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Las Vegas magician Penn Jillette on new book 'Random,' cults, Trump and more

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Penn Jillette
Scott Lien/KNPR

Penn Jillette at KNPR on Nov. 4, 2022.

Originally aired November 4, 2022


Magician. Podcaster. Television performer. Author. Penn Jillette may be the busiest man in Las Vegas. 

His long-running show at the Rio hotel-casino is taking a brief hiatus while his longtime magician partner, Teller, recovers from heart surgery.  

But he’s got plenty to do, including a book tour for his new novel, "Random." It’s about a guy who makes decisions based on a roll of the dice.  

You could say it’s a quintessential Las Vegas story from a quintessential Las Vegas performer. But is that Jillette’s personal story?  

He joined State of Nevada host Joe Schoenmann for more.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On finding time to write 'Random'

I have always written them in stolen moments. You know, like in the back of a car, you got 10 minutes to get to the how do you keep the continuity when you're just got like 10 minutes, I get the ideas in my head. So I just flip open the laptop and type. … I read these books with this book and talk to my friends with a little bit of envy, because they like to talk about, I make a pot of tea, that I sit down and I have my notes. I was never able to do that. It was always like backstage, you know, we get 15 minutes before we go on. So I open my laptop and write a little bit then run on stage.

Support comes from

During the lockdown, I pitched this idea, the idea of somebody living at random, living with the dice. I pitched it and sold it as a TV show a couple times. Of course, because Hollywood, it never happened. … I started writing like a grown up, you gotta get up and make a pot of tea. And that was my job for the day. So this is the first book I've written like I was writing a book, and it was really, really great. 

On the idea for the book

The idea came to be actually in a rather sad story back in the early ‘90s, I did a TV show over in Britain. And a woman asked me to read this rather silly book called The Dice Man; it was a parody, and was satire. And I don't care for satire, parody at all, this is hardly an exception. … But it was about someone who's making their decision based on the roll of the dice. And the decisions are all of the things you want to do. But just instead of picking the one you want to do most, you take the whole list of things you might want to do, put in a bell curve, and roll the dice and make the decision instantly. And she said that to her. Her brother had killed himself, and she found it impossible to act. She was just sitting and she couldn't even take a shower or call friends. And she'd read this book earlier. 

She started just for fun, she thought, but not just for fun, out of desperation, I suppose … And then told me that she had been living with the dice for months, and it indeed taken the job at our show because of a roll of the dice, and was indeed making decisions on the show.

I don't live that way. I'm such a careful person, I plan out everything. And so this is one of the reasons I wrote [the book], because I'm so fascinated by it. And so drawn to it, the idea that there are parts of my personality that are never expressed, because they're not the primary part, I find fascinating.

On the power of cults and losing weight

I had lost 130 pounds over three months, a very short period of time. And the guy worked with is a NASA scientist who just took it as a sideline, learning about how people deal with weight. And he's also a very outspoken atheist, Ray Cronise, and he said to me, ‘You know, we know cults work really worked powerfully. And we know we don't believe in them. But for the time you're losing weight, we're going to take the emotional stuff of a cult, and use it on you. So I don't know if I'm right about this stuff. As a matter of fact, it's almost certain I'm wrong, about half of it. But I don't know which half. So for the next three months, when you want to lose this weight, you're going to join a cult, and the cult is gonna be you and me. And you're going to take what I say absolutely as fact. And you are going to not tell your friends about it, not talk to your family about it, you're going to isolate that part of your brain, and you are going to join this cult of weight loss, which is going to last until you get healthy. And we're just gonna let it go.’

It was a really powerful experience because it worked perfectly. You can pretend, you can tap into the desire for that kind of supernatural thing very, very easily. And I think I do it intellectually. And we do it all the time. When you go to a rock and roll show or any sort of piece of art, you can decide what's really important and feel yourself in the crowd. And there are all sorts of studies, fascinating studies that will tell you that being in a crowd, tightly packed together, some of the emotional, and if I could, spiritual things that you feel are exactly the same. If it's Pearl Jam or if it's the Pope, there's certain kinds of connecting we do. We play with that kind of stuff on the edge of religion all the time, because you always have that spiritual seduction going on. And we can play with that, I think safely, without going wackadoodle.

On the state of the nation

The age I am now is the, ‘get off my lawn’ age. And it's been shown over thousands of years that at the age I am now, we start to worry. You start thinking that the world is going to hell because you're getting older. And I try very hard to pull out of that, to try to get knocked out of my head. And it seems like objectively, there are some things that are very bad signs. Having people that say ahead of time, and unabashedly, ‘I will not accept the election results if I lose,’ there is a deep, deep negation of how society functions and that I find terrifying. Also, I mean, this is the monkey paw’s curse. A guy from Greenfield, Massachusetts, a little dead factory town, did end up knowing a president of the United States fairly well. The bad news is that it was Donald Trump.

On the future

I think that the problems that we're dealing with are so enormous. That may not move the needle that much. I don't think it matters very much who I am or my situation. We have the possibility of losing a democracy. We have a possibility of when you're not accepting election results, the whole thing kind of falls apart. And we also have people right here in Nevada who are saying that in the next presidential general election, they will send different delegates than the people have asked for. That seems huge to me. Climate change seems enormous. What we're seeing in terms of that is terrible.

I see in my teenagers, my children, I do see a despondency. That's a bad word about the future, I see a sadness. Now, I remember, as when you feel things very strongly as a teenager, I remember being that age … But there was the risk of the atomic bomb and the Cold War. And those are very, very real. And I think that the existential threats that I was worried about at 17, I don't think that they were false. I think they were real. But it's hard to find a way to say that those are the things that our children are looking at now, are not more dangerous, and … having teenagers does not skew it that much, it skews it emotionally, but not intellectually.

Jillette will be at The Writer's Block in downtown Las Vegas on Saturday, Nov. 5 at 7 p.m. for a reading and signing of his new book "Random."

Guests

Penn Jillette, magician and author 

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