Penn Jillette: No Illusions

Penn Jillette and his much-quieter partner, Teller, have made a lucrative career both practicing and debunking magic — not to mention other popular pretenses — on Broadway and, perennially, in Las Vegas. But on TV, Jillette has carved out an equally visible career, both with his partner (Showtime’s Penn & Teller: Bullshit) and riding solo on many reality TV shows and cable news programs. He spoke to Multichannel News contributor Robert Edelstein while in the midst of his run hosting the wacky hunting/fishing video clip show Camp Stew on Sportsman Channel. Of his never-say-never approach to TV, he said: “Someone once said to me, ‘You just answer the phone with, ‘Yes, I will.’ I actually take that with a good deal of pride.” An edited transcript follows.

MCN: A favorite quote of yours is from Thelonious Monk: “A genius is the one most like himself.” If that’s the case, how many reality-TV stars are geniuses?

Penn Jillette: [Celebrity Apprentice star] Donald Trump is very much like himself, but the himself he’s like is not very pleasant or interesting. He’s not overwhelmingly inspiring. Bob Dylan said the purpose of art is to inspire. But just from the purely Monk quote, Donald Trump is certainly true to himself, whatever that be.

MCN: You and Teller spend lots of time deconstructing assumptions about magic. What do you make of reality TV now, when so much of it seems to be about pretending something is actually real?

PJ: They’ve let that go. What we call reality shows now, they’re actually, off -camera, telling you what to say; they don’t even bother trying to get the cut with the edit, they just manufacture it entirely. But that is not, I think, the sin I’m most worried about. The fact that celebrities are misrepresented is not something that breaks my heart. But someone claiming that chiropracting works does bother me. I suppose if I sat down and really looked at my morality and tried to be consistent, I would find the fact that reality shows distort what happens bothersome, but the problem is it’s a very difficult line to draw, because once you put a camera on something and edit for a funny moment, you’ve distorted it completely.

MCN: What appeals to you about working onCamp Stew?

PJ: It’s way outside what I normally do and that may be one of the main reasons … I’m also rural, from Western Massachusetts, my whole family. I can really answer why I’m doing it in one word, and that’s “Denny” — my nephew. He’s exactly the audience it’s going for. Denny is the local gun instructor; we’re close, we grew up together, he means the world to me, and when I signed on for this show he said, “If I weren’t related to you, this is when I would have first heard of you. Sportsman Channel, I actually have on.” The other thing I love is that forever there was this idea of hunters and fishermen telling fish stories by the campfire, and there was always this feeling the stories weren’t true — if not made up, then at least severely exaggerated. Now everybody has video of them all the time, and we find the stories are true.

MCN: So much of what you speak about is tied into giving people more freedom. It makes me wonder what you’d do as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

PJ: [Laughs.] It would be very, very easy: You’d just dissolve the organization and go fishing.

MCN: I guess net neutrality would then be a whole different ball of wax for you.

PJ: When I see a political question I just ask, “Is there any way to possibly solve this with more freedom instead of less?” Now, I’m getting even worse: “We probably can’t solve this, but is there any way more freedom won’t make it worse?” My mom used to say — she would try to watch the afternoon shows in the ’90s, toward the end of her life, those gossip-type things, where they’d bring out a guy that married his sister, and my mom would call and say — “I tried to watch but I can’t see the problem; if no one else is being hurt, what do we care?” I said, “Mom, that’s a real problem since those shows are based on you caring, even though it doesn’t really matter to you.” I said, “Give up, Mom; read instead.”

MCN: Do you watch TV with your kids?

PJ: Yes. My time is a little less purely TV time, but when we do, we all love Adventure Time, the craziest cartoon show that’s ever been. I used to think Warner Bros. cartoons were out, but man, Adventure Time is way out. My daughter, who’s now nine, is interested in these awful dating situation comedies on Disney, where a bunch of eccentric characters live on a cruise ship or something. My son loved Teen Titans, which makes me laugh a little bit. But the thing we really watch together is the cooking shows, like Top Chef and America’s Top Chef. There’s something about being able to watch as a family as someone tries to accomplish a difficult task that gives us great discussions. And it’s a little bit odd in our household because many of the shows we watch, I’ve been on. My children have just started to understand that that’s unusual.

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

PJ: 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.