Celebrity Apprentice has always had its share of Vegas. Tito Ortiz, Lil Jon, Andrew Dice Clay, Khloe Kardashian and Annie Duke have all made runs on the show. This season (No. 12, premiering Feb. 19 on NBC), though, looks like producers pulled together its cast from a month of local entertainment programming.
Former Peepshow starlet Aubrey O’Day is part of the show, as is Adam Carolla, who occasionally tapes his podcast at the House of Blues. One-time star of Monster Circus at the Hilton, Dee Snider, and regular Pearl performer Lisa Lampanelli both have spots. The biggest Vegas fish to splash into Donald Trump’s pond, though, is Rio headliner Penn Jillette.
Wynn oddsmaker Johnny Avello has already set the line on Jillette at 8-to-1, the fourth choice in the field. If those odds were for more than entertainment purposes, it would be a terrible bet.
Jillette insists he wasn’t well-liked on his team. He was accused of being condescending. He was accused of being aloof. He was graced with the Sicilian kiss of corporate reputation: not being a team player. You get the sense, though, that the feeling was at least, in some part, mutual.
“I remember we had a break for a day off and I happened to see Teller. It’s the longest I’ve gone without working with Teller in my adult life. I saw him, and Teller was explaining the Latin and Greek etymology of the word ‘theater’ as we were driving to a gig. … I remember just kind of going ‘ahhhh.’” Penn leans back and rolls his eyes skyward in mock ecstasy, the way you might when you first taste something particularly great.
“He was just giving information that he found fascinating. That was the stuff [Apprentice competitors] hated—and rightly so. I wouldn’t have done that conversation with any of them unless 16 hours goes by and it’s, ‘Did you know Burt Ward in Batman recorded a single and he had Frank Zappa playing guitar behind him and the Sun Ra Horns with it?’”
Lampanelli didn’t confine her disdain to just one member of her team.
“I was trying to make a list of people I didn’t have fights with on the show, and I can’t remember any I didn’t have fights with,” she says. “I really focus on the women a lot because they’re fucking retarded. I can’t stand lazy, and I can’t stand stupid. When you have some people who are either one or the other of those things, I want to kill people.”
So why go into a situation like that, and compete with and against people so alien to your entire ethos?
Jillette is playing the game for Opportunity Village, and is counting on the money and exposure raised for the charity to give it a significant boost. He’s also playing to put asses in seats at the Rio. There’s a third reason, though, more subtle than those two. Jillette said doing Celebrity Apprentice, and Dancing With the Stars before it, gives him a chance to explore from the inside what he calls the most defining form of 21st-century entertainment: nonscripted television.
“If you had a chance to be on Ed Sullivan with The Beatles, if you had the chance to be the magician who followed them, wouldn’t you want to be there in the episode?” he asks.
Jillette may be one of the few reality-show contestants to approach the program with something like a scientific curiosity. (Though not the only one to play the game on another level—he credits Carolla for using Apprentice as fodder for laughs, first and foremost.) He seems mostly enchanted with a concept first put forth in Daniel Kahneman’s 2011 book Thinking Fast and Slow, the idea of ego depletion. The theory goes that after four, five, six hours in front of a camera, trying to put forth one’s best face, a person’s reserves of willpower will vanish. In an instant, they’ll go from comported to unfiltered.
“I watched people on Celebrity Apprentice completely flip out,” Jillette says. “They should have been able to control that. They just had this ego depletion thing. My big revelation on Celebrity Apprentice was they don’t have to cheat to get fireworks. … Also, there weren’t many fireworks.”
Yet Jillette himself said ego depletion had the converse effect on him. He would start out boisterous and confrontational, but over time became docile. “I think it’s a function of how I see myself, and how I want to be. I really believe in the marketplace of ideas. I really believe people should intellectually be confrontational.”
That the cameras affect people’s behavior isn’t surprising. What is, is that they would still have that kind of impact on people who are used to performing. Lampanelli said in her personal life, she’s already hypercompetitive. She’s proud of stirring up a ruckus during her time in Trump’s employ. But even so, after her experience on Apprentice, she said she can’t stomach the idea of doing another reality show (unless, she says, it was Dancing With the Stars, so she can lose the weight she put on during Apprentice).
“I went too far every single episode. I’m guaranteeing you I’ll get a billion love letters or a billion hate letters,” she says. “I was cursing up a storm, having a good time with that, because I love to run my mouth. But I went over the edge every single episode, and I’m so happy with it.”