Penn Jillette interview: Life, magic, jazz, Dylan, Trump and more

by JAY LUSTIG
penn gillette interview

Penn & Teller will perform at the State Theatre in New Brunswick, Sept. 23.

There always seems to be a lot going on with Penn Jillette. There are his shows with the offbeat magic duo Penn & Teller, both in their Las Vegas residency (at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino) and their frequent tours. There is their reality TV show “Penn & Teller: Fool Us,” in which magicians try to come up with tricks that they can’t figure out. There are his books (most recently, the 2022 novel “Random”) and his musical projects (including his new jazz album Are You Sure You Three Guys Know What You’re Doing?, featuring with Jillette on bass, Mike Jones on piano and Jeff Hamilton on drums).

And — interviewing Jillette, by phone from Las Vegas, in advance of Penn & Teller’s Sept. 23 show at the State Theatre in New Brunswick (visit stnj.org) — I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to ask a question about Jillette’s former band Bongos, Bass & Bob, who I saw perform at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, many years ago.

So I decided to open the interview with a big, open-ended question, and let the loquacious Jillette steer the conversation in whatever direction he wanted. Which turned out to be a good strategy: I don’t know if I’ve ever laughed so much in an interview as Jillette talked about life, magic, Bob Dylan, former president Trump, Bongos, Bass & Bob, and more.

Here is it. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed doing it.

PENN JILLETTE

Q: You always seem to have a lot going on. Is there anything going on right now that you’re particularly excited about?

A: Yeah, I like to have a few things going on. We’re always excited to do gigs on the road. You know, we do a show in Vegas at the conveniently named Penn & Teller Theater and we go out on the road … we’re still redoing jobs we were supposed to do during the lockdown, and getting that back together, and it’s really nice because I believe Teller and I now have more material than any magicians in history. We do 90 minutes in Vegas and we love that material and then we go on the road and get to make a different setlist. I don’t think there’s anyone who does this as much as we do, but we’re going back to theaters we’ve played before: We look over every bit we’ve done there before and we remember what the theater is like and then we pick the material that we really want to do, and we’ll do a mixture of stuff that’s new — things we’ve only been doing in Vegas for a month or two — and we’ll couple that with stuff that’s, in some cases, 40 years old, but we just feel like we want to do now, and we put it all together and it makes it a real joy.

Q: So you actually have, like, a data bank somewhere where you have what you did at each show over the years?

A: Oh, yeah.

Q: I’m a little surprised. That seems a little unusual.

A: Yeah, no one else does that. Springsteen doesn’t care what the fuck he played the last time he was in Jersey …

Q: Well, there are websites where he could look that up if he really wanted to.

A: Right. But what I’m saying is he doesn’t care. But we kind of do. Magic is a little different than music. In music, there’s a joy in familiarity. As a matter of fact, doing stuff that isn’t familiar is harder. In our job, comedy and magic … you want a great deal of new experiences for the audience and although I’ve never heard anyone mind seeing old stuff that they like, they want it sprinkled with new stuff. Whereas if you go to see the (Rolling) Stones, when they play their new album, it’s not like the crowd goes, “Oh boy, we can’t wait to hear this.” They really go, “Play ‘Satisfaction,’ when you weren’t elderly.” So it’s a different art form.

I’m not saying we go through what we did last time and check off those things and not do them. We also look at the size of the house and whether we have IMAG (video screens) and how recently we played there and all that kind of stuff. I don’t think we do this, really, for commercial reasons. We do it for fun: We just want to have the show that feels the greatest. And it’s not just the venue we choose from, but also the mood that we’re in. When we’re putting together the setlist, we really do say, “I don’t feel like doing that” or “I really, really want to do this,” and we throw stuff in based on that.

Other people in Vegas have been doing the same show for 20 years. That is the rule. As a matter of fact, that’s everybody. But if you come to see our show two months later, you’re guaranteed a bunch of bits you haven’t seen before.

Now you could argue, “Why don’t you get it right and just do it?” And I think that’s fine, for commerce. And it’s easier. But it’s less fun. And we are on the road to please ourselves, as well as to please audiences. I think many other people see it as a job and we see it as what we do. That’s a slightly different thing.

Of course, with all of this, the person that’s in a category way beyond us is, of course, Bob Dylan, which is a different show every night.

Q: Even though his setlist is pretty static these days.

