Penn & Teller's act isn't easy to describe: If you call them magicians, it's almost an insult, because so much of what they do revolves around hilariously debunking and making fun of so-called magic shows. To call them comedians is to ignore the elaborate, fascinating, seemingly death-defying tricks they pull off with apparent ease. No one else does what Penn & Teller do: put together painstakingly rehearsed stunts and tricks, and package those tricks with hilariously caustic, cynical humor. The duo's richly deserved popularity has led to numerous TV appearances (talk shows, a prime-time ABC special last fall, a variety show on FX premiering this summer), successful tours (the duo resides in Las Vegas, where it's a major draw, and plays two weeks in Chicago in the first half of June), and even a movie, 1988's Penn & Teller Get Killed. In last week's issue, The Onion spoke to the silent-in-performance Teller; this week, it's the almost-never-silent-in-performance Penn Jillette.
The Onion: What are you up to?
Penn Jillette: Oh, I'm just talking to you, and then I'm going to go do all the voice stuff for Comedy Central for the week [Jillette does all of the network's commercial voiceovers].
O: How long does that usually take?
PJ: Oh, I do four hours a week.
O: Do you enjoy promoting Leonard Part 6? For a long time, that's all they seemed to be showing.
PJ: Yeah, well, I happen to have a history with Leonard Part 6, so that's an odd choice to ask me about, but, yeah, I do. I like it very much. What I love about doing Comedy Central is that when you write for yourself, which we do all the time, you tend to wisely write for your strengths. But when you get a gig like Comedy Central, where you have to announce for 12 different producers, they write you stuff that might not be right down the center of what you would normally do. And so, consequently, after four or five years of doing Comedy Central, you find out that you have skills in different kinds of comedy and different kinds of diction and different kinds of syntax. And that moves into the live show, so it has not only been financially pleasant, but artistically much more fun and fulfilling than I thought it would be.
O: What is your history with Leonard Part 6?
PJ: Well, there's a thing in New York called Movie Night, in which every Friday night, a bunch of guys meet in Times Square at the Howard Johnson. It's an odd collection of people who show up there—a lot of Bell Labs guys, some people in show business, and some people who have nothing to do with either. The rule is that no one is ever invited, and no one's turned away. It's an oddly exclusive club: If you want to be there, you can be there, but no one is ever going to invite you. It's usually about 15 people. Anyway, we were playing Broadway, and some guy at Rolling Stone or something was interviewing me during the Movie Night night, and when we were done with the interview, he kind of followed me. He ended up going with me to Movie Night, and had such a great time that he wrote it up. So what happened was we ended up going from 15 to like 40 people, and the way Movie Night works is at midnight, you go to the movie in Times Square that one of us, the guy in charge that night, decides to see. There's no vote; there's no democracy. At one point, the Movie Night inner circle decided there were too many hangers-on who didn't really understand Movie Night, so we did Leonard Part 6 four weeks in a row. And Leonard Part 6 had this wonderful weeding-out quality, like a hazing, so I ended up knowing an awful lot about the movie, and actually being fascinated by it for perhaps not the same reasons the artistic crew had in mind when they made it. So I may be the only person who will ever announce Leonard Part 6 who is familiar with it. I imagine I'm more familiar with it than Bill Cosby, in both senses of that sentence.
O: I'm surprised it played for four weeks.
PJ: Yeah, it was a really weird thing. I look back on that now and wonder what was happening. I think it was because Bill Cosby tried to buy the print and not have it come out, and I think the studio was being cantankerous and punishing him for his philistine offer, for thinking they could be bought out with mercantile concerns. They wanted to show they had artistic integrity, and somehow out of this weird mix of egos and psychos and slow news weeks, they ended up playing Leonard Part 6 on Times Square for four weeks. But, boy, let me tell you, we were down to 15 in a New York minute.
O: Tell me about the show you're doing for FX.
PJ: It's a variety show. There's been this whole thing where, because of cable—and this is very sensibly, I think—shows have been appealing to a smaller and smaller demographic. Cable networks have been doing, you know, Muslim trout-fishing; you know, trying to get these shows more and more limited. And if you talked to someone in the '60s—you know, had them time-travel into the '90s—I think one of the things that would amaze them the most is that you can't get black music and white music on the same radio station. You know, they never play soul and rock 'n' roll one right after the other. In the '60s, it was really easy to hear John Fogerty and James Brown back to back. You won't hear the equivalent now. And the same thing has happened to television. I would like even more diversification—you know, atheist dart-throwing—but sadly, we haven't had a show like Ed Sullivan that enjoyed… It's so odd: It's now a small demographic that would enjoy non-targeted entertainment. You know, opera singers followed by puppets followed by plate-spinners. And we got the idea of putting on a variety show that would do the kind of booking that was done by Ed Sullivan—you know, nutty booking. Which at the time was just anybody in show business, and that's the way booking should be. If you're in show business, and you're good, you should be on the show. Letterman and Leno can't do that. And then, on top of five acts doing a very, very broad range of things, Teller and I will also do two five-minute segments with our style of stuff, and interact with the guests a bit. I want it to be the only show on TV that has introductions that give acts respect. David Letterman's brilliant take on stuff, I'm sick of. I'm sick of David Letterman being better than every act that's on. I want somebody who goes, "Ooh! This guy trains house cats! That's really hard to do." [Laughs.] You know what I mean? Some sort of respect, instead of just, "Why did you do that?" More, "You did that, and that's cool!"
