Penn Jillette: People aren’t inherently evil, sometimes they’re just wrong

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Angie Perrin

“Whenever you start losing faith in people, the cure for that is to be around people. There's nobody on the streets of Manhattan that won't help you if you have real trouble. It really happens. But we have gotten this idea of evil deep into people's minds. And it doesn't matter what side you're on,” says Penn Jillette. Photo courtesy of Penn Jillette

Penn Jillette is the tall, boisterous member of the magician duo Penn & Teller. The popularity of their Las Vegas magic show helped launch several TV series, and the new season of “Penn & Teller: Fool Us” premiered this month on the CW network. 

When Jillette is not doing magic, he’s writing. His new novel “Random” tells the story of a son who inherits his father’s crippling gambling debt just before his 21st birthday. If it’s not paid back, he, his mother, and sister will likely be murdered. A random roll of the dice at a casino solves his money problems. Now rich, he decides to make all decisions based on the roll of the dice. 

The novel’s premise is based on a woman Jillette worked with. She made her decisions by rolling two ornate dice she carried in a briefcase. For her, it was a religious experience. 

It’s an ideology that many live by, Jillette says, much like making a decision based on the flipping of a coin: “This is laying it out and just saying when that hits, ‘God has declared that that's what I do,’ and acting on it immediately, with never changing your mind.”

But that’s not how he makes his decisions. 

“I'm terrified of doing it. Terrified because I do everything in excess. I do not believe in moderation. … I have a family. And I also have a few dozen people that work with Penn & Teller that I'm responsible [for]. And I'd be really afraid that I would sincerely want something like 2% and roll the dice and get that and hurt other people.”

That’s why Jillette wrote the protagonist of “Random” as a completely normal guy with firm morals, but young enough that it would make sense. In effect, he’s living in a fantasy of Jillette’s without the real-life risk that comes with the territory. He compares the danger to magicians who perform dubious tricks.  

“I am not risk-averse in anything that does not have permanent consequences. I don't mind losing money. I don't mind bombing. I don't mind failing. But I get very upset when some of our peers in magic do things that are actually dangerous, because I believe that what you've done is you've made the audience complicit in a disregard of human life and safety.”

Jillette says that even tricks that appear dangerous but are not can be morally gray. He references the bullet catch trick, where a magician appears to have fired at the magician and they catch it. 

“I believe that you, as an audience member, have to believe it's safe. … We came up with a safe way to do it with many levels of safety. And we're very, very proud of it. But everybody, all the PR people, even fans told us, ‘You must say that people have died doing this and every night, you could die.’”

Strong moral convictions outside of religion or politics

Jillette readily admits that he is not a man of faith. 

That’s due to what he describes as Christianity's sense of what is and isn’t right: “You cannot have morality if you do believe in God, because morality is the choice of doing right and wrong — because of what you think is right and wrong. If you believe in God, especially a Judeo-Christian god, [it’s] reward and punishment. If you believe in that, then you are doing things to avoid punishment and to receive reward. And if you've ever raised children, you know that that is not morality. That is not morality at all. That is coercion.”

His libertarian views also changed during the pre-vaccine days of the pandemic, when he was expected to lead an anti-masker rally in Las Vegas. He was dumbfounded at the request.  

“I read those words and said the fact that anyone sees me that way scares me to death because … I might be able to make the argument that masks don't need to be government-mandated. But I would never make the argument that you shouldn't wear them. Because you do not have the right morally, and I think legally, to get other people sick.” 

Pre-COVID, Jillette saw libertarianism as constantly questioning whether you could solve problems by giving people more freedom. 

However, he says, “It's possible that I'm a little less of an optimist than I used to be about people making an individual choice that is best for the people around them. Libertarianism, I always believed, contained more responsibility. And when other people would say, ‘Libertarianism? Isn’t it just rich white guys who want to do whatever the hell they want?’ I would say ‘No, it's all about responsibility.’ During the lockdown, libertarianism looked to me like rich white guys do whatever the hell they wanted. And that nauseated me.”

He adds, “Your right to not wear a mask stops with people's grandparents dying. I don't want to oversimplify it, but I guess tribalism made people anti-vaccine — the most astounding accomplishment in human history dwarfs landing on the moon.” 

While Jillette doesn’t think people are evil, he says sometimes they’re just wrong.

On Trump

Jillette worked with former President Donald Trump when he appeared on “The Apprentice.” It was an exercise in tolerance. 

“I told everybody, I mean, everybody, no matter how bad you think he is, he's worse. … When I was on ‘Celebrity Apprentice,’ I was fascinated, Donald Trump when he would speak to us rambling, pontificating nonsense. This guy has no filters. He has no shame whatsoever. He has no compassion. He has no empathy. So listening to him talk tells me something about the flaws. And I was fascinated.” 

He adds that he never saw Trump enjoy music, tap his foot, or laugh at a joke or make one.  

“Before you disagree, let me define joke. Joke does not mean ‘haha, you're getting old and ugly … you're kind of fat.’ He would laugh at that kind of stuff, deriding other people uproariously. But I never heard a turn of phrase or an actual pleasant, heartfelt joke cause him to laugh. And I've never seen that in anybody, and I've been in jail.”

Jillette says that shows that Trump experiences social disconnection. But he still holds empathy for him. 

“I think he's able to suffer. Some of the things that make him suffer, I find repulsive. … But I do believe there's actual suffering there, just no perception. I think he could watch somebody get their leg run over and not recoil.”

The current political landscape

While Jillette contends he isn’t interested in politics, he loves having odd opinions. 

“When I felt the grown-ups were in charge, I really enjoyed having ideas that were contrary to [former President Barack] Obama. Because in my heart, I knew that Obama was a good person who was doing what he thought was best. And disagreeing with him felt like our political process in action, and I really loved it and felt safe and felt all democratic.” 

Jillette’s salve to the current, evolving political landscape? People.

“Whenever you start losing faith in people, the cure for that is to be around people. There's nobody on the streets of Manhattan that won't help you if you have real trouble. It really happens. But we have gotten this idea of evil deep into people's minds. And it doesn't matter what side you're on.”