Penn Jillette Answers Your Questions

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Last week we solicited your questions for Penn Jillette, the prolific (and, yes, libertarian) entertainer.

Among other interesting topics, your questions covered magic, politics, Scientology, and Jillette’s red fingernail.

The red nail, he reveals in his answers, has something to do with his mother. He also shares what he thinks is the worst type of bulls–t (hint: it includes “talking to the dead, religion, [and] socialism”) — and why he appeared rude on the Colbert Report.

Thanks to all of you for your questions and to Jillette for his answers.

Question

What was the most memorable or favorite thing you were dead wrong about? – Bryan Gahagan

Answer

Oh man, there are so many. I once tried writing down every time I was wrong. I tried to count everything — things I saw wrong, things I misheard, hunches I had. It didn’t last long; I had no time to do anything but write down when I was wrong.

But, to answer it in the spirit it was asked, I’d pick a couple and say I used to be a liberal hippy and I was wrong about all of that, and for a while I believed the “subliminal seduction” jive. I also love a lot of avant-garde music, and I worry I might just be wrong about the content I think it has. Oh, and there was that “woman” who I met on the road in Chicago — that was a surprise. Not totally unpleasant, but a surprise nonetheless.

Question

What type of B.S. bothers you the most? – Patrick

Answer

B.S. that exploits grief, fear, and compassion. There’s lots of it: talking to the dead, religion, socialism, and on and on.

Question

As a skeptic, what techniques have you found are most effective in influencing people? Cold, hard logic doesn’t seem to always do the trick. – vimspot

Answer

In theory, I don’t believe in influencing, but just everyone telling the truth as they see it. My goal is not to influence, my goal is to be influenced.

Question

Did your interest in magic, whose illusions seem fantastic but are grounded in reality, have an effect on your worldview or vice versa, or neither? – Erik

Answer

My worldview existed before my interest in magic. Magic was a way to talk and think about it, but only because I met Teller. He’s the magic lover.

Question

Why were you so rude on The Colbert Report? – Matt

Answer

I’m so embarrassed and sad by the way that came out. We talked about what we were going to do before the show, and we had a rough outline, and I tried to follow it, but it just didn’t swing. After the show, Stephen said he liked it, but he was just being kind. He’s so wonderful; I wish I’d been better.

Question

Is it true that you guys were going to do a B.S. episode about Scientology but the idea was shot down by higher-ups at Showtime? – Bruce

Answer

That’s an oversimplification; we always have a long list of topics, and Scientology just wasn’t one of Showtime’s favorites. I told Matt and Trey that, and they did a South Park episode on Scientology that was so good I now feel we have nothing to add.

Question

If you were granted the ability to be president for one week and initiate one piece of legislation, what would it be? – Matt

Answer

Anything that would give the president less power — way less power. Back to George Washington power. And then I would abdicate.

Question

Do you feel like the recent “horsemen of atheism” (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett) are doing a good job promoting nontheism? Do you think in 50 years, American atheism, now at 5 to 10 percent, could reach current European levels at 50 percent? – Josephus

Answer

I read them all and love them, but I don’t see it as “promoting,” I see it as telling the truth as they see it (see above). Yeah, religion is going away. The nutty, scary stuff we see is the death throes. Religion is running scared, but it’s going to hurt a lot of people while it goes away. I just hope we get atheist without getting socialist.

Question

What is one thing about the average Joe/Jane that has you most confused? For me, it’s how so few people save for retirement (well, actually, save for anything). Would love to hear what you’re seeing. – Hannah

Answer

What confuses me the most is the separation of the average person from the idea of the average person. Don’t most of us have to be average people? Why do we talk about “everyone” as though they are someone else?

Question

Penn, lately, have you seen a magic effect you couldn’t figure out? Can you still be wowed by an act? Have you seen the BBC mystery series Jonathan Creek? – kennfong

Answer

I always see things I can’t figure out. If I cared how it was done, I’d ask Teller; nothing fools him ever. But I usually don’t care. Magicians are supposed to care very much about how things are done … but I just don’t. Even after working with Teller for years, there were some things I had no idea how we were doing. I just didn’t care. As a matter of fact, there are things in our show now in Vegas about which I have only the vaguest idea of method.

Question

You frequently interact with audiences, and have done so for an extended period of time. Have you noticed trends in “audience psychology” (for lack of a better term) linked to political and/or cultural events? For instance, were audiences more skeptical as the case for the Iraq war came to light? What impact has the economic crisis had? – Roscoe

Answer

I can’t see any changes at all. But remember, we’re dealing with audiences that come to explore the idea of what fools people, so the audience is very self selected. We never even saw regional differences. By the time you decide to see Penn & Teller, you seem to have already done a lot of the thinking to be ready for our show.

