The Middlebrow

Penn Jillette

The magician-comedian-writer’s secrets revealed!

Penn Jillette’s place in show business is less as a magician or comedian than as a thinker. A very deep thinker. Consider The Aristocrats, the 2005 documentary he made with his friend Paul Provenza. The movie emerged out of a series of late-night discussions between Jillette and Provenza, in which the pair would sit in restaurants on the Las Vegas Strip, gulping decaffeinated coffee and discussing (to borrow Jillette’s phrase) “the most pretentious shit possible.” For example? “We talk an awful lot about whether you have to stop at libertarianism or go on to anarchocapitalism,” Jillette said the other day. Luckily, Jillette and Provenza steered themselves away from anarchocapitalism (Death to Aristocrats?) and toward the science of dirty jokes. Out popped The Aristocrats, which had a small theatrical release but ignited a cultural interest in filth. (The new DVD hovers near the top of the sales charts.) If The Aristocrats was a celebration of bawdy free expression and the vanishing art of joke-telling, it was also a celebration of Penn Jillette’s peculiar worldview—something like the academic art known as radical deconstruction.

Jillette would make for an odd academic. Standing 6 foot 6 inches, wearing his hair in a ponytail, he looks like a man who spends a great deal of his time in a bowling alley. His formal education after high school consists of a stint at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College. Yet his snarling stage persona, which is like a sideshow hustler crossed with an insult comic, hides a surprisingly inquisitive mind. The magic act he has performed for two decades with Teller, his mute sidekick, is a comic deconstruction of the magic show. Penn and Teller have billed their act as the “magic show for people who hate magic.” No adult, they said, believes that a magician could levitate or pass cards through the palms of his hand—to pretend otherwise is an insult to the audience. So Penn and Teller explain how they perform all their tricks, trusting that the audience will appreciate their consummate skill. They still play six nights a week at the Rio in Las Vegas, and, as Jillette has been known to say about the show, “The question we want you to ask yourself is not how we do these tricks but why we do them.”

Indeed, Jillette has made a career out of pulling back the curtain. In his Showtime series Bullshit!, which he hosts with Teller, he investigates everyday scams like heavenly signs appearing in cheese sandwiches; in his book How To Cheat Your Friends at Poker (written with Mickey D. Lynn), he explains the art of card-sharping while informing his readers, “Your loyalty is to neither people nor ideals.”But poker, signs from above, and magic acts seem ripe for deconstruction. The Aristocrats was a different matter. Comedy, E.B. White contended, can’t be broken into its constituent parts, or else it ceases to be funny. “That cliché, that truism, is based on the fact that people who know nothing about comedy will take it apart and make it not funny,” says Jillette, who, along with Provenza, was determined to put the job in the hands of comedy professionals.

In The Aristocrats, BobSaget, Paul Reiser, Sarah Silverman, and others deconstructed the titular joke, each comedian infusing it with his or her own brand of bowely humor. Somehow, the exercise was funny. On the DVD, Jillette and Provenza push the conceit even further: They contribute a commentary track in which they add on yet another layer of deconstruction, spotlighting the comedians’ words, delivery, and the common notes. “At first glance, it looks like Bob is commenting on the joke. …” “Fabulous point by Carlin here, this is really important …” And the strange thing is, this third-generation material (a deconstruction of a deconstruction of comedy) is still funny.

What motivates Jillette to such heights of erudition? It may be because he comes from the seedy milieu of magic, which Jillette has called a “trash art form.” Whereas the card manipulator Ricky Jay has turned to serious scholarship to distance himself from magicians in cheap suits, Jillette has lashed out at inferior artists. (The Amazing Kreskin, the renowned “mentalist,”is a “scumbag lying to children.”) Moreover, Jillette’s itinerant scholarship seems to be a vestige of his former career as a failed novelist. Jillette says he set out at 18 (and I’m pretty sure he’s serious) to become the “great existential American writer.” While he was an autodidact (he later wrote a novel), he was no Jack Kerouac, and his literary ambitions gave way to magic. “I never wanted to be a magician,” he once told the Chicago Sun-Times. “I never wanted to be a comedian. I never wanted to be onstage. I always had these ideas that were passionately important to me.” Short of producing great fiction, his brain gets emptied on the stage.

Jillette’s motormouth doesn’t shut off when the curtain falls. He’s a public intellectual in the most public sense, always on the verge of another revelation. (It’s how he keeps himself and his ideas alive in the press.) In addition to announcing his libertarianism, he has told reporters that he is devoted to skepticism, that he is an avowed enemy of Michael Moore and Mel Gibson, and that he is an atheist—the latter revealed in an essay on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition. (“Believing there is no God gives me more room for belief in family, people, love, truth, beauty, sex, Jell-O …”) In our conversation, Jillette felt moved to declare that he had devised a method by which to place every artist in human history into a matrix: separating those who had genuine skill, those who had genuine passion, and those rarefied geniuses who had both. In the latter category, he explained, he would place Johann Sebastian Bach, Pablo Picasso, and the comedian Gilbert Gottfried. He could go on like this all night—really, he could—but we both felt the deconstructing had reached its logical endpoint. When I started to thank him for his time, he replied, “This is what I do!”