Penn & Teller
Thursday, Jan. 31, 2001; 1 p.m. EST
For over 20 years Penn and Teller have been amazing, entertaining and grossing out audiences across America. From January 29 - February 3 the duo will bring their bizarre brand of magic to the Lyric Opera House in Baltimore, Md.
Actor, magician and author Penn Jillette -- the taller, louder half of Penn and Teller -- took your
questions on magic, their stage show and whatever else strikes your fancy.
A transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control
over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Penn, is "Flag" back in the show? Could you tell us a little more about your thoughts on the subject?
Penn Jillette: Flag was pulled out of the show after 9/11, not because we thought it would offend, but because we thought it wouldn't. Seeing Wayne Newton (and everyone else) trot out the flag and "god bless America" to make a buck made us sick and we were afraid that even though we wrote it before the disaster, when that flag came out it might look wrong. People might cheer and that's not what it's about. We put it back in at the first of the year and we seem okay. If they applaud for the flag, I lean on the line "We mean no disrespect . . ." and that pushes back where they belong. Audiences are smart and they trust us not to be jingoistic and I love that.
It's going well.
I'm disappointed the SciFi channel never ran your pilot for "Fi Sci." I've been complaining for years about the lack of science in science fiction, so I was really looking forward to your show. Should we start harassing TV executives to shake it loose?
Penn Jillette: I don't know. They hated the show, and I can never tell, maybe it wasn't that good. I drifted from my original idea and maybe that was what made it not good. I didn't hate it, but they did. But, I learned some and maybe that learning will show up somewhere else without you having to fight.
New York, N.Y.:
What's the matter, Teller can't TYPE either?!
Just wanted to commend you on your brave, public atheism. As an atheist myself, I know that doing it in public is a lot more dangerous than doing it in private. Do you ever wonder, if more people do it in public, will someone pass a law against it? (John Ashcroft will probably drop a drape over you for it.)
Transcript: Teller (washingtonpost.com, Dec. 20, 2000)
Penn Jillette: If more people do it in public, people will start to realize that it's okay. We Atheists are gays in 1965 and this is even more important. Fight the power.
Remember, those who believe in god were flying those planes into buildings and a lot of people are noticing that.,
I just wanted to know who were your favorite illusionists growing up and have they changed as time has gone by.
Penn Jillette: I've ALWAYS hated "illusionist" empty headed fools pointing to boxes and pretending to torture women (if the women want it fine, but do it on your own time). Bad music. Bad haircuts. No heart. Yeech. It's what made me hate magic as a kid.
I like a LOT of close up magic -- Eddie Fector, Jamy Ian Swiss, Mike Close -- but no illusionists.
Hi Penn, How are you? Are you doing any sightseeing in Baltimore?
Penn Jillette: I haven't really been out of my room in Baltimore.
Penn and Teller have pretty much done it all (tv, movies, broadway, national tours, three best sellers, etc., etc.). What goals do P&T still have, what worlds do you still want to conquer? Although, I'm asking the question regarding the Penn and Teller show, I would also like to hear what you personally still would like to accomplish.
Penn Jillette: Our goals aren't based on medium or venue, they're based on ideas. We want to say things that are in our heart. As we've gotten more successful, that's gotten even more important. We LOVE doing the live show and we have several million years worth of stuff to do there. We'll die without running out of goals for the live theater.
I'd like to be better on Jazz upright bass and better with card tricks.
I understand that a brightly colored fingernail might serve as a useful diversion in your line of work. But how do you explain the toenails?
Penn Jillette: My jazz buddy, Jonesy, convinced me to have a "day of beauty." We hate sports and we don't drink so we thought we'd have a real "girl's day." We got pedicures and it makes my feet feel better.
Also, I'm big enough to pull it off in the locker room.
Penn: in light of recent events, what do you see as a balance between our personal freedoms and the need for national security? Do you believe our government is going too far in this area?
Penn Jillette: People died for our freedoms. Real freedoms. Daily freedoms. And the fact that we're willing to piss them away because of cowardice makes me sick.
