Voodoo and Violence

Magician Penn Jillette sees through the censors' tricks.

The recent calls by Attorney General Janet Reno and Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) to limit and regulate media violence initially brought forth surprisingly few rebuttals from the entertainment industry. In fact, some of the same people who lambasted Dan Quayle for confusing television and reality responded warmly last December when President Clinton asked industry movers and shakers to "examine what together [they] might do to...help the way we think of ourselves."

Among the lonely dissenters was Penn Jillette, of the magic act Penn & Teller. Together for almost 20 years, the duo has become hugely successful. Besides appearing on Broadway and all over the country, they have regularly appeared on late-night TV shows such as Saturday Night Live and David Letterman. They have published two books, Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends and How To Play with Your Food, and starred in the movie Penn & Teller Get Killed.

Penn & Teller are not graduates of the traditional pick-a-card-any-card school of prestidigitation. Where other magicians try to mystify and mesmerize their audience, they work to shock and unsettle (as well as provoke laughter). Consider a defining moment in their act: After an audience member chooses a card, Penn, the big, loud one, spreads the whole deck out on a table. Teller, the small, silent one, is blindfolded and tries to pick the card out with a knife. He misses, stabbing Penn right through the hand. Penn howls in pain and holds his bloody palm up to the shrieking audience. Impaled on the knife is the correct card.

Penn Jillette's activities and interests range far beyond card tricks. He covered the 1992 Republican national convention for the Comedy Central cable channel and continues to serve as the network's official voice. He writes a monthly column for PC Computing and is involved with the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, a skeptics' organization that investigates allegedly supernatural phenomena. And he's one of a few celebrities known to have voted for the Libertarian Party presidential ticket in 1992.

Jillette was interviewed by Steve Kurtz, a Los Angeles writer. In conversation, Jillette employs an in-your-face style that may disturb people uncomfortable with vulgar language. His insights and observations regarding artistic license, censorship, and the po- litical process, however, are as provocative as his stage show.

Reason: Recently, you appeared on Comedy Central in a vignette in which you lectured Attorney General Janet Reno on the difference between real blood and stage blood. What about the recent brouhaha over television and mass-media violence moved you to comment on the matter in such a public way?

Penn: You know, it's funny because Penn & Teller, although we tend to be political in our private lives-- political is a bit strong, I guess, but certainly we try to be aware of what' s going on in the world around us--we aren't very publicly political. We aren't people who believe that just because we're performers our opinions on everything need to be known. As far as I'm concerned, we did not move into politics; Janet Reno moved into art. One of the things that Teller and I are obsessed with, one of the reasons that we're in magic, is the difference between fantasy and reality. That is the subject that, if you have a brain in your head, is always dealt with in magic. The smarter the tricks you're doing, the more that' s an important thing.

So we have always harped on the distinction between reality and illusion, and it really isn't a political issue. Janet Reno, during her confirmation hearings, said she would come down harder on porno, and lately she's talked about how violence on television has an effect on violence in the real world. This is damn near a textbook definition of voodoo. The term voodoo economics was thrown around a lot with Bush and Reagan, and that was a lot more of a stretch, since it was a metaphor. What Janet Reno has talked about is literally voodoo: If you change the representation of something, you will change its territory in the real world. All of a sudden, she's smack dab in the middle of our lives. All of a sudden, we have this nut for an attorney general who's saying stuff that liberals seem to think is compassion and conservatives seem to think is common sense.

What she doesn't realize when she talks about getting rid of television violence--I'm giving her credit for being naive, as opposed to being more cynical about it--is that violence in the arts is not a celebration of pain and suffering, but rather a celebration of health and life. One of the ways that we can say "fuck you" to death, and "fuck you" to suffering, and channel that pain somewhere else, is that wonderful feeling we get by [experiencing all that vicariously]. At the end of [fictional violence], the victims are completely OK. It's the perfect insult to suffering and pain. We know that a rollercoaster ride doesn't make you go out and drive recklessly--the two are unrelated. You get that wonderful thrill, you get to the top and you're happy to be alive and all your senses tingle and then you're done, and you don't go out and drive your car recklessly and try to get the same thrill. Well, maybe French people do.

There's a wonderful quote from Tony Fltzpatrick, an "outsider" artist in Chicago. He also hosts a show on Comedy Central--it's a very strange combination to have an artist who's hanging in the Museum of Modern Art emceeing a comedy show--called Drive-ln Reviews, where he shows the goriest parts of movies. He says, "The family that watches slasher films together sure ain't out hurting somebody."

Reason: With Penn & Teller, don't you try to make people think for a split second that what they're seeing is real?

Penn: That's the fun of it. When you're watching Psycho, there' s that moment when you have a visceral reaction to watching someone being stabbed. And then you have the intellectual revelation that you're not, and that's where the celebration comes in. That question right there is the crux of the whole biscuit. Sen. Paul Simon is not allowing that the intellect comes in and does that work. He's doing what do-gooders always do. He's saying: "I'm smart enough to handle this, you're not."

[Watching TV violence] is not a deeply complicated enterprise. You don't have to be able to find a 28-digit prime number to know that the Three Stooges are using special effects. The wacky thing is that 4-year-olds who know that I'm a magician will come up and talk to me about special effects in Terminator 2. They really will. At 4 years old, you grasp this. Before you can read, you know the difference between a story and reality. And, of course, by the time you're old enough to do any real damage with an Uzi, you've learned that difference.

Reason: How much of the anti-TV violence talk is just political posturing? Do you think the threat of government censorship is a real one?

Penn: Well, you know, I really get crazy about using the word censorship loosely. I think it's a misleading term, and I certainly don't think that the National Endowment for the Arts pulling money from Karen Finley is in any way, shape, or form censorship. It was very funny that the Karen Finley, Andres Serrano, and Mapplethorpe incidents were happening almost simultaneously with the 2 Live Crew troubles in Florida. Your New York liberals, your New York intelligentsia, were trashing 2 Live Crew and siding with Karen Finley, which is such a perversion of what's going on. I thought that was really diagrammatical of what's wrong with how people think about censorship.

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