Penn Jillette: Fool Us Once

Apr 28, 2017
Originally published on August 18, 2017 10:12 am

Magician Penn Jillette prefers tricks to illusions: "which is just gluing two front surface mirrors together at 45 degree angles, and then the sides look like the back!" He doesn't particularly like spending time with his stage partner Teller: "We wanted to work together, but there was no sort of affection." And he doesn't even like magic: "I was never fond of it."

So what does this renowned performer, whose show at the Rio Hotel and Casino is the longest-running headliner act in Las Vegas, enjoy? Being fooled. "It's the best feeling in the world," he told host Ophira Eisenberg at the Orpheum Theatre in Phoenix, Arizona. "You don't get into magic 'cause you wanna fool people. You get into magic 'cause you wanna be fooled. And then you keep chasing that first high."

This is the inspiration for Penn & Teller's latest TV show, Penn & Teller: Fool Us. The show puts on display what usually happens backstage: a fellow magician attempts to fool them with a trick. The program is filmed in front of a live audience as a gesture of goodwill to the viewers--there are no camera tricks at play. Usually contestants can tell if they're succeeding two-thirds of the way through their act, but if they do fool Penn and Teller, they're quick to reveal their trick. "As soon as we finish...because you're jacked up from the show and out of your mind, you run over and...they tell you everything! 'By the way, I'm having an affair!' Everything! All their secrets they have!"'

While Penn & Teller: Fool Us is a reality competition show, it still holds true to the duo's interest in pulling back the curtain and letting the audience in on the magic. The two met while Teller was putting himself through college performing at frat parties. "I've forgotten what level of Dante's hell that is," Penn joked to Eisenberg. "But it's really close to the center." Teller dealt with hecklers by simply ignoring them, and doing his act silently. So when they first performed together, Teller stayed silent to keep the integrity of his bits. This contrasted well with Penn's style, who was more comfortable being loud and a bit aggressive. They discovered that this way, they could approach their act as a one-person show done by two people. "And the proof of that is that during our 90-minute show in Vegas, I make eye contact with Teller twice," he shared. "And only because we have to."

For his Ask Me Another challenge, we put Penn's knowledge of magic history to the test.

HIGHLIGHTS

On why he thinks there aren't many women magicians

You know, I think there are gonna be...One reason is we didn't let them. I mean, women were not welcome in magic clubs. That's one whole awful reason. But also there's a kind of...magic is just a formal form of mansplaining!

On his relationship with Teller

I thought I could do better stuff with Teller than I could do alone professionally, and Teller felt the reciprocal. And we wanted to work together, but there was no sort of affection. And I think that's one of the reasons we've been together so long--is it turns out that respect is more useful than affection. And we're together 40, 50 hours a week. It's like, if I go out with Teller after a show, 'Well what'd you do this week?' 'The same thing you did!'"

On Penn & Teller's Showtime series, Bulls***

I tell ya, I don't know who's idea it was--yes I do, it was mine. When you have the stupid idea of giving yourself a show with an obscenity in it...we were nominated for, I think at least three Emmy's, and they just simply did not want anyone to open up an envelope and say, 'And the winner is Bulls****!'

Heard on Penn Jillette: Fool Us Once

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JONATHAN COULTON: This is ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia coming to you from the Orpheum Theatre in Phoenix, Ariz. I'm Jonathan Coulton, with puzzle guru Art Chung. Now, here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.

(APPLAUSE)

OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:

Thank you, Jonathan. It's time to welcome our special guest. He's one half of the legendary comedy magic duo Penn & Teller whose show at the Rio Hotel and Casino is the longest running headliner show in Las Vegas. Please welcome Penn Jillette.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Welcome to ASK ME ANOTHER.

PENN JILLETTE: So glad to be here.

EISENBERG: Thrilled - I love magic, but I have learned...

JILLETTE: That's one of us.

EISENBERG: Yeah, through interviews that you hate magic.

