Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller Talks Magic, David Blaine, and the Arizona Shooting

Since 1985, you've seen this abrasive magic/comedy duo everywhere -- from Fear Factor to their successful Showtime and Emmy-nominated show Penn

& Teller: Bullshit! to the pilot episode of Sabrina the Teenage

Witch.  And now you don't need to turn on your television or buy a ticket to Sin City to indulge in some of their signature bologna-bulldozing humor because their Vegas show is coming to Hard Rock Live February 4 and 5.

As Teller has made the lifelong decision to be as gregarious as a mime, we caught up with his more verbal -- and, okay, blunt -- counterpart, Penn Jillette, to talk about marijuana, magic, David Blaine, and the Arizona shooting.

New Times: You sound a little grogy. Did you not eat your Wheaties this morning?

Penn Jillette: I haven't had breakfast yet, I had to talk to you first. Breakfast will be my reward. And I'll probably have Grape Nuts with raisins and bananas with some almond milk. I didn't even know almonds were mammals, but it's in my refrigerator, so I guess they are.

You've worked with many celebrities and on tons of different sets, who talks the most bullshit?

I guess I'd probably have to say Jesus Christ, wouldn't you?

When did you realize you were an atheist?

It was probably in church group when I was 16 or 17 and I read the Bible. If you want to become an atheist, I always recommend reading the Bible from beginning to end. Not a guided system of reading it, but just read the whole thing, and I think if you do, you come out being an atheist. I don't think you have to do anything special. I think at the end of a book about hatred, slavery, horrible acts towards women, crazy contradictory laws, and the jealous nature of this God, I think it's apparent that it was written by crazy people for political reasons.

So how did you get into magic?

Well, I was very against lying to people. I was a juggler and a comic, and the magicians I'd seen were horrible. Then I met Teller and he had the idea that magic could be intellectual; that it could have content. And that blew my mind - that you could do magic without actually insulting anybody, which was the part that seemed impossible to me. And it wasn't until Teller that I found out that you could do magic and be honest. And doing magic and being honest is our goal, which is one that I don't think anyone else in magic shares.

What do you think about other magicians like David Blaine and Criss Angel?

David Blaine and Criss Angel are both friends of ours, but they're doing an interesting thing. After doing magic tricks and lying to people, like we do, they then try to pretend that some of the stuff that they're doing isn't doing that. So, David Blaine puts himself in this weird position of doing card tricks and then says 'Okay, now for my next trick, I'm going to stop eating.'

[Jillette laughs hysterically]

What??? And Criss Angel says 'I've done these five silly card tricks now I'm going to be hung by tits and fly around in a helicopter.' Okay, Criss. Solid. Groovy. But, uh, be hung by your tits?! That's fine, but I know people who get hung by their tits and the weird thing is that they do it in the privacy of their own home and it's not called a magic trick.

What I think is so odd about the silly stuff, the self-torture stuff, is that it's like on some level they think that being a shitty magician isn't enough. And their way of solving that problem isn't by doing better magic or developing beautiful ideas, but by just stating to people 'no, no, no, I'm really doing this.'

It's a little like Keith Richards saying 'Here I am, playing guitar, now I'm going to stop playing guitar.' And the whole world says 'But Keith, if you're not playing guitar, we don't care about you. You're a guitarist, that's what you do.' Like with David, once you're being buried in a box for 11 days in your own's like well, we'd rather see a card trick then watch you roll around in your shit for a week and a half. A matter a fact, David, we find that a little odd...and you smell bad.

So, my feeling is the joy of doing magic is the joy of doing tricks. And the joy of watching magic is the joy of watching tricks. And if all of sudden, I told you during this interview 'We're coming to Florida and we're doing all the Penn & Teller stuff you've seen on TV that's really fabulous and then in the middle of our show I'm going to put a rope around my balls and hang upside down and do that for real,' wouldn't you wonder why I'm not just doing more tricks?