Question

In the 1970’s at the Los Angeles Renaissance Fair, some loud and obnoxious magician swiped my watch right off my wrist. He had me pound my chest like Tarzan as a diversion. Was that you? – Bruce F

Answer

Yes, I did work the Renaissance scene, and I am loud, and I have to accept that some people see me as obnoxious (although it’s not by design), but I’ve never done a watch steal.

Question

I always had to laugh when you would rank entertainment professions in order of their perceived value to the world. For example, magicians are better than jugglers, jugglers are better than clowns, etc. Where would an economist fall within these show-biz rankings? – ScotterOtterj

Answer

I’d put them up pretty high. It seems they’re really trying to think about stuff.

Question

Seriously, the red fingernail — I bought the distraction for sleight of hand excuse until I noticed that Carson Daly occasionally does the same thing. What gives? – Kevin Allen Jr.

Answer

I didn’t know that about Carson Daly. The non-joke answer (I’ve given the joke answer enough) is that I do it for my mom. When she told me that if I were going to juggle and do magic, I should keep my hands nice, I put on nail polish to mock her and make her laugh. I kept it. I don’t need a reminder of how much I love my mom, but I still have that one. Fingernail polish on my left hand for my mom, my dad’s ring on my right pinkie, and my necklace for my sister.

Question

Fill in the following: ___ percent of life is hard work, ___ percent is persistence, __ percent is style, and the rest is _____. – Granted

Answer

0, 0, 0, life.

Question

What is the total number of misdirections and sleights in your performance of the magic bullet? – briang

Answer

That’s impossible to really answer; it depends on how you clump it. Is putting two bullet holes in the glass one sleight, or is that five? Is the bang of the gun misdirection or part of the effect? It’s a tough one. I would say, to try to answer it in the spirit it’s asked, it’s probably about five sleights that we broke down to learn it, and misdirection does not lend itself to discrete numbers.

Question

How do you and Teller resolve the tension created by contradictory incentives; by bifurcating your roles, you increase the appeal of your joint Penn & Teller show, which benefits both of you. However, does the bifurcation increases outside opportunities for you at a differential rate compared with the outside opportunities available to Teller? – Glenn Dale

Answer

If you see showbiz as just being on shows, I guess that’s true. But Teller does a lot of showbiz stuff behind the scenes. He does lots of writing and lecturing to magicians, and he recently directed an amazing and well-received version of Macbeth. He’ll be doing more Shakespeare in the future. I get to fail on Dancing With the Stars. Which would you rather be remembered for?


Norm

When will you interview Teller?

Mark

Yes, let's hear from Teller. I'd like to hear his thoughts on how well Penn knows the means and methods behind their act. I doubt that Penn is really as ignorant as he is portraying himself. But would Teller tell the truth? Surely he wouldn't knowingly contradict Penn's public statements. So can we trust either Penn or Teller? Exactly the question we have to ask ourselves during their performances. (Now my head hurts...)

Doug Nelson

I watched the Colbert interview and didn't think he was particularly rude. Was there more than one?

Paul

I met Penn when he was part of the Asparagus Valley Cultural Society, along with Teller. They performed at my junior high, where Teller taught Latin and Greek.

(This would be a good time to insert your favorite joke about how hard it is to be taught Latin or Greek ...from a MIME!)

Mr. Jillette was a very pleasant person. He allowed me to play his Fender Rhodes despite a clear lack of talent on my part. He just struck me as a really cool guy.
It's been great to watch their careers advance.

I'm surprised he thinks he was 'all wrong' about being a liberal hippie. He's wrong about that.

wowwed

Bleakest of bleak. Minnesota barren renfest. First row for lack or others. Blown away by two sub terrain guys who never came up for air. Thank you for the moment. You earned every bit of it.

Granted

Ever the true magician, Penn revealed almost nothing about himself in this Q&A.

David Mudkips

Oh PLEASE do an episode on Scientology. Matt and Trey just barely scratched the surface of their insanity or their attempts to subvert both government and the mental health profession.

There's a lot of good material to be found there.

Zev Mo

I love Penn, and I agree with him on many, many things. But, when he starts down the Libertarian road of non-government intervention on the commons, he totally loses me. I am all about personal freedom, but you wouldn't want to live in a society where that brand of Libertarianism (me-ism) exists.

Hugh

You're all about personal freedom but you also want your hand held by the government. Interesting.

charles

Me-isim is exactly why this country is as great as it is (yes it's got it's side effects). The butcher and the baker. Liberty - what a wonderful thing. You cannot be for freedom and socialisim - just doesn't work.

Will

"Anything that would give the president less power - way less power. Back to George Washington power. And then I would abdicate."

That's what I would like to think I would do in the same situation, but I can't help but think that a lot of people got into politics with the same ideas only to discover that letting go of power once you have it is harder than it seems, for all sorts of reasons, many of which have seemingly altruistic justifications.

