Q&A: Penn Jillette

When Penn Jillette rings, you better believe I’m going to pick up. Even if it’s a federal holiday, and I’m driving four hours home from West-Central Florida, and I have to pull over into a Lake Worth Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot to field the call and ready my recorder.

The loquacious half of legendary magic duo Penn & Teller—now entering its 44th year in the business—has been on my interview bucket list for as long as I’ve followed his eclectic career, from his innovations in stage magic to his long run as the narrative voice behind Showtime’s “Penn & Teller: BS” to his current run on the CW’s “Penn & Teller: Fool Us” in which next-generation magicians try (and usually fail) to stump the masters.

And so, with Penn & Teller set to tour Hard Rock Event Center on Jan. 31, Jillette carved out 30 minutes on Martin Luther King Jr. Day for a deep-diving conversation that addressed the epistemology of magic, the #MeToo movement, the gender gap in magic and trends in the trick industry, the scent of fresh-baked Boston Kremes sweetening the discourse.

I suppose I can’t ask you to spoil what kind of illusions you’ll be doing, but can you tease us with anything we can expect to see?

We’re not going to be doing illusions—we’ll be doing tricks. Really good tricks. This weird thing happened where in the ‘70s or ‘80s, some magicians decided that since “illusion” was a longer word, it was more respectable. But the fact is, illusion is a term of art that means essentially just a visual misperception, like something done with mirrors. It’s a very specific kind of magic, and not intellectual at all. We’re more interested in tricks, because those are essentially intellectual. They are a playful way to deal with one of the most important issues in our life, which is how we determine what’s real.

Our show on the road is different from our Vegas show. One thing we’ll be doing is in the audience’s hands, where the whole audience gets to do a magic trick that they can take home with them. We’ll be doing a couple of classics of magic, which is unusual for us—we usually don’t do tricks other magicians do, but we’ll be doing that this time in a very odd way. I’ll be doing a couple of memory tricks, in which I’ll be memorizing a pattern that allows me to put a nail gun into a board and through my hand. We’ll be doing a few things that explain how tricks are done, because we like very much to talk with our audience about what we’ve learned about magic.

There’s always been this kind of wall between magicians and audiences that doesn’t exist in the other arts. Magicians have this quality of, “I can do this and you can’t, ha ha ha.” And you don’t get that in the other arts: You don’t get Keith Richards going, “Ha ha ha, I can play guitar and you can’t.” But magicians do this kind of false macho loser thing. And Teller and I are interested in being on the same side as the audience, and that means we sometimes give things away. The tone we want is the tone we have on “Penn & Teller: Fool Us,” where we let the audience in and talk to them about what matters to us. If I were going to a magic show, I want to be included instead of excluded.

The way I see it, you sometimes enjoy deconstructing tricks as much as tricking us. Does that sound accurate?

That’s very close. I think if you want to be really pretentious—and I always do—what magic is is the playful study of epistemology. It’s how we determine the accuracy of the world around us. Science has most to say about that, and journalism has a lot to say about that, and documentary has a lot to say about that. But magic, on the goofy side, the broad side, the playful side, has an awful lot to say about that. And what’s interesting about magic, to me, is that it’s automatically philosophical. Even a 12-year-old doing a magic trick that she just bought this afternoon, for her family, is automatically engaging in an intellectual discussion. You’re automatically dealing with what’s lies, what’s truth, what’s real and what’s not.

This may or may not have applied to you and Teller, but with so much audience interaction in magic, has the MeToo movement made magicians more careful in how they interact with, particularly, women volunteers?

I’ll speak first to us: We have had an absolute rule in our show since we started 44 years ago—an unbreakable rule that if you were to read the transcript, you would never be able to tell the gender of anybody we had onstage. I don’t believe there’s an exception to that in 44 years. So we will have women onstage, and we’ll have men onstage, and I defy you to tell by how they’re handled what gender they identify with. If you can’t do it by the name, the transcript will show you nothing.

And the reason was not feminism, which has always been something I’ve read a lot about and cared about. That wasn’t really the motive; that’s a happy byproduct. The motive was really that’s there’s nothing interesting in an old man onstage pseudo-flirting with somebody else. There’s a lot of interesting stuff to be said about flirtation and about gender roles, and in my experience it’s never been said by magicians. Go to D.H. Lawrence. Go to Virginia Woolf. But magicians? That’s really not an area they’re good at. And every time I saw a magician do one of those hack lines like—“What’s your name?” “Jennifer.” “Can I call you Jennifer?” “Yes.” “What time?”—I was always repulsed and sickened. So the MeToo movement can have no effect on us, because we have never even acknowledged the different genders.

