A Conversation with Penn Jillette

It is frankly in the spirt of adventure that I make bold tonight, to take up before you what I suppose is the largest subject in human history- magic.” Such was the opening that James Shotwell wrote in his 1910 paper, The Rôle of Magic. “…it [magic] was the science and religion combined, much of the art, and most of the mode of thinking of our race for those vast stretches of centuries that we so lightly term the prehistoric.  It is still the most important basis of action and belief for millions of human beings and has penetrated history in such vital ways as to modify the structure of both church and state, dominate a large part of the philosophy, and affect the progress of science.” 

This may seem overly hyperbolic, but since our species began to ask questions- much of that questioning has been in the pursuit of ‘truth’ – and much of culture has developed around that.  It was, perhaps, the renaissance which finally ripped apart the scientific, the religious and the other modes of thinking into different entities, with science and rationality having dominated much of thought ever-since.  Magic has however, remained an important feature of our lives- not in the occult and supernatural sense- but rather as a highly successful form of entertainment, and a powerful way for us to explore that very primal notion of truth.

For over 40 years Penn & Teller have defied labels—and at times physics and good taste– by redefining the genre of magic and inventing their own very distinct niche in comedy. Penn Jillette is the magician, actor, musician, inventor, television personality, and author who forms half of this incredible and long-standing partnership.  He is a true polymath, and in this exclusive interview I had the pleasure of speaking to Penn to learn more about the role of magic in culture, how you create a great show, and the secrets of building long-standing partnerships.

Q:  What is the role of magic in culture?

[Penn Jillette]:  Many people get into magic because they’re interested in the possibility of the supernatural or because they would like for certain things to be true, or to exert power.  None of that interests me at all.  I’m interested in the ‘modern’ definition of magic which plays with epistemology, and the determinations we make about what’s true, and what is real.  The most important decisions you can make center around your perceptions of the world, and what makes  you doubt them…

For many people – Dynamo, David Blaine and even David Copperfield, the roots of their passion lie in the powers that shaman and witches claimed to have.  I can’t tell you how little that interests me.  The Discoverie of Witchcraft, published in 1584, was the first time this stuff was talked about as trickery- the first time magic (as we understand it today) was discussed.

My interest is not whether something could dematerialize in my hand, but how people can be misled.  You can this very dangerous thing- lying- and make it safe to play around with.  Magic is this incredibly weird bondage and discipline you make where you say to someone, ‘do this thing to me that’s morally wrong… you have my consent…’ – once you give your consent, the morality changes.

With most other performances, you can get a lot of the guts electronically.  You and I would love to see Sinatra, Elvis, Lenny Bruce or George Carlin live, but there is an electronic equivalent which still captures the heart of that; not all the heart, but a lot of it.  As soon as you do magic electronically, you’ve put a separation between you and the audience that stops you doing the main thing that you are there to do.  Magic stays with us a performance artform because it gives us something we can’t get electronically.

Q: What does success mean to you?

[Penn Jillette]:  We never set out to create what we created.  If you talked to Houdini, Paul McCartney, Howard Stern or Madonna – they would all tell you that they should have been more successful; Paul McCartney has some interviews that are jaw-dropping where he says the Beatles didn’t really get their due! Paul thinks he should be more famous than he is, Howard Stern believes that, Madonna believes that… Houdini was obsessed with it- he’s one of the few people that has become part of our language, ‘….to pull a Houdini.’  I never felt a lust for fame – we all want to be successful, and I’m not going to be disingenuous by claiming a lack of ambition when I have my name on a theatre in Las Vegas… but I’ve met people with a level of ambition above me, and it makes me feel like I have none.  When you meet people like Howard Stern or Madonna, you see this phenomenal drive.

I thought it was impossible to earn my living as a performer.  My dad was a jail guard, I’m from a dead factory town in New England (or as we call it, New and Improved England).  I wanted desperately to become carny trash- to work in small theatres and fairs.  When I first met Teller, his father was a commercial artist- he’s also not from any sort of privileged class, though I understand that by being born in the United States, we have a level of privilege that’s breathtaking, but by US standards we were not particularly privileged.