The 9-11 planes went down BECAUSE of security, one woman with a can a mace or one woman with a gun would have saved a lot of lives.
There should be NO government airport security. Let people fly free. There should be NO loss of the 6th amendment (or any of them).
When we were attacked like that it was time to say we were brave enough to live free. With the knowledge we have now (that hijacking has changed since the 70's) it could NEVER happen again and if 3 or 4 planes go down a year for our freedom, we HAVE to pay that price.
Live free or die.
He who would sacrifice liberty for safety deserves neither.
College Park, Md.:
Penn, as professional magicians, what are you guys doing to counter the public's obsession with the paranormal and guys who go on national TV claiming to talk to the dead?
Penn Jillette: Well, we spend a lot of time saying it's all just cheesy tricks. We tell the truth as we see it whenever we can and we don't back down.
We'd like to be doing more.
We've pitched a few TV shows that would take the other side. After a tragedy the ghouls come out and we must fight them.
Toronto, Ontario, Canada:
When you and Teller develop an elaborate new trick, how long does it usually take for the trick to go from `just a neat idea' to being performable on stage?
Penn Jillette: The gun trick took a couple years. Some stuff takes a couple weeks. It all depends on the bit. If they're dangerous they take longer because the stakes are higher.
About how often do you have people up and leave in the middle of a show disgusted with something in the content? And do you ever comment on their departure?
Penn Jillette: We lose a couple a night from the blasphemy. I never comment, people don't even notice. No one cares. Good riddance to bad xtians, I say.
I already asked Teller this question, and out of fairness, I want to give you an opportunity to answer too.
Using Einstein's theory of general relativity, in which he compared an hour with a beautiful woman as feeling like a minute, and a minute on a hot stove as feeling like an hour, how does it feel to have worked with Teller for more than 25 years?
Penn Jillette: It feels like 27 years.
At this point, what would be the downside of letting Teller speak? I mean, Kiss took off their makeup. let the little guy talk.
Penn Jillette: Teller talks in every single show and after the show all the time. People pretend he doesn't talk. He just talks less than me, which is true for you too.
Just wanted to say thanks for having the courage to perform in Mobile, especially since we are part of the infamous Bible Belt. So what did you think of us Rednecks and how would you rate us as an audience?
Penn Jillette: I don't use the word "redneck" it's a racist word. I noticed more strong upfront Atheism in the South than in the North. In the north is all "liberal open minded xtians" and I hate them worse than wabbits.
What are your favorite places to hear jazz in Las Vegas?
Penn Jillette: The Slammer, my house.
And I like hearing Jonesy at the Eiffle Tower at Paris (that's not spelled right).
Hi Penn! I have front row center seats to see you in Muncie, Ind. in March. Do you ever pick on people in the front row at your shows?
Penn Jillette: We pick the front row, but never people that ask, so don't let me know who you are.
You display some amazing powers on stage. Do you have the same abilities in an online chat? If so, who do you think will win the Super Bowl -- St. Louis or New England?
Penn Jillette: Rams
Do you think the bit is still funny/appropriate where you roll a metal ball through the metal detector at the airport as Teller walks through?
I'm still waiting for the right time to "poke out my eye" with a dairy creamer at a restaurant.
Penn Jillette: It's funnier. Fight the power.
What other (if any) currently active magicians do you admire?
Penn Jillette: Mike Close, Mac King, Lance Burton, Jamy Ian Swiss, Amazing Randi, The Great Tompsoni and Company, to name a few
Is Penn Jillette your real name and how many basses do you own?
Penn Jillette: Penn Fraser Jillette.
My parents named me after my Grandmother, Penny, and were disappointed with a boy.
I have 2 acoustic uprights, 1 electric upright and about 4 electrics.
Any plans for more movies?
Penn Jillette: I just mentioned an idea to Teller over dinner the night before last. It's a long way to go.
We've written another one but we're not in it. This idea would have us in it.
What's the worst injury that you or Teller have suffered while performing magic?
Penn Jillette: It would be morally and artistically wrong to get injured. We're asking people to laugh at death and suffering and that's only art if there's no chance of it. Leave the real to Nascar and magicians with fewer chops.
