Interview date: 05/02/2008
Run date: 05/20/2008
You first came to love him as the one in Penn & Teller who talks (and, boy, is that putting it mildly), but Penn Jillette has gradually been expanding his repertoire to include more than a few other projects, from voiceover work to a radio show, from hosting a game show to performing on “Dancing with the Stars.” When “Penn Radio” went off the air, however, fans were disappointed at no longer being able to hear Jillette speak his mind on a regular basis, but that problem has been remedied with “Penn Says,” a channel on Crackle.com’s “The C-Spot.” Bullz-Eye spoke with Jillette about his new avenue of expression, along with discussions of the return of “Penn & Teller: Bullshit” to Showtime, his fancy footwork on the aforementioned ABC reality series, and – oddly enough – both “The Aristocats” and “The Aristocrats.”
Penn Jillette: Yes, this is Penn Jillette, calling for Will Harris.
BE: This is Will Harris. How convenient!
PJ: Hello, Will! I’m a minute late, and I’m sorry. The person before you got all chatty on me in a way that I couldn’t politely hang up on her.
BE: I’ll try not to do that to you.
PJ: Okay. You keep me on schedule, then!
BE: I’ll do my best. Well, look, it’s a pleasure to speak with you. I’ve been a fan for quite some time.
PJ: Thank you.
BE: How did the C-Spot gig come about in the first place?
PJ: You mean “Penn Says”?
PJ: How did it come about? Somebody came to me and said that they really, really, really way liked the radio show, and they said, “Could you do something?” And I thought about it for a couple of hours, not a long time, and I thought that what I liked about the radio show was when an idea popped in my head, I was there in front of a mike, and what I didn’t like about the radio show was when I was front of a mike and there was not a thought in my head! And I just got this idea which does not seem, on the surface, to be very different from things I’ve done in the past, but it turns out after doing it for awhile that it’s way, way different. What I do is, I only talk on “Penn Says” when I have an idea, and I do it any time. So it’s kind of like I have a 24-hour radio show, and I just turn the mike on when something pops into my head. And it’s been turning out better than I expected. I have a few personal rules that I try to follow that are a little odd. I try to never do a second take. And when I say “never,” I guess I’ve done…I don’t know, knocking on a hundred of these, and I have done multiple takes maybe four or five times. Which is pretty good.
BE: Yeah, that’s a pretty decent track record.
PJ: And I also try to…as soon as I start doing what I do for the Penn & Teller show and for “Bullshit” and for TV appearances, I’m starting to do what I’m going to say over and over again in my head. I try to get to the camera as soon as I can and do it before I’ve run it a few times, because there’s nothing I like more than sitting with a friend over a cup of coffee and talking about ideas. And I’m really trying to capture that. I really try to correct myself and go back and stutter and stammer and all those things, because I believe that’s part of what I want out of this form. It’s certainly not what I want out of “Bullshit” or the Penn & Teller show, but out of this, it’s supposed to be…and I don’t know, I wish I had this with people I’ve enjoyed talking to, that feeling of just, “This is me working out the ideas.” I like that feeling a lot.
BE: Well, I was describing it to someone as being equal parts confessional booth and pulpit.
PJ: Yes. It is. It certainly is that. But you have to have something in there that plays up on the sloppiness in there, I think.
BE: (Laughs) How about a pulpit without a script?
PJ: Yeah, exactly.
BE: I enjoyed the one where you were talking about fans in general, such as yourself being a fan when you met Lou Reed.
PJ: Oh, I’m a huge fan. I’m gonna do more about that, because people have asked me about it. One of the things Lou Reed said to me…which is one of my favorite Lou Reed quotes of time…Lou said, “If we’re going to be friends, you’ve got to stop crying.” (Bursts into laughter) Y’know, Patti Smith said that the only way to be a star was to be a fan, and when I was first fans of Patti Smith, I was…I was so pleased with how unabashedly she spoke of her fandom of Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix and so on. And that was really inspiring to me, because at the time I met Lou Reed, I was president of the Lou Reed Fan Club.
