Penn Jillette — along with his mute partner, Teller — has been performing magic since the late-1970s, but that doesn’t mean he can’t still be surprised. “What impresses me,” Jillette told amNewYork, “are people who are able to do miracles in a friendly way.”
Before the fourth season premiere of The CW’s “Penn & Teller: Fool Us,” we spoke with Jillette about Houdini, tricks, and the way magicians might just save the world.
What’s the simplest trick that always impresses you?
We try and do something very different on “Fool Us” than other, for lack of a better term, talent shows on TV. I’m always haunted by the thought of how well Bob Dylan would do on “America’s Got Talent.” On “Fool Us,” we don’t pretend to know anything except what we know. What always impresses me is someone who is able to take the idea of something that’s impossible, and violates all the rules we grew up with, and make that entertaining.
It’s more how they do it, not what they do?
Well, magic is essentially an offensive art form. Keith Richards does not come out and say, “I can play guitar and you can’t.” That’s a problem in magic, where often it is more like “I’m doing this to you.” What we try and do on “Fool Us” is deflect that by saying “I’m doing this to Penn and Teller, and you can watch.” That changes the unpleasant aggression, and lets you enjoy the beauty of what’s being done.
How have you grown as a performer over the years?
The biggest change was the move from “outsiders but angry” to “insiders and the old guard.” If I was 25 years old, the material in the Penn & Teller routine would be about how shows like “Fool Us” are stupid, and how we would never be on that show. The material we write now is more inclusive, and I’m able to admit that I’m part of it all.
What’s the importance of magic as a creative medium these days?
Magic, the way you’re using that word . . . starts with Houdini. He said, “I’m doing tricks. There is nothing supernatural here.” In that sense, magic is a very modern art form. There are some idiots who go on TV and say, “I have real, magical powers,” and then do a card trick. Let’s throw those people out. In this day and age, where everybody yells “fake news,” the most important skill is the skill to determine what is true. Magicians deal with that, playfully. They say, “what appears to be real may not be.” That simple sentence, “some people can do tricks,” is one of the most important sentences you will encounter though the 21st century. “Some people can do tricks,” and some will do it playfully, some will do it maliciously, and the most dangerous people will not know they are doing it.