Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Penn Jillette (@pennjillette), a cultural phenomenon as a solo personality and as half of the world-famous, Emmy Award-winning magic duo and Las Vegas headliners Penn & Teller.
Together since 1975, Penn & Teller’s live show spent years on Broadway and is now the longest-running headliner show in Las Vegas where it plays nightly at The Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino. The pair has been awarded Las Vegas Magicians of the Year an amazing eights times.
Penn co-hosted the controversial Showtime series Penn & Teller: Bullshit! which was nominated for thirteen Emmy Awards, won him a Writers Guild award, and was the longest-running show in the history of the network. He currently co-hosts the CW Network hit competition series Penn & Teller: Fool Us! which was nominated for a 2017 Critics’ Choice award.
Penn’s latest book, The New York Times Best Seller Presto! takes an insightful and very humorous look at his recent weight-loss journey. His previous book, God No! Signs You Might Be An Atheist and Other Magic Tales, spent six weeks on The New York Times Best Sellers list.
His weekly podcast, Penn’s Sunday School, was the number-one downloaded podcast on Apple Podcasts during its debut week, and was named a Best New Comedy Podcast by Apple Podcasts.
On the big screen, Penn produced the critically lauded 2005 documentary The Aristocrats, which features over 100 of the biggest names in comedy telling their versions of the dirtiest joke in history. He produced Tim’s Vermeer, which follows the journey of an eccentric inventor determined to solve one of the art world’s oldest mysteries. The Sony Pictures Classics release was nominated for a BAFTA and was shortlisted for the 2014 Oscars. He has recently completed the documentary Gambler’s Ballad profiling magic legend Johnny Thompson.
Penn & Teller have their very own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and triumphantly returned to Broadway recently with Penn & Teller On Broadway, which was the highest-grossing non-musical for the entirety of its run.
Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!
DUE TO SOME HEADACHES IN THE PAST, PLEASE NOTE LEGAL CONDITIONS:
Tim Ferriss owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of The Tim Ferriss Show podcast, with all rights reserved, as well as his right of publicity.
WHAT YOU’RE WELCOME TO DO: You are welcome to share the below transcript (up to 500 words but not more) in media articles (e.g., The New York Times, LA Times, The Guardian), on your personal website, in a non-commercial article or blog post (e.g., Medium), and/or on a personal social media account for non-commercial purposes, provided that you include attribution to “The Tim Ferriss Show” and link back to the tim.blog/podcast URL. For the sake of clarity, media outlets with advertising models are permitted to use excerpts from the transcript per the above.
WHAT IS NOT ALLOWED: No one is authorized to copy any portion of the podcast content or use Tim Ferriss’ name, image or likeness for any commercial purpose or use, including without limitation inclusion in any books, e-books, book summaries or synopses, or on a commercial website or social media site (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) that offers or promotes your or another’s products or services. For the sake of clarity, media outlets are permitted to use photos of Tim Ferriss from the media room on tim.blog or (obviously) license photos of Tim Ferriss from Getty Images, etc.
Tim Ferriss: Penn, welcome to the show.
Penn Jillette: Very nice to be here. We have a lot of mutual friends. It’ll be pleasant to finally kind of, sort of, meet you ish.
Tim Ferriss: That’s right. I feel like we’ve been sort of circling like electrons, never quite intersecting with this Venn diagram with a lot of overlap and I want to give a thank you to Brian Koppelman for making the intro. Brian, for those who don’t know, is one of my more compulsively productive friends, co-creator of the hit show Billions, also part of the writing pair, the dynamic duo behind The Illusionist, Rounders, many, many other films. How did you get to know Brian?
Penn Jillette: Geez. I don’t know. That’s somehow lost in the fog of time. I know that he had seen our show and really, really liked it and I don’t know exactly how our paths crossed. It’s funny because I consider him a friend, we’ve spent quite a bit of time together, but I don’t really know how it started. I’m sure somebody does. Maybe he does, maybe his wife does, or maybe that information is lost for all time and I don’t think humanity’s much worse for it.