O: I would imagine it also gives you an opportunity to fulfill some geek fantasies and have some of your favorite people on there.
PJ: Yeah, well, we'll see. You know, we're on an up-and-coming network, which is the polite way to say it, so I'm not sure we have the muscle. They talk about the big guests we're gonna get, and we've got some friends who will be big guests, but I don't know. It may be that the show has to go for a little while on people who are more talented than famous.
O: What's the story behind your appearances on Sabrina, The Teenage Witch?
PJ: Very simple story: The producer the first year, the year that it was stunningly good, was Nell Scovell, who's one of the funniest people alive. She wanted us in the show, and she was willing to really work for it, which means she was willing to look at our schedule—we're all over the place—and work with our office to find out what days we could shoot, and then write the whole script based around that. It was really a great deal, because she's a close friend, and she was very conscientious to try and write no lines for the character that she had not heard me say in day-to-day life. Which was really funny, considering that I was playing Satan and there were no line changes from my day-to-day life. [Laughs.] Al Pacino cannot say the same thing.
O: How often do you get to use your fame and your act to advance your ideology?
PJ: I would say every second. I think that's one of the reasons stand-up comedy got less interesting: People stopped speaking from their hearts and stopped saying things they really believed. You have people like Dennis Miller and Bill Maher, who brag that they make fun of both sides, who absolutely brag about a lack of strong convictions. And they're two very talented, very smart people, but I want to see more of their hearts all the time. I mean, if you're going to make fun of Monica Lewinsky, does that mean you think Bill Clinton is an acceptable president? If you're going to make fun of Monica Lewinsky, does that mean you think that being fat is a sin? If you're going to make fun of Monica Lewinsky, do you think that 21-year-olds who aren't perfectly attractive should be happy to blow anybody who asks them? I mean, what is the exact position? That's the stuff I want to know, because the jokes are just a little bit too easy. And we don't deal with anything political—I'm just using that as an example that would bring more standard comments into play—but there are obsessions that Teller and I have. One is that we're pro-science, and, strangely, being pro-science is one of the oddest things you can do in show business. Which is very strange, because it was science that, oh, cured polio. I could list others—isn't that enough? [Laughs.] Oh, Western medicine doesn't work; I'm sorry, we cured polio. What more do you want? Your herbalism has done jack; we cured polio. And guess what? It cures polio even if you don't believe in it. We don't have it on Earth anymore. And then there's also small pox, and then there's mostly dysentery, and we haven't even gotten into the stuff we're good at, which is physics. We're not good at medicine; we're good at physics. We were good at physics in the 20th century; in the 21st century, one would hope, we'll be good at medicine. But we [Penn & Teller] are pro-science, and when you're pro-science, that means you're an atheist, by definition, because religion… No matter how much they put "10 Top Scientists Talk About Why They Believe In God" on the cover of Time magazine, you kind of have to look and go, "How come these 10 top scientists are all teaching at community colleges?" [Laughs.] And how come this list is distinctly lacking any Nobel Laureates? What is that tellin' you? They don't have anyone on the A-, B-, C-, or D-lists; they're down to the guests you can get on Home Shopping Club. So if you're pro-science, you're against superstition, and if you're pro-science, you're not spiritual. And if you're pro-science, you're in favor of people. And I think if you're pro-science—although this doesn't follow completely logically; it tends to follow in terms of the culture—you're pro-civil liberties, because you have a limited amount of time on this planet, and you know that other people do, too. So the fact that we are not spiritual people, the fact that we are
material people, the fact that we believe in the real world I think permeates everything we do. It wouldn't necessarily permeate everything we do if we weren't in the field of doing tricks. When you are in the field of doing tricks, you are addressing every two minutes how one confirms truth, how we decide on truth. And if you're doing that, that's gonna come up a lot. You know, my feelings about politics, my feelings about rock 'n' roll, my feelings about art come up much, much less. My feelings about how one ascertains truth comes up a lot, because we're doing tricks. If you're doing a trick like shooting .357 Magnums into each other's faces, you have brought up viscerally some important intellectual issues. [Laughs.]
O: What do you want done with your corpse when you're dead?
