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Can He Say That?

Dirty, Dangerous and Direct—Penn Jillette Spews … Optimism?

Richard Abowitz

Penn does a lot of interviews and has for decades. Yet when Penn is talking to you his attention is undivided. He does not take cell-phone calls, and he does not flip through magazines, stare at a Blackberry or doodle. He talks with total focus. His spiel to respond to most questions is down pat. But if you should ask him something unexpected, Penn is also a great improviser in speech, ready to take on all comers. His conversation is a constant parsing; a sort of honesty that knows that without a huge picture the selection is skewed and biased, and so Penn answers questions trying to leave nothing out of what he says. Penn is all about bringing his audience on the inside with him.


For three decades, Penn & Teller's act has offered magic blended seamlessly with comedy frequently by letting the audience in on the trick and the joke. The duo's Showtime series, Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, up for two Emmy Awards, exposes the foolish beliefs, cons and superstitions that abound in our culture. Penn is very aware that most careers tend to fall into eclipse long before the time a performer becomes a resident headliner in Vegas. But thanks in part to Bullshit!, Penn & Teller are probably bigger now than ever before.


Even outside his day job, the past couple years have been a blur of activity for Penn Jillette. Last year Penn published his first novel, Sock. And now comes The Aristocrats (see review, page 34), a movie Penn created with Paul Provenza, built around dozens of comedians giving a distinctive spin to a dirty joke that dates back to vaudeville.


Oh yeah, and Penn got married and had his first child, a daughter.


Not everyone, of course, is a fan. Las Vegas Weekly began our interview backstage last week at Penn & Teller's showroom at the Rio by asking Penn to comment on conservative Fox babe Debbie Schlussel's blog that offers an attack on The Aristocrats (which she concedes is "very funny") that gets nasty and personal:


"To further show us how much he 'values' free speech—or wants to push its limits beyond acceptability and normalcy, Jillette recently named his new daughter Moxie CrimeFighter. She will be tortured all her life with this absurd name. No problem since her father's house resembles a bizarre sado-masochism den mixed with macabre death penalty implements."


PENN: The actual sex dungeon is now a nursery. It's something you couldn't use in a novel or movie because it is too dead-on, but in real life you can. It's perfectly funny. The leather walls have been draped with nice baby colors and that's where Moxie is.


The number of people attacking (The Aristocrats) is lower than the number of people attacking Wedding Crashers. I have said from the very beginning this move is a completely positive movie: There isn't a negative second in it. If you were a film guy you would be troubled by the lack of conflict. It is 104 people who love each other done by filmmakers who love them about a subject they love and about making people laugh. It's as 100-percent love as Fahrenheit 9/11 is 100-percent hate. I've tried very hard not to be Michael Moore and Mel Gibson, who I believe really sold out their country by pretending to be martyrs and victims when they weren't. I think that's a despicable thing to do. We say 'unspeakable obscenity' right in the ad. I've done everything I can to make clear that this is dirty jokes.



LVW: Will you tell me The Aristocrats joke?


PENN: I don't think so because the point of the movie is that it is not valid. The punch line is the name of the movie. One of the obsessions of the movie is to not let people think that the overall structure is the important thing. Let's make them focus on the singer, not the song. The point of it is that to understand why that joke is important to us really takes about 84 minutes.


... When people talk to you or write about the Penn & Teller show, Bullshit! and the other stuff you always feel you want to do minor corrections to their perception. Of course, once you do that you are admitting that you failed in communication. I am not going to take that to the max. Sometimes it's their fault. But not if it's repeated, and not if they're in the audience I want to communicate with. That is the weird thing about art. Not only are you supposed to communicate, but also you have to be communicating to the audience that you want to be communicating to. It is fine for the Ramones not to communicate to Lawrence Welk fans, but within their audience, there should be an exchange of emotional, intellectual and artistic information.


I would do an interview with people who really liked Bullshit! and they would say, "Well, your whole idea is to be contrary and to tear down everything." I'm glad they liked it. But I try to just stick to things I believe. I am not being contrary. I believe this shit. But with The Aristocrats, when people call me up after they see the movie—and there is a huge self-selection process: these are people who wanted to see the movie and wanted to talk to me—it's incredible talking to them, because it is like talking to Provenza at Peppermill. There is no slight correction.



