When you learn that Penn Jillette is coming to Seattle, you may be tempted to holler, “Bullshit,” the catchphrase of just one of the many beloved pieces of entertainment crafted by Jillette and his tight-lipped colleague Teller.
But it’s true: Jillette will be the guest at Town Hall on Tuesday, November 1, discussing his new novel, Random. It’s the story of a man who decides to leave life to chance, rolling dice to make his decisions for him—a matter of personal interest to Jillette, who’s spent so much of his career in Vegas.
This wasn’t an easy book for him to write, as the very premise is something that terrifies him... a fear made all more real by the fact that it's based on a harrowing real-life experience. In a phone interview, Jillette described the unexpected real-life inspiration for his book, why he's looking forward to coming to Seattle and seeing our world-class squirrels, and his eagerness to perform at one particular renaissance festival.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You’ve spent so much time in Vegas, have dice rolls (like in your book, Random) always been a big part of your life?
Casino gambling is a very big thing in Vegas. You could argue it’s a big part of my livelihood. There wouldn't be a Penn & Teller Theater if there wasn’t gaming and Vegas.
I don’t gamble. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs. But I’m fascinated by the idea that we always choose the best course of action, and what we want the most. If we want to do something 51 percent, that 49 percent is still a part of us.
The title’s a little misleading because the choices the protagonist has are not given to him by anyone else and not chosen at random, the options are chosen from what he wants in his heart, what he truly wants to do. What the dice do is give him a bell curve that aligns with his wishes as he perceives them and makes him decisive. Any business people and life coaches and other bullshitters will tell you that making a decision is more important than any decisions you will make. Allowing yourself to make the choice that is suboptimal but still an honest desire really fascinates me.
As someone who lives as carefully and non-randomly as I do, it’s a very seductive thing to think about.
Have you ever left decisions to chance?
I’m terrified of that because I don’t believe in moderation. It’s one of the many reasons I don’t drink and don’t do drugs. When I decide to go into a partnership with someone in a magic show, that goes 47 years. When I decided to lose weight, I lost 120 pounds in three months. I tend to do all or nothing. I’m very worried that if I let myself go the way that the protagonist in the book does, that I would like the outcome too much.
My professional life is based on doing things that look very, very haphazard in a very controlled environment. One of the things we have to do in our show is make all sorts of stuff that’s carefully planned look like it isn’t.
A few times writing the book, which is a very safe area... I did roll the dice a few times on where the plot would go, and that was lots of fun.
What was your writing process for the book?
It really started almost 30 years ago. We were doing a show in England and one of the people who was working on the show with us in a rather high position was a woman I got to know a little bit. One day she said, “Have you read this book called The Dice Man?” [A 1971 novel about using dice to make big decisions.] And I said, “No, I haven’t.” She said, “It’s a little popular over here. Would you read it for me?” We had a couple days off, so I took a couple days and read the book. We came back and she took me aside and said, “What did you think?” I said, “I don’t like satire at all, and as a rule in books I don’t care for too much parody. This is a parody of EST [Erhard Seminars Training], and I didn’t need EST parodies because I didn't take it seriously. Making fun of something that’s already a joke wasn’t interesting, but boy, the idea of making your decisions based on a roll of the dice I found really seductive and interesting.”
And she told me this heartbreaking story that she was very close to her brother and one day she went over to his apartment and found that he had hanged himself. And she said she became so distressed by her brother's suicide that she couldn’t get off the couch and sat there for days and let everything fall away. Her friends and her work. She said coincidentally that she read The Dice Man and it didn’t grab her, but the idea grabbed her. So she laid out her 11 options for things she wanted to do, with 11 being the most likely and two and 12 being the least likely. She rolled the dice, and whatever the dice said she would act on instantly, and that allowed her tact. She began living very much by the dice.
I said, “Wow, how long did you do that for?” And she opened her briefcase, because this was the early '90s when people still carried briefcases, and there was a set of very ornate, very nice dice. I said, “Wow, you’re still doing it?” And she said, “Yeah, when I’m not sure what I want to do.” I said, “Wait a minute, we were trying to get you to do this show, the producer said we wouldn’t get you because you were above us and wouldn’t take a little show like this.” And she said, “Yeah, I rolled an eight.” I said, “You’re working on this show because of a roll of the dice?” She said, “Yes.” I said, “That wasn’t your first choice?” She said, “No.” I said, “Are you making decisions on our show based on the roll of the dice?” She said, “Only when I’m not sure.” I said, “Fuck.”
That story stuck with me, and for years I spoke to all my friends about it. And oddly two of my friends went through hard times in their lives and called me up and said, “I’m going to live by the dice for a while.” And I said to each of them, “Well, I don’t think you should do it, I think it’s a thought experiment. But for fuck’s sake, if you do, tell me everything.” And they both did and it ended up being for a couple months and one of them still does it now and again, and the stories each of them told were phenomenal. So I started pitching this as a TV series, and a network bought it but the deal fell through, as they often do. I had pages and pages of fuckin’ notes about this because I really liked the idea. For me, it was a philosophical book, but underneath it, it’s about how we make choices about who we are.
Then the pandemic came, and I’m horrified to say this but Ivana or Ivanka—I don’t know the fucking difference—but the Trump daughter said heartlessly and cruelly that during the lockdown people should learn a language or write a book, which she was criticized for, but during the lockdown I was learning a language and writing a book, which pissed me off even more.
