When I first heard that Penn Jillette was making frequent guest appearances on Glenn Beck’s televised cavalcade of crazy, I just naturally assumed it was a silly misunderstanding. Obviously Jillette hadn’t meant to go on Beck’s hateful, paranoid show. Or if he had, it was as a Trojan horse. He’d pledged to play by their rules, hitting his cues like a good talking puppet, but when the cameras started rolling, he’d gone ballistic, destroying the set with a sledge hammer and screaming, “Feast on some facts, motherfucker!” But oh no, my liberal friends assured me, it was nothing like that. Jillette drank the Kool-Aid and joined the Dark Side. He and Beck were like old chums, giggling about Obama’s attempts at health care reform and envisioning a world where guns are available to anybody with an itchy trigger finger. As if that wasn’t horrific enough, he’d also gone on Larry King to defend the Tea Party from accusations of racism. It felt weirdly like a betrayal. Not that Jillette has ever been a particularly political comedian. It wasn’t like hearing that Bill Hicks had risen from the grave and was co-hosting Real American Stories with Sarah Palin. But it did remind me of Dennis Miller, a comic I once thought was smart and funny but now just makes me cringe with his shameless partisan pandering. Jillette, who is probably best known as a Las Vegas magician with a filthy mouth, spent the last seven years doing a series for Showtime called Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, where he debunks frauds and groin-punches sacred cows across the political spectrum, from the War on Drugs to alternative medicine to the Catholic Church. He’s just never seemed like the kind of guy who’d shuck n’ jive for anybody, much less the Right.
When I finally got around to watching clips of Jillette on these shows, which admittedly didn’t happen until I did research for this interview, I realized that it wasn’t nearly as morally catastrophic as I’d been led to believe. Even when he smiled politely and pretended that Glenn Beck isn’t a frothing-at-the-mouth loon, Jillette was an equal opportunity offender. He trashed Bush as much as Obama, preached nonviolent resistance (which was especially awkward during his via-satellite interview with Beck at a Tea Party rally at the Alamo), and while he sometimes sucked up to the ultra-conservative host, he also openly mocked the “funny underwear” worn by Mormons, forcing us to imagine Beck in his Church-approved skivvies. (I’m not linking to any of this, because I’m still a stubborn Liberal at heart. If you want to watch Glenn Beck, fucking find it yourself.) And on Larry King, he didn’t so much defend the Tea Party as wonder aloud if maybe a group isn’t necessarily racist just because the girl from Best Week Ever and I Love the 80s says they are.
I called Jillette to talk about the eighth season of Penn & Teller: Bullshit, airing this summer on Showtime every Thursday at 10pm EST. We did manage to chat briefly about the show, and then for the next few hours we talked about almost everything else. In true Jillette form, he said things I wholeheartedly agree with, things I strongly disagree with, and things I think are off the rails on a crazy train. He called Mother Teresa a cunt, defended the way Bush pronounces nuclear, wondered if maybe we should’ve stayed out of World War II, argued for Evolution and Pro-Choice in the same breathe, and insisted that if he was elected president he’d want to be stripped of power “because the checks and balances are there for a reason, motherfucker.” We also talked about many, many other things, some of which are excerpted below.
Eric Spitznagel: I’m kind of surprised to see Bullshit come back for an eighth season, especially after you took on the Vatican last summer. I just assumed the Swiss Guard had made you disappear.
Penn Jillette: If they could take out Galileo, why can’t they take out Penn and Teller. Was that your thinking?
It was, yeah. And then there was that ad in Variety from the Catholic League accusing you of “hate speech.”
Well remember, the Catholic League is just one divorced guy in his garage. Or as Teller and I like to say, the Catholic League and his wife. I love that it’s called hate speech when you have the audacity to suggest that pederasty and child rape might not be a good idea. (Laughs.) That’s a pretty odd definition of hate speech, if you ask me.
The Vatican episode isn’t included on the season 7 DVD of Bullshit. What happened there? Was that Showtime’s decision or yours?
I swear to god, it was just a little oversight in the printing process. (Laughs.)
Do you really think I’m dumb enough to believe an avowed atheist who begins a sentence with “I swear to god”?
The honest answer, and it’s actually less fulfilling than the answer I just gave you, is I don’t know. They never told me. The DVD came out and the Vatican episode wasn’t on it and nobody had talked to us and I actually found out about it by fans going “What the fuck?” But of course when you try to say you didn’t know anything about it, you sound like a cross between Nixon and an idiot.
Do you have any theories about what might’ve happened? Maybe Showtime was nervous about a backlash?
