Smashing Interviews Magazine

Compelling People — Interesting Lives



August 2016



Penn Jillette Interview: "Every Day, as Trump Gets Closer to the Presidency, I Get Sadder"

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Image attributed to Penn Jillette

Penn Jillette

Penn Jillette is a magician, juggler, comedian, actor and best-selling author known for his work with fellow magician Teller as half of the team Penn & Teller. He was one of the contestants on The Celebrity Apprentice season 5 and was fired by Donald Trump during the week 11 episode. Jillette returned for the All-Star Celebrity Apprentice the next year where he successfully made his way to the finale.

Nearing his 60th birthday, topping 330 pounds and saddled with a systolic blood pressure reading over 200, the legendary magician knew he was at a dangerous crossroads. In his latest book, released August 2, 2016, Presto!: How I Made Over 100 Pounds Disappear and Other Magical Tales, Jillette takes us along on his journey from skepticism to the inspiring, life-changing momentum that transformed his body and mind.

"All that needs to happen is candidates just have to stay as bad as they are. If more candidates were like Trump, we’d have a third-party winner tomorrow. I think that we now have, and I don’t know the exact numbers, a major candidate in each party with a disapproval rating over 65%. That is insane!"

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Penn, you lost 105 pounds from December 2014 to March 2015, eating nothing but potatoes at the start of the diet?

Penn Jillette: Well, yeah, that’s all a little bit confusing. I lost about 80 pounds in three months, and the potatoes thing was just a stunt to start it. It was only a couple of weeks to kick-start myself to eating differently, but mostly eating just vegetables. The 105 pounds was over about five months, I guess. But, you don’t weigh yourself at the heaviest, at least I didn’t. So, I don’t really know how much I lost. I know the minimum I lost was 110, but I don’t know how much above that I lost.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): With no exercise?

Penn Jillette: Lots of exercise once I got to the target weight. You need exercise, but not while you’re losing weight. Exercising when you’re losing weight makes losing weight really, really hard because your body is trying desperately to store that fat in case you need it later. I did not exercise while I was losing weight, but then went right to a very healthy exercise afterward. You do need exercise. You do need to lose weight. But, you do not need to do them simultaneously.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Does your family eat healthy also, or do they hide their “treats” from you?

Penn Jillette: I don’t have any trouble with that kind of temptation. My wife eats pretty much exactly as I do, but we’re getting the children to eat healthier all the time. Getting them to eat all vegetables is a little bit beyond what we’re able to do right now. They like the fact that their dad is healthier. They do enjoy that, although my son sometimes says, “You know, Dad, I wish you’d eat like a man.” (laughs)

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That reminds me of pizza, which I understand you love. Do you occasionally go out to enjoy a meal that’s not on the diet?

Penn Jillette: Well, I really love the food I eat now. Every couple of weeks, if the time is right, my daughter says to me, “Daddy, let’s go have ice cream.” I’ll do that with her. I do what’s called “rare and appropriate.” When the time is just right, and it’s been a long while since I haven’t eaten healthy, I’ll have something. But, the weird thing is that right now when you said “pizza,” although I would’ve had cravings for that just two years ago, now I’ve just no desire for it. It’s not that I eat what I want every two weeks, it’s that I eat what I want all the time. What I’m saying is I’ve changed, and it’s pretty easy now.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): So, it’s easy to maintain the weight?

Penn Jillette: Yeah. I sometimes go up five pounds and then say, “I can eat a few fewer nuts for the next two days.” Then, it goes right back down. It has been now 17 months since I hit my ideal weight. As I talk to you this morning, I’m about three pounds over my ideal weight, so pretty much, I’m keeping it off, which is the way you’re supposed to, which is a miracle. Everybody seems to be able to lose weight, but keeping it off is hard.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Has your overall health improved?

Penn Jillette: It is still getting better all the time, but it’s the rate of getting better that’s a little slower. When I was first cutting out salt and losing the weight, my blood pressure was coming down really, really fast. Now, it’s coming down very slowly. I’m still where healthy blood pressure would be. I’m just a nut that likes it to come down very slowly.

I’m down to about 134 on the top number, and I’d really love to get down below 120, but I think with all the damage I did to my circulatory system, that’s probably going to be another couple of years even eating perfectly before my blood pressure’s where a healthy 20-year-old should be.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I understand that the top number (systolic) was over 200 before you lost the weight?

Penn Jillette: Oh, I’d gotten over 200, and that was on six of the top doses of blood pressure meds. The difference is night and day.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How is season three going of Fool Us?

Penn Jillette: We shot it all a few months ago. The ratings are really, really good. We were very happy with the season. It came out very well.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Has any magician ever actually stumped you and Teller?

Penn Jillette: Yes, yes, they do. That’s the whole idea of the show, and we know a lot. But, you don’t get into magic to fool people. You get into magic to be fooled. You love that, and you’re always chasing that first high. As you get better in magic, you get harder to fool. We’ve got this wonderful show where the greatest magicians in the world come on and try to fool us. I think just seeing the joy in our faces when we’re fooled indicates what the show is all about.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You wrote the screenplay and starred in Director’s Cut. Was that film ever released?

Penn Jillette: We’re working on it now. We have to finish with our crowdfunding people and get all their red carpet stuff done, but then it’ll show up on Pay-Per-View. It’s already played in Chicago and a few other places with good reviews. It was never meant to be a wide release movie.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You were great as Dr. Cecil P. Rizzuto on Scorpion. Any plans to return to the show as that character?

