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 political 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.

The First Amendment says nothing about your getting paid for saying anything. It just says you can say it. I don't believe that if a corporation pulls all the money out of you or a network pulls their money away or you get fired, you're being censored.

Unfortunately, that gets very, very confusing with stuff like the motion-picture rating system. What you have there is, at least on the face of it, a "voluntary" rating system put in because of government threats. I do blame the entertainment industry for a lot, because they could have hung tough and seen where the chips fell. But they didn't, because it's better for business, which is what they're supposed to be about. It's complicated, but what we have now is a situation where if you open a movie theater in a mall, you sign a piece of paper that says you can't show unrated, NC-17, or X-rated films. And that is government coming in all of a sudden, your evil local governments. For someone like me, who says "censorship" is OK–if I want to pull money away from a Christian artist because I don't like Christians, that's my right–the voluntary stuff is fine. The free market will take care of it, and that's all well and good. But these zoning laws are a government thing.

Reason: What do you think the result will be if television does give in to governmental demands to change its product? Is it really better for business in the long run?

Penn: Of course it's not better for business in the long run. That's what the motion picture thing has shown us. This is really a short-term fix. It's really a pretty wonderful short-term fix, that's the part that's so irritating. You know Steven Bochco can come out and agree with the people who are pressuring him that violence is bad, and just claim that his violence is a little different. And he can put on NYPD Blue, which does phenomenal ratings because of its nudity and because of the warning in front of it. And he' s a good citizen, and he' s a bad guy, and he' s all these things except a moral person taking a stand. In the short term, I think that probably serves him the best. But in the long run, it certainly won't, because you get smaller and smaller areas that you're able to express yourself in.

The people who do the best in the face of censorship are people like [radio "shock jock"] Howard Stern. He will do fine with it because his humor is based on being contained and not being able to really go wild It's part of his being monogamous with his wife and yet having strippers on the show taking their tops off. People like the fact that he's wild within a very, very confined cage. So he'll do fine, Steven Bochco will do fine. but the country doesn't do fine. That is, Stern will do fine if he's not shut down altogether.

Reason: That seems to be at least a remote possibility, considering that the FCC has fined Stern's employer, Infinity Broadcasting, in excess of a million dollars and has delayed the company's purchase of more stations.

Penn: That's horrible and terrible. It's something we will have to fight because if they stop granting licenses, if they get him off the air, then that's that.

What makes the problem really awful is that you're dealing with the entertainment industry, a group of people who are traditionally spineless. That's where the problem comes from. You see what happens if you try to do this to the medical profession. They're pretty organized against it; less than half of the doctors are rolling over and going for the new health-care programs to get a head start. Most of them are not going gently into that dark health care. In show business, everyone is, except for us and maybe three or four other people.

Reason: So you do feel the pressure, then?

Penn: Well, you see, the odd thing is we're personally in a very odd place. We work in a rarefied enough atmosphere that we are never and probably will never be attacked. You know, we're S20, $25, $30 a ticket, we're playing Broadway, we're playing colleges, we're playing Vegas. We're playing the places where no one cares about that sort of thing, and our show is considered by The New York Times to be so artsy and smart and everything. It's just like nudity in certain contexts. You can always get away with ballets showing [nudity]. But as soon as you put it in the Baby Doll Lounge downtown, where truck drivers can see it, all of a sudden, legislation comes in.

So, we are benefiting from being seen as artsy. Maybe we get one or two letters a week that deal with the fantasy mistreatment of animals. In our act, we throw a rabbit into a shredder. People write letters about that. Since we're obviously not killing a real rabbit, what are they complaining about? They complain that it's bad for people to see, that it might give them ideas. It's symbolic desrespect to the animals. Animals just shouldn't be used in shows at all.

Reason: Do people worry for you when you appear on television, do they say you should tone it down?

Penn: We're not in a visible enough place, really. The Letterman show, for instance, which is the type of thing we appear on, is on late at night, and no one has talked about that. The only place we were really told to tone it down–where other people would use the word censorship, but I wouldn't–was when we did MTV right after the Beavis and Butt-head thing. We were told we couldn't do the first two bits we wanted to do. It was for Halloween, and we wanted to do a needle through the arm or a razor blade in the eye. They were really worried that, with the Beavis and Butt-head thing, people would say that this was irresponsible.

Reason: How do you feel about the Beavis and Butt-head controversy?

Penn: Complete and utter insanity. There's no issue you can find that I could be further on one side of. The fact that Beavis and Butthead–cartoon characters!–are being blamed for things in the real world seems so close to insanity that I can't imagine believing it.

There are two ways that I can see to argue this issue of the link between real violence and TV violence. One is to show that there's no [causal link] between the amount of violence someone watches and how they act in the real world. There just isn't. That's one way to go: [Researchers] didn't find anything, so shut up.

The other way to go is to just talk about the moral issue. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, those who sacrifice liberty for safety deserve neither. That' s all you need on this issue. The thing I said in The New York Times, which I probably shouldn't have said, since it probably weakens our side, is that, if in a country of 260 million people, all the art that we have done completely freely does end up killing four people a year, that's OK. That's an argument you're not supposed to make because it goes against the weird zero-risk society that we're supposed to be going towards. Even if it would turn out that three people who were predisposed to violence–not just inspired by the stuff, but motivated–committed a crime, that's OK.

One of the problems is that people confuse inspiration with motivation. If I'm the kind of person who's going to kill somebody, whether I do it Taxi Driver style, Beavis and Butt-head style, or Bible style is my decision. As far as I'm concerned, none of those artistic things enter into it at all. If I'm going to [kill] you, I don't care very much whether I light you on fire and say, "Heh, heh, cool," or say, "Suck on this," and shoot you in the stomach.