When we were first able to make approximately what our fathers made by doing performance, we considered ourselves completely successful and had no ambition beyond that.  If we were playing fairs and cruise ships, we were happy.  One of my girlfriends from when we were starting out was asked if we’d changed from when we were carny trash when we were on Broadway and she said, ‘no, not at all… when they were playing for 40 people outside in the dirt, they thought their show was the most important thing in the world…’ – I have always been focused on our show, and it always astonishes me when someone who- in one way or another, would be a peer- talks about how much they wanted to have their own theatre in Vegas and wanted to be famous.  How can that be your goals? A location is not a goal to me – If you told me right now that I could have had my same level of income, success or accomplishments with a different show? I wouldn’t have wanted to do it at all.  We’re interested in doing this show.  Even when I was 16, if you had asked me what I wanted most in the world – I would have said, ‘…to be able to do shows, and have people watch them.’ Realistically, for my level of ability, talent and work-ethic, we expected about 200 people a night to come and see us.  We were off by an order of magnitude and we were stunned by that.

I’m 65 years old, and one of the things that amazes me is the number of people who work to get to a certain level of success in showbusiness, and then quit to go play golf?! There is nothing else I would want to do in this world.

There are people like Garth Brooks and Kenny G who have degrees in business, and set-out to create a lot of success with their businesses- and I wouldn’t question their purity or heart, but if you talk to them about a plan…. They’ve got one!  If you talk to me about my plan? I don’t.  We have great people around us who do- but those plans do not come from the top.

Q:  How do you build a deep audience connection?

[Penn Jillette]:  We had remarkable success off-Broadway playing to 200 people at most, and so it was terrifying when we went to Broadway- even though all of our finance and business people kept telling us it was the obvious step.  We both had huge doubt because we’d only done a couple of shows- ever- to audiences more than 500, and even moving indoors was a big change.  We were now about to start doing a show for over 1,000 – when our normal show involved things like a closing monologue, talking about carnival life, and doing fire-eating by candle-light.

One of the most important points though; I was unamplified off Broadway – I could use my voice how I wanted, but now I was going to have microphones.  Nowadays, if you see street performers, or even small performances to a room, everyone uses a microphone and that disturbs me.  There’s something beautiful, open and present about using the human voice.  I’m very interested in music and sound and worked very closely with our sound people to make sure my voice didn’t get flattened out and compressed.  We’ve lost the dynamics of audio over the last 30 years because of compressed music formats, radio and different genres of music.  One of the most important ways we build intimacy is by having a poor sound guy who is riding my gains all the way through the performance, and who knows our script. For almost any other person with one voice- he’d set it, leave it, and have the machine do it.

I used to believe that intimacy was about numbers – but as Allen Ginsberg said, the job of the poet is to stand naked on stage.  If you can be as open with your heart as possible, humans will feel that intimacy from any distance.  ZZ Top do a show where the eyes and the mouth and the head are completely obscured whereas the Rolling Stones do this huge production- and then you go to people like Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan who move to the other end of the spectrum, and perform right inside your heart.   Bob Dylan, even in a stadium of 20,000 people can choose a point to strip it down to a piano, and you feel it.

Q:  Does performance fill a vacuum that was once filled by religion?

[Penn Jillette]: Yuval Noah Harari’s books have made me question a tremendous amount.  They changed my view of animal rights and of atheism.  I know think that many religious people are much more sophisticated that I used to give them credit for.  I think there may well be people who- when they say they believe in God- don’t have any sense of the supernatural at all.  There are aspects of gospel, of soul music, and Bach that seem to be directly drawing into what I would call a humanist point of view of the arts. I do not wish to disrespect religious people, or to say, ‘hey… you don’t really believe in God…’ but I think there’s a level of respect in-between that can say, ‘even though I’m an atheist, and you are a theist, this whole level of connection, awe and wonder is something we share completely…’ If you watch any of the shows of David Byrne, you see there is a sense of secular, religious experience – many other performers do this too.