Penn Jillette: All they’ve got to do is ask me. I love doing Scorpion. I loved all the guys. They talked about writing the character back in. I hope they do because I’d love to do it. I’ve got a few other things on TV I’m popping up in, but I’ll do Scorpion whenever they ask me.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The last time we spoke in November of 2012, you were taping The Celebrity Apprentice, so, you were fired then by a future presidential candidate.

Penn Jillette: Not to be too pedantic about it, but, of course, I wasn’t fired. We were co-workers, and he did not have a job to offer me. He might’ve had a job to offer me 10 years earlier when his name was on a casino, but he took that into bankruptcy. So, I already had a job. I own my own company; I’ve never gone bankrupt. We were co-starring on an improvisational show where he pretended to fire me. I wasn’t really fired (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Very true. About a year ago, you said that Trump was sort of a jester, and you called him Scrooge McDuck and a person primarily out to feed his own ego. What do you think of him today in the presidential race?

Penn Jillette: His success has been phenomenal and shocking to everyone I know and most people I read. If I could explain it, I’d be winning a Nobel Prize. I’ve got to tell you that every day, as Trump gets closer to the presidency, I get sadder. The qualities that he had made him very good for reality TV – capricious, petty, volatile. Those qualities are wonderful for reality TV, but it seems like they are diametrically opposed to what it takes to be president.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Some people may have thought that you supported Bernie Sanders, but you are still a libertarian?

Penn Jillette: I’m a libertarian, yeah. It’s just an astonishing time. I disagree with Obama politically, but there is no doubt he is a good man, and his wife is a perfect person. They are really, really good people. I disagree with them politically. But, now we have Clinton and Trump. Of course, Hillary Clinton is miles above Trump, but neither one of them is a perfect candidate.

I like that Bernie Sanders had an honest passion. I like the kind of straightforward quality. I disagree with some things politically, so I didn’t “feel the Bern.” You can feel my Johnson (laughs). I’m a Gary Johnson supporter. I’ve known Gary for a while. I keep getting to know him better. He’s honest. He had a great deal of success in the eight years he was governor of New Mexico, and our political feelings align. He’s doing wonderfully. He’s knocking on 15%.

People are really understanding that you don’t have to go with Clinton or a child like Trump. You can actually go with a successful grownup like Gary Johnson who, by the way, is also successful and very rich, but got that way himself, not with money from his father. He built it from nothing and also has, surprisingly enough, not gone bankrupt, pays all his bills and is not getting money from Russia (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Isn’t it surreal that Donald Trump would ask Russia to get involved with American politics?

Penn Jillette: I just don’t understand it. Can you imagine Ronald Reagan calling out to his friends in Russia to have them bring down a political opponent? It’s just inconceivable.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What will have to happen for a third-party candidate to actually win the presidency?

Penn Jillette: All that needs to happen is candidates just have to stay as bad as they are. If more candidates were like Trump, we’d have a third-party winner tomorrow. I think that we now have, and I don’t know the exact numbers, a major candidate in each party with a disapproval rating over 65%. That is insane!

There are good people in this country. Let’s look in the past. We’ve had the original George Bush. We’ve had Jimmy Carter. We’ve had Barack Obama, who I think has the least scandals in the history of the United States of America. I think Obama is the absolute tops. The only scandals he had were associated with the name Clinton (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You were recently in a photo with evangelist Ray Comfort who has a film called The Atheist Delusion. He says that he is convinced Hell is a very real place. Did he try to convert you from atheism to Christianity?

Penn Jillette: I only hung out with Ray for 45 minutes or an hour, and he was passionate, honest, straightforward and polite. I’d like to think I was the same. We disagreed. I think he’s deeply wrong. I think he’s also tragically wrong. It’s easier to talk this way of seeing his point of view that there’s a horror in the fact that I might be going to hell. What’s not talked about enough is there’s a horror in the fact that he’s frightening his children and frightening other people and also throwing away the life he has here.

It’s heartbreaking that he has family and friends around him that he could be spending time loving, instead of spending time scaring, and that he could have a direct love with real people in the world right now instead of a love that’s filtered through his imagination. But, all that being said, the fact that our differences are great, he was polite and kind, and I believe that his concern was not in any way cynical, but really was an honest concern for my well being. I don’t think I can say anything better about him than that.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you ever second-guessed your atheism and thought that God may be real?

Penn Jillette: I try to intellectually think that all the time. I read the Bible. I talk to people like Ray Comfort. I try to be very, very open. But, I’ve got to tell you, the fear that others describe, the fear that I might be wrong and might be going to hell, I may have felt that way as a young child, but I can’t remember in my adult life ever feeling that fear. I like to look at it intellectually, but I’m pretty happy with life the way it’s going. I’m pretty happy with my friends and my family. I’m pretty happy with the love of the world. There’s a kind of dislike of life that you have to have to worry so much about an afterlife. I just don’t have that dislike. I think the world keeps getting better.

I’m going to walk in the door any minute, and my 10-year-old son and my 11-year-old daughter will meet me. If you can imagine a heaven beyond playing with my beautiful children, then your imagination is better than mine. That’s as good as it gets. I can’t imagine a better heaven than my children giving me a hug, and I get to play with them. I can’t imagine anything better than that. I just think it’s greedy to want more than the love and the joy I get in this life.

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