That having been said, when I got stung by bees 24 times in 30 seconds all the skin peeled off my balls. Sexy!
Peoples' Republic of Alexandria, Va.:
Thanks for all the laughs and gasps over
the years. I have two questions, one on a
specific illusion, and another more
general question. First, how does one
turn a budget surplus into a deficit in the
blink of an eye without anyone noticing?
Must tax cuts always be used, or will any
misdirection work? Secondly, what
individual qualities or skills do you and
your partner bring to the performance that
you find most beneficial? Are there things
you each do better than the other, or don't
do at all?
Penn Jillette: No taxes -- free the people from the state.
Teller and I have worked only together. All the skills one of us has have gone away in the other. It's hard to imagine we could work alone now. All our strong suits are our most irritating qualities.
You and your partner have both been active in skeptic movements. What is your opinion about belief in the unsubstantiated and the state of scientific thinking among the public in America?
Penn Jillette: The USA is full of really smart people., The skeptics movement doesn't have the numbers, but it has all the brains and money.
We're doing fine.
Mr. Jillette --
I'm sure Mr. Teller isn't there with you, but if he were would he type anything or is that against the Harpo Marx philosophy of entertaining?
Penn Jillette: Teller and I both hate Harpo. A lot of what we do reflects that.
Haven't heard you on Stern lately. Any plans?
Penn Jillette: I live in Vegas now so it's not just going downstairs. Also, he's SUCH a big cheese that things have to be planned forever.
Man, he did a lot of good for us, but now, well, you gotta plan a year in advance and that's tough.
As a just starting out street performer my biggest problem is the hecklers. Did you have problems with them when you first started? How did you deal with them then and how do you deal with them now?
Penn Jillette: I've never thought witty comebacks was the answer. I don't really know how I do it. I'm usually pretty direct and let them know that I don't like it, without being rude.
I never got heckled that much, I'm bigger and louder than
I saw a TV program where you took a camera crew on a tour of your home outside Las Vegas. Who's your architect? I loved your house.
Penn Jillette: Colin Summers -- friend and genius.
Downtown, Washington, D.C.:
Penn: If I have a Too Much Joy party, will you show?
When I found out you were a fan several years ago, it only increased my respect for your act. The Joy Boys rock! (and so does Wonderlick, for that matter)
Penn Jillette: I've been playing bass with Wonderlick. Yeah, invite me.
How did you first get interested in your profession?
Penn Jillette: I met Teller.
How long do you generally work on a bit before it makes it into the show and what is the deciding factor when it comes to taking one out ("Houdini," for example)?
Penn Jillette: I answered the first part, taking it out is based on lots of stuff, mostly time, space on the truck and transitions. Also sometimes new bits step on old bits so the old ones have to go.
We never get sick of material.
Silver Spring, Md.:
Welcome back to the area!
You're a leading figure, along with the Amazing Randi, in the fight against snake-oil hokum and junk science being pedaled as the genuine article. Do you have any comments on this guy on TV who claims to talk to dead people and has a book on the New York Times bestseller list?
Penn Jillette: Since my Mom and Dad died, I can't even watch them use people's grief to make themselves famous. It makes me cry. I can't watch John Edwards through my tears. To see a man that full of hate and that lacking in compassion tears my heart out.
It's pure sadness and hate. It's white light white heat.
The TV "biographies" I've seen about you and Teller were fascinating. Do you ever reflect on how you acquired your "different" sense of humor? (One which I share, I might add)
Penn Jillette: I have no idea. No idea. I always wanted to be a great serious writer and I always made people laugh. I went with my strengths. Phyllis Diller says go with what's easy.
When / Where (if ever) will we see the documentary from China, Egypt, & India, that you hated so much?
Penn Jillette: They've been on in Canada and England, I think they're supposed to be on The Learning Channel here some time.
Washington, D.C. lady:
Penn Jillette: Yes.
Penn Jillette: Oh, and straight too. Because I won't deny being gay on Stern or PI, people get confused. I don't mind being known as gay publicly, but if it gets in the way -- I have to make it clear.