Then what would be your take on something like Jackass then, where they really are doing the tricks and really are injuring themselves?

I don't like to see people hurt themselves for real. I mean, if someone was coming to our show to watch us really get hurt, I'd tell them to stay away. We do stuff that's really safe but it's supposed to look scary. I think art is supposed to be like a rollercoaster where your visceral and intellectual parts collide so when you're on the rollercoaster, you're heart says 'Oh no, we're going to die right now' but your mind says 'you know, if everyone of this rollercoaster died their insurance rates would be too high to keep up, so we're safe.'

I love those two things colliding, but something like Jackass is an odd situation for me. Because philosophically, I guess I should be against it, but the love in their eyes and the passion they have is so wonderful that I can't help but have an affection for them.

So, it's okay to do anything just so long as you're passionate?

Well, no! No! If you're passionate about shooting a congress woman, than no! But, within the arts, yeah, passion helps a lot.

Do you think Sarah Palin had any kind of involvement with the shootings in Arizona?

The odd thing is the shooter hated Sarah Palin, which makes it complicated. I believe the shooter was involved in a group called American Renaissance and that's a blanket group for a bunch of hate groups and crazies and one of the things they believe is that Palin is a Zionist puppet and that the Tea Party is a CIA front, so he wasn't affected by Palin and the Tea Party. But you can't tell what a crazy person is going to do because that's the definition of crazy. Catcher in the Rye was not written to make someone shoot John Lennon. Those people are just crazy. Crazy's the problem, not the stuff you pour into the crazy.

What's your take on legalizing marijuana?

I've never done it or even had a sip of beer, but I'm for the legalization of everything. Absolutely. The most important thing is to get everything legalized to make our day-to-day lives safer, to be morally right, and to have a better economy. The best thing that could happen is if marijuana, angel dust, cocaine, heroine, all of it to be legal so you end up eliminating your black market. And if you don't have the freedom to put whatever you want in your body, you're not living in a free society.

What's the secret to you and Teller's longevity?

Teller's my best friend. When my children were born or when my parents died, he's the one I came to and we work together 60 hours a week. But, we don't socialize much outside of work. We probably go out the two of us, socially, like twice a year. It'll be like my family's asleep and I just happened to check my email and Teller sent me one saying he was going to see Piranhas 3D, so I'll go along, and that's one of the two times.

Speaking of your kids, your children have interesting names. How'd you come up with them?

I like to be the only person in any sort of environment with my name. I think it's great. I mean, there's other Penns, but I never work with them. I think it's creepy to be named Mike. I once went out to lunch here in Vegas with five people and all five of them were named Mike. That seems a little odd. Zolten, my son who's four, his name is my wife's maiden name. So, that's where that came from.

How about your daughter, Moxie CrimeFighter?

Moxie because that's just a wonderful quality, and because it's also a New England soda my mom was very fond of, so it's for my mom a little bit. And CrimeFighter, well, my wife doesn't have a middle name and my wife, Emily, and I were backstage at my Vegas show and we were talking about Moxie's name and someone asked 'what about Moxie's middle name?' And Emily's like 'Fuck that, middle names are bullshit.' And Jonsie, our piano player had just read a novel called Sock and in it, one of the characters says 'From now on call me CrimeFighter' and Jonsie loved that line, so he suggested giving Moxie the middle name CrimeFighter and Emily said 'Sure, why not? Middle names are bullshit, I don't give a fuck, let's name her CrimeFighter.' So I had nothing to do with it. But I have a joke about it.

Which is?

If she gets stopped by the cops at 17, she'll be able to show her license and say 'We're on the same side, officer, my middle name is CrimeFighter'. And the truth of the matter is that it's already worked. Emily was speeding with Moxie in the backseat and an officer stopped her, looked at her license, looked in the backseat, and said 'Is that CrimeFighter?' And, Emily said yes, and the officer said 'Well, in that case, if she's already fighting crime, don't worry about a ticket.'

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Elyse Wanshel
Contact: Elyse Wanshel