Penn Jillette Answers Your Questions
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.
What was the most memorable or favorite thing you were dead wrong about? – Bryan Gahagan
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.
What type of B.S. bothers you the most? – Patrick
B.S. that exploits grief, fear, and compassion. There’s lots of it: talking to the dead, religion, socialism, and on and on.
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
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.
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
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.
Why were you so rude on The Colbert Report? – Matt
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.
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
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.
If you were granted the ability to be president for one week and initiate one piece of legislation, what would it be? – Matt
Anything that would give the president less power — way less power. Back to George Washington power. And then I would abdicate.
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
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.
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
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?
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
I’d put them up pretty high. It seems they’re really trying to think about stuff.
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.
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.
Fill in the following: ___ percent of life is hard work, ___ percent is persistence, __ percent is style, and the rest is _____. – Granted
0, 0, 0, life.
What is the total number of misdirections and sleights in your performance of the magic bullet? – briang
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.
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
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?