Harris: Joining me on the phone now is an old friend, a man who’s been on the show in the morning and in the afternoon and sometimes in the middle of the night for a long time now. And he once introduced me to another magician as the smartest DJ he’d ever met — and then he realized the universe he had to choose from and realized it wasn’t that much of a compliment. Here’s Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller. Hi, Penn!
Jillette: Well you know, the expression, “Damning with faint praise” comes to mind.
Harris: That was when you introduced me to James Randi.
Jillette: Well, Randi and I have both done a bunch of interviews, and you get to know the kind of people you’re dealing with. I would say you’re even smarter than that.
Harris: Well, thank you so much.
Jillette: I would say you’re just a really regular person who’s just a little bit dumb, which is a lot better than the smartest DJ.
Harris: Thanks, I think. The last time I saw you, you were at some Smithsonian thing a couple years ago. You guys had just moved to Las Vegas and I asked you, “Why did you move to Las Vegas?” And you said “Paul, one word: Showgirls!”
Jillette: Yeah, but I think I was wrong about that. I think it’s a hyphenated word.
Harris: Oh, is it?
Jillette: I don’t know. You know, when you’re 6’6″, you walk through Las Vegas and women come up to you and go, “Oh, I could wear heels with you.” Now what’s wrong with that?
Harris: But some of those showgirls with the headdresses, they’re taller than you, aren’t they?
Jillette: Yeah, they import women who are over 6′ and I think like five-and-a-half of that is legs. I don’t know how hygienic that is, but it’s very attractive.
Harris: How is the whole Las-Vegas-as-family-fun-center thing coming along?
Jillette: Oh, it just bombed. That thing went right in the dumper. I don’t think anyone believed that for a second. You know, you go to the MGM and there’s the Scarecrow in the lobby and you just go, “We’re here for gambling and hookers, why is the scarecrow in the lobby?”
Harris: That’s exactly right. And every cab has an advertisement for a topless place on it. “Oh look honey, let’s take the kids there!”
Jillette: Not a topless place. It’s all Glitter Gulch. Glitter Gulch and The Palomino. They’re the only two that bought cabs and they bought every cab. It’s 90% Glitter Gulch, 5% Palomino, and 5% Lance Burton and his bird act.
Harris: Well, we’re going to get to Lance in a second, but how does this modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah become the home to Penn and Teller?
Jillette: I’ll tell you, if you don’t drink — which I never have in my life — you don’t do drugs, and you don’t gamble, it is just a cheap holiday in other people’s misery. My living is subsidized by bad math. You come to Vegas, you have bad math, you lose your money, and they don’t charge me any taxes. Once you get off the strip, you’re living in Phoenix only everything’s really cheap. And the pawn shops! You can buy prosthetics at the pawn shops!
Jillette: Yeah! You can go in and say, “I’d like a leg.” And they go, “You know, some guy pawned his leg.” You can say, “Do you have a pacemaker?” I mean it’s the best pawn shops in the world.
Harris: How is it to be playing in some of those showrooms out there, places that are Wayne Newton and Tom Jones to the max?
Jillette: We’re doing great. When we were put in there, we were considered to be a complete folly, like we were the wrong people to be there. They would say we were too New York, too smart, too everything. And I think a lot of people come to Las Vegas ironically. They come to kind of make fun of it, because they’re much too hip for Vegas. So they come and they go and see Siegfried and Roy and they see that glitzy tractor pull. They have these ultra-white cross-eyed mutants, and they’ve learned to train tigers and they’ve got these big-haired Germans torturing endangered species and they go and see that. They go to see Tom jones and after two days they say, “Wait a minute, this isn’t fun making fun of this anymore,” and they come to see us. And we’ve had great crowds, and the crowds are very smart and every crowd we’ve had has been too hip for Vegas. It’s like playing Off-Broadway in New York. I don’t really get it. It was this wacky gamble and it really paid off. It’s the city of wacky gambles.
Jillette: You know, I think you’d be one of the people who’d be best in math in Las Vegas as well as being the smartest DJ.
Harris: Well, that’s why I’m coming out there on vacation in December. When we finish with this, I want to ask you a couple of things about that.
Jillette: All right. I’ll give you the number and you just ask for Amber. Is that the question you wanted to ask? And for another four bills she’ll bring Ginger with her. That’s all you need to know.
Harris: As long as neither of them has met Eddie Murphy, I’m happy.
Jillette: And the number is 555-
Harris: So anyway, you guys are coming to the Patriot Center for a Halloween show.
Jillette: Oh, yes. But you know everyday is Halloween for us. We don’t need a day of amateurs. We’ll point guns at each other, juggle broken liquor bottles, we do a lot of new stuff. You saw us last at the Smithsonian?
Jillette: It’s a whole new show for you, man. Are you going to come by?