BE: Oh, see, I heard you say that, but I thought you were just saying it metaphorically. You actually were the president of the Lou Reed Fan Club?
PJ: Oh, yeah. And when I…I still do this…when I read something or see a movie or something that I really, really like, I send off a letter, just saying how much I loved it. So it’s an odd relationship…well, not odd at all, but there’s a very human relationship, because when people write me fan letters, they’re writing to a fan. And I try to take it in the spirit it was meant. There’s such a strong disservice done to people who enjoy art in this country, where you’ll hear them being maligned by people on TV and in print all the time. And, yes, Conan O’Brien was stalked by a priest, and Uma Thurman had her problems, but those cases are very few and far between. As a matter of fact, I don’t think there’s much evidence of celebrities being stalked that much more than regular people. Y’know, there are mentally ill people that cause trouble to other people, but they’re a very small number. So I try to talk to people like they are human beings, which it turns out they are! (Laughs) And, y’know, Teller and I have always done that. After our show, we’re out in the lobby, and we’ll talk with anybody about anything for any length of time. And we’ve always done that. We started doing it because we didn’t have a backstage area in the shitholes that we were playing, and we’ve continued doing it just because we like it. And it seems to bring so much more respect to the enterprise. If you have a simple question to ask me after our show, you don’t want to have to walk around to the back of the theater and stand there, hoping that I might come out within 45 minutes and you can ask if I was the guy you saw at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival in 1976. Why can’t you just ask that question? It takes another half-hour of our time and seems to just make the whole thing more human. Now, I know that people like David Blaine will tell you that performers have to lie and be mysterious and be inscrutable, and that, uh, never works for me. I think that the performance should be mysterious and amazing and beautiful, but the person behind it can be polite. (Laughs)
BE: Speaking of your shows, when you took on your Vegas residency, did you have any hesitation about doing a residency after all these years? I mean, certainly you’d brief theatrical runs in the same location, but this was definitely something different.
PJ: I actually had quite a lot. I love, love, love being on the road. I mean, Billy Gibbons, Keith Richards, and I are three people who really like the road…and that will eventually be a band, I suppose.
BE: I would pay to see that band.
PJ: (Laughs) But I loved it. I loved being on the road. And we were asked several times before we said “yes” to sit down in Vegas, and we just said “no” not because we didn’t like Vegas but because we liked being on the road. And then…this is awful to say, and I don’t know how to say it that it doesn’t sound snotty, but it is not snotty…after 9/11, seeing freedom going away in our country…I don’t mean that I was bothered by me being patted down, although I was, but if you told me that I didn’t have to go through the lines anymore, I would still be bothered, because I remember flying one from one gig to other. We’d fly, y’know, four or five days a week. Seeing them pull this elderly woman out of a wheelchair in my country… (Laughs wryly) …in the USA, and it filled me with such deep sadness and rage that we became difficult to deal with. Everytime we were flying anywhere, one of our crew was getting pulled aside and handcuffed… (Laughs) …for saying “fuck you” to some TSA guy. And Teller and I…the joy of going through an airport and chatting with our crew and chatting with people went away because of seeing jackbooted thugs. So Teller and I wanted to fly less and less, and we still loved doing the show, and so even though we were offered more money to play in Vegas than to be on the road, even though we had the possibility of normal relationships being in Vegas instead of being on the road, it was really a dislike for TSA that really cinched the deal. I mean, during the negotiations, I don’t think the Rio ever discovered that… (Laughs) …but that’s what did it.
BE: Okay, let me go ahead and throw out a few rapid-fire questions for you, so I can make sure to get you off the line in time.
BE: The person who invited you on “Dancing with the Stars,” do you think they were shocked when you said, “Yes”?
