Penn Jillette does the math: America's next big magic star will be a woman

On "Salon Talks," one half of Penn & Teller discusses pranks, VR and why women are going to take over magic

Published July 4, 2019 3:30PM (EDT)

 (JSquared Photography/The CW)
(JSquared Photography/The CW)

Legendary magician Penn Jillette, along with his longtime partner Teller, are currently in their sixth season of their show "Fool Us" on the CW. On the show, other magicians try to get a trick past these expert illusionists in order to win a prize: a guest spot in their Vegas show.

They've also launched a VR video game where players can fool their own friends, "Penn & Teller VR: Frankly Unfair, Unkind, Unnecessary and Underhanded."

Jillette visited Salon's studio for a conversation about his underlying theory of practical jokes, why "our goal in life was to be carny trash" and what the number of women competing and winning on "Fool Us" says about the direction magic is going in America. Watch our conversation on "Salon Talks," or read the transcript, which has been edited for length and clarity, below.

What made you want to get into VR?

Way back in the '80s we did a video, a VHS tape called the "Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends." There is this moment when technology happens, the technology could become a magic wand. People will believe anything is possible. So when video recording first started getting into homes constantly, you could do fake recorded video that people would still believe was on TV, would still believe was broadcast. So we had all these tricks to do.

Now with VR, nobody knows what it can do yet. You know, when you first get a VR rig, there's this wonderful kind of gray area where you may know intellectually what's possible, but you don't know viscerally. You're in this wonderful situation, right? Because the first thing you do when you get a VR rig is you invite your friends over to show them how great it is.

Then you take somebody and say, "Want to see this VR rig?" Then while you're in your home, you obliterate their eyesight and you obliterate their hearing, and have them standing in your room. Which means all their attention is on what's happening inside their head. So you can do things out in the real world that you can change. Obviously, the first thing you would think of is if someone is, you know, out on the ocean or something in the VR, you could throw a glass of water on them, that's the simple stuff.

But we went and got very, very complicated so that people can believe they're seeing really phenomenal stuff happening that VR is not capable of doing, but with an accomplice in the room. So this is a game that you play, not against the game, but it's actually a tool you use to scam your friends out of mostly dignity, but occasionally money.

There comes the underhanded.


And it is unfair.


That sounds fascinating. 

Penn Jillette:   Certainly unkind.

I'm not a VR person myself, that's why I work primarily in nonfiction. But I certainly appreciate the draw of this, and I think it's fascinating.

You know, me too on that.

I believe my rule on practical jokes is that the person for whom the joke is played on must enjoy it the most of anybody. We do use that sensibility. So you're really not talking about being in a fictional world like you would normally would be, I'm just talking about an interaction with a person where you take the opportunity to show them how to care about them by pulling a scam on them that makes their mind be blown, or blow their funky minds as George Clinton said.

I have been following you and Teller for years. It is true, I dated myself, but my dad took me to your shows when I was a kid here in New York. I think you were still off-Broadway, un-televised, and it was probably "Penn and Teller Go Public" in 1985. I am that old.

You know, you guys have changed, in that you've grown, your visibility has grown, your venues, your success, obviously, over time. But what do you think has changed most about your work and your act?

You know, we've trusted the audience more all the time. One of the big things that was different about us from other people in magic was our trust of the audience. We want to do magic without ever insulting the audience. You know, Jerry Seinfeld said that all magic was, "Here's a quarter, now it's gone, you're a jerk. Now it's back, you're an asshole. Show's over."

We really didn't want to do that. We really wanted to let the audience in on the inside, and we really wanted to be fair and kind to the audience. We began never dumbing down our stuff and always trusted the audience to be smarter than we were, and doing stuff as smart as we possibly could. Over the years, we have gotten nothing but reinforcement on that.

So, we have gotten, and I think this is a little unusual, we have gotten actually weirder and bolder as we've gotten older. You know, so many people in the show business seem to get into show business, or to get out of it. You know, in Vegas, a lot of our peers, they put together a show that they did 20, 30 years ago. They move it to Vegas, and they do it every night, and they do a fine job at it. Then during the day they play golf, or they lunch, or they hang out.

