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Penn & Teller's Penn Jillette talks politics, travel and value of truth ahead of Aug. 19 show

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Penn Jillette, like almost everyone else these days, has a few things to say about politics, and especially about this year’s presidential election.

Unlike your Aunt Miriam, though, the tall and vocal half of successful comedy-magic duo Penn & Teller offers firsthand insight about at least one of the candidates.

Entertainers and illusionists Penn Jillette and Raymond Joseph Teller are Las Vegas fixtures, and Penn & Teller have become late-night TV and cable programming regulars and starred in multiple off-Broadway and Broadway productions since they began performing together in the mid-1970s. Their Penn & Teller tour ventures to Oklahoma City’s Civic Center Music Hall, 201 N. Walker Ave., 8 p.m. Aug. 19.

They are well-known for reality game show Penn & Teller: Fool Us, in which magicians test their dexterity by performing tricks in front of the pair. Jillette also joined two consecutive seasons of NBC’s The Celebrity Apprentice, formerly hosted by New York City businessman and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Jillette was a 2013 show finalist and lost to country star Trace Adkins.

Penn & Teller’s live act is largely apolitical, but during a recent Oklahoma Gazette interview, the committed Libertarian, atheist and skeptic-at-large was very outspoken about his working relationship with Trump and an election year featuring a pair of mainstream candidates he finds unappealing.

Oklahoma Gazette: Because of the Celebrity Apprentice tie-in, you get asked about Trump and the election cycle a lot. Many say this election is a political tipping point. What do you think?

Penn Jillette: What I think will happen is Trump will lose in the biggest landslide probably since [the 1836 election of President Martin] Van Buren. He’s going to lose really bad. I think the word “trump” will become a word for loser for a while.

But the problem is very clear. The problem was caused by the Bush [family] and the Clintons. All of us — and I’m including myself — used to wish … for someone who just shot from the hip and spoke honestly and wasn’t politically correct. I didn’t think that person I was looking for would be Trump. Almost anyone else speaking their mind would be a better choice.

I’ve worked with Trump. They pretend, of course, that it’s a show where you’re trying to get a job; you’re trying to apprentice with him. Of course, everyone knows that’s not true. They had no job to offer. I mean, he bankrupted all the casinos I could work in. … He was not my boss. He was a coworker who was paid like I was to be on the show. It was not his show. It was NBC’s show and [show creator] Mark Burnett’s show.

And out of everyone who was on The Apprentice, I liked him the most. … I have a great deal of patience and respect for those who are different, and I liked him the same way I like Gary Busey or somebody. I thought, for a reality show, he was fine.
When he was [considering] running for president, he asked me backstage at the [Celebrity Apprentice season] finale if I would support him as president. I said no; [Trace Adkins] said yes, and Trace won. And [Trump] made that pretty clear: He just didn’t like me. … He started attacking me on Twitter, saying my show wasn’t any good. I thought that was pretty funny because you don’t have that ever in political history. You don’t have Abraham Lincoln saying, “Four score and seven years ago, I saw this magician and I really didn’t like him.”

The stuff that I saw of [Trump] when he was unguarded was surely sexist and homophobic and racist, but not more than an uneducated man of that age would be. … His unpleasant jokes about Clay Aiken being gay are just unpleasant jokes from a coworker who is not very enlightened. When that coworker who’s not very enlightened ends up running for president, all of a sudden, it’s not fun anymore — it’s actually dangerous. So all the stuff you laughed about and giggled about on Celebrity Apprentice is no longer fun when it’s being said by someone who some people are taking seriously.

OKG: It’s interesting that you say that he talked to you and Adkins about his presidency, because that was several years ago.

PJ: He thinks he can do anything. The nightmare is that his candidacy started either with him or with his staff as some kind of joke. … The only reason that is scary is that Hillary Clinton can barely keep herself out of jail. If he was running against Obama, he wouldn’t get a state.

Obama is a pretty remarkable American president in that there are no scandals. I mean, Obama is a good guy. I disagree with him politically, but who cares? He’s actually a good president. If he was running against Obama, the whole country would know he wasn’t fit to eat shit off Obama’s shoes. But Hillary brings with her an awful lot of baggage.

OKG: A lot of people are voting against a worst-case scenario instead of for any candidate.

PJ: It’s all being done with fear and hate. This whole election is fear and hate.

Now, if you want a stark change from that, my man Gary Johnson is not running a negative campaign. He’s not saying bad stuff about anybody. The Libertarian Party has been pro-gay rights since 1971 [and] against all the interventionist wars. Gary Johnson was governor of New Mexico and did not build a wall. He does not seem to hate Mexicans. He is a good choice, and he’s now polling around 11 to 15 percent where Libertarians have never polled more than 1 percent before, so the United States is wising up that maybe we don’t want a scumbag as president.

OKG: Do you think part of the cause of divisiveness is that everything is presented as black or white, Republican-Democrat, yes-no, good-bad?

PJ: Well, the Libertarian point of view is fiscally conservative and socially liberal, and that’s what a lot of the country is. No one under 30 — no one under 30 — cares at all about the social issues the conservatives are pushing. Nobody.
OKG: You and Teller perform Aug. 19 in Oklahoma City. What comes to mind when you think of Oklahoma? When’s the last time you were here?

PJ: I don’t really visit places; I do shows. There’s a great line in [the 1964 movie] A Hard Day’s Night by The Beatles: “I’ve been in a train and a room, and a car and a room, and a room and a room.” You don’t really get out very much. …

Even though we’ve talked about this now in our interview, in the Penn & Teller show live, we do a magic show. We don’t do anything political or sexual or anything like that. … The Bible Belt is kind of the same as New York City because we’re doing tricks that nobody can figure out. We’re doing things that absolutely look like miracles. …

After 40 years, it’s what Penn & Teller is really good at. It’s what we love to do. … And the live show is not affected very much by what city we have to be in.

OKG: A lot of acts talk about how demanding touring can be.

PJ: I absolutely love touring. When you talk about touring, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones and me of Penn & Teller, we’re the only three people who actually like touring. And eventually, that will be the band, I imagine. It’ll be Billy, Keith and Penn.

OKG: Yes, please.

PJ: In Vegas, it’s one theater — we get used to it; but on the road, we do different material than we do in Vegas. It’s a different show, and after the shows, Teller and I always go out and meet everybody and take pictures and sign stuff. We spend usually an hour, sometimes as long as the show, out with the audience after shows. There is no VIP. Every single person is VIP with us, and we love it.

This is not true for all entertainers, but we tend to like our audiences. We like the people who like us.

OKG: You mentioned how much you like doing your stage show. Is there an eventual expiration date for Penn & Teller?

PJ: We intend to die in office. If I could be onstage after I was dead, I’d be happy to do that.

OKG: What’s the best compliment a fan could give you or has given you?

PJ: The best compliment we get is when people say we’ve actually changed their point of view on how they ascertain truth. Our show, although not overtly political, has this undercurrent of, “This is the way people can lie to you.” And when people really come to understand that and come out to our show and say, “I’m a little more skeptical about everything after seeing your show,” that’s what makes our little hearts palp with joy. … Teller and I believe very strongly in truth, and that’s why we make our careers as liars, because we want to explore how people ascertain what’s true.

Print headline: Truth told, Penn & Teller’s Penn Jillette talks this year’s political minefields and the value of honesty ahead of the magician duo’s Aug. 19 show at Civic Center Music Hall.

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