JILLETTE: Well, I would - never was fond of it. No, I never was fond of it. But I got (laughter) I wasn't talented enough to do music, so let me ask you this. Do you want to compete with Bob Dylan or Doug Henning?

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

JILLETTE: Which one do you want to go one on one with?

EISENBERG: Right. So, you know, when I read that you hate magic, it actually made sense to me in a way because one of the things that I love about your show is that you tend to pull the curtain away from the mystery of magic, and you like to let people in. You don't even like the word illusion or...

JILLETTE: Well, illusion can be a term of art. I mean, illusion, if you want to be careful about it, is something that looks one way because of usually optics, so it's a mirror thing or something. We don't do many of those. We do tricks...

EISENBERG: Tricks.

JILLETTE: ...Which I think are actually more sophisticated and intellectual than illusions, which is just gluing two front-surface mirrors together at 45-degree angles and then the sides look like the back, and you're done.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) But tricks involve skill and practice and...

JILLETTE: Lying.

EISENBERG: And lying.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: A lot of lying.

JILLETTE: Yeah.

EISENBERG: When you perform as Penn & Teller, you do all the talking and Teller is silent the entire time. So why doesn't Teller speak?

JILLETTE: I take no credit for that. It actually predates me working with Teller. Teller worked his way through college doing magic at frat parties, and I've forgotten what level of Dante's hell that is. But it's real close to the center. And Teller discovered that if he did kind of morbid and bothersome stuff, people would grow tired of heckling him if he said nothing back. And I was, you know, I guess the word is homeless, but I was traveling around the country, and I found myself wanting to be louder and more aggressive.

So we worked - first worked together, we were two separate acts on the same bill, and in order to work together, we had to keep the integrity of the two acts. So Teller just was staying silent with his other stuff. The other material would work, and we just found stuff that seemed really nice about that. And Teller and I discovered that with Teller not talking, we could do essentially a one-person show done by two people and both face out.

And the proof of that is that during our 90-minute show in Vegas, I make eye contact with Teller twice and only because I have to, only because it's in the script. I mean, the crew backstage laughs and we don't even see each other. You know, one of us will, like, change our appearance, you know. And then after the show, you know, the other one will go did he change something because we don't even see each other. It's not like, you know, you're looking at me, I'm looking at you.

EISENBERG: Sure.

JILLETTE: Penn & Teller, we don't do that. We'd just be like this, straight out. That's it.

EISENBERG: But you guys like hanging out with each other, right?

JILLETTE: No.

EISENBERG: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

JILLETTE: Most teams start out as love affairs. I mean, certainly Lennon-McCartney, certainly Martin and Lewis, and Teller and I never felt that. I thought I could do better stuff with Teller than I could do alone professionally and Teller felt the reciprocal. And we wanted to work together, but there was no sort of affection. And I think that's one of the reasons we've been together so long is it turns out that respect is more useful than affection. And we are together 40, 50 hours a week. So, like, if I go out with Teller after a show, well, what'd you do today? The same thing you did.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Right. Exactly. Now, I know that you did not go to college, and you were just talking a little bit...

JILLETTE: I went to Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show On Earth Clown College.

EISENBERG: OK, clown college. So...

JILLETTE: I did.

EISENBERG: So did you have...

JILLETTE: I can take a slap any time you want. I'm ready.

EISENBERG: What is your clown name? Do have a clown name?

JILLETTE: (Laughter) No. I actually didn't. I didn't. I was a very, very, very bad clown.

(LAUGHTER)

JILLETTE: I had to be...

EISENBERG: That sounds like the best clown, a bad clown.

JILLETTE: I was in remedial makeup, and they let me in because I was a very, very good juggler. But I found that every time I would get even the slightest laugh, it was always verbal and not physical. And I'm not much of a physical comedian. Even when studying it and working on it, I just couldn't develop the skills - is a question whether clowns are ever funny, but this one certainly wasn't.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: I want to talk about some of your television series. On Showtime, I loved the series - the name we will use on our show is "B.S."

