Without a doubt, Penn Jillette was an interview that had me worrying.
I’m always trepidatious going into an interview with someone who’s fiercely intelligent and highly opinionated - as any right-thinking, overly self-conscious person would be.
Despite my reservations about making an utter fool of myself, what usually (thankfully) happens is a kind of verbal high wire act, where the conversation feels like its dancing along on the thinnest of threads, propelled by an intellectual energy and give-and-take that can be quite exhilarating. And no, I’m not being hyperbolic.
Anyway, the interview with Penn was done with no real agenda in mind other than to just try and get some background and insight into a man and a mind I’ve always found fascinating.
And I made it out alive.
I’ve long wanted to have another conversation with Penn - and numerous attempts to chat with Teller over the years have been scuttled by scheduling snafus - but I’m happy if this piece is the only one I’ll ever have.
Below, you’ll find my original intro to the piece, followed by my conversation with Penn Jillette…
Does anyone really not know who Penn Jillette is?
Well, if you’re culturally impaired, I’ll give you a bit of a hint - he’s the louder, larger half of the comedy and magic tour de force, Penn & Teller.
In other words, he’s not the small, silent guy.
If you’re still in the dark, you can visit the official Penn & Teller website. Also be sure to watch their Showtime original series, Bulls***!, the second season of which should be ramping up soon.
KEN PLUME: Going back a bit - as far as your evolution as a performer - my understanding is that you started out by doing Renaissance Festivals…
PENN JILLETTE: We did a few of those, yeah.
PLUME: How would you describe the evolution of how you existed within each of those acts - because in your early years, you had a different partner, right?
JILLETTE: Kinda-sorta-ish. When I was in high school and junior high, I was juggling with Michael Moschen - who is a MacArthur Genius Grant juggler, and has PBS specials and stuff like that. A very serious juggler. And Michael and I, and his brother Colin, juggled through junior high and high school, and right upon graduating… well, kinda graduating… After getting out of high school…
PLUME: A clever play on words, there…
JILLETTE: After that, I went to Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth Clown College, and then came back and started juggling with Michael, and we were club-passers. Serious club-passers. No talking, no jokes - just really jock juggling stuff. We were first in the world to pass nine clubs. Now people are doing eleven - but at the time in the early 70’s, that was a big deal. And I met Teller during that time. I had just decided to do stuff in showbusiness… I would do anything. And one of the anythings on that list was a Renaissance Festival - which I absolutely made no concessions for at all. I just did my street show as written, and they pretended it was Renaissance. Which, you know, Renaissance is just Hippie - it’s got nothing to do with that actual time period. It’s just a Hippie festival, now. Another excuse to do macrame and drink beer. None of which I do. Teller and I worked Renaissance Festivals and street performing - actually more real, no kidding around, Philadelphia street performing than we did Renaissance Festivals. And during that time of us working together - which was not long, a few months - we wrote a show, which was going to be Teller and another gentleman by the name of Weir Chirsamer and me. We were going to do a show called The Asparagus Valley Cultural Society. Teller and I wrote most of that show, and Weir helped when he came in at the last minute. Then the three of us did that show first at Princeton in ‘74, I guess…. Yeah, that seems about right. I should know this. And then we just fought the world to be able to do The Asparagus Valley Cultural Society show. We did that from the early 70’s until ‘81, and during that time got to be the longest running show in San Francisco, in a little theater there called the Phoenix Theater - which I believe now is a Korean restaurant.
PLUME: What was the format of the show?
JILLETTE: It was very much what you would think of as Penn & Teller now - just younger. Teller and I have had kind of an odd movement in our career, in that we’ve gotten more aggressive and nuttier as we’ve gotten older. Most people kind of roll off, but the earlier stuff… it might have been artistically wacky, but it didn’t have the same skepticism and blasphemy that we have now.
PLUME: Is that a confidence issue or a success issue?
JILLETTE: Part of it was that the third member of the group at Asparagus was Christian. So in order to speak for the group, you can’t be a skeptic or pro-science - you had to be a Christian. So that changed the tone of it somewhat. It wasn’t success, because Teller and I, by the time Asparagus Valley got together - within a year, we had achieved all our goals. I mean, our goal was to earn our living doing exactly what we wanted. Which is many people’s goal. But we didn’t have any of these Madonna/Howard Stern/”king of the world” type ambitions. We knew that we were kind of odd and creeps, and we wanted to do odd, creepy stuff for people who wanted to see that. I’m a big fan of huge populations of people, so you’d think with 300 million people in the country, you don’t even have to please 1% to be phenomenally successful. Elvis and Colonel Parker were bothered that there were some aboriginal indians that did not know the name “Elvis.”
PLUME: That’s what led to the “Great Album Airdrop” of ‘67…
JILLETTE: Yeah! But that has really never been very much to me. I remember that there was a woman that I dated very early on in the 70’s when we were doing early stuff, and I overheard from somebody - and this is friend of a friend of a friend stuff, but since it’s about me, it doesn’t really matter much, the exact sources - but I heard back that they asker her if we had changed when we were getting more successful, and her answer was, “No, they didn’t change at all. Not because they stayed humble, but rather because working in a s***hole on the street, they felt what they were doing was the most important stuff in the world.” Teller always has the gift of… well, I guess he’s worked hard for it, really… of confidence. He really can believe that what he’s doing is important and good if it’s important and good, kind of regardless of the venue. And Teller and I have never been venue-oriented. When we first went on Broadway - our first run on Broadway… even, I guess, a little off-Broadway, since it was so f***ing successful… we would have all these journalists saying, “Is this really a dream come true, that you’ve worked for all your life?” And it was so difficult to answer, because we didn’t want to appear to lack gratitude. We didn’t want to appear to not think we were lucky, or to be in any way unpleasant, but the truth was it never crossed our minds to have that goal. We never had what I call a “venue-driven” goal. I mean, I just can’t imagine saying, “I want to be on Broadway.” What does that mean? It’s a little like saying, “I want to work in a blue building.”
PLUME: Is there any venue that you wouldn’t perform in, or that disappointed you in any way?
JILLETTE: Well, you know, we wouldn’t play Sun City when we were asked. And we were the only ones who were asked to play Sun City. No one in the video that said, “We ain’t gonna play Sun City” was asked! And actually, we didn’t say “no” when we were asked, we just told our agents - they probably didn’t pass this off… We told the agents to send out to Sun City that we had a very simple rider - that Penn and Teller each got $500 a week, each of our crew got $500 a week, we got airfare, we had decaffeinated tea and decaffeinated Diet Coke backstage, and equal rights for all people in the country we were performing in. And we said, “Just send that to them, because maybe it will blow by them.” We thought that maybe if we ended Apartheid, you’d be able to say, in five years when you saw us on Letterman, “That bit kind of sucked, but hey - they ended Apartheid.”
PLUME: And it’s great for the bio…
JILLETTE: Exactly! But there have obviously been venues and shows that we weren’t crazy about, but the question kind of implies a categorical thing, and I don’t think there really is one.
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