Penn Jillette

The outspoken comedian-magician talks about danger, his favorite cause and his eventual sucking

Penn Jillette is not only a Las Vegas treasure as the taller, talking half of Penn & Teller, but also as one of our community’s most outspoken members. An unabashed atheist, libertarian and antiwar advocate, Jillette lends his colorful commentary to everything from public radio to his Showtime series, Penn & Teller: Bullshit! He first teamed with Teller in 1975, and the pair sharpened their act off Broadway on their way to gaining fame for producing a new twist on an old genre. They hit the Vegas jackpot as Rio headliners back in 2001 and have been among the Strip’s most popular acts ever since. Basing their show here also led the comedy-magic duo to become involved with Aid for AIDS of Nevada. They will be grand marshals for the AIDS Walk on April 25, and they will match donations dollar for dollar through the “Penn & Teller Challenge.”

How did you get involved with the AIDS Walk?

We started Broadway Cares, which is a Broadway performers AIDS group, when we were on Broadway in New York, and when we moved out to Vegas we actually wanted to get involved in something a little closer to our new home.

What was your initial attraction to magic?

I didn’t really have an attraction to magic. I thought it was cheesy. I thought it was full of lies. I thought it had no intellectual content, and I really hated it. I met Teller, and Teller had this idea that what was terrible about magic was what people were doing with it, and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with it. … I love music, and there were bands that I really love. Why go into music when there’s Bob Dylan? Why go into music when there’s Tiny Tim? Why go into music when there are people that are doing it really well, whereas in magic there was no one who I thought was doing it really well, so I thought it was a good field to go into.

What will your lasting contribution to magic be?

I don’t think in terms of genre. I think in terms of individuals. … For me, the stuff that I love is all individual. I don’t really care at all what Bob Dylan did for folk music. I only care about what Bob Dylan does for Bob Dylan. So I don’t really think we’ll have any lasting contribution. There aren’t any people in the Penn & Teller style that are coming along. There’s a lot of Cirque du Soleil style, but there’s really no Penn & Teller style.

Where do you get your inspiration for new bits?

Andy Warhol said, “It’s just the work,” and I’m inclined to agree with him. We meet in the afternoon, and we talk about what we’d like to see onstage and then we figure out if we can do it. The thing we’ve been doing lately is really, really hard stuff. We’ve been trying to do really complicated, hard stuff. We’ve been working together our entire adult lives. We’ve done thousands of shows. I think we’re knocking on having done as many shows together as any two people have ever done, and we’re trying to do stuff that you couldn’t see anyone else do because it’s really hard. I’m having fun with that.

Have any of your tricks ever gone bad?

Well, everything is going a little differently than we want it to all the time—that’s the wonder of live performance. The most important thing is safety. We believe it’s morally wrong to do things onstage that are actually dangerous. I’m very uninterested in the magicians that hang by their nipples and drown themselves. No matter how dangerous our stuff looks, and it often looks really dangerous, I want the audience to know it’s a trick and know that we’re safe. I want a morality out of our audience that celebrates life and doesn’t celebrate danger.

Do you ever wish you could get away from being Penn from Penn & Teller?

I do that all the time. I guess my children perceive that I’m on billboards, but they don’t know that everyone isn’t on billboards. Most of my time is not spent out; most of my time is spent reading. When I would hang out with Debbie Harry or Madonna or David Bowie, people grabbed them, trying to rip parts off them, but with me people say, “Hi.” It’s really not that terrible.

Can you see yourself retiring any time soon?

Oh, no. No. I think there are some performers who kind of reach their peak, like Johnny Carson, and they go out gracefully when they’re at the top. And then there are other performers who just keep getting worse, and they suck and get embarrassing. I plan to be one of the latter. I plan to keep going as I suck and get embarrassing and go beyond that.

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