Penn Jillette keeps files on his computer for magic tricks and others for fiction, but he keeps them together and the distinction between them is not always clear. He once wrote a short story, for example, that his longtime partner, Teller, thought would make a good magic trick, so they turned it into a bit called King of Animal Traps.
“The first thing I wanted to be was a writer,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I think if you got either Teller or I to be completely honest, we would probably tell you that what we’re doing in the Penn & Teller show is writing.”
Jillette’s latest novel, “Random,” is about a young man who inherits his father’s crushing debt to a loan shark and turns to dice — and other dangerous measures — to dig himself out. That the dice bring him luck sends him a new philosophy of leaning decisions both big and small up to chance.
Whether he’s writing a novel or writing a bit, Jillette said, he’s always trying to tell a story.
“My happiest moments are Teller and I getting together and figuring out what we want to say, what we’re feeling with a trick, with a bit, and to figure out how to do that,” he said. “Now, I don’t want to lie and say I don’t love being onstage — I love it, and I love the applause, and I love the laughs — that is the thing I like most in the world, other than putting the stuff together that I’m going to put onstage. Writing fiction feels like very much the same thing.”
Here, the author, magician and co-star of the CW’s “Penn & Teller: Fool Us,” talks about how he takes his watermelon, why he prefers skepticism to cynicism and how he convinced Teller to pay for half his new bass. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
1. Too Hot Baths Every night I take a bath that’s so hot that I come very close to passing out — and I use scented oil, the whole thing is done as girly as possible. And I read on my Kindle. I’m trying to learn Spanish, so I read Spanish for at least a half an hour, and then I read in English for another half an hour.
2. Too Cold Watermelon I lost a lot of weight a few years ago. One of the ways I keep the weight off is by eating watermelon. It seems you can eat more watermelon than any other food and it still feels good and it still tastes good. The secret is cutting it up and getting it super cold so that it almost hurts your teeth.
3. Lava Lamps I always go back and forth: Am I a beatnik? Am I a hippie? I know I’m one of the two, and I know that no alcohol gets in the way of me being a beatnik, and no drugs get in the way of me being a hippie. I think I own 20 lava lamps. They’re in every room of my house. And I like to look at them and pretend, even though I’ve never been high, that I am high.
4. Tony Fitzpatrick I study music rather extensively because it’s unnatural to me. And that is what fascinates me about it. I’m very bad with visual stuff, too, so I have artwork all over my house to try to drill it into my head why it’s beautiful. One of my favorite artists is Tony Fitzpatrick out of Chicago. I have his etching up all over the house.
5. Ray Brown There are so many great bass players, but Ray Brown had that sound and that solidity and that power. He’s an inspiration and he’s one of my ways into jazz. I love his recording of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” with fellow bassists John Clayton and Christian McBride.
6. Skepticism, Not Cynicism I have fought my whole life to not be cynical, but to be skeptical. You could have many minutes of arguments between me and Bill Maher over why cynicism is bad and skepticism is good. Cynicism is attributing the worst motives to people. Skepticism is looking for the truth.
7. Tiny Tim On a wall in my home, I have Tiny Tim’s costume that he wore for most of his career, the ukulele that he played for most of his career and his shoes. I love the fact that a person came along who was so honest that cynicism could not live within him. Some of the most cynical people who have ever lived — Bing Crosby, Johnny Carson, John Lennon, Howard Stern, Frank Sinatra — in the presence of Tiny Tim, they completely broke down.
8. Word Processors I wanted to be a writer so badly. My mom taught me to type and I was a very good typist, but I still made mistakes and I’m a really bad speller. I finally bought a computer after Teller and I had our show Off Broadway, and within 24 hours of getting a computer, I wrote two stories that were published. I am sitting in front of the most powerful computer Mac has to offer — I could edit “Avatar” on it — but 95 percent of what I do is word processing.
9. Paul Toenniges Double Bass I play the bass for an hour before Penn & Teller shows. A very good bass player named Alex Frank told me I was better than the bass I was playing. He found a bass for me that was made by a man named Paul Toenniges. He said it was very expensive but also the best bass he’d ever played — it had been owned by the late bassist Dave Stone. I emailed Teller to see if he thought I should buy it. Because the way our taxes are structured, he’d pay for half of it. The email came back within a minute and said: “We never economize on our tools. Buy it.” I hadn’t even told him the price.
10. Bob Dylan I think it is possible that I’ve listened to Bob Dylan every day for the past 52 years. Bob Dylan is something we encounter very rarely, which is incredible skill, coupled with a wildness of spirit. All you’ve got to do is see a Paul McCartney concert and a Bob Dylan concert. Paul McCartney, you know exactly what you’re going to get. Bob Dylan? You have no idea.