I think that has to be the case, even though the reaction was overwhelmingly positive, and what we said about the Catholic Church was actually much more conservative than what the New York Times said a few months ago. We don’t actually say that the Pope himself was covering up child rape, which turns out to be the truth. We don’t say that, because at the time we didn’t have proof. The funny thing is, if you look at the Vatican show now, after everything we’ve learned over the past year, it almost plays an apology for the Catholic Church. As you know, there are hundreds of people involved in a corporation, and I guess somebody at Showtime decided it was for the best to leave it off the DVD. And maybe it was for the best. I’m always surprised when the corporate world does stupid things, because they’re often not very stupid in hindsight.
Like when South Park did an episode portraying Muhammad in a bear costume and Comedy Central said “Whoa, Nellie?”
I think that said more about the Islamic group that made death threats against Trey and Matt than it does about Comedy Central. I believe very much that the most damning thing you can say about Muslims is that you’re afraid to say anything because they’ll hurt you.
As opposed to other religions?
I will forever stick up for Catholics and Christians in general. With a small number of very horrible exceptions, they do play by the rules.
That’s a curious sentiment from somebody who’s gone out of his way to make fun of religion.
I do believe that a belief in god is crazy, but that doesn’t mean that the people who believe in it are crazy. Those are two different things. Ideas can be stupid and crazy and the people who hold those ideas are not necessarily stupid and crazy.
You’ve said that you’re beyond atheism. What does that mean?
I have trouble believing that other people believe. (Laughs.)
You think they’re lying?
I’m sure they’re not lying. Their belief may be genuine. But it’s like arguing that fairies are coming out of my toaster in the middle of the night. You can’t prove to me that there aren’t fairies in my toaster, but that doesn’t mean you should take me seriously. What I have a problem with is not so much religion or god, but faith. When you say you believe something in your heart and therefore you can act on it, you have completely justified the 9/11 bombers. You have justified Charlie Manson. If it’s true for you, why isn’t it true for them? Why are you different? If you say “I believe there’s an all-powerful force of love in the universe that connects us all, and I have no evidence of that but I believe it in my heart,” then it’s perfectly okay to believe in your heart that Sharon Tate deserves to die. It’s perfectly okay to believe in your heart that you need to fly planes into buildings for Allah.
Do you think Bullshit is fair and balanced?
We’re very, very fair and very, very biased. (Laughs.) Which is what I want from all media, by the way. I want the anchor on the nightly news to come on and say, “I hate President Obama… and here’s the news.” All this whimpering in the press about how we shouldn’t have news that’s partial and subjective, it misses the point completely. It was (newspaper magnate William Randolph) Hearst that invented the idea that journalism should be in the middle. It was never like that before. It was the Ohio Democrat and the Minnesota Republican. They said it right in their titles. And then Hearst decided he could sell twice as many papers if he pretended that they didn’t have a position. And of course that’s always a lie.
Is that why you don’t have a problem going on Glenn Beck’s show, because he doesn’t pretend to be objective?
Well, it’s complicated. Tommy Smothers, who’s one of my heroes, got really angry at me about it. We actually had this argument in public, on another show that’s going to be on Showtime this summer called The Green Room With Paul Provenza. Tommy attacked me for being on Glenn Beck, and he ended up saying, and I don’t think this part made it on the air, “If Hitler had a talk show, you’d probably do that too.”
And your retort?
I said yes, I would, and I would tell the truth.
Wow. O.K. then.
I’m not kidding.
Just don’t mention the part about telling the truth to Hitler’s talent bookers, and I’m pretty sure you’ll get a guest slot.
Oh, I won’t say a word. But you know what I mean, right? It does have an effect. I go on Glenn Beck as an atheist and talk about atheism. And I have people come up to me and say, “You know, until I saw you on Glenn Beck, speaking so passionately about atheism, I’d never considered that as a moral decision.” That’s incredibly powerful. These are people watching a hardcore Christian show and being exposed to an atheist point of view.
Your intentions seem genuine, but I can’t help myself, Penn. Every time I hear you’ve been on Glenn Beck, it makes me a little sick.
It makes me sick too! When people come up to me and say they love the show, I feel sick. Because I do disagree with a lot of what he says. But I also feel a little sick whenever people say they saw me on Keith Olbermann.
And yet you continue to do it. You know, there’s an easy way to stop making yourself sick.
But I think it’s important. I may be the only person who goes on Keith Olbermann and Glenn Beck and says the exact same shit. I am so much more socially liberal than Olbermann will ever be. You can’t believe how pro gay and pro freedom of speech I am. I’m way out beyond anyone on the Left. And as for fiscal conservatism and small government, I’m so much further to the right than Glenn Beck. Nobody is further left and further right than me. As I’m fond of saying, if you want to find utopia, take a sharp right on money and a sharp left on sex and it’s straight ahead.
