Behind the Curtain: Penn Jillette's Tricks of the Trade

Photographer: Press photo

Penn & Teller have been performing magic together for nearly 40 years. You know their act – Penn does all the talking, and his partner, Teller, remains silent.

Their show is a postmodern take on magic; it’s both about how magic tricks work and a “screw-you” (Penn would use the F-word) to hack magicians who try to fool the audiences into believing in the supernatural. Penn & Teller perform their comedy and magic at the Strand-Capitol on Friday, so we called Penn at his Las Vegas home, nicknamed “The Slammer.”

In this interview, we made the questions disappear and let Penn do what he does best – all the talking. Here, he pulls back the curtain to reveal some of the secrets of magic and life.

On Performing Magic

• I won’t jive. People have done magic on TV and have been very successful. I don’t like it. When you’re doing magic on TV, you have control of the cameraman and editing. Every 35 seconds there’s a cut, and that cut is a miracle. So already you are watching in a miraculous form.

• When you walk into a theater, you know the rules of time and space. You know because you’ve lived them. So a live show allows you to do tricks that are really going hit the audience in a way that no electronic recorded magic could possibly do.

• People come to the theater to see a magic show to be lied to, and because of that simple fact most magic shows have an essentially unpleasant overtone.

• Jerry Seinfeld said, “All magic shows are ‘Here’s a quarter, now it’s gone, you’re a jerk. Show’s over.'” That is the best description of magic I’ve ever heard.

• The most radical position you can take in magic is the idea of showing respect to your audience. Our idea was to never, ultimately, lie to them. The rule is, “You don’t leave the theater with any lie.”

• If you’re going to do a supposed mind-reading trick, it’s really hard to do while making it clear that there is no such thing as mind reading. That’s what makes it a really fun challenge.

• Every other magic act working now does this “I used to do card tricks but now I’m going to hold my breath for 40 minutes.” Ok, and your qualification for this is you used to do card tricks? I would’ve thought free diving would’ve been your background, but it’s card tricks?

On Violence in Entertainment

• The bullet catch is the most dangerous trick done in show business. 15 people have died on stage rather spectacularly. Shot in the fucking face. It is that dangerous.

• Teller and I believe that to do dangerous things on stage is morally and artistically wrong. We believe our version of the bullet catch is safe. It’s got three levels of safety, and everyone in the crew is told that if anything looks wrong, just walk out on stage and stop us. The show becomes completely unimportant. That deals with the moral reason. The artistic reason is a little more interesting. We’re asking you to laugh at situations that appear to be scary and dangerous.

• I don’t mean to sound like a pussy, but I don’t want to go to an entertainment where somebody is injured badly. If you’re coming to see us get hurt, you’re not the kind of person I want in my audience.

• A 15-year-old nerd kid who puts rubber cement on his face and goes running around like a burn victim is not celebrating the horrible burn victim. He does not want to be a horrible burn victim. What he wants to do is say “fuck you” to death and suffering. This is the mistake that Hillary Clinton makes in her hatred of video games. The depiction of violence is not a celebration of real violence. The depiction of violence in the arts is a celebration of life and youth and health.

• The movie that I’m making, Director’s Cut, has kidnapping, torture, anger and hate. And I think that those things have to be done, for me, as a celebration of life. I don’t want to see Charlie Manson’s art. But I do very much want to see what Shakespeare had to say about violence.

On Vocabulary Words and Hard Work

• Sitzfleish is a German-Yiddish word that means “just having your ass in a seat.” There have been a lot of people – Andy Warhol was one, Cole Porter was another – who’ve said that the only trick to art is just doing it. I’m fascinated by that idea.

• Teller said that the word “genius” is a word that people used because they didn’t want to describe themselves as lazy. It’s easier to say, “Bob Dylan’s a genius,” instead of saying, “Bob Dylan is working harder than I’ll ever work.”

• The only secret to magic is that we’re willing to work harder on a trick than you think we are.

• We have a trick that’s going in the next month that we’ve been working on for five years. There are tricks in the show right now that we worked off and on for 30 years.

On the Internet

• The last thing I Googled was “Topless Game of Thrones.” I saw a video of “Game of Thrones” with everything edited out but the tits. Before that, I was trying to learn all about gravity waves and epigenetics. So, you got tits, epigenetics and gravity waves.

On Life

• It’s really fun to be in over your head. That’s all you want to do. Last night, I hosted a two-hour Q&A with [evolutionary biologist] Richard Dawkins, and I didn’t graduate high school. So you tell me how far over my head I was.

• I don’t use drugs or alcohol. If I had to fill in the blank of “sex, ____ and rock n’ roll,” I’d just do, “sex, sex and rock and roll.” Or I might put in, “sex, jazz and rock and roll.” Ginsberg has that line in Howl, “Looking for jazz and sex and soup.” I think I have the quotation wrong, but whatever it is, that’s what I’m looking for.

On Music

• All of a sudden I just had to be listening to Elvis Presley’s “Promised Land.” What it must have felt like for Elvis landing in Hollywood. Being on a plane eating a T-bone steak a la carte.

• Bob Dylan is the best of us. Whenever I’m going through a tough time, I always tell people, “I’m going to talk to Bob.” I go to the headphones, and I talk to Bob for a little while. And he tells me what to do. Bob’s the best. When 200 years have gone by, we will be judged by Bob Dylan because he’s how we’ll be remembered.

On Mom

• My mother was everything to me. My mother and I were the same person – no doubt about it. She was a little old lady; I was a big hippie. We were the same person. All the important decisions made in my life, before she died, were run by my mom. And she was everything to me.


Strand-Capitol Theatre • May 16


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Mike Andrelczyk is a features editor for Fly Magazine. He is a graduate of Penn State University and currently lives with his wife Stacey in Strasburg. Interests include tennis, playing bad guitar, poetry (poems have appeared in Modern Haiku, The Inquisitive Eater and other journals) and oneirology – the study of dreams – mostly in the form of afternoon naps. His name appears in the title screen of Major League 2.

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