LVW: So would you say that completely outside the joke itself, The Aristocrats documents the subculture of comics?


PENN: Absolutely. That's all it's about. This is the wacky thing about this. I remember I was 19 or 20 and I had seen Jay Marshall on Ed Sullivan many times. And of course, on Ed Sullivan he was a variety artist and he was working squeaky clean, insanely clean. And then I met him. There was something about hearing this kind of carny, foulmouthed talk from a guy I'd seen working clean a zillion times that gave me this feeling of camaraderie that just rocketed up as he was telling dirty jokes. I'd thought dirty jokes were Abbie Hoffman, Kinky Friedman and Henry Miller. I didn't know it was also guys like Soupy Sales and the Three Stooges, and that there was this camaraderie of people who loved words and loved comedy and who also did this. You have this television comedy culture of I Love Lucy and Jack Benny right up through (Jerry) Seinfeld and there is this completely parallel and richer and deeper and longer-lasting culture of what these people did when they weren't being stomped on by the network.


What's happened is that we're now in a position where this stuff is accessible to more people. So it's not a question of comedians deciding to share it with other people or that people wouldn't have understood it just as well. We just now have channels—not network TV channels and not AM or FM radio channels—but we now have theatrical release and DVD channels that allow more people to have that feeling of joy and universality. You know, I'm a huge nut optimist, because when you are a Libertarian atheist, (you) can go one of two ways when you are those things.



LVW: I've never thought of you as an optimist. Do you seriously see yourself as an optimist?


PENN: I am so Pollyanna and so positive that I get ridiculed about it all the time. Some people say that I adopted the gruff voice and the swearing just to not have that side of me show. I am always in arguments with hippies that the world is better now than it has ever been. I never have any problems with stress; I don't worry about anything; I don't get upset; I don't get mad.



LVW: I guess this a good time to ask if being a parent has changed you?


PENN: The amount of joy I was capable of experiencing, which seemed to have hit the max has now gone further. I find that I can work even harder. I always have 10 projects going and I always work all the time. But now I find that spending an hour with Moxie recharges me in such a way that I feel like I can conquer the world. After an 18-hour day, just put Moxie in my arms and it's like I had a week off sitting on a porch with my feet up. I don't think it has changed me at all politically.


I will actually talk to the name thing. I know a lot of people who have eccentric names—my name being Penn, which is either a girl's name or not a name at all. All of these people just love their names. Whereas all the dipshits with really normal names seem to think that having an unusual name is the worst thing in the world. They say the kids at the playground are going to be cruel. No. They are going to be cruel because you are fat, because you fart, because you fall down, because anything that happens to you that's human—they're going to rip you apart. The name doesn't make it worse or better. The name doesn't change anything except that I pretty much know that when someone says Penn they are talking about me and that's a beautiful, special thing that I adore my parents for. I am glad I am not named Coca-Cola, which is what the name Bob is or you're just named a name that everyone uses. And the middle name—which everyone made a big deal out of —is because my wife doesn't have a middle name. She said middle names don't matter, they are absolute bullshit, so let's just have fun so that if she ever wants to bring it up when she is 22 to somebody, they can have a little laugh.



LVW: Is Moxie's name aspirational? Is moxie what you hope your daughter will have plenty of?


PENN: It may be—very unusual for me—it may be much more emotional than that. My wife Emily said it was hard being one of the seven Emilys in class and she insisted that she (Moxie) have a name that no one else in the classroom will have. The one thing that did disturb me with the press saying that it was crazy Penn doing this was my wife would say, "I get no credit at all. I hate that they assume that I just get pushed around and you say 'Our child shall be named ...' and I just go, yes dear." Actually, she was the one pushing for Moxie and she was the one pushing for CrimeFighter.



LVW: There is the partnership of marriage and the partnership of Penn & Teller. You actually have two life mates.


PENN: I do.



LVW: So, I guess maybe the assumption is that your relationship with your wife replicates your stage relationship with Teller: your silent partner.