Five years ago I would have told you that religion is going away, and performance is filling the vacuum – bit now, I don’t know how much difference there is between a religious service, and a stirring musical performance.

Q:  How do you bring the audience into peak-experiences?

[Penn Jillette]:  There’s a thing you do in magic, and as far as I know, Teller is the best at it… perhaps one of the best that’s ever lived.  He has this ability to identify and empathise with the audience and is very aware of what people will be thinking at any given time, where their intention will be at any instant… Teller can say stuff like, ‘…nobody will notice you reaching into your pocket at this particular moment, but at that moment, they will…’ He can put himself into an audience, even if there isn’t one.

I really try to put myself in the position of the audience, but less visually, more verbally.

When we’re working together, it starts with an audience of two people – just the two of us watching the two of us.  Teller and I do not agree on much artistically, but when we do overlap, it seems we have a broad-audience.  If you see us perform individually, I tend to be more conceptual, completely verbal…. Teller is completely beautiful and visual….

Our rehearsals are almost a joke – during the lighting and staging, I’m not even there… they have a stand-in for me.  I come in after 3 days of rehearsal and Teller tells me, ‘you’ll stand here, walk there…’ – ultimately, we’ve found that if we can find something that pleases the both of us? It will probably please 2,000 people.

Q:  How do you build a strong partnership?

[Penn Jillette]:  Neither Teller or I drink or do drugs at all… we never have… not a sip of alcohol, not a puff of marijuana… not even caffeine. I’d like to think there’s a lot more to it than that, but that is a huge factor.  We’ve teamed with people who have had some sort of substance problem, and thing do get harder.

Attitude is really important.  I’m not talking in absolutes but we try to make sure we’re never late for a meeting, and that we always do something if we say we will.  There’s an ongoing joke amongst our team that if we have a meeting, Penn and teller will be there 5 minutes early waiting for everyone else to join.   We also agree on money, how it should be spent, what our goals are, what kind of places we want to play, and what our show will be.  Artistic agreement however is non-existent – that’s what we fight over, and we love it.

We love to talk- we’ve brought in other writers and they joke about how Teller and I argue about the tiniest little angel dancing on a pin nuance of one emotion, whereas other people just want to get on with it.

That said; the longevity of our relationship comes from an absence of love.  I believe that Martin & Lewis are the best example, but you also have Lennon & McCartney, Gilbert & Sullivan… these are teams that fell in love.  Lennon & McCartney were- by every definition- madly, head over heels in love with each other.  When that falls apart, it’s horrible, heart breaking… When these two men discovered they wanted to have girlfriends, marriages and a personal life? The rejection they felt was heartbreaking.   When Martin & Lewis broke-up, it was like the end of a love story.  A trip to the moon on Gossamer wings, just one of those things.

There are some people you meet where you have this instant, physical, animal attraction to them.  You want to be around them, hug them, be close to them – I’m ignoring whether sex happens or not, because I don’t care.  I’m talking about affection and wanting to be close.  Then you have other people that you know in life where your relationship via email would be identical to your relationship in person.  I have very close friends who I don’t have any sort of natural ‘huggy’ affection for, but other friends that I just want to be as close to as I can get.  Teller and I, as far as I can tell, had no affection for each other whatsoever.   It was a completely intellectual, and not an emotional, connection.  We wanted to talk about ideas with each other, and we wanted to be business partners, and we believed we did better stuff together than separately.  We formed our partnership like we were starting a 7-Eleven or dry-cleaning business, it was very regimented and clear.

Teller and I don’t’ spend time together outside of work.  Now, we work together 50-60 hours a week, but if there’s time to go for dinner? Teller is never my first choice.  Imagine, we’d go for dinner, he’d ask ‘so, what did you do today…’ I’d be like, ‘the same thing you did motherfucker!’ – we have many friends who are friends with both of us, and very rarely will be out with the two of us together, they have totally separate relationships with us.

