Welcome to another great page from the VOICES Archives, as we are very proud to present our conversation with Penn Jillette. This interview originally ran in October 2000.

VOICES: First, let me say how grateful I am that you have taken the time to share your views with our readers.

PENN: Thanks for asking.

Let me start with a very strange topic. Back in 1996 at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Teller made a comment to me that has stuck in my brain ever since. We were talking about why there are so many bad magicians in the world, and more importantly, why audiences seem to enjoy them. His quote to me was "A miracle, even if it is a lousy miracle, is still a miracle." I have thought quite a bit about that statement over the past few years and one conclusion that I have reached is that for a large number of magical performers the goal is to simply fool the audience, which is what reduces most magic to a level of mere puzzles. So my question to you is this: In general terms, what goals do you set for yourselves when creating a new bit? And on average, how high (or low) on the list does "fooling the audience" usually appear?

This is a very hard question. It's addressed on every bit, in about those words. In the Handstab, we talk about how deeply we want them to think we're fighting and uncomfortable, how deeply we want them to believe we're off book and how long we want them to buy the knife going through my hand. The Bullet Catch should be a mystery forever. The Handstab should fool for a few seconds. That's part of the writing, it's part of the idea. But, we need to know how much we're planning on fooling them. Sometimes we fool more than we expected (Inflatables) and sometimes we fool and decide to take it back (Seance). We're not always right about it, but we're always considering it.

Let's continue talking about the audience for a moment. I have always been obsessed with watching audiences. When I attend a run of your shows, I enjoy one performance for myself, but the rest, I concentrate on the crowd. I have seen one crowd laugh at a specific bit, only to have the same routine bring tears a day later. How much does the audience bring to each performance?

You have to remember that a VERY different "audience" response doesn't mean the individuals are feeling it any different. The "audience" is the people who are vocal at that minute. The laughing may be loud, but the quiet may be more powerful to the individuals. Also, a laugh may just be a different way of expressing the exact same emotion. You can't start letting the audience write the show. You want to please them, but you don't want to start believing that the only valid reactions are the loud ones.

The flavor of your show also changes due to the fact that you utilize a number of audience members every night. One example that I remember vividly was in Washington when G. Gordon Liddy pushed his way onto the stage to assist with The Magic Bullet. Are there any other "volunteers" that really stick out in your memories that you can share with us?

Gordon was a big exception. We didn't want him, but we went with him. Normally if anyone is too nutty, we lose them right away. For the most part we're trying to make the experience consistent, and part of that consistency is that the audience believes it's varying. This isn't always true, there are times when I riff with a person from the audience but it's VERY rare. Mostly the things I have are flow charts that lead back to the same place and not really being done for the first time. That's acting.

Let's change direction a bit. Since this magazine is geared to bizarre magick, I would like to ask about something from your past. I have heard you talk about the seances that you gentlemen used to perform years ago, and I understand why you stopped doing them. But from a creative viewpoint, would you give a brief description of what was included in those performances?

The rules were you paid us, and supplied 11 Atheists in a room that went fully dark. They never believed us. The room wouldn't be completely dark and the people would include believers. We told people that "Everything from here on in will be a lie" and then said, "Before we start the show and start lying, let's do some real ESP." Teller and I both talked and it was very heavy. We told people before and after that it was all fake but some didn't believe us. "Fearing not I'd become the enemy" as Bob Dylan said. We made them pray to satan. It's was pretty heavy. It scared people a lot. It was a great idea, but it was too creepy for us.

Tell us a little about the Houdini Séance that appears in your act today.

We do an opera and a magic trick that brings Houdini back from the dead to tell people there's no life after death. We worked on it forever. It started as an M.I.T. project, but all the tech fell away. It's a really hard bit. It's really amazing that we get away with an Atheist opera on a Vegas stage.

Now I would like to concentrate on inspiration and the creative process. So first, could you name several individuals that have inspired you in the field of magic? And could you explain what makes them inspirational to you?

Randi taught me that you could be honest and lie for a living. Without Amazing Randi there would be no Penn & Teller. He's the only one that really matters.

Houdini, because he was modern and skeptical. He was gutsy.

Johnny Thompson and Jay Marshall got me to like jokes again.

Eddie Fector got me to love nutty romance in tricks.

Outside of magic, I could keep going in this section. But, you know, I could take you at your word and keep it to magic. Then it's really just Randi, Johnny and Jay.

How about individuals outside of the magical arts?

Lou Reed and the Velvets, Alice Cooper, Frank Zappa, Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan. When I was a kid, they were what I knew about performing. I didn't see many of them live but those that I did (Frank and Alice) gave me a feel for what I wanted to see in a show.

I loved George Romero movies.

Mostly I never liked anything at all fantasy or mystical.

I also have to say Richard Feynman, and Richard Dawkins.

In my opinion, all great theater goes through what I call "creative evolution". To me, a performance piece is like the mirror in a fine telescope, which means it is never finished. It can always be ground and polished a bit more to come closer to perfection. Could you give some examples of bits that have changed over the years?

Every bit changes and changes, but you have to know what you're saying when you start. The morality and intellectual content has to be there, and then you can refine it. You have to know what you want to say before you start to say it. You don't have to be able to articulate it, but you have to feel it. With TV, CD's, and Movies people don't get good at specific things. As time goes on everything gets subtler and that's wonderful. You learn to make your point with less and less and make it stronger. All the bits change the same way (unless we lose it, which does happen).