All Teller and I ever wanted to do was put together weird tricks for people, and we've been doing that since we were children. The idea that, you know, in our 60s, we can have a crew and a theater that's filled with people every night, and keep doing weirder and crazier things, is just my joy. I mean, I don't know how golf can compare with doing stuff that's in your heart, in your mind, that people enjoy.

That's so lucky that you not only found this as a young person and have been able to not only make a living, but more so do it in the way that you feel is apt.

We're in a very odd position, because if you talk to anybody with a great deal of success . . .  Houdini or Madonna or Howard Stern or Paul McCartney, they would all tell you that they should have been more successful than they were. All of them. Paul has said that, Paul McCartney had said that clearly, so has Howard Stern. Houdini said that constantly.

We, however, at our tier of show business, are much more successful than we expected or we deserve. We keep waiting for the invisible hand of the economy to correct. There should be a mark of correction on Penn and Teller. Because we always expected to play for, you know, a couple hundred people a night, play fairs, do that kind of stuff. We were doing that, and we were successful, and very, very happy.

Then we came to New York kind of on a whim, and all of a sudden it turned out that we were more successful than expected, and that's been wonderful. But you know, our goal in life was to be carny trash, and we accomplished that very quickly.

I didn't say it.

We maintained that sensibility.

You know what? There's something about that, and it sounds cheesy maybe, but the attitude of gratitude. You guys don't go into this with that mentality that you mentioned Jerry Seinfeld has, and I think that's going to earn you more respect from your audiences, and give you that longevity that you have.

Well, it also turns out that, maybe this is a weakness of character, but if you like our show, I'm much more apt to like you.

So we try to be nice to those people.

I did mention that you and Teller have been doing this since you were kids, right? So that's a nice segue for me to ask you, do you remember a moment or a particular event that made you enamored of magic?

My relationship to magic is my relationship to Teller. Teller had a childhood sickness, and he was five years old, and they got him a magic kit. He clicked into that, and that became everything to him. Now I had quite the opposite reaction. I was a rock and roll fan, a big fan of reading. I wanted desperately to be in show business, but I was in a tiny town, had never met anybody in the arts, never met one person in the arts. So, I learned to juggle, and my first relationship with magic was very, very bad.

It was a mentalist, Kreskin, on TV, claiming to be doing science, but actually doing tricks. I was so upset by that. This is the kind of overreaction you can only get from a child. I guess I was 13 or 14, and the idea that adults lied to children about stuff like this, I went from an A student to a D student. I went from being very, very interested in science and academics to no interest at all. It really, really broke my heart, and I hated magicians tremendously.

Of course you don't remember this, because nobody does, but the act that was on after The Beatles on Ed Sullivan was a magic act. You would you watch those variety shows, and I watched as a young child with my parents. The variety acts, it would come on around the rock and roll shows, people that were on after The Who and after The Rolling Stones. I just hated it, I had no interest in them at all.

Then when I was still in high school, 17 or 18, I met Teller. Teller said a sentence to me that seemed insane. He said that magic was essentially intellectual. Magic, you know, a greasy guy in a tux with a lot of birds torturing women in front of Mylar, seemed anything but intellectual. But the idea, music, your body moves, you tap your foot. But with magic, you have to make a map of the way the world works and compare what you're seeing. That is a very high level intellectual event. Deciding how we ascertain what's true is also an intellectual event.

So that was an amazing thing to say. Then Amazing Randy, the skeptic, and Teller, also said to me that you could do magic and be very, very honest. The idea of saying within this frame we are now going to play along with how we ascertain what's true. Not outside that frame, we won't go outside that frame no matter what, but within this frame we can play with this.

That fascinated me. So, my whole relationship with magic starts really with Teller. I mean, before that I was very good with the deck of cards, but only in terms of cardistry. I always liked practicing learning things. But the intellectual love of magic comes completely from Teller. I'm very unusual in that way, because virtually every other magician, Copperfield, David Blaine, all those people, start five years old, six years old, and their obsession with magic is at that level, is where it starts. Mine starts really, pretty much as an adult.

