Penn Jillette Interview: 'Every Day Is an Atheist Holiday'
Image attributed to Penn Jillette
Illusionist, comedian, musician and best-selling author Penn Jillette is known for his work with fellow magician Raymond Joseph Teller (Penn & Teller), who has legally changed his name to just “Teller.” The Emmy Award-winning world famous magic due have astounded audiences for over 35 years.
Jillette has appeared everywhere in the media from Howard Stern to Piers Morgan to The Celebrity Apprentice, Dancing with the Stars and op-ed pages of The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, just to name a few. He is an outspoken advocate of libertarianism and atheism, and his latest book, Every Day is an Atheist Holiday, offers funny, against-the-grain perspectives from one of the most distinctly perceptive and provocative humorists writing today.
“By the time the publisher comes around and asks for another book, I say, ‘I’ve been writing a lot about holidays lately. How about Every Day is an Atheist Holiday?’ They go, ‘Great!’ I go through several hundred pages of what I’d been writing, take that and edit it together. As you [Melissa, as an author yourself] know very well, writing is mostly editing, so I look at what I’m doing and put it together from there. Everybody who reads my books knows that I’m using the title and the themes as an excuse to tell stories (laughs). That’s what I like to do.”
The larger, louder half of Penn & Teller is married to Emily Zolten and has a daughter, Moxie and a son, Zolten. The family resides in Las Vegas.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Penn, are you taping The Celebrity Apprentice today?
Penn Jillette: I have my first day off of The Apprentice in about ten days, so it’s nice.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were there taping delays due to Hurricane Sandy?
Penn Jillette: Oh, lots of them. That’s one of the reasons we had a few days off because we had to move other days around. But I believe we are the last people to worry about the hurricane in this area. People really did suffer.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Any chance Clay Aiken will be returning this season?
Penn Jillette: I’ve not seen him yet, so we’ll see.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Why did you decide to return for another season?
Penn Jillette: I guess the answer is because they asked me. Before the last season was over, they asked me to come back for the All-Stars, and I was happy to be asked. I speak my mind and I say what I’m feeling, but all things considered, I enjoyed last season and I’m enjoying this season even more.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Let’s speak a few minutes about politics, and then we’ll discuss your new book.
Penn Jillette: Please do.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You supported libertarian candidate Gary Johnson for the presidency.
Penn Jillette: I sure did.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What are the major differences between libertarians and democrats?
Penn Jillette: The major differences are the fiscal money stuff. I describe libertarians as far right as you can go on money and as far left as you can go on sex. Another way to say that is as much freedom as possible. On all the social issues like freedom of speech, gay rights, women’s rights and all of that stuff, libertarians and democrats (or liberals) agree completely.
On all of the stuff about the size of the government, how much should be done locally and how much should be done nationally, we tend to agree with what the republicans say although in both of these cases, what the democrats say and do are different and what the republicans say and do are different. The libertarian point of view is the government should take care of defense, police and courts and really not much else. Whenever there’s a question, can we do it with more freedom instead of less freedom?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Why is the country so divided right now, and should it be President Obama’s responsibility to bring people back together?
Penn Jillette: I forgot who it was, but a rather famous quote said that democracy would work perfectly until people realized they could vote themselves money. I think that the problem is that we are looking to our government simply to do too much. We should be helping each other. We should be helping people who need it. We should take care of the safety nets on our own. Charity should take care of that. We should do that with love in our hearts. Expecting the government to take care of all of that is the problem.
One of the things that Obama wants to do is have the government solve a lot of problems. I don’t know if I’d go as far as Ronald Reagan, but parts of the government is the problem. I think that having the government do less would be at least a nice ideal. There’s not doubt that Obama’s heart is in the right place, and there’s no doubt that we all want what’s best, so I’m willing to bend quite a bit, and I’ll bet other people are, too.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It was surprising to many people, both on the right and the left, that Mitt Romney’s religion did not become an issue during the campaign.
Penn Jillette: You mean because he wears magic underwear?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The special “garment” underwear, yes.
Penn Jillette: Yeah (laughs). That does seem odd. I think the problem is that the people who are most apt to bust Mormons are people that consider themselves more conservative, and they were deciding that this was the best chance they had of getting their conservative views heard in politics, so they kind of swallowed that up a little bit.
The democrats are always a little bit wary of attacking religion, so he kind of got a slight pass on that. But even though people were not talking about it that might be one of the reasons he lost. Of course, from my point of view, I don’t see Mormons any crazier than any other religion. But, many people do.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Some people feel that Mormonism is a non-Christian cult. It was on Billy Graham’s religious cult list at one time.
Penn Jillette: It certainly is by many, many definitions a cult.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your books are quite funny, but not surprising since you are a comedian (laughs).