PJ: Ah, I would… I guess I should do all sorts of jokes about giving it to friends and stuff, but I've already taken steps. I'm one of the people who has donated his body for any use at all. There are a lot of people who are organ donors, or they'll do certain amounts of cadaver work. I have it so that if you're at the smallest community college anywhere… If you have a biology class with first-year students, if they don't want to use a frog, they can use me. It doesn't have to be Harvard, it doesn't have to be nice, and they don't have to deliver me back to the box. If my life can be summed up by one student in one college learning one piece of anatomy from slicing up my corpse, I will be very happy.
O: Or pulling pranks with it.
PJ: Yeah, that's okay, too. I have all the joke answers as well; I chose to give you the straight answer, which is just [to donate it] straight to science. That's what everyone should do.
O: Have you done any actual lobbying for the ACLU?
PJ: No, no. Mostly, I just have a crush on the president: I think Nadine Strossen is the hottest woman in the world, and when she comes to Vegas, I get to hang out with her, and it's just the best thing in the world. I want her husband dead. So, mostly, the ACLU is a sexual thing for me. [Laughs.] I guess it is for most people. No, I don't do that lobbying thing, because it's so likely that if you do lobbying, you might find out you're wrong, and then, hey: You're Alec Baldwin. [Laughs.] You've been lobbying on the wrong side long enough that it would look really bad if you changed your mind. And I do, in fact, change my mind on positions a lot. I don't really think I'm qualified. I'm qualified to talk about James Van Praagh [who wrote a best-selling spirit-medium book titled Talking To Heaven] and Uri Geller [the "psychic" who says he can bend spoons with his mind] and those people; I'm qualified to talk about people who are using magic tricks to sell spiritualism. I'm qualified to say that in the United States of America, the First Amendment is absolute, but I'm not really qualified to lobby. I'd kind of want to have a law degree, because I'm a sub-star—there are superstar-stars and sub-stars—and being a sub-star, I'm still visible enough that it's too easy to back me into a corner. If one is going to lobby, you should know everything about your subject. You should not go in to talk about borderline First Amendment cases—and we have some really goofy ones… If you're going to talk about abortion-protester rights… I have a strong feeling about that, but if I were going to be in an argument with people who dedicated their lives to the subject, I would want to have put in several hundred hours of research. And I don't have time to do that. Instead of coming in as the guy—"Hey, you've seen me on TV, and, by the way, these protesters have a right to free speech"—it just seems that the better way to address the issue is through what I do, which is the show. And if that comes up, there are things that I believe absolutely to my heart—like the cure for bad speech is more speech—and that comes through in everything we do. Skeptic organizations have wanted me to be a spokesperson and talk about the skeptics a little bit, and I just tell them that when there are truths to get out and important things to say, there are many different ways to do it. And you want in your organization a well-reasoned, not-shooting-from-the-hip, thoughtful position to be presented. You need guys to do that, and then you also need nuts who will just go out and scream, "No, you're wrong!" to people who are wrong. You just don't want those people on your letterhead. There's a big difference there. If you want to argue with me, any sort of how-to-win-friends-and-influence-people/what-do-you-think? type of stuff does not work. What you have to do to win an argument with me is you have to yell facts that you
can back up, and do it with absolutely no finesse. And if you get enough facts on your side in the right order, and I'm smart enough to understand 'em, and all of that comes together, then I do a 180 instantly. And I go, "Oh, you're right. We've saved some time here." If the ACLU sends me out on their dime and someone gives me a wonderful argument that I can't refute, I'll change my mind. And when you're working with an organization, you're really not supposed to do that.
O: Where do you feel you would be without [professional magician, skeptic, and debunker] James Randi?
PJ: Oh, it's hard to say. I wouldn't be anything like I am. I hated Kreskin ["The World's Foremost Mentalist"] so much when I was a kid for his lying that I hated all magic and I hated all science. And it was Randi and Teller who told me I didn't have to. And if I hadn't been given that piece of information, I probably would have just stayed thinking that the idea of magic itself was evil. And I might have even gone so far as to think that scientists were just liars, because Kreskin used to present himself as a scientist. And I hated him so much—and this hate has not tempered in any way—that had Randi not come along… What magic is is using a shotgun for target-shooting, taking the most dangerous and evil thing you can do—lying to people—and going out to a target range and shooting it in a safe direction that you've thought about very, very clearly. Doing stuff like Van Praagh and Kreskin is like taking a shotgun and going into a mall, and discharging it in people's faces and stealing 20 bucks from each one of them. It's the lowest thing you can do, and it hurts all of society in the same way that killing a smart person does: When you lie to a kid like that, that may be a kid who was going to get a good idea. And once Kreskin got a hold of your head, you weren't going to be able to get a good idea. It's a complete poison.