You seem to have a tremendous amount of respect for the grind, the hardest working people, because you and Teller are that way, and you proceed to apply that across your life. I was doing some reading. A lot of people will look, of course, [and think] this is Penn Jillette, and he is much smaller than you might have known him a few years ago.

Yeah. I'm two thirds the man I used to be.

For years and years, like many, many Americans, I struggled with my weight and thought that the best way to [address] that with some way that was easy, you know? Take smaller portions, you know, eat more protein, eat less fat, eat less carbs, whenever you want to do. There's always little things.

Then a friend of mine, Ray Cronise, who I call Cray Ray, who worked at NASA, he had been doing a lot of research on diet and the way people lose weight. I said to him, because I was really a hundred pounds overweight. I said to him, you know, "Is there a way that I can lose this weight easily?" He said, "No, it's going to be really, really hard." He was the first person to say that.

Every doctor had said, "It's not that hard, you can lose this weight." I realized, at that moment, that in my entire life I have never respected moderation in any way, ever. I mean, I have never had a drink of alcohol in my life, I never had a drug in my life. I've never respected people who drank wine with dinner, but I've had a lot of heroin addicts that I thought were great artists.

I always like the intense and the extremes. For some reason, although I knew that no one brags about walking up a grassy slope, but they brag about climbing Everest, that I did that in my whole life. I wanted to do things the hard way, except the diet. So when he finally said, you know, "We're going to do this really intense stuff," and I took it as a hard thing, I really dug it.

Now when people say, you know, "Is it hard to keep the weight off?" You know, I've hit this magic time, it's now been, you know, four and a half years, and most people gain the weight back within two. People say, you know, "Is it easy?" It's a very hard thing to answer, because the real answer is I like the fact that it's difficult. But then again, that's kind of easy, because that's where I like to live. It's a very complicated thing.

So now are you maintaining with IMF, intermittent fasting?


It's trendy now, and I know that's not why you do it. But when you began this, I imagine it was sort of lesser known.

Yeah, it was a little lesser known, and I really enjoy it. I did a two week fast under doctor supervision. Two or three days you can do pretty much anything you want, but beyond three days you really need supervision, medical supervision that's competent. Probably I was overly careful, but that's the way I like to be.

That was interesting, but not as wonderful as the intermittent fasting. You know, I used to feel, if I had something important to do, that you would get up and have a good solid breakfast to be ready. Now when I have something, especially with a lot of stress, not eating, really seems to focus me. You know, when I went on "Jeopardy!", where I won, I was backstage, and the other two people were eating scrambled eggs and bacon, and toast and bagels, and getting all filled up. I was back there going, "Oh my goodness, I'm going to win."

You knew it, right? Well, you are great predictor of outcomes, it's part of your work. You know, before we went live, we were talking a little bit about statistical analysis of actual numbers in the world. You look at the world today, and we will get to your show, because I want to mention it and talk about some of the difference between that and the other.

But, you know, if you turn on the news and it looks doom and gloom, and we're living in a very particular time now, things you say are actually improving across the board, and why you feel that's the case.

It's interesting because it's analogous in my mind to exactly what you're talking about with diet. You know, for billions of years the biggest problem living things encountered was too few calories. That was all you were living for. What mammals and primates and humans, what they were always striving for was warmth, light, and food, sustenance. Then for this very short period of time, I mean, not even one frictional rub of this huge stone, for maybe 75 years, for maybe one 1000th of the population, we all of a sudden have this other problem, which is too many calories, too much light, like too much warmth.

Expecting organisms to deal with that quickly and easily is expecting a lot. Now, for all the amount of time that humans have been communicating information, getting information has been very, very difficult. As somebody, even recently, 300 years ago, the amount of information you would've gotten in your whole life was the amount of information that's contained in one issue of The New York Times. That would be a whole lifetime of information.