JILLETTE: I'll tell you, I don't know whose idea it was. Yes, I do. It's mine. When you have the stupid idea of giving your show a name with an obscenity in it...

EISENBERG: (Laughter) Yeah.

JILLETTE: ...When you become a very successful show on Showtime, they call you up and say love to do billboards, guys, but we just can't. We're not doing the ads. And also we were nominated for I think at least three Emmys, and they just simply did not want anyone to open an envelope and go, and the winner is [expletive] just because it's true.

(LAUGHTER)

JILLETTE: It'd be true every time.

EISENBERG: Right? Right? It was - yeah, that's, like, basically the premise of the show...

JILLETTE: A simple statement of fact.

EISENBERG: ...Is that. Fantastic. Yeah, so if you missed it, "B.S.!" was all about debunking commonly held beliefs. Which one was the most gratifying? Or...

JILLETTE: One of the hardest ones - one of the first ones we did, "Talking To The Dead," and we did it right after my mom died. And we started writing the show kind of saying, isn't it silly that these people talk to the dead? And then as we got to doing it, all of a sudden it got wicked real, you know. And all of a sudden, I went - wow, they really are exploiting grief. Imagine if someone took these memories of my mom, which is all I have of her now, and distorted them in order to feel a little power and make some money? So that one was a really important, emotional show to me.

And one of the things we did on "B.S.!" that I'm really proud of is we tried to always attack ideas and not the people.

EISENBERG: Right.

JILLETTE: Now, there are exceptions to that that I'm not proud of. But what we would always do - and people got mad at us for this - is people that were on our side because we agreed with them completely and were friends of ours - we'd use that opportunity to rip them apart and then be really nice to the people who were wrong.

EISENBERG: On your recent television series, "Penn & Teller: Fool Us," where...

JILLETTE: Which abbreviates to "F.U.," by the way.

(LAUGHTER)

JILLETTE: There is a pattern here.

EISENBERG: So magicians come on the show in front of a live audience and perform for you, and you have to try to figure out how their tricks are done. So how does it feel to be fooled?

JILLETTE: It's the best feeling in the world.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

JILLETTE: You don't get into magic because you want to fool people. You get into magic because you want to be fooled, and then you keep chasing that first high. So backstage in the green room, Teller and I would sit back there. A magician would come back and go - guys, have you seen this? And they'd do a trick for us. And there'd be, like, a moment. And then Teller would say, yeah, real nice version of that.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) Right.

JILLETTE: And there'd be like a nice smile, or Teller and I would both go, whoa. And we just thought that letting other people see that - you know, you can't prove to people that there's no camera tricks on a magic show on TV. So when you see "Fool Us," because we're there and we're seeing it once, you know that it's not just from one angle. And you know that it's also live, you know. So the competition is only there to verify that these are really wonderful magicians doing a great job.

EISENBERG: Right. And to give stakes. You need stakes and some sort of...

JILLETTE: Yeah, kind of. Although everybody knows everything, you know what I mean.

EISENBERG: Right.

JILLETTE: They will know two thirds of the way through whether they fooled us or not.

EISENBERG: And do you find out how the tricks that fool you are done?

JILLETTE: There's no formal way of that. But I'll tell you, as soon as we finish, the guy runs to our seats and goes - it was a double-face card in a rough smooth. I was so sure you were going to buzz me. It's just a double-facer. And we go - double face, sure - double face, of course. You know, that's the way it works.

EISENBERG: Right.

(LAUGHTER)

JILLETTE: Except for one guy - he fooled us and then wrote us emails for weeks afterwards going, ha, you didn't have any idea, did you?

(LAUGHTER)

JILLETTE: Huh, kind of got you there, didn't I? Kind of got you. Oh, you'd you like to know? I'm not going to tell you. Maybe I will later. But most people, because you're jacked up on the show and out of your mind...