There were rules within the WHO that Keith Moon couldn’t go to Pete Townshend’s house (because he was a nuisance) but Teller and I don’t have those rules in place.  I may go to his house twice a year… he probably comes to mine a little more often because my children love him, and see him as an uncle and want to be close to him.

All that said, over 45 years Teller has become I best friend.  When our parents died, when I was married, when I had children….. I mean the first person to hold my children after my wife and I, was Teller.  The difference is that Lennon & McCartney wanted to be breathing each other’s air, they wanted to be close to each other, and feel that affection.  As soon as they weren’t getting along, it was heartbreaking.  When Teller and I don’t get along, we’re kind of thrilled about it.  We’re kind of eager to bang-on about it and find out what our disagreement is- it’s never emotional, it’s usually something important.

We’ve also developed a lot of behaviours which may sound counterintuitive.  We don’t apologise- people who work with us are astounded by the incredibly mean, cruel and thoughtless things we’ll say to one another- but these things pass, and are never revisited, we just forget about it.  Why bother talking about the past, it’s forgotten.

All the improv’ classes and business schools tell you that everything has to be a yes and – You get an idea, and I say yes, and? and we grow together… Teller and I are the exact opposite.  Every idea we come up with, the other shoots down every way possible.  We’ve brought in other writers to work with us on TV and so on, and they’re appalled.  Before the sentence gets anywhere near to formed, the other is tearing it down.  That’s just the comfortable way we work. For people that haven’t been around us for a long time they go Jesus!.  The first thing we say to each other is, ‘no, that won’t work….’ Here’s why, if we’re heading into a dead-end, we want to know as soon as possible.

Q: What do you hope your legacy will be?

[Penn Jillette]:  Whenever someone speaks about their legacy, I get very sad.  It seems desperate, a bit like cheating.  You aren’t allowed to decide your legacy – I mean, the definition of being dead is not having a vote!

We had a babysitter for our children one night, she was in her early 20s and not in any sort of field related to showbusiness.  I was waiting for my wife to get ready and started a conversation on a whimsical idea.  I just started giving her names of artists to see if she knew them. Lenny Bruce? No… George Carlin? No…. I guess I could let those go…. Johnny Carson? No… Can you name the Beatles? Paul… and one of them was shot?….. Can you name the Rolling Stones? …. I went to see them once, Mick Jagger is amazing.  If Johnny Carson, John Lennon and George Carlin are not remembered 20 years out, anyone who thinks about their legacy in showbusiness is totally, utterly, completely, foolish.

When The Three Stooges did their movies, they did them to be seen once in a movie theatre, then 6 months later there’d be another 20 minute short.  They never intended for their work to be seen more than once by a theatre audience.  That’s why they repeated gags and did whole hunks of work that was exactly the same.  In their minds, ‘well, that was a year ago… no-one remembers it!’ – Today, people talk about deep-fakes and I say, ‘who gives a fuck!’ – 200 years ago, the only way we established truth was by all these complicated webs of interaction.  200 years ago, you could say to me, ‘The President of the United States is X’ and I would then have to do my due diligence to find out if you were telling the truth.  We then had this weird hunk of time where we believed that recordings meant something…. That’s not the way humans work…. That’s a burp in the million years of our existence….

I’m a rather old dad.  I was 50 when my children were born, but many of my friends have children who are now adults.  20 years ago they would brag to me, ‘my son listens to nothing but the Beatles, Zeppelin and the Who…’ and I would go, ‘what the fuck, that’s horrible, that’s a nightmare…’ – yes, we want to know about Bach, Shakespeare and Beethoven… yes, we want to know about Vermeer and Picasso… but we want to know about that as being different to our culture now.  When I’m with my children and they say, ‘let’s play some music…’ I always say to them ‘let’s play what you’re listening to…

Like the Three Stooges, I believe that everything I’m doing is defined live, it’s of the time.

