Bring Your Questions For Penn Jillette


Penn Jillette is a magician, comedian, actor, producer and, generally, a curator of interesting and intelligent things. But he is best known as the self-described “larger, louder” half of Penn & Teller, a stage show that Penn and his magician partner Teller have put on since 1975. It currently plays at the Rio in Vegas. I saw it there not long ago, and it was phenomenal.

The pair also has a weekly Showtime series called Penn & Teller: Bulls–t, which aims “to aggressively shoot down whack-jobs and fuzzy thinkers, no matter where they originate.” It has gleaned 11 Emmy nominations. Here’s a clip from the show about nuclear energy; you will find that Jillette’s take on the topic almost fully intersects with ours. (Caution: the language in the clip isn’t remotely safe for work.)

Jillette also created and produced the documentary The Aristocrats (website also N.S.F.W.), in which more than 100 comics tell their variations of the same dirty joke.

Jillette is a graduate of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College. He and Teller have jointly won an Obie and an Emmy award, and both serve as visiting scholars at M.I.T.

You can read Jillette’s daily rants on his Penn Says video blog, where he explains, among other things, why he named his kids Moxie CrimeFighter and Zolten Penn.

Jillette has agreed to answer your questions (yes, you can ask about his red fingernail), so fire away in the comments section below. As with past Q&A’s we’ll post his answers here in a few days.

Addendum: Jillette answers your questions here.


As a skeptic, what techniques have you found most effective in influencing people? Sometimes, cold hard logic doesn't seem to always do the trick...


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?


I watched the clip you linked to. The pro-nuclear side's facts were presented by the Competitive Enterprise Institute. This organization seems to receive large portions of their funding from various corporations including energy corporations. This seems to taint the expert's testimony.

Not being an expert in the field, I cannot come down on either side. Are there any truly neutral observers who can comment on the issues associated with nuclear power?


Is rationality going to make it?

Or will Western Hemisphere Christian fundamentalism and Eastern Hemisphere Muslim fundamentalism manage to bring it all crashing down?


Although i have loved your magic acts for many years (my dad was a magician), and the aristocrats made me laugh hysterically, i was as well very impressed by your novel, "sock". are you writing these days?


Was it fair, in your Bulls--t segment bashing the hybrid car, to send the car on a highway trip, when the greatest fuel savings hybrids offer can be had with "city" driving?

(incidentally, I happen to agree that current hybrids are way over-hyped but happen to disagree with the strategy you chose to illustrate this.)


Why were you so rude on the Colbert Report?


Penn --

I grew up in Deerfield, Mass., and as a kid in the 50s and 60s I was a coin collector. You know where this is going. (For everyone else, Penn's dad was a coin dealer in Greenfield, Mass.)

Do you collect coins, or anything else? What were your interests as a kid, and do you still have friends or family in Greenfield? I have many good memories of times spent in your dad's shop on Federal Street.


Is it true that you guys were going to do a BS episode about Scientology but the idea was shot down by higher ups at Showtime?


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


i was at a farmer's market where some group was trying to get our governor to make a mandate that would disallow some bottled water companies to sell in Seattle. they had a blindfolded water test to see which water people preferred, i did it for fun. i wowed them with my knowledge of tap water being safer than bottled water because of stricter regulations. she asked me how i knew, i said, "Bulls**t".

please give me your view on patenting. i work in an industry(shoes) that blatantly disregards patents, but the consumer ultimately gets lower prices from companies who copy other's work. does this hurt consumers in the long run because there will be less incentive to innovate?
what would you do if someone stole your act?


You are a Libertarian. Our quasi-Libertarian economy has cratered because the economic event-horizon for self-interested parties allowed many to make very bad deals that end up hurting others with no cost to them. Considering the poor performance of unregulated financial instruments, do you now think there is a bigger role for government regulation?


Do you feel like the recent "horsemen of atheism" (dawkins, hitchens, harris, dennet) are doing a good job promoting non-theism? Do you think in 50 years, American athism at 5-10%, (gallup,bbc) could reach current European levels at 50% (eurostat)?


Have you read Freakonomics?


Much, though not all, of mentalism, unlike other magic, works with an audience only if the mentalist convinces them that his "powers" are real. When you and Teller do mentalism tricks (the bible verse in the glass jug, for example), your humor distances you from any real claim of paranormal powers. I think the "this is real" mentalists, on the other hand, have the potential to do as much harm as priests. Your take?

Scott Ferguson

Though many enjoy the in-your-face delivery of B******t, I have to agree with Derek that the clip on Nuclear Energy was an example of skepticism at its worst. You had one guy you kept labelling as a "hippie" and then brought in a non-scientist/engineer from a conservative think tank to shore up your side. What? No reference to Frances spent fuel reprocessing? (The UK ended up shutting down their reprocessing program as uneconomical.)

Rush Limbaugh retreats into the "I am really just an entertainer" defense when call out. How 'bout you guys?
B******t indeed.


Loved your show in Rio, love hearing you on the radio (when I can catch it), and love watching B.S. What are some future topics you'll be covering on the B.S. show?


What type of BS bothers you the most?

Steven Surowiec

Given the current economy do you have any plans on doing on a Bulls--t episode regarding our economy? Specifically how the Federal Reserve is a private organization, that it's mathematically impossible for this country to pay off our debt due to how the fed works, etc?

Al Marsh

Can you explain to me how and why the Aristocrats joke is funny?