I had written about half of it before the lockdown, and I wrote all of it on Fremont Street, where the protagonist spends a lot of time. I’m always offended when outsiders write about Vegas as the big game of chance and a big metaphor. And that’s precisely what I did. I’ve lived here for 27 years, and I fancy that I see a bit of Vegas that maybe somebody who’s been here a week or two doesn’t see. Which is why so little of the book has anything to do with the Strip—it’s about Fremont, the county fair sleazy side of the Strip. And right off the Strip, the horrible gaudy Trump tower here that, like everything Trump has, is not really his.
Now that you’re returning to touring and live shows, is the experience different?
My first show back was incredibly emotional. I was backstage, ready to go on, and although it’s not part of my stage performance, I get very, very nervous before shows, to the point of trembling and hyperventilating even though I’ve done 13,000 shows. Coming back after that break, which was the largest break in performing by almost an order of magnitude since I was 12 years old. I was really nervous. I was backstage going, “I’m close to vomiting, I’m trembling, I’m scared to death.” And what an incredible luxury to be scared to death about art instead of being scared to death of things that really matter.
The audience seemed to be feeling the reciprocal, in that it’s kind of wonderful to celebrate something that was ethereal and ephemeral and shared, and not alone and in dread.
Teller and I, there’s no shortage of gratitude with us. We thought we’d play to eccentric audiences of 120 on cruise ships and county fairs. We achieved that level of success and were thrilled. Now we’ve got our own theater in Vegas and it’s an order of magnitude above our dreams.
There were dark days during the pandemic when many of us thought we would never go back to work, so when we came back and were doing our shows again, Teller and I could just not work enough. We could not rehearse enough, we couldn't write enough. It became a joke in Vegas, other magicians were calling and saying, “Leave some fucking material for us.”
We were just so over the moon to have this glorious feeling of people enjoying us on stage.
If you’d have asked me in 2019, “Could you be more grateful for the performance situation you have?” My answer would have been no and I would have been wrong.
I saw that your first performance with Teller was at a renaissance festival, would you consider doing one of those again?
Our first show was August 18, 1975 at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival. I typed in, "What day of the week is August 18 in 2025," and the computer spit out that it’s a Saturday, which means the Minnesota Renaissance Festival will be in session. I wrote an email to Teller and said, “Exactly 50 years after our first show together at the place of our first show together, there will be a show. Does that give you any ideas?” And Teller said, “I think they would book us.” And I said, “Yeah. But we couldn’t wear our suits.” And Teller said, “We can get tights.”
The answer to your question is, you know, in 2025, August 18 is on a Saturday.
This is a very deep cut, but as long as I have you I have to ask: in the 1980s you were on an episode of Miami Vice with gay theater icon Charles Ludlam. Any memories of him?
On Miami Vice, we didn’t interact and I don’t have any interesting stories. But when we started Broadway Cares—when I say “we started,” it was Harvey Fierstein and four or five of us to raise money—I know in some of the meetings Charles was there. When we put up the first banner in Times Square, Teller and I were on the Genie lift. ... Certainly Harvey was a much bigger part of it than we were, but we were on Broadway at the time, involved in raising money.
But I will tell you that at the Republican Convention in '92, I was covering it for Comedy Central, actually with Lawrence O’Donnell, one of my closest friends. Lawrence and I were both working for Comedy Central. … I didn’t interview, but yelled at, Barbara Bush. And there were a lot of skirmishes with Act Up trying to get into the Republican Convention.
The Republicans were keeping out branded material for Act Up. There were no hats, no T-shirts, nothing. So I said to the PAs, “Go out to Act Up, which has all this presence outside, all of you buy an Act Up hat, stuff it down the front of your pants, and just walk in with it. If you get caught, we’ll still pay you, just go back to your hotel. But if you get in with the hat I’d like to wear it.” The first PA to try, they checked the backpack and did not check his groin.
So while I was interviewing one of the Republicans there, I said something like, “My head’s getting a little cold,” and the PA took the hat off his cock and I put it on my head.
If someone 50 years from now was to say, “Was there any Act Up material at the Republican National convention in 1992?” Yes, there was, and it was worn by a dipshit magician.
Are you looking forward to doing anything when you’re in Seattle?
I wish we were doing a show, I love playing in Seattle. I love Seattle for the squirrels. One of the worst things about Vegas, you can say it’s the heat, the dead bodies in the water supply, but I believe the worst thing about Vegas is the lack of squirrels. Seattle is the best place on Earth to have a coffee and look at squirrels.
What makes Seattle squirrels special?
I believe it’s their luxurious tails. London has those weird-ass squirrels that are different. In New York, maybe it’s the lack of water or they’re city rats, but they don’t have the luxurious tails.
We were playing Seattle many years ago when the iPhones were just coming out. And I was sitting at some coffee place, let’s assume it’s a Starbucks but who can tell in Seattle. There was a tree branch overhead and on that branch was a squirrel.
I started out as a juggler and I still have pretty good hand-eye. And this squirrel was 15 feet above me as I drank my decaf. So I took my iPhone, not in a case, because I talk on my iPhone like '70s gay porn, I’m not wearing a condom to talk. I was tossing my phone 15 feet in the air at this squirrel who was moving just enough to not be hit by the phone, and I would catch it, take a sip, and throw it again.
And one of the crew guys who’s been with us for 30 years came up and tapped me on the shoulder and said, “What the fuck are you doing?” And I said, “I’m playing with that squirrel.” He said, “You’re throwing an $800 piece of electronics into a tree, catching it, and drinking your coffee.” And I said, “Whose business is that?” And he said, looking around, “I think everyone at the Starbucks, it’s all they’re watching.” I believed I was having an intimate moment with this squirrel, but there were 25 people watching a crazy person and I was totally oblivious to it.
If you can give every inch of my love to that squirrel I’d appreciate it.
Penn Jillette will be at Town Hall Tues Nov 1 at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $5, or free for anyone under 22.