I’m a real nut for Moby Dick – I read the book about once a year. I go crazy reading it because I can’t be part of the time.  It’s like Melville is sending me a letter across-time that I can read but when he uses the word Manhattos for the residents of Manhattan – I don’t know if that’s some beatnik, hipster slang or whether that’s genuinely old fashioned.  I don’t know!

Legacy is a ghost, it’s a shimmer.  You can’t fuck with time, it will take everything away from you.  That’s the deal we make when we choose to stay living.  All we have is now. Whether you look at that from a Buddhist, mindful mindset or look at it like the Three Stooges doing the same gag every year, it’s the same.

Another way to look at the question of legacy is in terms of the lines that connect people.  When David Copperfield came along, there were a lot of David Copperfields’ who came after that.  When David Blaine came along, the same…. There’s a line you can draw straight from David Blaine to Dynamo. When we first hit Saturday Night Live, a lot of people speculated that there was going to be a lot of boy magicians running around cutting off each other’s hands and doing our kind of stuff- but it kinda’ didn’t happen.  Magic is a very small pond; if you ask people to name musicians, living or dead, they’ll be able to name thousands…. If you ask them to name magicians? They’d struggle past 10.  Whilst there’s perhaps some reverberation we’ve left in magical culture in terms of skepticism, and not being afraid to be honest about method (doing tricks), I can’t see any lines between us and others- and to be honest, if you gave me credit for our approach, I’d throw it straight back to the Amazing Randi and Houdini.

You know what, when it comes to our work, I don’t think there’s much of a legacy and I’m wicked okay with that.

[bios]For over 40 years Penn & Teller have defied labels—and at times physics and good taste– by redefining the genre of magic and inventing their own very distinct niche in comedy.

With sold out runs on Broadway, world tours, Emmy-winning TV specials, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and hundreds of outrageous appearances on everything from Fallon to Friends, The Simpsons to ColbertModern Family to Big Bang Theory, comedy’s most enduring team show no signs of slowing down.

With an amazing eight wins as “Las Vegas Magicians of the Year,” their 18-year run at The Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino makes them the longest running and one of the most-beloved headline acts in Las Vegas history, outselling every other resident magician on The Strip.

Currently they host the hit series Penn & Teller: Fool Us! for The CW Network, on which up-and-comers and magic veterans try to fool Penn & Teller for a chance to star in the duo’s hit Las Vegas stage show. The show was nominated for a 2017 Critic’s Choice Award and returned for a sixth hit season in 2019.

Their acclaimed Showtime series, Penn & Teller: BS! was nominated for 13 Emmys and was the longest-running series in the history of the network.  The show tackled the fakes and frauds behind such topics as alien abduction, psychics and bottled water.

Along the way, they’ve written New York Times Best-Sellers, hosted their own Emmy-nominated variety show for FX, starred in their own specials for ABC, NBC and Comedy Central and produced the critically lauded feature film documentary The Aristocrats. Their acclaimed documentary, Tim’s Vermeer, follows Texas-based inventor Tim Jenison on his quest to discover the methods used by Dutch Master painter Johannes Vermeer. The Sony Pictures Classics film was nominated for a BAFTA and shortlisted for the 2014 Oscars.

As individuals, they are just as prolific.  Teller directed versions of Macbeth and The Tempest that toured to raves from The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, co-wrote and directed the Off-Broadway thriller Play Dead and has written two books.  Penn has written three books, including the New York Times Best Sellers, “God No!” and 2017’s “Presto”.  He hosted the NBC game show Identity and donned his ballroom shoes for ABC’s hit Dancing With The Stars. Penn also showed his business savvy on two seasons of NBC’s All-Star Celebrity Apprentice.

With inclusions in the New York Times Crossword Puzzle, as answers on Jeopardy and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, their status as cultural icons and the preeminent duo in comedy was once again reinforced when Katy Perry personally asked them to co-star in the video for her #1 song, “Waking Up in Vegas.”

Penn & Teller recently returned to Broadway in a triumphant smash six-week long engagement that USA Today called, “Deliciously unsettling.” It was the highest-grossing non-musical on Broadway for its entire run.[/bios]

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.