Civil Liberties

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.

My mom and dad had died fairly recently, just a couple of years ago–it's still traumatic for me–and I had all this stuff in my head. People who know about Penn & Teller know that I'm an atheist. Because of that, I find myself getting into these discussions at two o'clock in the morning in a diner, people asking the usual questions about atheists: "How can you be moral? Don't you wish there were a god?" Then, at some point, they'll ask, "How do you feel with the death of a loved one?" As I wrote Sock, it turned out that I was writing an answer to that question. How does an atheist deal with really deep grief?

Reason: The narrator writes: "Faith felt good, faith always feels good, it probably feels better than heroin and that's why faith has done much more damage…What's the difference between God and a sock monkey? There is a sock monkey."

So how do you live in a world without faith, and how are you moral in a world without faith? You've suggested that writing the book helps you find solace in an indifferent universe. How does it do that?

Jillette: When you boil it down, I think it becomes a cliche. But the book is about how love and memory and humanity are really what we have to hold on to. More important, that's kind of enough.

People have to realize that having an imaginary friend may be dangerous. When 9/11 hit, the second thing I said to myself was, "This really is what religious people do." Those people flying the plane were very good, very pious, truly faithful believers. There's no other way to paint them. Of course, they are extremists by definition, but they certainly aren't going against Islam in any real way.

The first thing I said to myself on 9/11 was, "There go our civil rights." I found out by comparing notes later that George Carlin and I both said that at the exact same time. That's the first thing that popped into our head.

Reason: How have you been hampered post-9/11?

Jillette: Touring, for one thing.

Reason: Explain that. It's not like you can only play Gitmo, right?

Jillette: No. But one of the reasons we started doing a regular show in Vegas was because of how difficult it's become to travel. It's not the only reason, but it was definitely a factor. When we tour, we have an entire crew of freedom fighters. Every checkpoint that we went through–six or seven a week–somebody would be having an altercation with security.

You know, we have the solution on how to do all the security: Have a man and woman at each gate leading to the airplane strip. They're stripped from the waist down, and every passenger has to lean over and lightly kiss the genitals of the person of the same sex and then have a piece of bacon. And all hijacking just goes away.

You don't have to actually have any sexual contact. Just enough so that anybody that has the sexual phobias of the Abrahamic religions [Judaism, Christianity, and Islam] has to violate that deeply. You probably don't have to pay the two people; they would probably think it was a cool, fun thing to do. You just barely touch your lips with the genitals–just like that–and you have a little piece of bacon and you get on the plane. There's no searching your luggage. No nothing. We're all set.

Reason: Bullshit! is a show about calling bullshit on people's beliefs about everything from the Bible to bottled water to yoga. What's been the most satisfying episode of Bullshit! so far?

Jillette: Being this intense mama's boy who's lost his mom, the most important to me was the one debunking the ability to talk to the dead. That was cathartic and a kind of payback across the decades to Houdini [who inspired Penn & Teller and unmasked mediums as frauds].

The most satisfying ones have been the episodes about People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Alcoholics Anonymous. Those were also the ones that were hardest to do. People on the staff went, "Whoa, don't be doing that!" But these are also ones that people came up to us afterwards and said, "We're so glad that someone finally said this shit about PETA, thank you, thank you, thank you."

The A.A. one was important to me as someone who is so anti-drug and so anti-alcohol. A.A. takes individual human strengths and [attributes] the strength to quit to something else. It's this collectivist thing. It's God. It's your "higher power." The one on drug prohibition was also very important to me. When you are a teetotaler and have been all your life, you spend a lot of time telling people, "But no, no, no, I don't want it outlawed."

What really gratifies me about Bullshit! is that people who are on the show that we call assholes and stupid dipshits–using those words–those people get back in touch and do not feel that they were taken out of context. How enormous is that? I mean, talk to the people in the Michael Moore movies. Do they feel that way?

I get along so much better with fundamentalist Christians than I do with wishy-washy liberals, who want everyone to get along. I can walk up to a Christian and say, "I'm an atheist. I don't believe this. State your point." They state their point. That's what respect is. Respect can be calling someone "you stupid fucking asshole."

Reason: I'll have to try that on my wife. What's your biggest bullshit belief?

Jillette: I'm always trying to look for bullshit in what I believe. But you can only do so much yourself. You need other people that are going to beat you up on your beliefs. We may do a show on libertarianism. We'd say that this is something that we really believe, and what does it look like when we attack one of our most cherished beliefs? It's hard to get a real science take on it–something that you could test.

I get that feeling that maybe I endorse some stuff that doesn't make sense, and I'd like someone to beat me up about that a little more. I have a certain kind of peacenik default in all my interactions. If you ask me, "Should we have been in World War II?," I instantly say no. World War I, certainly no. Vietnam, certainly no. Iraq, no. I really seem to think that the answer to everything is peace, and I'm not sure I can support that. I have this weird kind of feeling that if I knew enough, maybe peace isn't always the answer.