A: It has been since the pandemic, but it’ll be different keys, and there will be different lyrics and there will be … all of a sudden, “Masters of War” is reggae. You go, “Oh, OK. OK Bob.” I would never put us in that category because he’s a Nobel Prize-winning genius and we’re magicians. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be inspired by him, right?

PENN & TELLER

Q: Sure. I guess this also has to do, to some extent, with the nature of magic — and comedy. They depend on surprise, and people not having seen it before.

A: Yeah, there’s a lot of that. But it’s also just … if you had asked me what I wanted to do when I was 18, I would have said, “I want to do shows with Teller,” and the fact that we have more money and we have a crew where the new guy has been with us 20 years … we have this incredible ability to do all the stuff we wanted to do when we were really, really young. And it’s always been a mystery to me that we’re the outliers. You know, when I talk to people I know in Vegas who are doing the same show, what they do during the day is they golf. And putting together new bits for a show is a billion zillion times more fun than golf. So if you told me I wasn’t doing shows anymore and I was retired, you bet your ass I’d still be writing bits and rehearsing them. We do this because this is what we do, you know what I mean? This is the only reason we live (laughs).

Q: On “The Howard Stern Show,” at some point during the pandemic, they played a Cameo (paid video message) from you and, I’m not sure if you said this live or in some kind of interview they played, but I remember you saying that one of the reasons you did Cameo was because during the pandemic, you couldn’t perform for audiences, ant that was just a way for you to perform. That really struck me as something that probably was pretty universal among entertainers. Was it tough for you to get through the pandemic for that reason?

A: We went 426 days without doing a show. Previously, since I was 12, I’ve never gone more than three weeks. So it was very, very different. You know, I like doing shows and there’s no longer any financial pressure on us whatsoever to do anything. So you can be guaranteed that anything Penn & Teller are doing, we’re doing out of pure desire. We were more successful than we ever intended to be, by 1990. We are the only ones in show business that really feel we are more successful than we should be. You mentioned Stern … if you talk to Stern or you talked to Houdini or you talk to Madonna or, most shockingly of all, Paul McCartney … they will tell you — and they have all said this in interviews — that they are not as successful as they should be. Paul McCartney has said, in very close to these words, The Beatles were not appreciated enough, which is stunning, but shows you the personality type.

Teller and I did not intend to be this successful. We intended to be grinders. Our friends who we respected … our heroes were all grinders, guys who do cruise ships and corporate shows and small theaters. That was our goal. You know, many people in Vegas — and it shocks me so much — will say that all they ever wanted in life was to have a Vegas show. And people I know that were on Broadway would say, “All I ever wanted to do was the Broadway show.” And that to me is complete and utter nonsense. What matters is the show, not the venue. So when people say, “Did you always want to have your own show in Vegas?,” the honest answer is no, it never crossed my mind. It crossed my mind that I wanted to do these bits, and Vegas ends up being the best place for us to do them.

Marty Allen, left, and Steve Rossi.

There’s a story that I love to tell. We were playing … and forgive me for even saying this word, but we were playing Trump Casino in Atlantic City. We were in the lead showroom and Allen & Rossi. … I’m 68 years old, and even I am a little bit too young to really know them, but I saw them when I was a child with my parents on Ed Sullivan. I got a call from Marty Allen and he said, “We’re playing the lounge. Would you want to come see us?” And I said sure.

Teller and I don’t go out that often because we spend, you know, 60 hours a week together. So usually in our spare time, we do other things. But I called Teller and said, “You want to go see Allen & Rossi?” And he said yeah, which kind of surprised me. We went down to the lounge, which was open on the sides. It wasn’t even walled in. There was a little stage there and it was just a bar, open to the casino sound. There were probably two dozen people in the audience. And they had a television onstage that was playing their appearances from “The Ed Sullivan Show” and so on. We were sitting there, drinking our club sodas, and Allen & Rossi hit the stage and there was the sound of the casino, and they were doing some bits that were, I guess at the time, probably 50 years old, 60 years old. They were probably in their late 60s, early 70s. And I was sitting there with Teller. A lot of people would think it was sad, because they used to be big stars on Ed Sullivan and now they’re playing for 40 people in a casino lounge. And I leaned over to Teller and said, “This could be us in a few years. This probably is us in a few years.” And Teller leaned back and said, “I am so OK with that.” And I’ll tell you, I’ve never loved him more.

