Penn Jillette, the verbal, boisterous half of the duo Penn & Teller, talked with the Voice about “Penn Says,” his new stream of consciousness video commentary project on Crackle.com, why Hillary Clinton reminds him of Jerry Lee Lewis, and why he’d like to see Mayor Mike Bloomberg “inject some nuts” into the presidential race.
Village Voice: How did you get involved in the Crackle project?
Penn Jillette: Sony, the guys there, liked the radio show and Bullshit! And came to me and said, “This is something you can do in this format.”…. And I wanted to see what it was like to have, like, email of monologues and ideas unstuck in time, just grab a camera and do whatever I wanted instead of just saying tomorrow morning at 10 you’re going to do something.
VV: Is it easy to fit in? Do you ever feel like you have to go out of your way to do the video?
PJ: The first week or so it was bearing down on me a little bit. I would find that I would get an idea and keep it rolling around in my head for a few hours and finally get to it. It’s kind of an odd kind of discipline, I guess you’d call it anti-discipline. Now when something pops into my head I try to have a camera right there and try to do it within five or ten minutes….It’s very hard for me, because I’m so used to running through things many times, to do something that kind of raw and personal. And I’ve been enjoying it a lot.
VV: What has the reaction been from your fans?
PJ: …I’ve gotten the same comment from like ten people who say, “It’s the closest thing to just hanging out with you. This is what it’s like sitting in a Starbucks with you.” Which is kind of the feeling I’m going for. I said to the Sony people, “I’m alive 24 hours a day, and during that 24 hours I might have three minutes of thoughts that are interesting. I’d like to tape those for you.” It’s kind of like having a 24 hour a day show that only the stuff that’s interesting goes out.
VV: Have any videos that you’ve done gotten more reaction that the others so far?
PJ: Certainly the religious stuff, the political stuff, gets the most reaction. But the thing that surprised Crackle, just like it surprised Bullshit!, you know the Showtime people were just amazed that we did a show on the bullshit of the Bible, and they got 80 percent positive reaction. They were ready to be doing counter-programming, they were ready to have people watch it to hate it, and just didn’t realize that there is…it’s kind of like when they put more African-American shows on in the 70’s, all of a sudden it was like corporations realized that there were African-Americans who were watching TV and living in America. They should have had that information but somehow they didn’t. It’s kind of the same thing with this. There are skeptics, there are atheists, there are libertarians that live here in the U.S. and they’ve never, really never, been catered to before, and it’s amazing how little you have to cater to them. All you have to do is have someone that doesn’t hate them, and they crawl out the woodwork.
VV: You mentioned the political videos before. I assume you’ve been following the presidential election?
PJ: You know, a little bit. I’ve heard it’s going on [laughs].
VV: Do you have a favorite candidate?
PJ: I always watch the political stuff pretty carefully, and I get very, very excited that at least some of these people will lose. I just think, “well, that’s very exciting,” because America is going to tell some of these people to fuck off, and that makes me very, very happy.
I don’t think I have a favorite candidate. There is a woman, Libertarian nut, who is running, who is of course automatically my favorite. A lot of this stuff about Ron Paul, it’s really nice to see there are a lot of anti-statist people, especially when everybody in the limelight is running as, “the government will totally take care of you and tell you what to do.” It’s astonishing that there isn’t a limited-government person. McCain kind of gives a little bit of lip service, and Obama and Hillary don’t even give the slightest amount of lip service to individual responsibility or power. I haven’t heard either of them even say kind of a cursory thing to try to suck in a few people who have read the Constitution.
I’m really surprised, I think, this year by how crazy everyone seems. Usually there’s people I disagree with, but they don’t seem crazy. This year everybody seems out of their minds. I mean, Hillary just seems like Jerry Lee Lewis to me. And McCain just seems like a complete wackjob. And I guess Obama seems to have some sort of sense, a little bit more sense. Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t agree with him on anything, but he seems like a person that’s not about to just explode. And Hillary and McCain really seem that way to me. So that makes the election kind of fun.
VV: You mentioned Ron Paul. What is your take on the revelations about his old newsletters in The New Republic?
PJ: I know that a lot of people are making really smart comments about that, finding a way to get over it, and I guess maybe I didn’t research it enough, but I read over it and I just can’t find a way to be OK with it. I don’t have friends that write that kind of crazy, hateful shit. I have friends that say things that certainly taken out of context are 100 percent racist, but as soon as you put them in the context and said they’re doing a comedy routine, or this is satire…it all completely goes into focus. And I haven’t found the magic key to make that stuff just seem alright. And maybe there’s one there. So much of what he says is so agreeable to me. But then he has the anti-immigration stuff, which is just insane and I can’t get over. I just don’t know why we never have a candidate that just goes, “How about freedom? Let’s try freedom.”
VV: Any thoughts on Rudy Giuliani’s campaign?
PJ: He just kind of didn’t do it. He just didn’t seem to ever get on board. I’m not a big Giuliani fan. I’m interested to see what Bloomberg’s going to do, if he’s going to come out of the blue as an independent and just add some spice to the race with unlimited funds. There’s this sense among liberals, and McCain too, that the government is supposed to protect us from rich people, and they seem to forget that rich people are supposed to protect us from the government, that’s part of the way it works. And people with unlimited funds being able to do stuff like this is supposed to be able to throw a monkey wrench into the system. I think there’s a big misunderstanding in a lot of people that think the elections are supposed to go smoothly. They’re too important to go smoothly, they should go crazy. And I’m hoping that Bloomberg injects some nuts into this.
VV: But isn’t he the anti-libertarian candidate, given a lot of the positions he’s taken?
PJ: I think he probably is. But I’m interested to see what he’d say when he comes in after seeing how Ron Paul has done. I’m pretty interested. The big thing that I always harp on when it comes around election time is: the only way to waste your vote is to vote. I’m a big fan of people who choose not to vote, and I’m a very big enemy of the “lesser of two evils” school of thought. If you keep voting for the lesser of two evils things just keep getting more evil.
VV: Should you stay home or cast a blank ballot?
PJ: Both [laughs]. I’d vote for a candidate that everybody would consider to be wasting your vote, and that makes me feel really good. It’s a shame that we don’t have Harry Browne anymore. It’s a shame that he stopped running and has since died, because Harry Browne was a candidate that I felt completely good about. If he became president, I would be happy. I’d like to see someone come along, I don’t care if they had no chance whatsoever. And then there’s a certain fun in voting. But voting for the lesser of two evils…in the last election nobody voted for Kerry, they all voted against Bush. And that’s the kind of hate-based action that I think poisons and breaks your heart. That kind of cynicism doesn’t only poison the system, it poisons your life with your kids. If you’re the kind of person that can vote for someone you think is bad I don’t think that’s going to feel good later in the day when you’re playing with your kids.
VV: You lived in New York. How are the cities different?
PJ: I lived in New York for over ten years and if you’re not living in New York, you’re living somewhere else. I love New York City, I dislike San Francisco, and every place else is the same.
VV: Why do you dislike San Francisco?
PJ: It still feels to me, and I think maybe I need to go back there and spend more time because I think my vision of it is outdated because I was there in the late 70’s. But it still seemed to hippie. In New York City if you can sit around with friends and friends of friends, and you can have people telling you stuff that you waaaaay don’t agree with. If you hang out in New York for four hours drinking coffee, and different friends come by bringing different friends with them, you’ll find somebody with a point of view that you don’t agree with any part of it whatsoever. And in San Francisco there’s a homogeneity, and everybody is this kind of “sensible liberal.” It just seemed like everybody I talked to agreed with everybody else I talked to. And in New York, boy, that’s not the problem.