Voodoo and violence; magician Penn Jillette sees through the censors' tricks.

AuthorKurtz, Steve

The recent calls by Attorney General Janet Reno and Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) to limit and regulate media violence initially brought forth surprisingly few rebuttals from the entertainment industry. In fact, some of the same people who lambasted Dan Quayle for confusing television and reality responded warmly last December when President Clinton asked industry movers and shakers to "examine what together |they~ might do to...help the way we think of ourselves."

Among the lonely dissenters was Penn Jillette, of the magic act Penn & Teller. Together for almost 20 years, the duo has become hugely successful. Besides appearing on Broadway and all over the country, they have regularly appeared on late-night TV shows such as Saturday Night Live and David Letterman. They have published two books, Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends and How To Play with Your Food, and starred in the movie Penn & Teller Get Killed.

Penn & Teller are not graduates of the traditional pick-a-card-any-card school of prestidigitation. Where other magicians try to mystify and mesmerize their audience, they work to shock and unsettle (as well as provoke laughter). Consider a defining moment in their act: After an audience member chooses a card, Penn, the big, loud one, spreads the whole deck out on a table. Teller, the small, silent one, is blindfolded and tries to pick the card out with a knife. He misses, stabbing Penn fight through the hand. Penn howls in pain and holds his bloody palm up to the shrieking audience. Impaled on the knife is the correct card.

Penn Jillette's activities and interests range far beyond card tricks. He covered the 1992 Republican national convention for the Comedy Central cable channel and continues to serve as the network's official voice. He writes a monthly column for PC Computing and is involved with the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, a skeptics' organization that investigates allegedly supernatural phenomena. And he's one of a few celebrities known to have voted for the Libertarian Party presidential ticket in 1992.

Jillette was interviewed by Steve Kurtz, a Los Angeles writer. In conversation, Jillette employs an in-your-face style that may disturb people uncomfortable with vulgar language. His insights and observations regarding artistic license, censorship, and the political process, however, are as provocative as his stage show.

Reason: Recently, you appeared on Comedy Central in a vignette in which you lectured Attorney General Janet Reno on the difference between real blood and stage blood. What about the recent brouhaha over television and mass-media violence moved you to comment on the matter in such a public way?

Penn: You know, it's funny because Penn & Teller, although we tend to be political in our private lives--political is a bit strong, I guess, but certainly we try to be aware of what's going on in the world around us--we aren't very publicly political. We aren't people who believe that just because we're performers our opinions on everything need to be known. As far as I'm concerned, we did not move into politics; Janet Reno moved into art. One of the things that Teller and I are obsessed with, one of the reasons that we're in magic, is the difference between fantasy and reality. That is the subject that, if you have a brain in your head, is always dealt with in magic. The smarter the tricks you're doing, the more that's an important thing.

So we have always harped on the distinction between reality and illusion, and it really isn't a political issue. Janet Reno, during her confirmation hearings, said she would come down harder on porno, and lately she's talked about how violence on television has an effect on violence in the real world. This is damn near a textbook definition of voodoo. The term voodoo economics was thrown around a lot with Bush and Reagan, and that was a lot more of a stretch, since it was a metaphor. What Janet Reno has talked about is literally voodoo: If you change the representation of something, you will change its territory in the real world. All of a sudden, she's smack dab in the middle of our lives. All of a sudden, we have this nut for an attorney general who's saying stuff that liberals seem to think is compassion and conservatives seem to think is common sense.

What she doesn't realize when she talks about getting rid of television violence--I'm giving her credit for being naive, as opposed to being more cynical about it--is that violence in the arts is not a celebration of pain and suffering, but rather a celebration of health and life. One of the ways that we can say "fuck you" to death, and "fuck you" to suffering, and channel that pain somewhere...

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