No one has an idea really of where we should draw the line. What about the Bible? Every nut who kills people has a Bible lying around. If you're looking for violent rape imagery, the Bible's right there in your hotel room. If you just want to look up ways to screw people up, there it is, and you're justified because God told you to. You have Shakespeare and you have Sophocles–what are we going to do, lose Oedipus Rex if someone pokes an eye out?

Reason: People often say they want to get rid of "gratuitous" violence, but of course no study can show what violence is gratuitous and what violence isn't.

Penn: There's no way to tell. The fact is that violence gives you a rush. Violence is a good compositional technique to keep things interesting. If you want to do a movie in which the wife is becoming more educated and is losing respect for what her husband does, and that also has to show clearly that her husband's way of thinking and way of life, although less intellectual, is valid and important in society, you can do that with a garage mechanic and a slice-of-life style. But it's much more exciting to make Die Hard. One of the reasons that I think that movie is so successful is it deals with those very important blue-collar relationship themes. But it's more visually beautiful to show things blowing up. It just gives you more on the screen.

Some women–two women, really, I mean Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin–will even talk about the fact that in porno movies there are more blowjobs than there is pussy eating. This is a big issue you will find in certain–I don't even want to use the word feminist–nut tracts. One of the reasons is, it is the only thing in pornography that's easy to shoot. You have a face and genitals at close proximity, and they're not between things that you can't shoot. I don't think that has to do with societal pressures; I think it has to do with the fact that legs are opaque. It's not a political issue at all.

Of course, you have people like Janet Reno doing the wonderful job of separating sex from violence, which is always [the censor's] technique. You get all your sex people to say, "We're just making love. We're not doing violence. What's wrong with us? Go after them." And then you get the Nightmare on Elm Street people to say, "At least we're not showing hard-core sex." You get those two groups to fight against each other.

Reason: Do you see a reason why Republicans seem so opposed to sex while Democrats seem so opposed to violence?

Penn: I covered the Republican convention for Comedy Central, and I said to Torie Clarke [Bush's campaign press secretary] when she sat down next to me, "Do you have any idea how many people like me there are? There are more than you think, and all you got to do is say 'I like porno. Faggots and foreigners are OK. I don't care what people say."' I told her if she said that, "you will move a couple million people over to the Republican Party, people who kind of like the stuff you're saying financially, the no-tax-and-spend stuff, although you're not doing it. But the kind of [family values] stuff you're saying: Do you really think that this is buying you anything?"

I would talk to these people off-camera and they would say, "Well, of course I don't think there's anything wrong with porno. Of course Bush doesn't. Nobody does. But we need to do this as part of the whole platform." And I'd say, "You know, this may sound crazy, but you might want to consider going with what you believe, because there are many, many more people than you think who don't [care] about this issue."

I'm talking about people like my mom, who's never seen a Playboy and doesn't want to, who doesn't understand why people should complain about stuff that costs money that they don't want being out there. She says, "If you break into my house and open Screw magazine and staple it to the wall, I'm going to be angry. Until you do that, I have no problems. I don't want it. I also don't want a microwave. And the only danger I have is that you might buy me one for Christmas. But I tell you I don't want one and we're done. I don't want Playboy. I don't want a microwave. Why are these two issues different?"

Reason: I get the impression that you prefer the moral argument against restricting fictional violence–that you should be free to see what you want–over the statistically based argument.

Penn: Yeah, I kind of do. But I think both are necessary because, I suppose, there is a critical mass where if you could show me scientifically that putting a certain kind of program on TV killed 300,000 people a year, I couldn't argue with you.

Reason: Imagine you're testifying in front of Paul Simon, and he says, "Most Americans agree with me that media violence causes violent behavior." How would you respond to that?

Penn: Well, I would say, "Prove it." You can't prove it just by having a majority on your side. The majority of people can't decide what the speed of light is. And at some point, you've got to go–and I realize that people don't even hear this any more–with the First Amendment defense: Congress shall make no law. As Justice Douglas said, those are the only words you need in that amendment. "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…." Do we need to see it [before we decide]? No: Congress shall make no law. It's not, "Congress shall make no law, unless it's African-American people in Florida saying things about fucking women in the ass." No, it's Congress shall make no law.

And maybe the African-American people who are talking about killing people with their dicks are using some sort of exaggeration. There's not a woman in the world that believes that Luther Campbell of 2 Live Crew actually has a dick big enough that he killed a women with it. Unfortunately, women are not strong enough in Congress to be able to stand up and say, "I've heard other guys say that their dicks are that big. They're lying. I know what the average dick size is. I also know where the ranges are. He's just saying shit. And you know something else, while we're here, Agatha Christie didn't kill anybody. Goodnight, everybody. Drive carefully." Congress shall make no law. Agatha Christie and 2 Live Crew and [porn star] Nina Hartley and Alfred Hitchcock and Freddie Krueger are all in the same boat with Shakespeare, with Sophocles, with everybody who tried to make an entertaining statement.

The other argument I will not fall into is saying that it's cathartic and people [who] watch violence do less violence. That's never been proven. There's just no correlation, because fantasy and reality are different things. If you're going to say that people who fantasize about raping are held responsible for that fantasy, then it's logical in some way to say people who are fantasizing about being raped are in some way responsible for that fantasy. And once you've done that, you've got complete chaos. You've then said she was thinking about being raped, so it's OK that this guy raped her, which is essentially where Paul Simon's argument is going.

We have to draw the line and say it's OK for me to sit here and fantasize about violently raping anybody I want. And the second I touch her against her will, I should go to prison forever. As long as I don't hurt her in any way, I haven't done a crime.