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Jewish World Review June 3, 2003 / 3 Sivan, 5763

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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Consumer Reports

Dear graduates: Work for freedom 10 minutes with Penn Jillette | Not graduating from college hasn't hurt the career track of Penn Jillette, the 6-foot-6 talking half of the critically acclaimed comedy-magic team Penn & Teller.

Jillette and Teller have been named two of the funniest people alive by Entertainment Weekly. Both are smart, eccentric, edgy, cynical foes of religion and big fans of individual freedom and scientific truth. They've written books like "Penn & Teller's How to Play in Traffic," appeared on Broadway and all over TV and made enemies of their fellow magicians by exposing secrets of their trade. Gillette writes a column for Regulation magazine.

Their live show -- described as "an edgy mix of comedy and magic involving knives, guns, fire, a gorilla and a showgirl" -- now has a permanent home in Las Vegas at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino. And "Penn & Teller: Bull----," their Showtime TV show that specializes in debunking junk science, airs Friday nights at 11.

Q: If you had a chance to give a commencement address, what would you tell the fresh-faced college grads about the world that awaits them?

A: Ah, gee, I don't what I would say. I would try to push things around to ideas about total freedom, freedom of speech and that kind of stuff.

Whenever I lecture at all, I tend to distort whatever the situation is to say what's on my mind, so I don't know if the fact that I was speaking to fresh-faced college seniors would change my message. My message would probably be, "Fight the power, work for freedom, and come see Penn & Teller in Vegas."

Q: Do you think college education is over-rated, under-rated or a hoax designed to get parents to pay for their kids' dating and drinking training?

A: I've always seen it as unless you're in the hard sciences, just going to college out of habit seems to me to be just about drinking and drugs and (having sex). Or just trying to delay being an adult, which I think is kind of stupid, because being an adult is so much better than being a kid.

All I wanted to do was get out of high school. Some people want to prolong that and I wanted to shorten it as much as possible. ... I think people who're 14, 15, 16 should be given more power and more freedom - and not try to keep them a child till 25, which is some of what college does. ... The whole idea of a liberal arts education seems foolish to me.

Q: Where did you go to college?

A: I did not go to college. I only finished high school on a plea bargain. I finished high school because my SATs were high enough that it would have embarrassed the school to flunk me.

The thing was, I'm from a dead factory town, Greenfield, Mass., which is about 20 miles from Amherst. So while I was in high school they did everything they could to keep me from going to classes and even showing up, because they felt I was a problem.

I didn't have to go to high school for really any of my junior or senior year, so I'd drive up the 20 miles to the five-college area, Amherst, Mass. I would go to U Mass and Hampshire College and sit in on classes.

That's where I became completely disillusioned about the kind of college that I would go to. ... I remember going there and talking to them about how interested I was in Lenny Bruce and things like that.

They said to me, "Well, you can design your own course here at Hampshire and work on this."

And I was going, "So the government can pay for me to do something I could do on my own and have a slim chance of getting paid? My chances of getting paid doing comedy at the age of 18 in Greenfield, Mass., are hovering just above zero. But if I go to college, they go into negative numbers. The money starts piling up that I don't make."

As it turned out, I made an enormous amount of money when I was 18 - for me - street performing. I never, ever reached that amount of money again until we we'd been off Broadway for six months.

Q: How do you define your politics and where did they come from?

A: I guess libertarian is a little too much government for me. I tend to be a little more anarcho-capitalist. But I will take libertarianism to get that in place, then work to get that out of place. I see libertarianism as a stepping stone.

I believe that people are really, really, really good, and that the number of people who do actual bad things is so insignificantly small, that we don't need to treat everybody as criminals just to stop them.

Yet people are so scared - a lot by the media and a lot of incorrect knowledge. They think they are some sort of one good person surrounded by all these bad people, and they're actually one good person surrounded by a lot of good people.

Q: Your show, "Penn & Teller: Bull....." is hard to find. What is a quick description of it?

A: It's one of the few shows on TV that's pro-science. There tends to be this false dichotomy set up between the arts and sciences, which is to say that the arts are supposed to be governed by some sort of "nut-sense," where anything you want to believe is true - the politics of Sting and so on - and we never felt that way.

We felt that you can deal in the real world with truth and still do funny, interesting stuff. So we fought hard to do a show that really did say, "No, you can't talk to the dead." "No, you can't astral-project." "You know the second-hand smoke stuff has nothing to it."

Which is a very odd show to be as out as it is, because the positions we're taking are the correct positions, and provable. We have very little opinion on our show.

Q: I saw a show where you did "Candid Camera" kind of stunts with the environmentalist people and asked them to talk about the rain forest in some scientific way. And you had people sign a petition to ban hydrogen dioxide -- which is H2O. It was sort of Michael Moore at the libertarian end of the spectrum.

A: Talk about damning with faint praise, but yes. It was political, although I hope that people noticed, especially on the environmental show, our words were weighed very carefully. We tried not to make any claims that couldn't be backed up.

The essential point of the show was really not as hard-hitting as people might have thought. It's just that the environmentalists are such a sacred cow that anything you say that questions them gets a big "Ohh, ohh." But really our point was, "Maybe, you should know what you're talking about before you get into this."

Q: Did Teller learn anything at Amherst that you wished you had?

A: Oh, sure. All the kind of basics. His knowledge of Shakespeare and his general overall knowledge is something an auto-didact is always envious of and sensitive about.

Every time I'm in a discussion with someone and they go into areas I've not covered, I feel awful about it and run out and read and study it. There is a lot to be said for a basic, overall education. I'm entirely for that, although I was waiting for it in junior high and high school and I never got any of it.

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald