Penn Jillette on artistic satisfaction and magic

Here's a fun and revealing interview with Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller), talking about the artistic satisfaction he gets from doing the kind of magic he does, and the working relationship he has with his longtime business and performance partner, Teller. Penn and Teller are in London for their first show here in more than a decade (I've got tickets to see them tonight -- an early birthday pressie from my wife!).
He couldn't care less what they think. "I have always hated magic," he says. "I have always hated the basic undercurrent of magic which Jerry Seinfeld put best when he said: 'All magic is "Here's a quarter, now it's gone. You're a jerk. Now it's back. You're an idiot. Show's over".' I never wanted to grow up to be a magician. It was never my goal." He would rather have been a rock star, he says, but the business seemed already saturated with extraordinarily talented people. "So my thinking was, and I will say this outright, music is full of people I absolutely love. I don't have a chance. They are all better than me. Magic has, ooh, nobody in it that I like." He rocks back in his chair, cackling. "This is the field for me!"

Everything about Penn and Teller seems to defy conventional wisdom. Here are two men who value the world of ideas: Penn counts Bob Dylan, Stephen Fry and Richard Dawkins among his friends; when in New York, Teller has tea with Sondheim. And yet they have taken up residence in perhaps the most mindless town in the United States. They are creatively restless: in addition to their show, their current projects include producing a film about "the secret technology that was probably behind Vermeer's work", directing an off-Broadway play (Teller), and writing a book about atheism (Penn). But they have signed up to a deal that compels them to perform a show in the same hotel, at the same time, night after night.

Penn and Teller interview (via Kottke)



  1. I do like his show.

    And I’m sure you’d have some political differences with him as he’s, well a Randian type libertarian.

    Whatever that means anymore.

    IMHO, you should contact his people to make your case for DRM, copyright laws being “BULLSHAIT” his show.

    That would be a excellent show. Depending on what slight of spin Penn would decide to take.

    1. I’m sure Cory is well aware of that. Cory will be a guest speaker at The Amaz!ng Meeting in London (October 16 & 17).

      As for politics, both Penn & Teller are Libertarians and fellows at the Cato institute.

  2. They’re great performers, however I too have many political differences with them and was kinda annoyed with quite a few of their Bullshit shows.

  3. I was at the Apollo too last night, with my wife; immediately after two hours of amazing, complex, and physically demanding show, they stayed outside for almost two hours to sign autographs and take pictures – standing in front of the theatre, surrounded by a lot of people.

    from the show I particularly appreciated two things (which they do in BS as well):

    – how *everyone* who claims to have psychic powers is a fraud and a morally bankrupt person that does not hesitate to prey on humans, even when at their weakest moments, just to get some money out of them.

    – the point that skeptics and scientists *love* mystery; and that a sane, logical and skeptical approach to life, the universe and everything is driven by this love of mysteries.

    much needed words.

    1. “- how *everyone* who claims to have psychic powers is a fraud and a morally bankrupt person that does not hesitate to prey on humans, even when at their weakest moments, just to get some money out of them.”

      Oh, absolutely!

      Just look, for example, at that cad, Edgar Cayce!

    1. Mr. Silva, I would remind you that the name of their program is “Bullshit”.

      And that Penn & Teller are notorious put-on artists.

      And that more often than not (and I am speaking as an amateur magician) hiding in plain sight is often the “secret” to a LOT of magic.

      What makes you think that P&T have not been having a WHOLE LOT of fun all these years winding up people just like you?

    2. What do you mean “living in England”? They’re a pretty long way from being unknown in the UK – they had their own show here in the mid-90s and are probably the most famous contemporary magicians in the world behind Copperfield and maybe Blaine…

  4. I saw them in Vegas circa 1999. Amazing show — mind-boggling — an astonishing performance from beginning to end.

    The magic “tricks” were more like paintings, or movies: stage magic elevated to the level of High Art.

    And more: I watched Penn pick up three empty liquor bottles by their necks, smash off the bottom of each bottle in turn, and juggle these jagged-edged razor-sharp glass monstrosities for several minutes, all the while pattering about the difficulty and dangers of doing such a thing.

    1. Three or four years ago Penn had a daily one hour radio show which was podcast. His sidekick on that was Michael Goudeau. It was consistently entertaining, surprising and funny. Anyway, on more than one occasion he reported very nasty cuts from the part of their act you mention. In fact the whole theme of one show was Michael Goudeau performing some rather crude first aid with super glue and bandages while Penn bled all over the console.

      I certainly don’t agree with everything that Penn says but I like to be challenged in my own beliefs and the BS they did on recycling, while I do not agree with all points raised, provided a devil’s advocate argument I think was missing from the debate.

      Of course as an outspoken atheist and campaigner for scientific rationalism I can’t fault him.

  5. their current projects include producing a film about “the secret technology that was probably behind Vermeer’s work”

    Does the world really need another documentary about Vermeer’s camera obscura? Didn’t David Hockney do one too? And that one wasn’t the first.

  6. I have only seen their magic show once, a couple of months ago at a casino in a tiny town on the way to the Oregon coast. It was fabulous and amazing, but I did wonder what they were doing in a casino in a small town on the way to the Oregon coast!

  7. I always wonder why people call them “Randian” type libertarians?

    They are not followers of Rand.

    Rand’s “Objectivists” aren’t libertarians.

    And not believing in global warming is a scientific (or lack of science) issue, not a political one. There are plenty of authoritarians who are global warming deniers, and plenty of libertarians who believe in fighting climate change.

    1. Maybe they meant James Randi – they are good friends after all, and I love me some James Randi.

  8. Penn has an alternate point of view on many things that the average democrat or republican holds dear. His views might not be right, but they are certainly thought out and have justification. I think what drives people mad about Penn is that he almost certainly has point of views that you agree with. When you agree with him, you are sitting there nodding your head and going “yeah!”. He then turns around and tears into something that leaves you disagreeing and you hear yourself screaming, “that is bullshit! You are a right/left wing asshole!”

    That is pure and unadulterated cognitive dissonance. Penn is pretty much the master of it.

    Personally, I think you should try and recognize the feelings associated with cognitive dissonance and embrace it when you feel it coming on. It is almost always a sign that you have stumbled into a hole in your thinking. There is no greater tool for a thinking human than to be able to recognize the unease you feel when experiencing cognitive dissonance and being able to avoid dispelling it with self delusion or anger.

  9. When people say, who would you invite to your fantasy party, Penn is on the list. I’d also invite Larry David, Richard Louis, Craig Ferguson, and Drew Carey to name a few.

    Not that they would come, but it’s my fantasy and I’ll invite who I want to.

    There are some people that, despite all the barriers society puts up, manage to end up on the right side of our inane culture. Interesting people, thoughtful, intelligent and smart enough to know when their wrong and admit it.

    They make us think, they play devils advocate, and they make us as if something really makes sense. I appreciate their effort.

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