Penn Jillette, the talking half of the magician team Penn & Teller, has many skills, and playing bass guitar is one of them. He's proud to have played with the late Velvet Underground leader Lou Reed and Half Japanese when it featured fellow Velvet Maureen Tucker. Jillette often performs with the band that warms up the audience for the Penn & Teller show at the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. But he won't be playing before the duo's performance at the Saenger Theatre March 13.
"You don't bring someone from Las Vegas to New Orleans to play jazz," Jillette says via phone from Las Vegas. "You have plenty of that. You do a fine job. I won't be bringing any gumbo either."
Not trying to compete with local musicians fits into a philosophy Jillette's long espoused (though he has different ways of explaining it).
"It's the Guns N' Roses problem," he says "Why is there Guns N' Roses? They're a wonderful band; they play really well. They're delightful. They're charming. But we have The Rolling Stones. Why does a band that loves The Rolling Stones start a band?
"When I was in junior high school, I loved the Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa. That did not inspire me to start a band, because there were people better than me already doing what I loved. And I hated f—king magic. If you give me the choice, at the time, between competing with Bob Dylan or Doug Henning, which am I going to choose? How about the guy I can beat."
In their more than 35 years of performing together, Jillette and Teller have climbed to the top of the world of magic, alongside fellow Vegas luminary David Copperfield, but the comedy and magic duo seem more familiar, from their Showtime series Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, the TV magic competition Wizard Wars, numerous late-night TV appearances and even ads (including a current ad for Mazda).
Jillette, in addition to publishing books and directing films (The Aristocrats), also has been a frequent reality TV contestant, appearing on Dancing with the Stars and The Celebrity Apprentice with Donald Trump. But after he called Trump a "whackjob" in his 2012 book Every Day is an Atheist Holiday, he signed on for a second chance on the show.
"I believe I enjoyed Celebrity Apprentice more than anyone else who's ever done it," Jillette says. "I enjoyed the tasks. Most people consider it the hardest thing in their life. You're dealing with people who have a skill set that doesn't overlap with most people's skill sets. These are people who are good at ordering dinner in a restaurant."
Jillette says mastering new things basically defines his and Teller's job. Some card tricks and sleights of hand build on techniques they've mastered, while others require special training.
"Teller says that when you write a magic trick, it's like every time you write a piece of music you have to build an instrument and then learn to play it," Jillette says. "I am perfectly willing this afternoon to go in and learn to read genetic coding and put DNA together if you can teach me how to do it. ... We had to learn everything about bees and cockroaches and forklifts and guns. When we wanted to do the bullet catch, the most celebrated and feared trick in magic, we didn't go into our bag of tricks, we took full firearms courses, got permits to be firearms dealers, FBI courses. I really enjoy that."
The two set themselves apart from other magicians early in their careers by explaining tricks to audiences. By appearing to pull back the curtain on the nature of magic acts, they became outcasts among many in the profession. It also worked as a promotion, and even though their magic tricks are based on deceiving the audiences, Jillette sees a virtue in their approach.
"Teller has a love for magic," says Jillette, who at 19 years old went to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College hoping to make an act out of comedy and his precocious juggling skills. "When I met Teller, I had nothing good to say about magic. Teller said something that at the time seemed crazy: Magic is essentially an intellectual art form. It doesn't play to the lizard brain because it has built-in irony. You are perceiving things simultaneously two different ways. You know it looks one way, and you know it's a trick. Magicians, especially at the time but still now, try to cover that over so it's a bug and not a feature. ... What we're looking for is the unwilling suspension of disbelief. We want the disbelief to be there all of the time. If Penn & Teller has brought anything to magic that's different than others, it's respect for the audience."
As convincing a speaker as Jillette is, that's an odd proposition to accept from a man who, when he walks onstage, says he's going to deceive the audience. There's no denying that's something at which he's phenomenally skilled.