I can’t tell you how difficult this is, but in the past two years, because of some close friends of mine, I have tried to eliminate all gender pronouns from our show. That’s very difficult for me, because I’m uneducated. I have that autodidact, irritating quality of reading old grammar books. So it’s very difficult for me to use third-person plural as third-person singular, but I’ve done it. I used to say he or she a lot, but I learned the binary gender thing was impolite and inconsiderate. So it’s very hard for me to say, “we’ll pick one person from the audience, and they will decide.” It grates against me like ain’t grates against some people. But I’ve decided that’s just because I’m old, and that anybody under 35, it doesn’t grate at all; it’s just proper.

The other thing is, for all sorts of unpleasant and at times completely unmysterious reasons, there have not been many people who self-identify as women in magic. And one of the reasons is that the Magic Circle, the club, didn’t let women in until the ‘90s! The big organization is the International Brotherhood of Magicians, which no one has seen fit to change. I get asked all the time—I have a son and a daughter—if my son is into magic. And the answer is no, but my daughter is. She’ll be appearing this year on “Fool Us,” doing a trick with us. To her, there’s nothing at all unusual about girls in magic. And I say this with so much joy.

Wwe always meet people after our shows, and about every other show we’d have a boy come up and show us a magic trick. And from 1995 to 2005, we had one girl, out of a couple million people coming to our show. In the past two years, we have not had a week go by without a girl showing us a magic trick. There seemed to be an evenly gendered split. I would give you very good odds that within the next five years, the most famous magician in the United States of America will identify as female.

And has the classic magician with the beautiful, scantily clad assistant gone out of fashion as well?

It has somewhat. The line I used in 1979 to describe other magicians was “a greasy guy in a tux with birds, that tortures women in front of Mylar to bad Motown rip-off white-boy music.” So the idea of torturing women, even symbolically, seems not pleasant. When Teller and I have ever done stuff, we’ve always done it to ourselves. That’s what Houdini did: He always tortured himself. And my argument would be that the person that withstands the impossible event is the hero. And in our show, we want to be the hero.

The funny thing is, last season on “Fool Us”—and nobody noticed this—we had five women on who were not assistants or part of teams but were working on their own. And of those five magicians, five of them fooled us. The rate for fooling is about 12 percent. So they were eight times as likely to fool us as a magician that identified as male. And I think that a big part of that is that there is a new kind of thinking happening in magic that Teller and I, as much as we try, can’t get hip to. And I hope that all the people who identify as female who come on “Fool Us” are able to paraphrase Dylan to us, and say, “Something’s happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Teller, Mr. Jillette?”

Have you noticed trends in some of the younger magicians that are different than when you were starting out?

Yeah, now everybody’s working with cards and a black table. Shin Lim has had a huge effect on people. When we started out, there was a lot of stuff that was called street magic, and now it’s gone to tables; everybody’s sitting down. I realize these aren’t very profound changes, but in terms of the technology of magic, they’re really profound changes. Because when you’re sitting down, the magic is different than when you’re standing up—mostly because you can throw things into your f**king lap! And when you’ve got a table, you can put stuff under the table, and if it’s a dark table you can put stuff on the table and no one can see. So there’s that whole movement.

I don’t know where the trends are going now. What I hope is that we’ll see more stuff coming up like Piff the Magic Dragon, where you get the coupling of an Andy Kaufman performance-art sensibility and graft it onto magic, instead of the more Seinfeld, “I’m a regular guy doing magic for you.” I prefer creeps. I prefer people who are outsiders as performers. I break things down into cheerleader and freak. Bruce Springsteen is a cheerleader: “Hey, we all like girls and cars, we all want to keep our jobs!” And Dylan is a freak. And in magic, we’ve got a lot of people who play it like Springsteen, and not a lot of people who play it like Dylan.

Have audiences gotten more perceptive to figuring out tricks, or are they as easily dupable as they were 10 or 15 years ago?

I don’t know. Once laypeople know what clichés pop up, like when you assume everything’s done with mirrors, you’ve got to stop using mirrors. Now I think everybody’s hip that the street magic TV shows were all plants and actors and none of the stuff was really done. People are aware of it now, although they weren’t—I had people come up to me 10 years ago saying they saw something on TV and it was absolutely impossible, that this guy has real powers. And I’d go, “You do know you saw that on TV, and not on the street, right?” Iron Man has a lot of powers that are quite remarkable. Superman can fly!

Penn & Teller perform at 8 p.m. Jan. 31 at Hard Rock Event Center, 1 Seminole Way, Hollywood. Tickets cost $40-$85. Call 800/937-0010 or visit seminolehardrockhollywood.com.