PJ: I think everybody was pretty shocked that I said, “Yes.” I don’t mean to be…it was done because I love learning new stuff, which…it’s amazing how rare that is. So many people that I was backstage with talked about how they had never taken on anything like this, and I was saying, “I take on stuff like this every year!” I learned to play upright bass when I was 45 and became a passable bebop player. I love to learn shit. And I knew that if you sat down right now, you personally, and started making a list of people you wanted to see dance, I’m well aware you’d get into five figures before you’d get to be, but I did it right. I did all the moves right, and I was absolutely in time, because I’m a bass player, and I play bebop jazz. And, of course, one of the major things you have to judge on is looks, and that’s appropriate. I used to hang out with Baryshnikov; he’s a good-looking guy! And it’s one of those things one judges, and it’s important, but I did it because I’m sure they lie about their numbers, but between ten and twenty million people saw me, and some of those people will like to see the Penn & Teller show, and some of those people, after they come to the Penn & Teller show, will have enjoyed it…and that is my job, and I like doing it. And, also, you could say to me right now, “Do you want to spend six months and learn to spot weld?” And if you can find me the time in my schedule, I’ll say, “Yes.” And because there was a commerce element to this, the Rio was very willing to say “yes” to all the schedule changes and so on in order to do their business of selling the hotel. So you can get me to learn anything. If you said, “Hey, Penn, can you memorize the TV Guide from 1982,” if you give me the time to do it, I’ll love it. I like to learn anything.
BE: Did you feel like “The Aristocats” was an artistic success?
PJ: “The Aristocrats”?
BE: Uh, yes.
PJ: “The Aristocats” was, certainly.
BE: Yes, absolutely. (Writer’s note: in my defense, a copy of the Disney animated film was sitting about two feet away from me at the time I made this faux pas, but this proved to be small potatoes compared to the stupidity of my next question, so stay tuned.)
PJ: It’s one of the things I’m most proud of in my life. I think it was really good. The movie was there to explain to laypeople what’s so good about Gilbert Gottfried, and…I’m using a little fractal bit of it, but it was to talk about…I really wanted to talk about my learning of bebop jazz and my studying of Charles Mingus and Miles Davis and how that related to what I knew before, which was a little bit about comedy. And I believe that, thanks to Paul Provenza, that thesis is very well presented. I mean, besides being a funny movie. But it’s bound to be a funny movie, because the funniest people in the world were in it. What I’m proud of is the fact that I think it made a pretty interesting intellectual argument.
BE: And “Bullshit,” did you see the cancellation coming, or had you been hoping for another season?
PJ: (Painfully long pause) What do you mean?
BE: I mean, were you surprised when Showtime pulled the plug on it? Had you been anticipating doing another season?
PJ: We’re doing another season.
BE: Oh! Geez, I’m sorry! I thought it was over!
PJ: No, no, no! That’s why I was so confused by the question: because I spent all morning writing the last show, which we’re taping last week.
BE: I apologize for my confusion. How embarrassing. I’ll try to redeem myself by closing on a complete music geek question, what’s your favorite work by Martin Atkins that you don’t appear on? (Writer’s note: in addition to several other musical outlets, Jillette has notably collaborated with Atkins within the latter’s industrial band, Pigface.)
PJ: (Roars with laughter) I gotta tell ya, and I guess Martin would hate me saying this, but I was just listening to the PiL stuff again and, y’know, when I first bought the PiL stuff, I kinda thought it was because I loved Johnny and this was all I had to listen to. And coming back to it…what is it, almost 30 years later?...and it’s really good. And some of the stuff I just kind of let wash over me then has a kind of depth to it. I kind of thought of it as Johnny Rotten’s vanity project, with that kind of drone music behind it, but the sophistication of the past 20 years of my learning has taught me it’s really, really, really good. And I love the Pigface stuff, but, man, that PiL stuff…somehow, it snuck into my heart, and it lives there.
BE: Excellent. Well, I’ll keep you as close to your schedule as I can, even though I could go on making a fool of myself forever, but it’s been great talking to you.
PJ: Pleasure talking to you, too!