Tim Ferriss: Why are the two of you friends? What are the bonds, interests, eccentricities, anything that have helped you guys to be friends? I can imagine what they might be, or some of them, but why would you say the two of you guys have become friends?
Penn Jillette: Many of those questions are answered with one word and that is Dylan, an interest in Bob Dylan, and that kind of writing, have brought me to everybody from Salman Rushdie and Christopher Hitchens to Brian Koppelman. We talk a lot about Dylan. I think we — oh, I do know where we met. It was some sort of party for one of those ocean numbers. Oceans 11, 12, 13, one of those here in Vegas and we were up at some big fancy party, which I didn’t want to be at, and he came over and started chatting with me. We started arguing rather aggressively about religion, and I’m happy to say that he came around to much closer to my point of view over the years, but we talked about Dylan and we talked about God. Those two ideas almost interchangeable to any thinking person, except there is a Bob Dylan.
Tim Ferriss: I think we’ll definitely circle back to that. I want to bring up someone who’s become really of great interest to me only in the last few years, which is somewhat embarrassing to admit. And it came vis-a-vis a documentary called An Honest Liar, and that’s —
Penn Jillette: Oh, yeah, Randi.
Tim Ferriss: — James Randi. For people who don’t know who James Randi is, could you describe who he is, but also how you came to be influenced by James Randi?
Penn Jillette: Well, Randi is so much to me that it’s almost hard to give a capsule bio. I mean, personally, Randi is maybe the most important person outside of my family in my entire life. I just was with him a couple days ago for about an hour, which is about all he really has the energy for now, but I was — mentalism, fake mind reading, changed my life rather profoundly. A hack, horrible mentalist named Kreskin was on some TV talk show when I was a child, when I was about 12, and it couldn’t have been Johnny Carson, because Johnny Carson didn’t allow him on. And once again, I don’t trust my memory; I keep an elaborate journal, so that’s one way to teach yourself that you don’t remember things properly. But he had done a magic trick on a television show that he passed off as science, he passed it off as ESP, this is Kreskin.
Penn Jillette: And I’m not from a wealthy family. My father was a jail guard, but I was very, very good in the sciences and very good in school, and so they bought me this ESP kit to study this science that I’d seen on television. And I spent a lot of time with my parents running these ESP experiments and doing all of this, and then, because I was juggling at the time, I would go to the library, and as everybody who’s familiar with the Dewey Decimal System knows, magic and juggling are very close together under the arts nobody cares about, right there with ventriloquism, and mime, and arts that aren’t really art. And I happened upon a book by Dunninger, who was a mentalist in the ’30s and ’40s I guess, and there in it was a trick very similar to the one that Kreskin had done, and I realized that I had been scammed.
And I was appalled that a scientist would lie to children and my grades went from a straight As to flunking in everything. I hated science, I hated magic, I was very, very alienated, I went to rock and roll. And it wasn’t until I was 18 and met Teller and Randi within a short period of time that I realized that it was possible to be moral, and be a scientist, and be moral, and be a magician. The latter being harder, of course. And Teller and I started a conversation about how a magic could be intellectual, and magic could be polite, and magic can be respectful, and magic could be moral, all things that it wasn’t in my experience. And then Randi wrote a book, Flim-Flam!, that I read before that, I think. Once again, I’m enough of a skeptic and I’m aware enough of the science around this that I do know that what I’m telling you here is emotionally correct, but probably not actually accurate, because that long ago and that emotional, you conflate things, and then every time you tell the story you change it.