PENN: I will tell you, (saying) that is the way, if you want—and trust me, you don't—to get a rise out of Teller. We had a meeting with the big cheese on a very famous TV show and they wanted us to do an episode. He wanted to portray us in a way that we didn't want to be seen for our own weird, tight-ass reasons. And he made the mistake in the meeting of saying how he could see how Teller shuts up and I push all my ideas on him or something along those lines. At which point I went, "Oh, you don't want me to shut up, but I will." And the next hour of the meeting was Teller: "You stupid motherfuckers, with your stupid fucking show. I can't believe how measured and controlled Penn was, that's why I was shutting up. I thought he was doing a fine job not calling you a needle-d--k c--ksucker." I'm used to Teller being a person who uses the first-person plural all the time. We say this. We do this. I think people who really like Penn & Teller are aware that everything I say is cleared through Teller. The truth is that I am so close to him that it would never cross my mind that I was speaking for Teller saying something contrary to his beliefs.


The difference with my wife is that I did something crazy in that I waited for the perfect person to get married. Friends told me from the time I was 28 that I would have to do some compromising and settling. And I don't believe in compromise. So I decided to wait for the perfect person to walk up and not a person who grows into perfect with me but someone who starts out perfect. Let's not start with anything that is a problem. There is checklist that is not private, that is right out there: teetotaler, no drugs, no god, skeptic obsessed with freedom. When I was 48, people would say that pop-psychology stuff that you have trouble committing and even if the perfect person came along you are too set in your ways. But the perfect person came along, and, when I found that, within three months we were committed to each other and married within a year. So other guys tell me—with all the decisions to make with the baby, especially—"you're going to be fighting over this and this and this." But there are no decisions to make, like with the name, everything has been very easy.



LVW: So how will you handle Santa Claus as a parent?


PENN: I have to see what kind of kid she is. I don't know. There are friends of mine who are really strong atheists and skeptics who said they didn't tell their kid there was a Santa Claus but didn't disabuse them of it right away when it was in the culture and the kid really enjoyed solving that skeptical problem by themselves. And two years later the kid can figure out theology by realizing that God is the same as Santa Claus: end of discussion.



LVW: So your reason for not telling your daughter there is no Santa would be an educational one, to let her figure it out?


PENN: No. I don't believe in that kind of manipulation of anybody. But that doesn't mean that I understand at what level her playfulness with information is going to be. I've never known a kid that well. I did not see girls until they got tits. I said to a friend that little girls never came to the Penn & Teller show until the night we found out I was going to have a daughter. That night I started to see the little girls coming to the show. I swear I never noticed one of them before. Suddenly, I started seeing little girls and wondering what age that is or if Moxie will look like that.



LVW: How do you feel about Penn & Teller in Las Vegas after all these years?


PENN: Here, although no one has learned this, including The Blue Man Group, it is really easy. Vegas offers more artistic freedom than off-Broadway, if you know how to use it.



LVW: Would you say your show is edgier now than when it opened at the Rio?


PENN: Yes. Yes. When you are playing off-Broadway the investors are all very much about artistic integrity. They are very much about giving you complete control. But they are worried. So you have a sense that a little bit of care is taken, that is called for and that is right and you can certainly work under that. But in Vegas, once you get to a level of success when you can put X number of asses in a seat, then the casinos does not give you artistic freedom, they do better than that, they ignore you. The Rio hears that Penn & Teller have put new stuff in and their reaction isn't, "you better check that out and see what direction their going," that isn't it at all. It's "Oh, our kid likes to go see them, maybe I'll get into them next year." And that's it.



LVW: When did Penn & Teller start coming here?


PENN: Our first time was in 1992. We played Bally's and we did very well and no one expected us to. It was a crazy thing to book us here. And we also expected to not like it and we actually did like it. There are steps to an artistic community. In the mid-'80s Vegas was an absolute wasteland. And then the '90s start bringing in some acceptable shows like Blue Man Group. Now we have a few good shows. But what has not happened in Vegas yet is that no one yet creates new material here. Blue Man Group does not create new material here. Mamma Mia, We Will Rock You and those shows, for better or worse, they weren't created here. I think the next step that has to happen is getting a community like we felt off-Broadway, where you say to Teller, "What's Blue Man put in lately? What brand new show has started up?" I am really waiting for 10 years from now in Vegas when there will be groups creating stuff in Vegas for Vegas.