I really like Penn and I think he has a sharp, critical mind, but it I think when it comes to libertarianism, he has been taken in by the fantasy of an idealized world in which human nature obediently conforms to what we wish it were. I am sympathetic toward most core libertarian ideals and I think many are worth promoting, but I very much doubt that a large modern society without a strong central authority is a very stable state of affairs. Abdicate power and someone else will be waiting to snap it up, if for no other reason than to prevent someone worse from getting there first. Laws, checks, and balances are useful, but they can also be circumvented or simply ignored by a sufficiently ambitious and resourceful group or individual.

I think that any stable, functional civilization of millions or billions of people (and you really can't just wall off your own little country and expect the world to mind its own business) is going to be a mess of compromises and realpolitik. That's not a particularly cheerful or inspiring thought, but reality doesn't often conform to our wishes.

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Kickerofelves

While I'm inclined to believe that there isn't a supreme being in spite of my Catholic upbringing. But his going after a dead nun--Mother Teresa--to brown-nose Hitchens' rear-end is not Jillette's finest hour.

Bob Crispen

I saw P&T live a few years ago and they did a 20-minute long book test (the most boring trick in magic) and entertained the audience every one of those 1200 seconds. That's their secret: they know how to entertain people.

Wilber

Stick to magic. You thoughts are an illusion.

esbee

I love Penn and Teller. Truly great entertainers, and Penn has some great commentary about politics, etc. I hope and pray they both get saved. Too bad they are pushing atheism so much. Its like, even if there is no God, no afterlife, what does it matter how we live or what we do while alive since it all comes to nothingness after death. Hitler and the innocent children he killed in concentration camps all went to the same nothingness. Athiests can't even tell believers after death "I told ya so!" If indeed, there is no God, no afterlife, what does it matter what you believe while alive. But if there is a God, an afterlife, then only those who believed can say "I told ya so" to those who did not believe.

I sincerely hope and pray they get saved, and come to realize their sins have been paid for by the blood of Jesus on the cross.

Margaret

Esbee, I'm sorry but that's not an argument. There's no afterlife just because it's too horrible to be true? That's a sentiment, not a reason for the existence of God/heaven/hell. I see that you're sincere though, and it's very sweet.

Margaret

Btw, looooove Penn & Teller for their Showtime show. I think the quest for truth is the most admirable thing we can do for ourselves and others.

Eva

Give me an atheist any day. They understand that life is today here and now. An atheist will not be "forgiven" in heaven, he or she must be good today or suffer today's consequences. An atheist sees you as a fellow human, not an infidel, believer or otherwise. An atheist supports your right to your crazy beliefs.
And yet, so few atheists EVER push atheism. We don't have to. It's out here with all the rest of the knowledge of man waiting for you. Avoid it at your own risk.

Jon

Mr. Jillette, Here's the list:
1) You're not an atheist. Luckily. You haven't totally abandoned logic, so there's hope. You still say "I believe," = "I think, I don't really know, it's my best guess," etc., so you're really an agnostic. Atheism is the logic contradiction of absolutely claiming there is no absolute, or in other words claiming there actually is a God - one's self. Totally insane.
2) There are two flavors of agnostics, sincere and not so sincere. Insincere agies externally say "I don't know," but internally whisper, "no one can know," which leads right back to the bad logic loop. How do you know that no one can know? Sincere agies have the x factor, humility. They can actually understand the futility of induction to find truth and will seek out deductive knowledge. I've never been to Russia. Do I have to go there to know it exists? But someone has been there so I can know about it. So maybe someone has seen the absolute truth. Maybe many people have. Maybe there is detailed infomation about it somewhere.Sincere agnostics will start looking for such sources of knowledge.
3) Let's say you don't appreciate simple logic, and you conclude (illogically) that induction - science - is the only way to knowledge, (but how would you know that?) and you decide that your insect size senses and intellect can build that stairway to heaven. The physical evidence is completely overwhelming regarding the imperative for a higher orderer/intelligence in this mind boggling scheme of a universe. The evidence is so strong that if one were a betting man the odds would dictate wagering everything one could ever have on it. There are even set theory logicians who have mathematically proven the existence of a higher ordering principle. Many of our greatest scientists like Einstein, Galileo, Newton, Descartes, Planck, Mendel, Bacon, Kelvin to name but a few all weigh in on the side of God. Blow something up a billion times and tell me how often the debris settles to produce a simple house. Study the miracle of the carbon molecule and tell me it just fell together from the dust of a big bang.
4) I know that you've adopted your far fetched position because you want to enjoy physical life to the fullest and be "free" to do whatever you want without guilt or reprisal. But there is a higher dimension of happiness above gratification of mind and senses. And there are spiritual and religious systems that accommodate a rich worldly life as well. The trade off from Hedonism to modified sense gratification and spiriual development is a value plus undertaking.

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