So I’m aware of that. I’m aware that I don’t know. So I want to make clear to you that I’m telling you a poetic and emotional truth. And Randi was so open and so giving and showed me my entire career path. I mean, I could not have done magic if not for Randi. I could not have been a kind skeptic without Randi. I would not have the balls I have without Randi. And he became a guiding light from when I met him, when I was 18 — ’73 — until this second. I have not given a bio of Randi; I’ve talked about myself personally. James Randi was a magician and escape artist, a mentalist, and then realized that he was hurting people with his lies, his claims of mind reading, and he became a crusader to let people know that parapsychology and the paranormal were, as far as we’ve discovered so far, non-existent. He’s one of the few people that has changed their career path that much.
The other one of course was Houdini and the other one, who we’ll come back to over and over again, is Bob Dylan. But he was able to change his career from magician to skeptic. And Randi is also an autodidact; he did not go to college, which is something else I share with him, and therefore was not taken seriously at first by scientists, and has since then made it very clear that when scientists are testing people who claim powers, they kind of need a magician on their team, because scientists are not used to being lied to. There’s an awful lot of study of scientists being aware that they lie to themselves — I mean, N-rays and all of this other stuff that’s come up. And there’s a lot of things put in place in the scientific method to guard against that, but there isn’t a lot in the scientific method to guard against people lying to you. I mean, test tubes don’t change themselves from one place to another overnight, radio telescopes don’t give false information that is malicious, and Randi has been there and I think has done huge amounts for science in letting people know that people who claim psychic powers probably don’t have them.
Tim Ferriss: And one scene or segment of An Honest Liar — which I highly recommend to people because it’s also very meta — I won’t give away some of the biography of his that makes it such an interesting twist in the movie, but he demonstrates how, at times conscious, but oftentimes subconscious, self-deception can be in the sense that we’re confirmation biased. I recall this segment in the film where he trains two young men, who later go on to perform as mentalists and so on, to deceive researchers who are studying phenomena under the umbrella of parapsychology or ESP. And he then gives a list, effectively a checklist, to the researchers to defend against the types of deceit that could throw their studies or results sideways and they do not follow them. It’s really a fascinating study of human nature in a way, and I’m curious how you would suggest to people if there are any approaches, tools, heuristics, whatever comes to mind that people can use to become less gullible, or more skeptical, and less susceptible to deceit.
Penn Jillette: Well, first thing one needs to do is to work very hard to be skeptical without being cynical. Of the seven billion people on the planet, if we rounded off, about seven billion are good. I do not believe in God; I also do not believe in the existence of evil. I believe there’s very little bad in the world; there’s a lot of mistakes, but not people maliciously trying to do bad things. So your chances of coming across someone who is actually scamming you are fairly low. My rule of thumb is if you pick someone, you’re really safe. If they pick you, you have to be careful.
If I drive in front of a Starbucks with my brand new Tesla and I run into the Starbucks and I say, “Listen, my wife is about to give birth. We have to go to the hospital. She’s in an Uber. Here’s the keys to my Tesla, here’s my phone number. Please, can you park it somewhere and then give me a call later and tell me where? Thank you.” And I run out and I just throw those keys in the air and someone grabs them. My Tesla’s really safe. Really, really safe. If someone comes up to me and says, “Can I help you?” I have to be very, very wary.
That’s because they have selected themselves. If random selects, or you select, you’re doing okay. If someone selects you, you have to be a little cautious. So if somebody comes to you and says, I — If you go to somebody and say, “I want to talk to you about my problems; I want to be friends with you; I want to pour my heart out,” your chances are pretty good of whoever you talk to is going to be okay. If someone comes to you and says, “I can help you with your problems,” your spidey sense should tingle.
That is a very different way of looking at it than I’ve heard other people say, but I think it’s fairly useful. That being said, all the stuff that the generation before mine was taught like, don’t try to get something for nothing, which is also known as the second law of thermodynamics! Don’t try to get something for nothing. If something seems too good to be true, it is. And extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I don’t need a lot of evidence that the Starbucks around the corner is going to still be there tomorrow. I need a lot of evidence for perpetual motion. And those kinds of things work pretty well. The other thing is, if you desperately want to believe something, if something fills you with joy, sadly you have to be a little careful of that.