I remember having a long talk with Paul Simon, when I first met him … we were on Broadway and he said to me, “Don’t be so clouded by ambition that you don’t just feel what it’s like to be onstage.” And, you know, it’s what I want to do. I know painters, and they enjoy the feel of the paint and being in a room with that smell. If you told them that these paintings are not going to sell, they’d keep doing them. And someone said that if Bob Dylan had never made it famous, he would be on the street corner singing those songs. And I really feel that when I see him.

I feel a kinship because, you know, Bob is knocking on a billion dollars, and he’s grinding out shows. You cannot say that’s for reasons of economics. And you can also not say it’s for Bob to get more famous. It’s just because that’s what he does. And I promise you that if there had never been Broadway and never been a Penn & Teller Theater, whatever place there is in Jersey that would book somebody for 100 seats to see Penn & Teller, we’d be doing it. We wouldn’t be doing the same material because some of the stuff we do now, the props are wicked expensive to build. But we’d be doing something.

Penn Jillette stands by Donald Trump’s right shoulder in this promotional photo for “The Celebrity Apprentice.”

Q: Speaking of Trump … did you have any memorable encounters with him or his family when you did “The Celebrity Apprentice”?

A: Well, you know, I did two tours of duty on “Celebrity Apprentice,” and everybody involved in that show shares a little bit of guilt. I went on that show and knew he was a dipshit and had no respect for him. And yet I called him Mr. Trump because I thought we were doing a joke show and I didn’t know that people would believe he was a businessman. I mean, he actually has less money than his father left him, which is not a successful businessman. I have more money than my father left me. I’m a successful businessman! (laughs)

I knew Trump pretty well. And I’ve never met a person with less of a moral center. And I will add to that that I’ve been to jail. I’ve been in biker clubhouses. I have met people who are truly diagnosed psychotics and have done real damage to people. I have met murderers. And none of them are as bad as Trump. And I thought — and I don’t know if you could forgive me for this, but I’ll never forgive myself — I thought that pretending he was a businessperson was OK, because it was a fictitious TV show. If I had my time back, I would never, once in my life, have called him Mr. Trump, which I never did except on camera, which (I thought) was OK because he wasn’t going to become president. (laughs)

I’ve always been fascinated by people who had no filters. And you know, some people attain no filters … like Tiny Tim, through mental illness. Some people like Bob Dylan and Lenny Bruce do it with bravery. Some people like David Allan Coe do it with drugs and alcohol. And Stern does it, to the extent that he does it, I think, with pure willpower. But no matter how you get there, I’m always fascinated with people who give a glimpse into their heart without being guarded. And with a lack of morality and unbridled avarice, narcissism and lust for power, Trump had that. And when I was sitting in a room with him — in my mind, improvising for a television show — I found that really interesting.

Don Jr. once said to me, which is really funny, he said, “Of all the people I’ve seen interact with my father, you seem to be the only one who likes him.” And I said to Don Jr., “I have an incredible tolerance for eccentricity.” It’s something that all my friends comment on. I mean, when there’s a raving lunatic, I’ll go over and talk to him. And my musical taste, you know … I love Daniel Johnston. I love Half Japanese and David Allan Coe, and my favorite, Tiny Tim. And Bob Dylan. I love people who are way off the bell curve. I don’t have much interest in people who speak of the concerns of normal people.

This is only in my mind, this isn’t in reality, but I see two kinds of people in show business: I see cheerleaders and I see freaks. When you go to see Springsteen, he is, among other things, saying, “Boy, don’t we all love girls and cars and didn’t we all have a rough financial time at some point?” And you cheer for that. He’s essentially a cheerleader. You go to see Bob Dylan and there’s no cheerleading. Bob Dylan gives you glimpses into his heart, and if they’re universal … that’s not his primary goal. And I find that fascinating. Of course, Donald Trump had no emotions other than vengeance and hatred that are in any way universal. And I found that really interesting.

I gotta throw in this brag: I can’t speak of Trump without saying this. In 2015, The New York Times published Donald Trump’s hate list: The people that he had exhibited the most hate towards, on Twitter. And they ranked them. I was No. 7. Hillary Clinton was No. 8. (huge laugh)

Penn & Teller performed on Broadway in 2015, after having first played there in 1987.

Q: Wow, how did that happen?

A: He enjoyed working with me on “Celebrity Apprentice.” And when I was asked by one of my dearest friends in the world, Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC … he had me on the day, I think, that Trump announced his candidacy. And Lawrence said, “You’ve known him for 20 years. Are you going to support him?” And I said, “I thought Trump was funny and fun on TV, and I truly enjoyed working with him, but he should not be president, must not be president, and I will not support him in any way.” And I said, “I’ll add to that, just to show some kindness, there’s no one I respect more in the world than Teller. And if he were running for president, I wouldn’t support him. I think it’s a very particular kind of personality type (that should be president). And I think Trump is as far from it as you could possibly get.”