Penn Jillette: Thank you so much. Thank you.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did Every Day is an Atheist Holiday come about?
Penn Jillette: I don’t set out to write a book. I write all the time. I’m a writing freak, and I write a couple of hours a day. Then, when I get a bunch of stuff together, I kind of (as you can tell from the book), force some sort of slight theme so I can get on the page what’s in my heart.
By the time the publisher comes around and asks for another book, I say, “I’ve been writing a lot about holidays lately. How about Every Day is an Atheist Holiday?” They go, “Great!” I go through several hundred pages of what I’d been writing, take that and edit it together. As you [Melissa, as an author yourself] know very well, writing is mostly editing, so I look at what I’m doing and put it together from there. Everybody who reads my books knows that I’m using the title and the themes as an excuse to tell stories (laughs). That’s what I like to do.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I found it interesting to know that you and Teller was the first act in Las Vegas to stand totally naked on stage.
Penn Jillette: I believe if you have not been naked on stage, you’re not really in show business. I believe its part of the job. I quote Allen Ginsberg in the book – “The poet always stands naked before the world.” I think that one of the things you’re doing in the arts, and I mean this very broadly like any sort of writing, music, or comedy, you are bearing your soul. You’re exposing part of your heart. For me, that’s the hard part. Learning to literally stand naked on stage is much easier than to figuratively stand on stage naked.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Can you share with me one of your favorite hitchhiking/hopping trains stories?
Penn Jillette: When I was hitchhiking all around, I was about eighteen years old. I was just traveling all over the country. I was a very odd homeless person, a very odd hitchhiker in that I called my mom and dad every day. I don’t know how my mom and dad were able to handle that, but they did. They were superstars. I had the best mom and dad ever. I would call them collect every day so they would know I was okay. In between, I was doing crazy stuff.
I was up in Montreal and it was winter and very cold. I had been standing by the side of the road for hours with a friend and found out that there had been a hitchhiker who had killed the person that picked him up. It was in all the newspapers, so my chances of getting a ride were fast approaching zero. Across this field, we saw a train going very, very slowly. In desperation, we ran maybe a hundred yards and over a fence. I’d never hopped a train before. I had read about it. I thought Bob Dylan did. It turned out Bob Dylan didn’t, but he talked about it.
We ran up to the train and without knowledge of physics and a knowledge of trains, we jumped on the train and kind of climbed up. We’re in an odd position because the train is now speeding up, and we’re freezing cold on the side of a train. I think I’m only telling this story because my mom is dead. If she weren’t and I told this story, it would probably kill her with fear knowing that I was doing this. We climbed ourselves up many, many cars over a long period of time and got on a moving train near the front, and there was this second engine that had nobody on it. It was warm and pleasant and unlocked. We went in and laid down in this warm, beautiful area in this nice, warm engine zipping across what was now the Canadian night, and it was just heaven.
We slept and were really comfortable. We woke and it was daylight. The train had been buzzing along, but we felt it slowing down, and that was what awakened us. We were very afraid that people would check out this engine, and we’d be arrested or who knows what, so we waited until it slowed down enough in the train yard. We’re talking about hours here. You have to wait until it slows way down and then jump off the train.
We realized that an important part of hopping a train is knowing where it’s going (laughs). That was the part we hadn’t thought about. We were in Montreal trying to get to Chicago, and we had gone due north for eight hours on a train (laughs). Eight hours on a train due north. We jumped out and walked to the nearest highway, which was a couple of miles. When it got to be about noon, we found ourselves near an exit that was called Sortie. We looked for Sortie on our maps. It wasn’t until a day later that we were told Sortie was French for “exit.” Exit Sortie didn’t help us at all.
There we were. We had hopped a train and gotten about 600 miles further away from where we were going. That was my first and most memorable train hopping experience. My advice to young people setting off to explore the United States or North America and Canada is when you hop a train, have some idea at least about the direction it’s going, if not the actual destination (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Great story (laughs). Another interesting tale from the book concerns your friend, Hitch.
Penn Jillette: Oh, yes, Christopher Hitchens.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): He had a bottle of alcohol, and you wouldn’t let him enter your home.
Penn Jillette: Yeah. Hitch was a hero of mine and was a very important person. I’ve always been a teetotaler, and since I live in a world with so much alcohol and so many recreational drugs, I have my home as my alcohol free castle as it were. Here was one of my biggest heroes and also a very good friend who liked to drink all the time and was coming in my home with a bottle of alcohol.
I like telling that story because I like how kindly and intelligently Hitch deferred and deferred without any loss of dignity or any sort of arguing. I like that he showed me that respect. It was a pretty important moment in my life. Hitch has not been dead a year … I still want to write him emails. He could answer any question I ever had about anything. He was wonderful.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It’s so great to have friends like that.