What are your favorite things to do when you're not performing?
Penn Jillette: Typing, reading, jazz, sex, dinner with friends, Starbucks with friends, movies.
Mt. Lebanon, Pa.:
When and why did you decide to go into making a fool of yourself in public as opposed to say becoming a gardener, turf accountant, bookie, physicist, or some other occupation? And how and why did you take on your partner? Thanks much.
Penn Jillette: I don't think I've ever made that decision.
What was your role in Rocky Horror Show?
Penn Jillette: We were the narrator. (but I got in drag and ate fire with Teller)
Whats your opinion on David Blane? Is this guy for real? He fascinates the hell out of me.
Penn Jillette: His specials were great (I didn't see them, but Teller liked the first one). Some of our crew guys work with him. He seems nice. He has no close-up skills (everything he does is REALLY easy and just editing), but then again, he's better with a deck of cards than Elvis was with a guitar, so that should shut me up.
I don't get the "stunts" at all, but people love them.
He's always been really nice to us and since he can't do a live show he sells tickets to our show like crazy.
So, we dig him
Glen Burnie, Md.:
Would you reveal any simple trick right here and now, during this chat?
Penn Jillette: 45 degree angle mirrors and a switch.
What's the most recent movie you have seen and what did you think of it?
Penn Jillette: Black Hawk Down. I didn't understand it.
Penn Jillette: Yes
Repent, Harlequin, Said the TickTock Man:
Ha. I still remember years ago when you got in trouble when one of your PCwhatever magazine columns suggested that a good April Fools joke would be to program your laptop to display "Arming... Three.... Two...." on boot. Airport security folks were not amused.
You were an early adopter of PCs -- do you still enjoy messing around with computers?
Penn Jillette: I wish everyone would start doing that trick again.
I use my computer all the time and I always have the newest and coolest. But, I never was a real guy, just an end user.
New York, N.Y.:
Do you recommend that people who come see you live wear rain gear in case of accidental splattering?
Penn Jillette: We're not Gallager, you fool.
Mr. J: Do you ever have guests on your "real" as opposed to "TV" shows? Mr. Randi, for instance?
Penn Jillette: We've never had guests in our live show (other than audience members).
If you and Charles Mingus got into an argument, who would throw the first punch?
(I mean when Mingus was still alive.)
Penn Jillette: Mingus.
I've never hit anyone in anger in my life.
How big a truck is needed to haul around all of your props?
Penn Jillette: 18 wheeler driven by the wonderful John Smith.
What are some of your favorite books on magic, for people interested in getting started? Also, what's your view about John Edwards, specifically?
Penn Jillette: I hate John Edwards and I hope people stop talking to him completely BEFORE he dies and leave him with just the dead.
I'm reading "Card College" right now, but I don't know magic books well. That's Teller.
All right, so what bass players do you admire?
Penn Jillette: Ray Brown!, Mingus, all of them, as I'm learning, but Ray Brown and Mingus kill me dead.
I know you despised the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies. Any particular reasons why?
Penn Jillette: I don't think I understand fantasy. It teaches me nothing about my life and that's the only reason I want art.
Hairy feet? That movie meant nothing. Harry Potter seemed like it just wasn't for adults, so I can't judge. But LOTR was one of the worst things I've ever seen.
Did the 2nd "Tatoo of Blood" heal as well as he 1st? Have you gotten any additional inkless tattoos since "Kari" in a heart.
Penn Jillette: I got a couple more from Teller on Conan, but they've all healed pretty well. You can still see them a little.
Are you cute? I could do your name.
It's pretty well known that you're a
How can you reconcile the
idea of no government regulation of
anything with the implosion of Enron
because of no real regulation or honest
auditing? If you're so anti-regulation, why
don't you eat food that hasn't been
checked by the FDA or USDA? In other
words, why don't you just eat food like you
wouldn't eat in your trips to Egypt or
India? Put your belief where your mouth
Penn Jillette: This is too long a discussion for here, but Underwriters Laboratory is a non-government agency and I believe it does a fine job. That's the model I'd use for food. I think the Good Housekeeping seal is like that too. That's easy to do privately.