Once I said that on Lawrence O’Donnell, Trump went apeshit with a barrage of tweets. One of them really made me laugh: It said, “Penn was totally unknown before he went on ‘Celebrity Apprentice.’ ” Which made me really laugh because of the name of the fucking show! “It’s the name of the fucking show, you dipshit!” I mean, sure, you could say you helped my career. You could say I got much more successful. But using the word “unknown” on a show called “Celebrity Apprentice” is someone who does not understand what words mean.

Because we were playing Broadway at the time, we used a lot of his quotes about how bad I was in our advertising. Our New York Times ad said, “A terrible, terrible show — Donald Trump.” (laughs)

Q: I have one more question and it’s a question I’ve been waiting decades to ask. I saw you with Bongos, Bass & Bob …

A: Oh, thank you!

Q: … at Maxwell’s, many years ago. I couldn’t tell you the exact year. But it was a triple bill with Half Japanese, who you just mentioned, and (former Velvet Underground drummer) Maureen Tucker.

A: Yes!

Q: And for the finale of the show, everyone came onstage and did (The Velvet Underground’s) “Heroin” together and you lit the ceiling on fire. Do you have any memory of that?

A: I lit the ceiling on fire?

Q: Yeah, you did some kind of fire-eating thing. The ceiling wasn’t really on fire but the fire definitely went up and burned the ceiling.

A: Yeah, I used to do a little bit of fire-eating and ceilings were sometimes low in rock clubs. I can assure you there was no real danger. But it was exciting.

You know, that was amazing. You can understand that for someone who was literally the president of the Velvet Underground Fan Club, then I’m playing onstage with Maureen Tucker. And later, playing with Lou Reed. That was a pretty, pretty huge thrill in my life.

Why couldn’t Maureen Tucker become president? That would have been OK.

The cover of the album “Are You Sure You Three Guys Know What You’re Doing?,” by Mike Jones with Penn Jillette and Jeff Hanmilton.

Q: There you go. She kept the peace in the Velvet Underground, she could probably do anything.

Are you still in touch with the Bongos, Bass & Bob guys?

A: Oh, sure. A weird thing happened. This was 20 years ago: I was doing an interview because we’re doing a show on the road, and it was in Texas. And this woman said to me, “You know that ‘Thorazine Shuffle’ (listen below) by Bongos, Bass & Bob has been the No. 1 song in Lubbock, Texas, for eight years.” And I said, “What?” The local college radio station played it every day and the band played it at football games, and everybody was crazy in Lubbock, Texas. I pointed out to her, “Maybe you should pay more attention to (Lubbock native) Buddy Holly.” (laughs)

And so we got together, went down to Lubbock, Texas, and played a show there. And it was Beatlemania. They were crammed into a club and screaming and screaming and screaming and it was so goofy. I just was writing to the other guys about it and saying, “We gotta play” … every time I’m in L.A., I see Running Elk (the band’s guitarist, Rob “Running” Elk) and we sometimes play together. I just love his songwriting and his guitar. I said to him that night in Lubbock, Texas, “You know, I think at least five of your strings should be in tune. Can we go for that?” (laughs) But yeah, I’m still in touch with (brothers and Half Japanese members) Jad and David (Fair), I’m still in touch with (Bongos, Bass & Bob producer) Kramer, sporadically. I was a very close friend of Lou’s up until Lou’s death, and I’m still in touch with (Reed’s widow) Laurie (Anderson).

Now, I’ve been playing upright bass and I’ve been playing jazz. My jazz trio record just came out called Are You Sure You Three Guys Know What You’re Doing?, which is with Mike Jones and Jeff Hamilton. And it’s actually now, right as we speak, on the jazz charts. I started playing bebop 23 years ago and I made a record where a jazz magazine said, and I can’t believe this was said, but I also cannot express to you how much joy it brings me, he said “We can no longer consider Penn a magician who plays bass. He’s now a bass player who does magic.” (laughs) That was a big goal of mine. And now, every night before the Penn & Teller show, I play an hour of bebop jazz and I just love it.

Penn & Teller will perform at the State Theatre in New Brunswick, Sept. 23 at 8 p.m. Visit stnj.org.

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