I remember when there were all sorts of stories about L. Ron Hubbard having pitched his exact Scientology as a science fiction novel the year before and you hear that story as a skeptic and you go, “Boom, bang, boom,” and you’ve got to be very careful of those things, you know? People that I know who are very, very anti-Trump and very distressed about that, were thrilled to pieces that he hired prostitutes to piss all over. They love that story. And immediately all their skepticism went away as to where that came from. And also the fact that Trump is not hip enough to do anything slightly kinky. I would dig him so much more if that story had a chance of being true. But then again, it’s very hard for me to imagine digging him less. But those are kind of my rules. I haven’t given them with the kind of bullet points and clickbait one would like to see them. But those are honestly the kinds of things I think about when I’m assessing whether something is real or not.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you. You mentioned journaling earlier and I know that Brian, for instance, Koppelman who came up earlier, does a lot of journaling and he has a very specific approach to journaling. He tends to use a format called Morning Pages, which was popularized by Julia Cameron, this sort of, what he might call her, what she might call spiritual windshield wipers, a way of sort of capturing stream of consciousness. But then you have all manner of different types of journaling, Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn, or Josh Waitzkin, the person associated with Searching for Bobby Fischer. They all have different approaches. How do you journal? How do you use journaling?
Penn Jillette: Well, you know, it’s very funny. When I was 30 years old, I regretted deeply not keeping a journal. And I can’t read my own writing, and my typing is very, very fast, but I’m very bothered by any sort of mistake at all. And then I go back and retype it and it’s terrible. My mom was a typing teacher and taught me to type, so I’ve been typing since I was 12. So there was no way that worked for me, for me to record things before computers. When I was 30 years old, we became very successful off Broadway and Teller and I had a very strong rule that we did not celebrate successes, because we’d seen friends get a record contract and then buy a car, and that seemed incredibly stupid. So when Teller and I had big things happen, we would celebrate with coffee and donuts and that was the end, you know?
But I had promised myself that if we got a good review in The New York Times, which in 1985 meant something, it doesn’t now, but it did mean something then, that our run off Broadway was going to continue, that I would buy myself a computer and a bass guitar, a good bass guitar, and that happened. And I bought myself my first computer. And when I first sat down at the computer, the very first things I wrote were published as short stories. I mean, I went from not writing to writing constantly. And then, it’s very funny to think of this, but at 30 years old I thought, “Man, I haven’t kept a journal. There was all this street performing when I was homeless and living on the streets and all of that that I haven’t recorded; nothing’s going to happen from here on, but I guess, just for the hell of it, I’ll start here.” you know?
And that was 34 years ago. And I guess it’s not literally true that I haven’t missed a day — there may have been a day that I was unconscious — but it is certainly fewer than five days I’ve missed in 34 days and I do not have any sort of particular system. I write the date, the time, where I am, and then I usually write, “I got up.” I then record the previous 24 hours, I take notes on every conversation I’ve had, I write a book report on every book I’ve read, I write a movie report on every movie I’ve watched, I write an art report on every museum or artistic thing I’ve experienced and, as I said, notes on every conversation. I don’t know how much it is, probably 500 to a thousand words a day. I should know how much it is.
And then, and I believe this is the part that may be the most useful, obviously not when I started, but since then, every morning I read 20 years ago, 10 years ago, and one year ago. Now those numbers for how long ago have, of course, changed. It used to be five, but I find that may be the most useful part of my journaling because I time travel. So every morning — it’s mostly morning — I talk to myself 20 years ago, I talk to myself 10 years ago, and I talk to myself last year. And I read that entry and I will tell you, back when I was dating, if you were a sexual partner of mine and you happen to have the exact same argument one year ago that you had that day, I can tell you right now it was over. Because if I look back and see the same problem 2010 or one year ago, attention must be paid.