I haven't read enough about Enron to have a good opinion on this, but it doesn't seem that the government helped much on that.
Do you surf the net? I thought I heard you take e-mail from fans. Do you have an e-mail address?
Penn Jillette: You can write to me care of sincity.com or the Mofo tight circle. Audrey can always get to me.
Yeah, I surf the net a lot.
So, are you an artist or an entertainer?
Penn Jillette: There's no difference. There's one showbiz and I'm in it. With Piscopo, Bach, and the guy who dresses like Santa at the mall.
Ann Arbor, Mich.:
If you could get Balloon of Blood to work all the time would you put it back in the show?
Penn Jillette: It is working all the time (new ending) and we're trying to find room for it in the show again soon.
It was written about Jerry Camero (and others) and his death has made it hard. I miss him.
Washington, D.C. - need recommendation:
Who would you recommend to see for good close up magic in Las Vegas, other than yourselves of course? I loved Lance Burton, thought Siegfred and Roy were over the hill and tiresome, but I'm looking for the next best thing (if you've been to the Magic Castle in LA this is the type of thing I am looking for)
Penn Jillette: See Mike Close at the Houdini Longue at the Monte Carlo (call to make sure he's working, I think he's Wednesdays and Thursdays) and then see Mac King at Harrahs in the afternoon. Better than anything you've ever seen.
Speaking of Healing:
I remember that time on Letterman when you plunged Teller's hand into the liquid nitrogen and smashed it wih a hammer. Did it regenerate itself OK?
Penn Jillette: Looks okay to me, but I don't look at him much.
Ann Arbor, Mich.:
Hello Penn a Mofan here. Tell Krasher and the gang hello and say hey to Teller!
Penn Jillette: Okay.
Are you in a romantic relationship now?
Penn Jillette: Well, you know. Always kinda, never kinda.
San Lorenzo, Calif.:
Will I have the pleasure of seeing "Cuffed" at the upcoming Vegas shows?
Penn Jillette: Not this show in Vegas.
As a fellow graduate of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, I'm curious how your own studies there propelled you forward. What tools do you still use? What have you rejected?
Penn Jillette: I don't think I use much of anything from there. I'm not a physical comedian. I suck at that.
How did you two meet and get started in the industry?
Penn Jillette: Through a mutual friend (Wier Chrisemer who was the 3rd member of The Asparagus Valley Cultural Society). We just got ideas and did them. We did whatever we could. There was no plan.
What is the greatest illusion that you have pulled off, that even to this day makes you wonder "how the heck did we do that?"
Penn Jillette: The gun trick is the best trick ever.
Have you had any ideas for bits for your show that seemed really good, but just could not be made to work onstage? What were they, and how long would you work on a piece before deciding that it just was not going to happen?
Penn Jillette: We have ideas all the time that don't work. I don't know how to answer how long we work. I hope no longer than we have to. I mean, we gets zillions of ideas, the rarer ones are the ones that work.
We had the basic idea for Honor System for 20 years before we could make it work.
Penn what was with the frogs on the speakers before your show and at intermission in Mobile? We were in the balcony and couldn't understand what the man was saying.
Penn Jillette: It's two old guys at a pond talking about frogs. I love that record. It's called "The Frog Pond" by Droll Yankees.
What is your favorite television show and before you became a magician what did you want to become?
Penn Jillette: I liked Night Gallery.
I wanted to be a writer.
Independent agencies testing food safety. You kill me! We should have volunteer police too, huh? They could be accountable to themselves.
Penn Jillette: Isn't underwriters working fine?
Jefferson said police, defense, and courts for the government and I'm inclined to agree.
I'm glad you're happy with the government taking care of you. All I hear is people hating it and it's good someone is digging it. WE know who we're fighting.
Speaking of Santa, if you had any children would you tell them there's a Santa? Would that be akin to saying there's a god?
Penn Jillette: It sure ain't as bad as god, but I'm not sure I'd play that game.
I'll have to have kids to find out, and I'd like to.