Harris: I’m definitely going to be there. And I also know that you’ve got a new book out.
Jillette: Oh, yeah.
Harris: It’s called How to Play in Traffic. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, too. I’m looking through this, and you’ve got some great scams that people can pull on each other. I’m wondering if at this point — you guys have been together two decades now — do you guys still try to scam each other?
Jillette: No. As a matter of fact, we can’t get away with jack. We are the boys who cried Three Of Clubs. We have to live vicariously through our patrons. I walk into a restaurant, 6’6″, 278 pounds, on TV, and I say “Could I have a menu?” And they go, “Come off it, what are you trying to do?” I say, “Could I have a Greek salad with no green peppers?” They say, “No green peppers, did I read that somewhere?” “No, I don’t like them, they make me belch.” “They make you belch, is there a trick based on that?” So what we do is, we write these things and you as a civilian who has spent your life building up friends and family, people you respect, people you like, people who care for you, those people are just ripe for the plucking. All you need is our information and you can humiliate people you claim to respect and steal money from people you really love.
Harris: It’s the office pool concept. If you can’t take money from people you most care about, why bother?
Jillette: Well, you know, they always talk about professional gamblers and there’s all this sexiness of taking down the casinos, but all your professional gamblers play in local poker games with friends. That’s where all that money is made. And this is the same idea. We can give you these great tricks that you can go in and freak out a stewardess, but when we walk on the plane they pretty much put us in solitary. “Now you two get over there, we don’t want any monkeying around!”
Harris: Speaking of that one, will you tell my favorite one in the book, the one with Teller on the plane?
Jillette: Oh, it’s a great thing. They have these brittle cups that they serve their little beverages in on the airplane. And once you’ve drained it, you can put it under your armpit — it’s the dumbest trick in the world and the first time Teller did it for me, it just absolutely blew me away it was so funny — then you call over the flight attendant, and you say, “You know, my neck’s a little stiff. You didn’t give me a pillow when I asked for it so….” And you grab the top of your head and the other hand under your chin and you give a little twist to your head and at the same time you bring your arm down and crush the cup in your armpit. It gives this wonderful chiropracty gone wrong crunch that will give you the full attention of the stewardess. After that, she’ll be going, “Anything I can do to make you happy? You want to be upgraded to first class?” Because it looks like you’re a schmuck who broke your neck on the plane. We like to have people think that people who read our books are schmucks who break their own necks on planes. But it is so easy. A lot of people just want to read the book and go, “I’m not the kind of guy who’s going to do these tricks because I have friends.” But there a lot of tricks that are in there that are hard to do. There are also a lot of what they would call in science, “Gidonkins.” You know, thought experiments. “Wouldn’t this be a great trick if you did it?”
Harris: There are a lot of good ones in there, and there’s also the eternal card trick. You mentioned the three of clubs before…
Jillette: That was Teller’s obsession and I’m telling you, if this were a book that was written by just Penn, you wouldn’t have this trick. It was much too much work. Teller scammed, and used lawyers, and a huge amount of money, and a lot of disingenuous speech and he got us a plot at Forest Lawn Cemetery, the most famous cemetery in the country, where a lot of movie stars are buried. He got us a plot and a headstone, and we’re not dead. And then in the book we teach you how to do a card force — which just means to get someone to think they had a free choice of a card where they really picked the three of clubs. Then you have them put the card in an envelope that they think they’ve freely selected and then you say, “I’m going to divine what that card is, the four of diamonds.” Then they say, “No, you’re a loser.” Then you say, “Well, keep the card in your pocket, I want to go to Forest Lawn and show you around. There are some great graves there.” And you go around and there’s Stan Laurel and all sorts of cool ones and then you walk over and say, “Huh, I didn’t know Penn and Teller were dead!” And you point down and there on the gravestone it says, “Is this your card? 3 of Clubs.” And there it is in brass and marble. It’s beautiful. It cost us most of our advance for the book. But Teller thought “You know, it will be there forever, Penn, and it’s wonderful.” My mother said, “What’s so funny about you having a gravestone?” I said, “Ma, it’s OK.” It was incredible, because Forest Lawn called and said, “Well we won’t sell this to you because you’re trying to do something funny, and this is a place with dignity. You can’t make fun of that.” And Teller had an evil New York lawyer on the phone with them going, “This is breach of contract! We will own Forest Lawn! You put that in, you put it in now! He has a verbal contract, he has a letter of agreement, money has changed hands, do you want to still own your cemetery? Do you, boy? Do you?” Teller just sicked them on them. You know, you’re beating up a poor mortician. He said, “It’s going to be a great gag.”
Harris: It is great — the eternal card trick. Always great to talk to you, Penn.
Jillette: Great talking to you!
Harris: Thank you very much.
Copyright 1997, Paul Harris.
Transcript by Doug Houser.