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Penn Jillette: “Paul Daniels Was Ready to Be Enemies”

Penn Jillette
(Image credit: unknown)

How did you and Teller team up?

When I was 17, I bought a stereo off a guy who asked if I could throw toilet plungers in his show. I’d learnt to juggle from a library book, so I said, “Sure”. Teller was also in the show – he recited Latin poetry he’d written. We talked about what theatre should be. Neither of us liked greasy guys in tuxes, and we thought there should be more honesty in magic. Jerry Seinfeld described magic as: “Here’s a quarter, now it’s gone, you’re an asshole! Here, it’s back – you’re a jerk!” We wanted to do magic without insulting people.

Which comedy duos did you look up to when you were starting out?

Teller and I both loved Flanders and Swann. They did musical parodies – dry, traditional British comedy. They were produced by George Martin, who went on to produce the Beatles. When I met him, I asked about Flanders and Swann. He was so thrilled, we talked for an hour. Teller and I listened to a huge amount of them as we drove to shows.

Who gave you your first big break?

Most people say our big break was television – appearing on Letterman and Saturday Night Live in ’85. I don’t see it that way. We’d been asked to do TV before, but I’d promised myself I wouldn’t, until I was 30. You need to know who you are and what you’re trying to do. Lorne Michaels, producer of Saturday Night Live, said, “Showbusiness is the only job where you’re paid to think about yourself”. That’s dangerous and I don’t have a plan B – I’m barely high-school educated, so my choices are showbusiness or prison.

It’s a showbiz tradition to tell each audience they’re the best – which audience is the best?

One of my favourite times on stage was the Hammersmith Apollo, where the acoustics for voices is wonderful. It was sold out and there was no air conditioning. Walking on stage where David Bowie, Bob Dylan and The Clash had played, where the Beatles played more shows than any place on Earth, and playing guitar for a hot crowd – I don’t think it was ever better than that.

Who tells the best showbiz stories?

When we first got to England, I had mean jokes about David Copperfield, and Jonathan Ross said, “Say ‘Paul Daniels’ instead!” So I did mean Paul Daniels jokes – then I bumped into him. Paul Daniels was ready to be enemies, and I said: “Jonathan Ross gave me your name to plug in! I was talking out of my ass!” When I saw him work, I liked him: there was no one better at telling stories. The great jazz pianist Thelonious Monk said a genius is someone who’s most like himself. Paul Daniels was so like himself.

Who’s your favourite showbiz friend?

Stephen Fry. He tells a mean story that includes an impersonation of me meeting Prince Charles. We’re both active in the atheist movement, and both active in scepticism. Stephen told me, if I’m ever around a Brit who’s doing an American accent, I should tell them to say “federal court order”. It always fucks them up!

Are you in the Magic Circle?

Paul Daniels brought us there a few times. I don’t know if I’m a member, but Prince Charles is. I had dinner with him and his sleight of hand is as good as mine. I was pretty impressed.

What are you most proud of?

My children. I became a father when I wanted to think about somebody else for a change. I was 50, so maybe I should be ashamed that moment came so late. But my mom and my dad were old when I was born, and I felt like they had their problems worked out. I wanted to give that upbringing to my children.

Penn And Teller: Fool Us In Vegas is on Channel 5 on Sundays at 9pm

Samantha Rea is a freelance journalist living in London. She writes about poker, peccadilloes, filth and feminism. She has an MSc from the London School of Economics and she likes an Old Fashioned.