Online Extra: Jillette on Morgan, ‘Dancing’ and What’s Funny

A continuation of Multichannel News contributor Robert Edelstein’s chat with Penn Jillette, the more talkative half of magic duo Penn & Teller and the host of Camp Stew on the Sportsman Channel. For part one of the interview, see the Oct. 13 print issue of MCN.  

MCN: What does it say about you that you lasted much longer on Celebrity Apprentice than on Dancing With the Stars?

Penn Jillette: Part of that is I was the tallest and heaviest contestant that’s ever been on [DWTS], including the football and basketball stars, but no one liked doing that show more than me. I think my skill in reality shows is that no one enjoys their time better. I never get nervous, nothing bothers me; on Celebrity Apprentice, I enjoyed doing that stuff. On Dancing With the Stars, they tried really hard to make us talk about how difficult it was. I just couldn’t do that, because I know people who work. And being in an air-conditioned room for four hours with a beautiful woman, learning to dance, is just not on anybody’s scale of hard work.

MCN: What makes you laugh?

PJ: Smoking monkeys. I don’t know; as a rule I tend to not laugh out loud at a lot of entertainment. I tend to get rather analytical. Gilbert Gottfried makes me laugh all the time. He makes me laugh myself sick. It used to amuse me because I think if I were a 14-year-old child and a fan of Penn and Teller and of Gilbert Gottfried, and I heard Penn and Gilbert Gottfried were in a restaurant together, I would expect them to be sitting across just laughing their asses off every second — though that’s naïve and wrong and not what would be happening — but it is all that’s happening. Gilbert and I would go out and sit and laugh for three hours, and not laugh for little tee-hees but to the point of crying and screaming. Gilbert can always make me laugh, using — as Teller points out — my Wicked-Witch-of-the-West cackle. He can get me screaming all the time.

My friends make me laugh of course. But I also get surprised now and again. I’m really enjoying this very sophisticated thing that is happening: There’s now a depth of television we never got before, and now is everywhere. I find myself laughing at Breaking Bad, because it’s not trying to get a laugh every 20 seconds, but it’s getting a laugh like a novel, it comes up after 15 minutes. I find myself laughing out loud alone at Fargo. Part of what I love about that is, as TV becomes [more like] novels, we are just relaxing. When television had to be funny for 22 minutes, it was that horrible, horrible, All in the Family, Seinfeld, M*A*S*H-type pacing that I just couldn’t bear, with no ideas, and just punching at you. And now that we have these things, I guess Fargo is 9, 10 hours, you really can do what a novel does. I get more laughs from Fargo than any situation comedy. Even though the situation comedy throws out 1,000 jokes, I might smile at one; Fargo throws out two jokes and one kills me.

MCN: You had this one really combative interview with Piers Morgan about God, your atheism and a book you wrote. He was angry, but you remained amused and in control. Why was he so angry?

PJ: The question is, how cynical do you want to be? My choice always seems to be not to be cynical at all. I believed when sitting there that he was actually speaking up for his religion, which he felt was challenged. Afterwards, talking to many people that know him, many told me with great authority, grounded in some sort of reality, that Piers was told [in order] to help the ratings, to make things contentious, and he was trying to pretend to have stronger differences with me than he really did.

Now, I realize this is the worst possible answer to an interview question, but the truth is, I don’t care. What I care about is, I believe I told the truth as best I could every second of that interview. If I thought he was faking and playing for TV, I would have said the exact same things I said. What I care about is, I was telling the truth. … [Later on] I wrote up the experience in [a different] book, and wrote it up fairly honestly, and the time came to talk about the book. I went on the show, and Piers is backstage and he said, ‘I read the chapter you wrote about me,’ and there was an uncomfortable silence, and he said, ‘I guess it was all true.’ Then he went on TV and he held up my book, used some sort of English idiom and said, ‘This book rips me apart, and I guess he was right.’ It was a very weird moment of self-examination.

So I come back to the answer to your real question: I don’t know and I don’t care. He remains kind to me. And when I look back on it, I told the truth, and on many appearances on TV, when backed into a corner, I haven’t reacted as well as I did there…I think I did what my mom would have wanted me to do on that appearance.

Robert Edelstein

Rob has written for Broadcasting+Cable since 2006, starting with his work on the magazine’s award-winning 75th-anniversary issue. He was born a few blocks away from Yankee Stadium … so of course he’s published three books on NASCAR, most notably, Full Throttle: The Life and Fast Times of NASCAR Legend Curtis Turner. He’s currently the special projects editor at TV Guide Magazine. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post and his origami art has been in The Wall Street Journal. He lives with his family in New Jersey and is writing a novel about the Wild West.