I like to see different problems pop up. So that is pretty much my journaling. And I usually also do something I found that’s kind of nice and that I will pull parts out of my journal and send them to the people that are important. I mean my friend Lawrence O’Donnell, who has a show on MSNBC, one of my closest friends, he insists that I am the only record that he’s been on this planet because I sent him my conversations with him from 20 years ago, 10 years ago, and last year. And I sent him an email and he says, “You know, there is no evidence whatsoever that this happened except your journal. I remember nothing of it.” But I do that, and also, just recently, I think this is a crazy thing, just this month I started adding pictures. And I don’t know why it was just this month, but I just started to, and I don’t know how that’s going to feel, but it seems good.
And then when I did my 14-day fast, I also did a video journal every day because I was interested in how I would look and how I would feel and how my voice would sound. But that’s my journaling. And since I started doing that, which I did not follow anyone’s pattern on that, I was just trying to be a 16-year-old girl with a diary, that’s all I was trying to do. But since then, I have found that there are many psychologists and therapists that use that reading the past thing as a way of focusing one’s thoughts. But I didn’t know about it when I started. I wasn’t following anybody’s rules on that.
Tim Ferriss: And would you say that the main benefits that you feel, it is a habit that you’ve developed over time, so you may just have the momentum of that habit, but can you discern the benefits that you get from doing this on a daily basis? Is it a matter of purging things so that you feel that they’re safely captured somewhere? Is it the benefit that you get from revisiting yourself at these various snapshots of time? What do you get from putting the time that you do into journaling?
Penn Jillette: It’s hard to say. It’s a small amount of time. The whole process, with reading the past and writing, is probably 20 to 30 minutes. I am a very ritualistic, very habitual, and everybody that thinks about habits, which I believe is everybody, knows that the upside and the downside of being habitual or are pretty well documented. But it’s very hard for me to get out of a groove once I’m in it, and very hard for me to get into a groove before I am. But I find that purging is very, very important. I find that I run things, and of course you understand this is circular, because I know I’m going to write a journal, I run in my head what I’m going to write in the journal. So we don’t have the control group of, if I didn’t keep a journal, if I would do this.
But that being said, I find it very easy, once I’ve typed out what happened the day before, to completely forget it. It just goes away. The day before just goes away from me. And I also, as I go through my day, I act upon what happened in the past 24 hours, right? So I make notes for my podcast, what I’m going to talk about on Sunday School, all that goes over here and I say, “Oh, yeah, I was supposed to write an email to Teller about this.” “Oh, yeah, and that bit sucked last night. I have to talk to so and so about the prop.” And, “Oh, yeah, my car. I have to talk to somebody about that.” It becomes a to-do list before the list happens, you know what I mean? As I’m going, I go, “Oh, yeah, what happened during the show last night? Oh, yeah, there’s this, this, and this.”
And then some of those things, many of those things, I don’t write down, but the going through the past 24 hours gives me the focus that reminds me of things I have to do. And then those get put into their proper files and dealt with their proper emails. Probably if I just sat down for 20 minutes every morning and thought about the day before and what I had to do, it would accomplish the same thing, but without the being unstuck in time. I’m very, very interested in time travel and how we can do that emotionally. So when I was at Ringling Brothers, when I was hitchhiking, when I was off Broadway, I will take a moment, and there aren’t many of them, there aren’t many of them, I’m talking about 10 — five or 10 — I’m not talking about monthly or yearly.
I will just sit in a place and try to really be there and really burn it in, so I can then go back to it. So I can go back to a side of a highway in Nebraska in 1974, the pebbles and everything around me I was looking down at, and my sneakers and everything. I can go back. I have a very, very, very bad visual memory to the point of being studied by people. I can’t imagine anything visually, so that’s a very hard thing for me to do. Other people can visit stuff in their memories visually, easily. But for me, it’s very difficult. I have a conceptual and verbal memory and not a visual memory at all. I cannot rotate objects in space, I cannot recreate any room I’ve been in, I cannot do anything, so that’s a pretty important thing.
