Interview with Penn & Teller: Guess Which One We Talked To?

There are people you interview and you know immediately why they’re famous (or should be). As art is communication, the artists who are usually best known are the ones with the most to say in their medium.

Penn Jillette, the half of Penn & Teller who does all the talking, has a hell of a lot to say.

And that’s his art, that’s his bag, that’s his side of the Penn & Teller coin. To talk. And so he has through their 35 years together as a magic act that somehow started an entertaining, investigative and critical television documentary show called Bullshit!, now in its seventh season.

But as the conversation went into that and well beyond. David Letterman, Balloon Boy (which happened while we were talking), Glenn Beck, television news, touring, Michael Moore, politics, god knows what else. We were just supposed to talk about the duo’s upcoming appearance in New York—the proceeds of which will go to PS/MS 161 in New York via the Bill Graham Memorial Foundation in conjunction with VH1’s Save The Music. Eh. These things happen.

As the conversation went in so many different directions, and I feel is worth reprinting in some fluid manner, we’re cut the tape on the print version and this is the full edition. Print’s dead anyway, right?

This is being billed as your first show back to NYC in nine years.

It’s not really a real show; it’s our first appearance onstage. We’ll be using some weasel words like that because we’re not doing the full show.

You’re doing a couple of tricks and then you’re doing a Q&A.

Yeah, we’re supposed to be doing a Q&A. We did this thing in Hollywood about six months ago where they set us up at The Writers’ Guild, I think, and we had some people come in and we just did a couple of little tricks and videos. Then we did the Q&A, and it was really fun and people seemed to like it, so somehow the way the machinations work, it ended up happening in New York.

And it’s the Save The Music show?

Yeah, we wanted to do something for them—it’s really getting the show out from Vegas to New York, to do the full show, kind of means we got to have gigs around it or it would be better to just write Save The Music a check. We could never make more money then it would cost us to move the whole show out there. We do tour a little bit, but we would have to really be doing some serious touring stuff. We’re going to have to wait ‘till we have some more shows on the east coast to do that.

Right, you have a couple of dates in Southern California this year, but you’re stuck in Vegas.

Pretty much, although the remarkable thing is how much artistic freedom is allowed in Vegas. It really is very counter intuitive, working for a huge corporation that has a million businesses that allows you in your theater to kind of do what whatever you want. It’s really nice. We’ve actually written more new material and I think nuttier out there stuff in Vegas than we did on the off Broadway on Broadway in New York.

When was the last time you did a full national tour?

You know, we’ve been in Vegas full time for over eight years now. In Vegas, we’re under contract for 48 weeks a year, so that gives you your answer. The plan was when we settled down in Vegas, we would do Vegas 48 weeks a year and then we would do three weeks of touring. Then the first 7 years, Bullshit! had been running at that whole time, and we did many other things and did not tour at all, but this past year we’re getting up to California. We did go back and do a couple of casinos back east.

It was really nutty; we were on the road together for our entire adult lives until we settled down in Vegas. It was nutty to be on the road again. It’s nutty how comfortable I am and how much I like it on the road. I love it. I believe the only people that actually like being on the road are Billy Gibbons, Keith Richards, and me. So eventually that will be the band, I imagine. I love being with my family and it’s nice to be settled down, but all the stuff that whiney fucking emo bands talk about the horror of being on the road. I just don’t feel any of that. I love sitting in hotel with a book and my computer and then doing a show and then doing it again.

Well I’m sure you have a bigger bus than they do.

We don’t even do bus. We would mostly do little planes or commercial planes on the day of the show because there are only two of us. We’re smart enough in our lives not to have a fuckin’ drummer. No one needs a drummer.

I would imagine you have a lot of fuckin’ shit to bring with you.

We have a lot of fuckin’ shit to bring, but for the past 20 years other people have schlepped it. Believe me, if I were carrying the props for the show, it would be an evening of card tricks. It would be Ricky Jay’s show.

It would be like that video, ‘It’s Tricky’ by Run DMC.

Yeah, basic three card Monte. You’re right, it would be foolish to bring the other 49 cards. I’d just carry the three and throw Monte.