You defended the Tea Party during a segment on Larry King not long ago, but you also said you don’t agree with them on a lot of things. What things would that be?
Pretty much everything. (Laughs.) My only point was, when you’re arguing with someone, you shouldn’t pretend to know what’s going on in their heart. To say that the only reason the Tea Party is against the president is because they’re racist, I think that’s unfair. We know what racist people look like. They don’t deny it. They just don’t!
Well, some of them do.
There are racist organizations throughout the entire world, including the Dalai Lama, and they absolutely state it outright. “Our guys with our colored skin are absolutely better than your guys with your colored skin.” If the Tea Party isn’t publicly stating “We think people of other races should be treated differently,” then you don’t get to call them racist.
I think you kind of do though, especially when there are Tea Party protestors carrying signs that read “Obama. What You Talking ‘Bout Willis?” Isn’t that at least a teeny bit racist?
Yeah, but if you know a Beatles fan who rapes somebody, that doesn’t mean all Beatles fans are rapists.
Well sure. But if the Beatles are attracting an unusual number of rapist fans, shouldn’t we at least take a closer look at their lyrics?
It’s a little awkward for me to be defending the Tea Party, because the Tea Party is pretty pro-Christian, and I couldn’t have less interest in that. But I believe completely in freedom of expression. I also support the Fred Phelps side, the God Hates Fag side, because I think his particular brand of Christianity is at the front line of freedom of speech.
Even though everything about him is morally abhorrent?
Absolutely. And that’s not just on the Right. I could not disagree more with Michael Moore. And yet when Fahrenheit 9/11 was in theaters and I’d see it listed on the marquee, I would tear up with joy. There’s never been another group of people in the history of the fucking world that would allow a movie that critical of a political leader, and I should add unfairly critical in some places, to play all around the country. And I disagree with Bush more than Michael Moore disagrees with Bush. I’m very anti-Bush. It’s an odd position to be in.
There really is a line-in-the-sand political mentality these days, isn’t there? You choose a side and you stick to it.
Absolutely there is. When I disagree with Obama, people always say, “Well, you’re a big Bush guy then.” And I’m like no, I didn’t like Bush either. I disagree with Bush and Obama on all the stuff they agree on, which is pretty much everything. They both want to kill people, they both want the government to be bigger, and they both want less freedom for individuals.
I guess that’s why I have such a problem with the Tea Party. They don’t have the same consistency in their arguments that you do. If they really want the government out of their lives, why weren’t they complaining about Bush using their money for an unjustified war?
That’s a good point.
It is just a coincidence that we have a black president and now they’re fed up with big government? Taxing us for an expensive and pointless war in Iraq is fine, but don’t you dare use my taxes to pay for universal health care!
But it cuts both way. We’re killing more people under Obama than we did under Bush, and where the fuck is the anti-war movement?
The only difference between Obama and Bush is that Obama is killing more people. He’s about double the numbers now. Can you imagine if McCain had won and did precisely what Obama has done, with every speech and every political maneuver overseas? There’d be riots in the streets about the people we’re killing. And yet because it’s Obama, and he’s better looking and better at reading the teleprompter, we let him get away with it.
You think he should pull all the troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan?
You don’t have to keep killing people! You don’t! As a matter of fact, killing people is harder than not killing people. It’s harder and it’s more expensive. Just think of all the money and aggravation I’m saving by not killing people while I’m on the phone with you right now. I would be so fucking distracted. I’d be like, “Oh sorry, Eric. This bitch is still breathing. I’m going to put you on mute for a minute and kick her in the cunt.” It’s easier not to kill people. You can’t say Bush is making us kill people. You can just stop! Just stop!
Bush believed he was doing God’s work. Do you think Obama feels the same way?
I do, yes. The thing that everybody forgets is that Obama goes to church, and his church is just as crazy as Sarah Palin’s church. It’s still talking snakes and virgin births. Obama said he would pray for guidance in the White House! He said that! And he’s fighting for the Day of Prayer! And Gitmo is still open! And even though gays voted for him, they’re still being pissed and shit on.
You’re referring to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”?
That and gay marriage. The only way Obama can make it up to the gay people of this country is if he sucks off a guy on YouTube. At that point I would go, “O.K., that’s a sign of good faith from the president. He has a penis in his mouth.” But unless that guy actually shoots a genetic load down his throat, don’t tell me he’s pro-gay.
So you’re suggesting an entirely new approach for his 2012 campaign? Maybe a slogan like “Yes We Can… Get Blown by the President?”
Now that’s change I can believe in. (Laughs.)
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com