And my journal is actually better than video to me because I don’t react very much to visual, so my journal is really what I was thinking about and how the world seemed to be emotionally. It’s my narrative. So the fact that it’s not an accurate recording is actually a plus, but it allows me to move emotionally through my life, you know? Teller has said in interviews, I’ve overheard him, that the defining thing about me is how obsessed I am with the fact that time flies — that time is going away. I think about that all the time. And so that sense of that’s what 20 years ago was is incredibly important to my personality and who I am. But all of that being said, it may be a justification after the fact. The truth may be that it’s just a habit.
Tim Ferriss: I want to come back to the weak visual memories. I suspect that a lot of people like me are surprised upon hearing that, since one might assume, given that the many aspects of your profession, that you would have an incredibly strong visual memory is how has having a weak visual memory made you good, or better at what you do? Or have you just developed compensating mechanisms to make up for it? Maybe that’s part of the answer, I don’t know, but has it helped you in any way to have a weak visual —
Penn Jillette: My compensation is Teller. Teller has a phenomenal visual memory. And if you watch Teller and I work, you can very clearly see that I’m doing a radio show. Every bit that I write, I bring to Teller as me doing voiceover from off stage while stuff happens on stage. And then he moves me onto the stage, moves me as part of the action. We tend to oversimplify. I have to make clear to people, it’s not that I don’t have visual memory, it’s that I have a very bad one. And it’s not my go to. When I was hitchhiking and homeless, I enrolled myself in the University of Chicago psychological testing. I passed myself off as a student to get $5 an hour to do all these tests. And they discovered, during that, that I was the furthest they’d seen, in this particular study, these particular people. I’ve never been able to go back and find any of it because, of course, it wasn’t under my name. I had the widest spread of intelligence they’d ever seen. My IQ is so low visually that I would be in a halfway house if the rest of my IQ was that way.
I have a very, very good conceptual memory. If I have ideas I can hold onto them. I have a pretty good audio memory. Not in terms of texture, but in terms once again of concepts, I can memorize a script very quickly. But if you give me — I mean, I can tell you how bad it is, and don’t be fooled by this by thinking I don’t have face recognition, because I do have face recognition, it’s just not good. But I prepare myself for who I’m going to see. So if I’ve met someone four or five times, there’s no chance of me recognizing them when I see them. Almost no chance. I have to say, “Well I met Tim, and I’m going to see him at Cyan’s party, and I know that this is what he looks like,” and I’ll describe you to myself, and then I’m ready to see you as though someone told me about you.
But I was doing a show in Boston. And I should say parenthetically that I’m a mama’s boy, I was very close to my mom, and very close to my dad as well. I was very close to my parents. And after the show, Teller and I have always met every person in the audience who wants to meet us. So there’s people that come up and take pictures, and sign autographs, and so on, and just talk to us. And that’s often an hour or an hour and a half after an hour and a half show. And I’m not looking closely at people. But my mom, I didn’t know she was going to be at the show, and she came up and asked for an autograph and I signed it for her.
Tim Ferriss: Wow.
Penn Jillette: At which point she said, “I’m your mother.”
Tim Ferriss: That’s incredible.
Penn Jillette: Now I can imagine my mom, but it takes work. Therefore, if you come to my house, there’s an incredible amount of art. And I look at pictures all the time, and I try very hard to throw myself individual stuff to compensate. But when they would do these studies, I remember they thought I was lying because they would show me a picture of a scene or a person. And then they would show me another five pictures, one of which was that person or scene from another angle and asked me which one I’d seen. And no idea. And they would give me a grid of patterns. And they would say, “Recreate this grid,” and I could do it instantly. So what they were studying was how I was using conceptual memory to compensate for visual memory.
But I mean it’s very, very funny because we will be sitting with a builder for something we’re doing in the show, and they will sketch something and say, “Well this is an overhead view. If you just rotate it like this, you’ll see it, but it’s from the front,” and the crew and Teller will all look at me and just look back at the person and go, “Uh, Penn can’t do that. You have to draw it from the other angle for him.”