LVW: Aren't the Cirque shows here like that ...


PENN: I guess so. It is just that they are so outside of my taste. I guess they are and I guess they are the perfect example of that starting up.



LVW: Do you create new material in Vegas or is everything in the show road-tested from over the years?


PENN: Oh no, we write stuff all the time. We have about five things in the pipeline now that have been slowed down because of the NBC special that we are shooting in the Bahamas in two weeks.



LVW: Is there anything specific you can say about the NBC special?


PENN: I believe there is. Of course, anybody on my staff will tell you that I don't keep back anything. So, whether I'm supposed to say it or not, I'm going to tell you. It is called Penn and Teller Off the Deep End. It is scheduled tentatively—but this will probably change so if you said anything about it, you'd look like a fool—for November 20. It's a two-hour special for NBC. And the pitch was that it was an underwater magic special, and that will probably be a lot of the promo. In reality about six of the tricks will be entirely underwater in the Bahamas. And there will be some top-side just because vanishing a 100-foot submarine with scuba divers holding hands all around it and doing a Houdini escape from a shark cove and things like that were expensive enough that we had to do something top-side. The original fantasy was to do the whole thing underwater; that was impractical. I also think it wouldn't be good. As many pure ideas, it's better as a pure idea. In reality, you have to round it off a little bit. I think it will be pretty good. We leave in a week to go down to the Bahamas for 16 days. We've been working on that special for 15 years but we have actually seriously been working on it for two years. So we're pretty jacked up about it.



LVW: Sharks. I never have grasped how dangerous what you do is at its most dangerous. I read your piece in Rolling Stone about what happened to Roy, where you made clear that the surprising thing was that we were surprised.


PENN: I had many discussions with Siegfried and Roy saying, "you shouldn't be doing this." But our feeling, and we stick to this as much as we can, is exactly Houdini's rule—that nothing is more dangerous than sitting in his living room. Now that word "dangerous," there is the important one. You don't mean uncomfortable. You don't mean painful. But you do mean dangerous.


So I will say proudly—and I will also tell you this isn't true of many other magic acts—so I'll say very proudly that no one associated with Penn & Teller has ever been seriously injured. By seriously injured I'm using a pretty low bar, using S&M rules: Nothing that still hurts after two weeks and nothing that puts you in the hospital overnight. So Teller and I have gotten sprains and bruises and bangs that brought us to the emergency room but we have been discharged as outpatients. And our crew has had bangs and bruises that they are still walking off two weeks later. But nobody has done anything that a forensic officer could still find a year later. And I am really proud of that.



LVW: How did you feel about the reception to your novel, Sock?


PENN: Oh fabulously. You know I've had this period of my life that has been stuff that I did with no audience in mind that ended up having a larger audience. I wrote Sock mostly to deal with my mom and dad's death. That's a much too New Age-y bullshit way to say it, but I wanted to write something that was just a lot of stuff that was floating around in my head. And I just kind of did it purely without an audience in mind. As I said at one of my readings, "Most of the time I'm doing stuff I picture an audience, I didn't picture you guys at all." I believe it's in its third or fourth printing, which are still nonexistent numbers. But that's the big lie about American pop culture: Even the books that sell really well aren't even one Nielsen point.



LVW: Obviously, here you have an audience in mind. Do you think you have ever had to make any compromises for the Penn & Teller show because you are in Vegas?


PENN: No. I really don't. Although I guess at some level that is a lie, because you are aware of the audience that comes in and that informs everything you do, but no conscious ones. I've never said in a meeting with Teller that this is a great but we can't do it in Vegas. That sentence has never been uttered.



LVW: You don't do a montage of career highlights before the start of the Penn & Teller Show, like many acts here.


PENN: What we love about Las Vegas is that the people who see our show this week really do go through the show we want to show them this week. The problem is that with Teller not speaking and me looking like I look and our style being so skeptical and us having these really strong things, that unless you are a nut, you don't notice us changing. But for us, we do. Whereas if you do a montage of every Letterman you ever did out front, you are asking people to keep you where you were. But of course most people who do those montages are just here to cash in on those montages and don't see themselves as still developing.

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