Let's talk specifically about several items in your show. Basically I am looking for is where the concept came from, the purpose of the piece, and/or a brief description of the evolution. The first one is for me the definitive Penn & Teller piece, "Looks Simple":

We wrote it for the PBS special and then brought it back for "Unpleasant World." We made up the "Seven Principles" of magic. It started with the idea of "Using magic tricks to create the illusion of reality," that made us laugh. We hired Greg Cohen (bass player for Lou Reed, Tom Waits, Laurie Anderson and lots of big bands) to watch the bit and write the bass line. He's one of the best bass players around, but he couldn't do the talking while he played. I practiced for a long time to be able to talk out of rhythm while playing.

How about a bit that I personally would love to see in the show again,"The Hand Stab":

That goes way back. Way way back. The distance we went to get that trick is really funny. We had collapsible knives and all sorts of delivery systems before Teller came up with sticking the knife on his ass and putting the blood behind the card. We wanted to get the audience to want me to suffer so much that the trick would work itself. It's so old I don't remember too much more than that about the writing.

How about "The Cups & Balls", and leading into "Liftoff":

Teller used to practice the cups and balls with anything that was around while we were on the road. Occasionally he would use a clear water glass and it would kill me. Just kill me dead. We decided to see if we could share that joy. Teller worked forever on the routine. It's a great routine. I started telling the story in the intro about a cruise ship magician getting upset before it happened. And then life imitated art. It was nutty.

Liftoff is just a ripoff of Cups and Balls. It was so hard, originally, *I* was under the stage and Teller was on top. We tried everything to slide Teller around before Teller just slid around. We worked forever with Doctor Stockdale on the music (I think Teller wrote the words). It was so hard to get the music to fit the movement right and still be a pop song. When we were writing it, I sang "Uptight, Outasite" by Stevie Wonder as a piece of marker music.

I remember talking with you in Newark back in October of 98 after seeing you perform one of my favorite pieces in person for the first time. Tell us about "Balloon of Blood":

Joel Hodgeson came in to brainstorm on SinCity. He said, "You know you can do "needle through balloon" with a water balloon. I bet it would work with a balloon of blood." All I needed was the title and the whole idea was clear in my mind. I had this one so clear. I knew just what I wanted to say. All the stories are true, but one name is changed. One guy wouldn't let me use his name. The other two are Lawrence O'Donnel Jr. and Jerry Camero. The trick is really hard. I remember one day Jamy Swiss and I just worked and worked and worked. It was a holiday and the crew was off so we did the prop shopping and everything. We were soaked. Just soaked.

Recently, when we were working with Paul Provenza, he said he wasn't happy with the ending. He wanted it to happen at the end of the whole bit with no lines after. I hated that idea. But, I said, "What if I leave stage and THEN it happens. It'll make it more isolated and alone symbolically and artistically it'll tell people that it's really just a monologue." That's the way I've been doing it now, and I like that.

The whole time I was working on it, I was thinking about Barry Marx. I loved him dearly. He was such a good friend. He died instantly for no reason. No reason except that there's no god. No reason except random. I think of him every night when I do it. He would have loved it. "Sometimes people just die" is for Barry.

Since then, my Mom and Dad have both died. When my Dad died I told my Mom I was going to cut "Balloon of Blood" -- she said, "You'll do the show as written, your Father always took his jobs seriously and he liked you working. You won't not do your job because of your Dad -- that would be against everything he taught you." I did it right after my Dad died and right after my Mom died. I can't say I thought about them during it. I was gone. I did it on automatic pilot, but I got through. I would like to say they would have been proud, but they were always proud, it would have been what they expected and demanded.

I miss my Mom and Dad and I miss Barry. That's life. We're just Balloons of Blood.

Tell us about your newest piece, "Flag":

Jamy said, "You know, I've always wanted to do a burned and restored silk with the flag."


Our crew was worried about it. They were afraid we were going to be offensive. Wiley said he wouldn't feel good about it unless he felt we could do if for an entire audience of wounded vets and his Dad.

I tried to tell everyone that we were using the flag burning to get away with too much patriotism, not using patriotism to get away with burning the flag. Teller understood, I don't think anyone else did.

We got it together and it's a tear jerker for the good old USA. Wiley says his Dad will love it and we can bring all the vets we want.

When it comes to creating new routines, describe the process. Where do things go after the basic idea strikes?

It's just a lot of talking and arguing and then experimenting and then thinking. There are no tricks to finding tricks. We do whatever we have to. It's just work. We keep struggling. It doesn't get easier, but when we like something, then the real work starts.

We have jumped around quite a bit, but now a few brief questions to bring this to a close. First, is there ever a chance of things such as "Invisible Thread" being officially released for those of us that would like to retire our aging copies? I personally dream of a P&T compilation DVD.

It's just a question of people wanting it enough and biz people believing that's true. I don't believe enough people want that stuff now.

And what is next for the two of you?

We will always do more of the same. We have no goals outside of what we're doing. We're happy. Just more bits and more ideas, I hope.

Tell us about Teller.

Teller is the best magical mind alive. He's responsible, he never makes mistakes, he doesn't do drugs or believe in god. What more could I want?

Tell us about Penn & Teller.

It's all on stage.

My final question: When it comes to the creators and performers in the world of conjuring, if you could wave a magic wand and give each of them a single trait, what would it be?

The overwhelming desire to work as plumbers.

Once again, I could never thank you enough for being a part of VOICES. Your generosity, as well as the dedication to your art, and to your fans, is unmatched. You have my eternal gratitude.

You are very welcome, and thanks for everything.


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Rick Maue