EISENBERG: Right.

JILLETTE: ...You run over and go, let me tell you everything. Right, right. By the way, I'm having an affair.

(LAUGHTER)

JILLETTE: You know, they just - everything, all their secrets they have.

EISENBERG: Totally. (Laughter) All right - so Penn Jillette, we've written a magic history quiz for you.

JILLETTE: Oh, jiminy.

EISENBERG: And if you do well enough, our listener Scott Weiss from Walkersville, Md., will win an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube.

JILLETTE: I'm going to cop one anyway and send it to him.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Great, perfect.

JILLETTE: If you don't think I can steal a Rubik's Cube.

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: Amateur magician and vaudeville performer Jack Norworth didn't make it big in magic but he did in songwriting. What song did he write, which is sung by millions of Americans each year? Was it, A, the national anthem...

JILLETTE: (Laughter) Good.

COULTON: ...B, "Happy Birthday To You"...

JILLETTE: No, two women; Paul McCartney.

COULTON: ...Or C, "Take Me Out To The Ballgame"?

JILLETTE: "Take Me Out To The Ballgame."

COULTON: That is correct.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Dorothy Dietrich is believed to be the only female magician to have performed what trick considered to be the deadliest illusion in magic?

JILLETTE: Oh, bullet catch?

EISENBERG: Yes, the bullet catch is correct.

JILLETTE: But wasn't it multiple choice?

EISENBERG: It was, but I didn't think you needed it.

JILLETTE: Oh, yeah, bullet catch.

EISENBERG: That's right, bullet catch, specifically in the mouth. Why are there not more female magicians?

JILLETTE: You know, I think there are going to be. I believe it has to do with this same reason you didn't have women comics - I mean, obviously Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller and so on...

EISENBERG: Yeah.

JILLETTE: ...But why that was more difficult. One reason is we didn't let them. I mean, women were not welcomed in magic clubs. That's one whole awful reason.

EISENBERG: Sure.

JILLETTE: But there's also - there's a kind of I-know-this-and-you-don't-type attitude that, in our culture, is not associated with female gender.

EISENBERG: Interesting.

JILLETTE: And as Jerry Seinfeld says, all 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...

(LAUGHTER)

JILLETTE: ...Magic is just a formal form of mansplaining. And...

EISENBERG: Now, I think it would be fun, as a female magician, to saw a man in half.

JILLETTE: Yeah.

EISENBERG: Right? But lengthwise.

JILLETTE: We had a woman...

(LAUGHTER)

JILLETTE: Yeah, lengthwise is the way to go. And I know what end you're starting at.

(LAUGHTER)

COULTON: Houdini took his name from a 19th-century magician whose...

JILLETTE: Robert-Houdin.

COULTON: ...Name is - yes - the father of modern conjuring.

JILLETTE: Yeah.

COULTON: One of his tricks involved a box placed on stage. It was very easy to lift for a child volunteer but impossible to lift for an adult. How did he do it?

JILLETTE: Oh, this is so - we have a - there's a light-heavy box. We have a bit in our show all about this. It was done with electromagnets. Oops, I gave it away. Oh, geez, that Penn & Teller thing.

COULTON: That is correct. Electromagnets is correct.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: OK. This is your last question - whew. In 1975, Prince Charles...

JILLETTE: Cups and balls, magic circle. OK, go ahead.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: That is correct.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Puzzle guru Art Chung, how did our special guest do at his quiz?

ART CHUNG: Congratulations, Penn, you and listener Scott Weiss have both won ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cubes.

JILLETTE: (Screaming) Yeah, yeah.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Penn Jillette's New York Times best-seller, "Presto," comes out in paperback on June 6. And "Penn & Teller: Fool Us" airs on Mondays on The CW. Everyone give it up one more time for Penn Jillette. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.