Love and Memory and Humanity

Magician and novelist Penn Jillette on censorship, sock monkeys, and Bullshit!

When Reason last caught up with Penn Jillette--the self-described "larger, louder half" of the magical duo Penn & Teller--the year was 1994, and then-Attorney General Janet Reno and other Clinton administration figures were threatening to regulate the content of movies, TV shows, and video games if the entertainment industry didn't just say no to sex and violence. (See "Voodoo and Violence," April 1994.) What a difference a decade makes: In the wake of Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" during the Super Bowl halftime show and other incidents, now it's the Federal Communications Commission that's applying the screws to Hollywood and broadcasters (see "Reluctant Planner," page 30).

State threats to expression rankle the 49-year-old libertarian Jillette, who explains: "I think freedom is always a good idea. I think people are good, and I think people left alone will do the most good possible." Which isn't to say he's an anarchist, exactly. "I think the government is perhaps a necessary evil," grants the Massachusetts native and proud alumnus of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College.

If little has changed regarding governmental disapproval of bad language and bawdy behavior on TV and radio, things certainly are different for Penn these days. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks and increased travel hassles, Penn & Teller now operate out of Las Vegas, where they do six shows a week at the Rio. They recently completed the second season of the brilliant Showtime series Bullshit!, which exposes the flimsy science and false pretenses of everything from recycling programs to the drug war to tantric sex (sorry, Sting). Nominated for two Emmys, including one for "outstanding reality program," Bullshit! will start shooting its third season in January 2005.

In a solo turn, Penn earlier this year published his first novel, Sock, to excellent reviews. An engagingly off-kilter tale about a New York City police diver obsessively tracking down a religiously minded serial killer, Sock is almost certainly the only crime story narrated by a sock puppet--a conceit that cannot be properly described but must be experienced to be appreciated fully.

In August Reason editor-in-chief Nick Gillespie talked about censorship, Sock, and Bullshit! with Penn Jillette via phone.

Reason: So here we are, a decade later, and the government is cracking down on free expression.

Penn Jillette: Can we just use the same interview?

Reason: Should we really be worried about censorship? Isn't expression more beyond control than ever?

Jillette: I don't really know. What was it--two years ago? maybe a year-and-a-half ago--the top song in the country was by Eminem. It was playing on the radio all the time. During all this talk about censorship getting worse, Eminem had a song that said "Fuck you, Mrs. Bush" at the end of it. There's still not a lot of countries that would allow that, and we have to make sure that while we fight the good fight, we also celebrate the fact that the fight is being fought at all.

Reason: Do increases in both the number and amounts of FCC fines have a chilling effect on expression?

Jillette: They always do. And it's always terrible. And you always have those rare heroes that fight against it. You don't get to pick your heroes. That's the thing that's so sad. You end up in bed with pornographers, the Dixie Chicks, and Janet Jackson. Those are not any of the people we would pick, but we have to be with them.

Of course, I've already made this huge mistake now when I lumped in the Dixie Chicks [who lost air time on some radio stations after criticizing President Bush] with pornographers and Janet Jackson. I'd really like to have the word censorship reserved for government action because otherwise it's so, so sticky. The Dixie Chicks were not censored at all. I should not have put the Dixie Chicks in there, except that they are the people that you end up sticking up for in some discussions.

I remember once we were doing a public broadcasting thing --a series about the arts for kids on French-Canadian TV. After the first one, representatives from the company that was underwriting the series--I think it was McDonald's--said that they liked the show but my attitude wasn't good. They didn't think it was proper for the show, and they wanted to continue with the show but fire me --and by extension, fire Teller as well. Everybody involved picked sides. The odd part was Teller and I picked McDonald's side because we said if they are putting the money in, they don't need any reason at all. My supporters said, "We're afraid that the reason is your politics." And I said, "That's a perfect reason."

Reason: Your novel Sock is an impressive literary debut. Certainly it's the first time--and I suspect the last time--I'll ever read a work of fiction that name checks both the punk band the Buzzcocks and the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug. What prompted you to write it?

Jillette: I wrote the first chapter as part of another book, and my friend Nell Scavell, who created Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, loved it and kept pushing me to write a whole novel.

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