So now we've got this situation where we have information on suffering around the world that we would have been oblivious to. You know, we would have had a tribe of 300 people that we would have been aware of, and we would have had a really clean statistical view of how dangerous things are. In 300 people, we would know what our big dangers where. If you knew someone that died of that, it was a real danger.

But now we're in a situation, we get information kind-of, sort-of. There's still a lot of proximity effect, but kind of, sort of, you get information on seven billion people. That gets condensed and sent to us. So when we see 300 people killed, it's very hard, emotionally, I would say impossible, to see what percentage that is of seven billion. But when we look at it, we can see that by any measure, health, starvation, I'm doing these in reverse, but health, being fed, lack of violence. Every way, life expectancy.

The big thing is, all you really need to judge the world is the education of girls. The number of girls going to school will tell you everything. It's interesting, that tells you how much violence there is, tells you how much starvation there is, it tells you everything. The way people treat girls seems to be the metric that tells you everything else. Now we have 90% or over now. 90% of girls on planet Earth are being educated.

As you also said, it's like two steps forward, one step back, right? So, with that sense of humanity that comes with women, is it actually a sense that — most indigenous cultures were . . . led by women, nurtured by women, fed by women, and so on.

Also, that still is an indicator. The more women you have in power, the more peaceful and healthy a society you have. That's not philosophical, that's mathematical. That's just statistics.

Your current show "Fool Us," in its sixth season on the CW, it's a little bit different than some past shows. Always respecting the audience, something we spoke about earlier, always exposing parts of tricks, and yet here you turn the tables on yourself and try to have people fool you and Teller.

You get into magic not because you want to fool people but because you enjoy being fooled. Then you'll continue as you learn about how tricks are done, you continue to chase that first high. It's harder and harder for us to be fooled. So we've put ourselves in a situation where there is a team of people with a lot of money who go all over the world to find people who can fool us. When we get that, if you're talking about statistics, about 12% of the people on the show have fooled us.

That's not a good number for them; it's very good for you guys and your brand.

But 12% means that every season we get deeply fooled by about 15 people, which is a pretty wonderful feeling. To look at something at our level, to look at something and just be completely blown away. There's an interesting thing that happened. It's a real weird glitch that I don't think anybody noticed, but I did. Last season we had the most, we pushed very hard for this, because magic is, I don't think there's any way to couch this, magic is sexist. The Magic Circle, biggest magic organization in London, did not allow women on the premises until the '90s.


The big organization is the International Brotherhood of Magicians. But all of a sudden because of the Internet, because you don't have to be in environments that are uncomfortable, there are a lot of girls into magic. I get asked all the time, I have two children. They say, "Is your son into magic?" I say, "No, my daughter is." My daughter's a big fan. So we pushed really hard.

Now here's what I found interesting. Last season we had six women magicians who were on, as not part of a team, but were on as solo performers. There were six. Out of those six women magicians, six fooled us.

We're in our 60s, we've been in magic all this time, we are completely surrounded by the culture of magic that didn't include women.

Until I noticed it afterwards, I didn't notice any sort of thing, but I went, "Wow, there is a new kind of thinking." There's no way that's gender related, but it is outsider-related. It means that people that came up a little bit outside of the form knew things that we didn't know being so deeply inside it. Nothing pleased me more about all the seasons of "Fool Us" than that particular fact.

It's never safe to predict anything, but what happened in comedy was you went from women not being important in comedy very much at all, with a few very important exceptions, to the biggest comedy stars in the world today are women. In the United States today, I can't speak to the world.

That's about to happen in magic, because it used to be that every other night after the show, some boy would come up and show us a magic trick, and it would be a girl once a year. Now they're even, and that happened in two-year period. Which means that the number of girls who are into magic now is extraordinary, which means just statistically, we're going to see in five years the biggest magic star in the country is very likely to be a woman, and I am thrilled about that.

By Alli Joseph

Alli Joseph is a writer/producer and family historian; a Native New Yorker, she is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

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