaction is, “Fuck you in the neck. You’re not fit to eat shit off that person’s shoes. They’re actually doing something.” That would be just as true for anyone, even Bob Dylan, because I don’t like it when people tell us what to watch or listen to. It’s the most anti-American, anti-capitalist thing ever.
So when we set up Fool Us, we specifically set out to not let it become just another talent show. There’s a very important difference between what me and Teller are doing, and what other reality competitions do — we never make any sort of negative judgments about an act’s appeal or what their future in the business may be. I very carefully steer away from those things. It’s not accidental. We talk about something else that, though sloppy, endeavors to remain objective: “Did you fool us?” Not, “Did you fool the audience?” or “Will you fool people in the future?” Just in that particular moment, right then and there, we ask if their act fooled me and Teller. That’s it. Many people who’ve won on the show didn’t do tricks that people liked — and, frankly, didn’t do tricks that I liked — but we didn’t know how they did it, and that’s the game.
How did you originally pitch the concept? Because I suspect most television executives would have balked at the idea of there being no American Idol or The X Factor-esque opinions on the show.
Believe me, during the pitch meetings we had a tough time selling the show — especially when it came to determining how me and Teller would, or wouldn’t be fooled. They’d ask, “How will you determine whether you were fooled or not?” It’s a nebulous thing, of course. They wanted us to write down how we thought the tricks were done and compare notes. I said, “No, we’ll just talk to the and say, “You fooled us” or “You didn’t fool us.” Everyone would agree on the outcome or not, but in a civil manner since we wanted this to be a polite show. We didn’t want it to be adversarial. This is not mixed martial arts, this is chess.
What originally sparked Fool Us?
I really like the camaraderie of magic, and the idea for this came from the fact that Las Vegas is the magic capital of the world. If you work in magic, you will end up in Vegas at some point — at least as a visitor to see the other magicians. If you come to Vegas, and you’re a magician, chances are you’ll end up at the Penn & Teller show. And if you do, chances are you’re going to come backstage after the show. When that happens, you might very well say, “Hey guys, have you seen this?” Most people will pull out a deck of cards and do something for us.
They’ll do their tricks for us, and Teller — who’s really the brains of the operation — will say, “Oh, that’s really nice. That’s great. I love that.” Or he’ll say, “I have no idea how you did that.” In these moments, there is this wonderful shared feeling — when everybody in the room knows they don’t know precisely what’s happening. Or even when most people do know, it doesn’t matter because the awe of seeing it performed makes us all so happy. It’s like when somebody asks you, “Have you heard this song before?” If you haven’t, maybe they’ll play it for you, and if you have, maybe their version of it is different enough that it gives you something new. After a few years of this, we thought, “You know? We should let other people enjoy this. This is a really nice thing to see.”
Magic is confrontational. It always has the tone of mansplaining, conceptually, but we’ve always wanted to change that. One way to do this is to give away your secrets, which we’ve done before. Another way is to show audiences what magicians are really like, or can be like, because it really isn’t all that different from someone like Keith Richards asking another musician, “Have you seen this riff?” Maybe the other guitarist has, or maybe they haven’t, but what usually results is them and Richards showing each other their riffs and comparing notes. This is what we wanted Fool Us to be, and what I truly think it has become.
I’m no magician, but you, Teller and the acts Fool Us presents are. Yet you seem to insist on explaining your post-performance comments in a way non-magicians will understand. Is this the case, or am I just reading too much into it?
I speak in code, and the code I’m speaking is for the 15-year-old Penn and Tellers out there watching. Or the 14-year-old versions of us, or younger. When they hear what I say, I’m actually giving them key word searches, so that they can go to the web and search for what I’m talking about. If you just want to watch it as a great magic show, you’re allowed to enjoy it that way, but if you want to be a magician, you can take what I’ve said, do those key word searches, and discover the techniques being used on Fool Us.
That sounds just as intentional as your not wanting to judge acts based on their possible future success.
It is, and I believe it’s working. Not every night, but maybe three nights a week, a young girl will come up to me after a show with a deck of cards in her hand. She’ll say, “I’ve been watching Fool Us, I’ve been learning some tricks, and I’m going to come one day.” Having daughter who is 12 years old, nothing could fill me with more joy than this. There’s never been a major female presence in magic. It just hasn’t happened. It’s like stand-up comedy was 30 years ago, but now the biggest comedian is Amy Schumer. Not only is that wonderful, but that’s the way it should be. I’m predicting very strongly that in 10 years’ time, the biggest forces in magic will be women. That’s the way it should be, and that’s exactly what’s going to happen. I want to watch that happen, and I’m excited by that. It’s still bad, though, because people usually ask me if my son is into magic first. The question they don’t ask is, “Is your daughter into magic?” The answer is, “Yeah, my daughter does card tricks for her friends. My son couldn’t care less.”
Having watching Fool Us off and on during the past three seasons, then seeing the fourth season premiere, I get the sense there’s a concert effort to feature more female magicians. Even the host for seasons three and four is Alyson Hannigan.
It’s not just noticeable, it’s explicit and discussed behind the scenes. This year we did a bit that me and Teller are simply physically too old to do, but we still wanted it on the show. So we decided to get a couple of younger magicians in to do it, and we stressed that they had to be women. It’s basically a Penn & Teller bit that isn’t done by us, but by two fabulous up-and-coming magicians, Jen Kramer and AmberLynn Walker. I’ve got to tell you, it was one of the most thrilling moments of the season. They just absolutely kill it. I don’t mind saying my daughter is thrilled there are two women doing a Penn & Teller bit on the show, and that’s what it’s all about. So if you noticed that in season three, we’re going to hit you in the face with a baseball bat this season.
The fourth season of Penn & Teller: Fool Us premieres tonight at 8pm ET/PT on The CW.