Vegas Voices is a weekly question-and-answer series featuring notable Las Vegans.
Most people would be content with a career as a Las Vegas headliner that spans more than two decades and still entails performing five nights a week at the Rio.
Penn Jillette is not most people.
“Penn & Teller: Fool Us,” in which magicians try to perform a trick the duo can’t figure out, returns for its third season at 8 p.m. July 13 on The CW. Jillette’s latest book, “Presto!: How I Made Over 100 Pounds Disappear and Other Magical Tales,” will be released Aug. 2. He’s featured in the free speech documentary “Can We Take a Joke?” which is getting an early screening July 14 during the libertarian FreedomFest at Planet Hollywood Resort. And his movie “Director’s Cut” — which he wrote, stars in and calls “really, really crazy and intellectual and shocking” — is awaiting distribution.
Jillette took time out to talk about some of his latest projects, as well as the shame it’s hard not to feel for having been associated with a certain presidential candidate during his two seasons as a contestant on “The Celebrity Apprentice.”
Review-Journal: I’ve been to a lot of TV tapings, but yours was one of the smoothest and most entertaining. What’s the secret?
Jillette: That’s mostly the other producers, who do a good job on that. But it’s also that we’ve got really good magicians.
RJ: It’s more like you’re watching a magic show that just happens to have cameras there.
Jillette: The problem with magic on TV is that you can’t do it on TV, because whenever you see magic on TV, you think they’re using camera tricks. And, by the way, they always are. Whether that camera trick is exactly where you place the camera or which take you take. Obviously, if you go out on the Las Vegas Strip with a camera crew and you walk up to every person and tell them to think of a card and then tell them what card they’re thinking of, you’re going to get it once in a while. And everybody knows that in kind of a deep, visceral level. So that’s why magic doesn’t feel right on TV. But because we’ve set up this very, very friendly competition, the audience knows, I guess to put it simply, the camera crew is working for us, not for the magician. … So, consequently, the magic that’s on ‘Fool Us’ feels more real than the magic on any other magic show that’s ever been on TV.
RJ: You have a new host in Alyson Hannigan this year. What else can viewers expect?
Jillette: With many, many other shows, as the seasons go on, you have more and more trouble getting subjects to deal with, getting things to fill up your show. But “Fool Us” is kind of backwards, because when we first wanted to do that, it was very, very hard to get magicians to trust us and (trust that) we would be respectful and loving. And now that we’ve done a few seasons, magicians are trusting us. … So we are getting, I think, with proper respect to the people that came on first, we’re getting better quality magicians. And that’s a pretty big change.
RJ: I have to ask, now that the world has seen a lot more of Donald Trump’s decision-making skills, do you feel any better about having been fired by him twice?
Jillette: First of all, I refuse to buy his terminology. I was not fired in the real world. I was a co-worker on a fantasy show with him. And the more Donald Trump talks, the more I think he at least pretends to believe, or may actually believe, that he was running a business on “Celebrity Apprentice.” Donald Trump did not have a job to offer me. Donald Trump was never my boss. And Donald Trump did not in any sense of the word fire me, no more than the “CSI” people investigate crimes. It’s not real, anymore than his wealth is real and anymore than his ability as a businessman is real. None of this is true. …
Jillette: That having been said, the reason I did not win this silly competition is that Donald Trump did not like me. That’s the only reason. … But the reason he did not like me is that, backstage, he said that he wanted us to say that we would support him for president. Which at that point was more silly and less scary than it is now. And I said, clearly and publicly, that I would not support him for president and did not think that that should have any impact on the silly little show that we were doing. … And had I done that, and had I won, I would be sick to my stomach every second. That would have been the wrong thing to do. I am surprised, maybe I shouldn’t say this, but I’m surprised that I’m not shamed more for being on that show. Looking back on it in retrospect, I mean I certainly would not be involved with Donald Trump now. That having been said, being on “Celebrity Apprentice,” being on prime-time television for two hours every week, was hugely helpful to our (Rio) show. … It was a very good move. And I enjoyed being on the show, and I enjoyed being around Donald Trump. If you froze time at the end of “Celebrity Apprentice,” it was absolutely an entirely good experience. I even enjoyed my conversations with Donald Trump. I even liked Donald Trump within that framework of a silly reality show. Now, with what’s happening and the things he’s said, the blatant racism and misogyny and delusion, it’s very hard for me not to go back in time and feel shame for being involved in that show. But I would just remind people, I did not have any more information at that time than they did. (Laughs) I could not see the future.”
RJ: Speaking of politics, “Can We Take a Joke?” is playing at Anthem, the libertarian film festival. What is it about libertarianism that appeals to you?
Jillette: … I support libertarianism because I just want the conversation, “Can we solve this with more freedom instead of less.” And all of this comes from my insane optimism, which I must say is being tested. (Laughs) But I think people are really, really, really good. And if you think people are really, really, really good, you don’t spend very much time afraid. And if you don’t spend very much time afraid, and you think people are really good, libertarianism can be very attractive.
RJ: You’ve written a book about your extreme, rapid weight loss. Which was harder, dropping the pounds or keeping them off?
Jillette: Well, you know, this is one of the things the book deals with so deeply. There’s never any pride or fun in things that are easy. People brag about climbing Everest. They don’t brag about “I walked up a gentle slope yesterday.” And I forgot that with my health and my weight. I would work on learning a juggling trick that really was not going to make me money, was not going to make me healthier, was not going to do anything for me other than learning that trick. And the harder the trick was, the more I liked working on it. There’s a trick I’m working on now, I’ve been working on for 50 years. I will never do it onstage. I will never show it to anyone. It’s so weird to me that, knowing that about myself, I still tried to make dieting and my health easy. When dieting and my health became difficult, when it became intense, it became fun. It became something I wanted to do. … Having done that and lost the weight, keeping it off, keeping that a difficult challenge, keeping that something that’s fun, is a little harder, and you have to cheat psychologically a little more to say “I’m accomplishing something today.”
RJ: So in that rare window of time when you aren’t working, you aren’t practicing that juggling trick, what do you do for fun?
Jillette: It’s all based around my family now. The answer is my family and reading. And there really isn’t much else. I guess you could throw in listening to music, but it’s reading and it’s my family.
Contact Christopher Lawrence at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @life_onthecouch.