I'm trying very hard to be open about my
atheism with my friends. I find it very
difficult. They seem to want to ask
questions to trip me up. I'm wondering if
people do that to you and if they do, how
do you respond?
Penn Jillette: Depends on the question. You have to be open and proud about it. I always tell them I'm very happy to believe, but... there's no god.
Many years ago I was fortunate to be the Reverend in one of your shows and still have the autographed Bible. Any chance of telling me how you did that? I know that I didn't pick the verse until the last possible moment.
Penn Jillette: I think it's more fun for both of us to keep that a secret. Also, like all good magic tricks it's ugly and complicated. It would take many many screens to even give you a rough idea.
Isn't it almost time for a new Penn & Teller book?
Penn Jillette: We write our own (unlike most others) and we haven't even started yet. So, it maybe time, but it's not there.
What is your favorite band/musician? Also, how many basses do you own and which one is your favorite? Any Ernie Ball Music Man's?
Penn Jillette: Velvet Undergound, I guess. But, now I'm a jazz cat.
I play only upright now. But, I still like my Rick (I answered the number question before here)
Who is your favorite founding father?
Penn Jillette: Jefferson
What has been your favorite show moment? Worst?
Penn Jillette: I like it so much, it's hard to say. I LOVED Lou Reed coming to the show.
I hated Kreskin coming to the show.
Are you guys ever going to tour Australia?
Penn Jillette: Man, its a long ways away.
Has your show changed at all because of Sept. 11?
Penn Jillette: As I said, we took out Flag for a while and for a while we were careful about some of the religion stuff.
Teller says that it was you who introduced him to rock music. Was there anything like that that you discovered through Teller?
Penn Jillette: Psycho.
Can one dance to jazz?
Penn Jillette: Monk could.
What is your stance on the rights of gun owners vs. Handgun Inc.?
Penn Jillette: I think everyone should have the freedom to have whatever they want.
Without giving away how to do it, which is your favorite self-working card trick? Also, which is your favorite "floating dollar" trick (again, without giving away the methods)? Also, will you ever reveal how you do the gun trick?
Penn Jillette: There's this weird math one that I don't know the name of that's all mental. That's no help. I don't like any floating dollar bill one.
I won't tell the gun trick here.
>Are you cute?
Penn, I'm a guy. We have met (several times) and I hope that you DO NOT think that I'm cute!
Penn Jillette: Guys are often cute.
Cabin John, Md.:
I was an atheist, too, until I had kids. Seeing a little lump of stuff develop into a thinking, caring human -- no way that could happen without a Major Miracle Maker. So just wait.
Penn Jillette: You're one of the scumbags that pulls rank. I know LOTS of Atheist parents. I think you need to read more biology.
What kinds of qualities make a good magician? What are magicians like?
Penn Jillette: Ideas.
I don't know that many.
Are you going to start taking the train, with all the hassle with airline travel these days?
Penn Jillette: We'll probably stop touring as much. I hate seeing those pigs in my country.
Have you ever considered doing a libertarian fundraiser?
Penn Jillette: I give my own money.,
Penn Jillette: Thank ya'll. It was fun. Sorry for all the spelling and typo mistakes. Thanks for your interest and kindness.
Fight the power.
What do you think of the military and national defense? Opposed to it or do you support it?
Penn Jillette: I would just defend the actually country. I'm pretty isolationist
>Guys are often cute.
I guess, but hopefully not cute enough that you'd want to have two years worth of my name on your body. Fun comments, nonetheless.
Penn Jillette: Okay.
Silver Spring, Md.:
What's it like making $30 Million a year?
Penn Jillette: I don't know what it's like. But, I can't imagine it's too different than making what I'm making and it's not near that.
Have you ever seen Hooker and Doc at the Tower Bar in Snowmass, Colo.? They seem like good close up magicians to me, but the people you mentioned must be amazing.
Penn Jillette: Yeah, they're great. I just haven't seen them enough. But, they're wonderful. The ones I mentioned I've seen hundreds of times.
Thank you Penn, not just for the comments on this forum, but for everything.
Penn Jillette: Thank you.
Any views on Shakespearian authorship?
Penn Jillette: Nope
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