Penn & Teller performed at the Hard Rock Event Center at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on January 31st, 2019. Steven Joseph from Eloquence sat down with Penn Jillette for a chat behind the scenes…
Penn Jillette is not a magician. Jerry Seinfeld once said that magic is, “Here’s a quarter, now it’s gone, you’re a jerk, now it’s back, you’re an idiot, show’s over.” And so, to define magic as insulting your audience by performing illusions would describe a genre of entertainment that doesn’t include Penn. “We (Penn and his literal silent partner, Teller) first bristled at being called magicians. We perform tricks. A trick is purely intellectual. It uses the way we perceive reality to entertain. And even though, ‘illusion’ is a fancier word, it’s something that’s done with the optical process,” Penn recalled.
Penn Jillette is not a comedian, either. “We feel like our entire career was people laughing at us, not with us,” said Mr. Jillette. “I’ve always done a lot of reading, I’ve been into things that are pretty heavy, and yet, every time I talk, people laugh.” Penn and Teller have been performing for over 40 years, but their acts always start with an intellectual concept, not the idea of trickery or a joke. “We’re almost funny against our will. We start with an idea, then add the magic, then add the comedy.”
Okay, so maybe Penn Jillette is a magician AND a comedian. “As the definition of magic has broadened, possibly because of us, and definitely to include us, we have become known as magicians,” he said. In fact, on lists of some of the greatest tricks of all time, Penn and Teller have found themselves at the pinnacle of their accidental profession. “We didn’t originate the bullet catch, but we were the first act to do a double bullet catch. We’ve become very famous for it. We also do this bit where we turn one of our audience members into Teller, and I don’t think anyone does that as well as we do,” described Jillette.
As the world of magic has expanded, Penn thinks the best fictional example is Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker in the film “The Dark Knight.” “It’s the best movie about magic,” Penn raved. “The Joker uses all of these tricks and setups to find out the way people think about things. It’s the clearest thinking we’ve seen about magic.”
Why Penn Is The Perfect Name for Mr. Jillette
Penn Jillette is also a writer. “I really like being on stage very much, but my sister would say that she considers me a writer first and a performer second,” elaborated Penn. “As much as people think I’m very outgoing, I’m at my absolute happiest when I’m reading or writing. My ideal day is 3 or 4 hours of both.” Penn continued, “I have all of these friends who are writers who just bang out books, and I always think about their lives in fantasy terms.” Penn has authored several books on a variety of subjects, including Every Day is an Atheist Holiday, God No!, and most recently, Presto,which details his transformative weight loss of over 100 pounds on a strict potato-based diet.
“You know, I’ve never believed in deathbed confessions or life-altering motivations, but I was in the hospital and a doctor was going to put one of those things on my stomach so that I’d eat less. But then a friend said to me, ‘You know, it’s going to be really hard’ and that was what clicked for me. I love doing things that are hard. I learned to play the upright bass at 45, and that’s something you do when you’re 12 or 13, or before you’re 20. Certainly not when you’re that age.”
Speaking of upright bass, Penn’s love for music eventually brought him acclaim in a different avenue, as the co-director of the documentary “The Aristocrats,” which is a series of different comedians all telling their version of the famous joke of the same name. Penn was studying jazz at the time and felt that in order to really learn the format, he had to play it. “So, I was talking to my friend Paul Provenza (co-director of the film) and telling him that we always hear all these jazz cats riffing on ‘Bye, Bye, Blackbird,’ but we never hear comedians tell the same joke.” The film began as a private study on improvisation, “We wanted to hear Steven Wright to hear Gilbert Gottfried to hear Sarah Silverman to hear Drew Carey,” said Penn. “And I was just really hoping that when people watched the film they were thinking about jazz and improvisation.”
In addition to all his afore-mentioned showbusiness credits, Penn has gained notoriety as a contestant on ‘Dancing with the Stars,’ and Donald Trump’s ‘The Celebrity Apprentice’ and ‘The Celebrity Apprentice: All Stars,’ the latter of which he made it all the way to the finals, providing funds for the charity “Opportunity Village.” Opportunity Village provides jobs for the mentally disabled and has strong ties to the Las Vegas community where Penn and Teller have most-often performed. “There was a part of every Elvis concert where he takes the scarf from around his neck, kisses it, and throws it into the audience. But what a lot of people don’t know is every one of those scarves was sewn by someone from Opportunity Village,” Penn says. He continues, “People say all the time there are jobs that nobody wants, but the truth is, there ARE people who want them. These are people who want nothing more than to feel like they are part of a community.”
Penn and Teller also hosted a long-running show on Showtime entitled “Bullshit!” where they delved into and debunked commonly-held misconceptions on a variety of topics from PETA and bottled water to religion and chiropractors. One of Penn’s most-memorable takeaways from his work on the show was that “Christians are not bluffing with their kindness.” He said, “We would do the meanest episodes about the Bible or the Pope, and we would just get inundated with all of these letters thanking us and telling us they respected our point of view.” Indeed, if there is one lasting takeaway from all of Penn’s experiences on stage, screen, the bookshelves, and more, he says it is “Kindness matters.” Perhaps those are better magic words than “Abracadabra!”
For information about upcoming shows and events at Hard Rock Live at Seminole Hard Rock Hollywood, visit https://www.seminolehardrockhollywood.com/hard-rock-live-events.htm