Penn (Without Teller) Tells All
Today's Listener column in Sunday Arts profiles Penn Jillette, the gonzo magician who has transformed himself into a radio talk show host.
Just when the FCC doubles the fines for saying naughty bits on the radio, just when even the accidental blurting of a bad word threatens to bring the wrath of the feds down upon broadcasting companies, Penn Jillette expands his media empire onto the radio.
A magician's art is all about timing.
After more than three decades of blasting through the conventions of the magic world -- in the stage and TV shows he does with his silent partner, Teller -- Penn Jillette has launched a daily, one-hour talk show that aims to poke holes in the pretenses and poses of the nation's cultural and political elites.
"The show really is the epitome of raw stupidity coupled with all these highfalutin ideas," says Jillette, 51, from his Las Vegas home.
Onstage at the Rio hotel or on his Showtime cable show, Jillette plays the role of the wizard who's going to give it to you straight -- a shtick that entails plenty of bad words in service of making the audience believe there is no bull in this performance.
On the radio -- Jillette's show airs weeknights at 7 on WJFK (106.7 FM) -- he has to find mainstream vocabulary to express incendiary ideas. Except that he rejects the whole notion that the American mainstream prefers language used in the popular media to be sanitized:
"Howard Stern was considered a shock jock," Jillette says. "But I'm sorry, anyone with his ratings was not outside the mainstream. He was the mainstream. Eminem [insults] George Bush and he has the number one album in the country. That is the mainstream."
Nice argument, but Jillette's deal with CBS Radio requires him to agree to use only safe and legal words, and the company's monitors screen his every utterance before allowing it to continue over their airwaves. Not long ago, Jillette devoted one of his shows to the history of circumcision, and in discussing 19th-century attitudes toward the male organ, "I used the word masturbation in a non-prurient way. I thought the network probably should not have dumped the word, but they did. It was a little sad that they'd been beaten up so much that they were that jumpy."
Jillette comes to radio seeking a respite from the imperative on TV or in the movies to keep moving. "In those forms, you got to give 'em shiny things," he says. "You just cannot have talking heads. But people are doing other things while they listen to the radio, and that allows you to go longer and do more."
So Jillette, whose raspy, damaged voice comes off as welcoming and unrehearsed on the radio, goes on each day and riffs with his sidekick, Mike Goudeau, "like we're at a dinner table after the meal with friends." They flit from politics to sex, practical jokes, monkeys, religion, science and the foolishness that suffuses modern life.
"I'm a libertarian, so I agree with Rush Limbaugh more than I disagree with him, but I also agree with the left more than I disagree with them," Jillette says. "I mean, guns and drugs are the same issue, but try convincing either the left or the right of that."
Growing up in Greenfield, Mass., near Amherst College, Jillette listened late at night to WOR in New York, an AM powerhouse where the late, legendary storyteller Jean Shepherd spun his improvisations on themes of nonconformism and the power of the individual.
Shepherd's legacy in the popular culture is that of a nostalgist; his movie "A Christmas Story," a cable cult classic, leads many to believe he was a sweet Midwestern family man. The truth is that Shepherd was a renegade, a jazz hipster who smashed the conventions of radio and challenged his listeners to open their windows and shout their pain across the city streets. (The 1976 movie "Network" ripped off that "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore" scene from Shepherd's real-life, middle-of-the-night, mass shout-a-thons with his audience.)
Jillette says he patterns his approach to radio after the work of Shepherd and his other spoken-word hero, the great satirist and parodist Stan Freberg. Jillette considers himself lucky to have seen both his heroes make speeches to college audiences: "Freberg told the students, 'Do not make fun of anything unless you hate it,' and Shepherd said, 'Do not make fun of anything unless you love it.'
"They were really and deeply saying the same thing," Jillette contends. "Don't talk about anything unless you care passionately about it. Whereas so much entertainment now consists of people sitting around saying, 'What can we make fun of, what's in the news, what's easy to grab?' "
Jillette intends to keep at his radio gig until he doesn't care deeply about it.
"I've been a creep and an outsider all my life," he says, "and on the radio, I can present the outsider point of view and, because of the Internet, listeners can immediately check my facts, and then, once we agree on the facts, we can have a real conversation about the ideas. Because I want to do a fair and extremely biased show."
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