Penn Jillette: It is.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you coin the word “bugnutty?”
Penn Jillette: (laughs) I don’t know. It might have been the muses speaking through me. I’m not sure.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you use it in the beginning to describe Christians?
Penn Jillette: No. It wasn’t started to describe Christians. But it may have started with Mormons. It may have started talking to my friend Glenn Beck. It may have started talking to him. I kind of pride myself at being able to have different views than other people and still love and respect them. It’s a very important part of my life.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say, “Easter is creepy.”
Penn Jillette: (laughs) Well, you know, when we live in a culture of Christians as we do, we can’t forget that the story is Jesus coming back from the dead and rolling away the stone. It really has much more in common with not a morality play so much as a monster movie. I mean, to have someone dead and have an empty tomb with the stone rolled away is, I think, among other things, one of the things that is certainly creepy (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your parents were very supportive of your career, but what was the reaction when you told them you were an atheist?
Penn Jillette: My dad was a Christian his whole life up until his death. He never got that memo that you’re supposed to get that says, “A mother’s love is unconditional, and a father’s love is conditional.” My dad just never got that. We were very, very close. When I first started calling myself an atheist in high school, my dad would just say that he was going to, after he died, be able to make a strong enough case to God that I’d get in heaven anyway. He said, “I don’t care what it takes, I’ll be able to make a case to get my son in.”
A few years later, when my mother finally started calling herself an atheist and my sister also, my dad said, “Well, I’ll just pray harder, and I’ll be able to convince Him.” My dad and I were very respectful and playful about each other’s theological points of view, but our love and respect for each other was so much stronger and that’s how I believe it should be in the world. Our humanity should always trump our differences.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Excellent words to live by. Does Teller share your political and religious views?
Penn Jillette: He tends to completely. But remember, Teller and I have been working together for 38 years. I started working with Teller when I was 18. In my entire adult life, all I’ve ever done is work with Teller, so it wasn’t coincidental that our views were the same. Our views developed the same.
We were very young and as you do when you’re with somebody all the time, you tend to read similar books, you tend to have similar conversations and you tend to talk to that person a lot. I think that if you’re a little older and you get into that kind of relationship, it may end up with a lot of agreeing to disagree. When you’re young and the arguments and discussions go on for hours and hours, you tend to find someplace where you agree.
We became who we were together and thought what we thought together. I think because of that you’d kind of expect where we ended up to be similar. I know there are major exceptions to that, not only in business partners but even in marriages and friendships, but with us it happened to work out that we were so much alike in exploring, learning and reading that we tended to experience the same things and share those things.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is it difficult to raise children as atheists or give them gifts on New Year’s Day instead of at Christmastime?
Penn Jillette: Not at all. They seem to be just thrilled to pieces. The thing that is so often forgotten when you hear the strident people on television, is that people are kind, so the kind of hatred they see here and there and on television just doesn’t happen. My children go to a wonderful school full of wonderful children. They’re mostly going to be talking about toys, princess dresses, iPads, video games, teaching, arithmetic, who’s not talking to whom and all that stuff. That kind of overwhelms them.
I think that one thing that America is supposed to be good at and it turns out we really are, is being able to live together in a marketplace of ideas. I haven’t seen any problems that my children have with having a different sense of holidays. Of course, it’s also Las Vegas, and the school they attend is obviously not a religious school, so they’re not really surrounded by people who push holidays too much on them.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Penn, would you be interested in returning to Dancing with the Stars?
Penn Jillette: Well, I haven’t been asked. When I was asked to go back on Celebrity Apprentice, I went back. Who knows what I might do! The first step is being asked, and that may never happen.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you still doing the podcast Penn’s Sunday School from your home?
Penn Jillette: Yes, I am. Although, while I’ve been doing Celebrity Apprentice, the episodes have been pre-recorded. I did one with George Takei, Gilbert Gottfried and astrophysicist Lawrence Krauss. Those have been playing recorded, but I’ll go back doing them live as soon as Donald Trump tells me I’m hired.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And, good luck with that! What is next after The Celebrity Apprentice?
Penn Jillette: We go back to Vegas and do a whole lot of Penn & Teller shows. I’ll be doing some of the book stuff bopping around. We may have, although it’s too soon to really tell you about it … we’re working on a new show for Showtime. We’re looking forward to that working out, if it does.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How would you like to be remembered – as a nice guy or as a great juggler?
Penn Jillette: (laughs) Of those two, I’ll take nice guy because I got the great juggler thing done by the time I was 20. From then on, I’ve been working on nice guy. On my tombstone, perhaps written, “Is this your card?” And, then have a picture of the three of clubs.
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