Tim Ferriss: So I have a long list of things I’m keeping note of just for people listening who are like, “Ferriss, I can’t believe you let that go by and didn’t grab it.” So I want to talk about — we’re going to talk about the fasting. I am going to ask you about the homelessness. But before we get there, I want to ask you about dreaming. If you have dream recall, what does the content of your dreams look or feel like?
Penn Jillette: Well here we have the problem of [inaudible] across the ships in a storm. We don’t know what it’s like, our theory of mind, we don’t know what it’s like to be someone else, right? So it takes a very long time to realize — I’m very good friends with Renee French, who’s a wonderful artist ,who can draw everybody in her kindergarten class from memory, right? She can sketch anything she’s seen. And we sit around, Renee and I, and study each other. Like she will say to me, “Does your prop person that you see every day, does he wear glasses?” And the truth of the matter is, if we haven’t talked about glasses, I don’t know. And then I’ll say to her, “You’ve heard I Am the Walrus a thousand times in your life. What’s the third verse?” And she’ll say, “I know no lyrics to I Am the Walrus, except ‘I am the walrus.’ It’s my entire knowledge of the lyrics of that.”
And we’ll talk about, she’s very, very good at math, and she’ll talk about how she sees numbers as colors and spaces and can manipulate them. And I have no idea what she’s talking about. So this is all coming around to the dreams. I experience my dreams the way I experience my life. I actually dreamed that, in a very surreal way, that I was talking to you, and it was this weird interview situation. And I can tell you what that felt like, and I could tell you that I knew where people were standing and so on, but I cannot, even if I could draw well, I could not sketch a picture of that. It’s all as though it were elaborately described to me.
When you talk about — I do meditation, and in the Sam Harris meditation, he talks about bringing someone’s face to mind. The struggle that is is amazing. When people talk about horrific images they’ve seen and how they flash back on them, I don’t really know what that means. And when I say I don’t know what that means, it’s just that I am trapped, like you are, inside of myself. So I know that my memories involve me in the third person. Like most people’s do. Our manager Glenn, all his memories don’t have him in it. He sees his hands, he sees what’s in front of him, which I know is very unusual. But I, when I’m able to conjure up a visual memory, see it from a point of view that I never saw it at. I see myself in it.
Tim Ferriss: That is incredible.
Penn Jillette: And so I picture myself — yeah. So, and I know that’s — most people see themselves in it, but I just don’t see it — I don’t see it clearly. There’s also the thing is I’ve been partners with Teller for 44 years, so things that I might have developed, anything Teller’s really good at, I am not good at. It’s just atrophied. And anything I’m good at, Teller’s not good at, because it’s also atrophied. So as we become more symbiotic, we’ve — so the thing is we don’t know — well, I wouldn’t have chosen to be a magician if not for Teller. So that’s a silly thing. But I don’t know if I would have developed any sort of visualization skills better if I didn’t have a partner that was so good at it.
I don’t pay any attention to lighting, I pay no attention to set, I pay no attention to anything. Now if I were doing a solo show, some of that would be required. We would probably guess that I’d have someone else that I trusted that would do some of that. But once again, we don’t have a control group.
Tim Ferriss: I have to scratch the itch on the homelessness. Why were you homeless and for how long?
Penn Jillette: Well it was for choice. Homeless — there really isn’t a word for it now, because homeless has become synonymous with mentally ill or poverty stricken. But when I was 18 I was obsessed, as I am now, with Bob Dylan. And Bob Dylan had left home, hitchhiked, hopped trains, worked at a carnival, and traveled all over the country. Turns out none of that was true. But I believed it. So all the stuff that Bob Dylan says he did, I actually did, including hopping trains.
Now when I say I was homeless, I called my mother and father every day to tell them I was okay. That is not what you picture for a homeless person. I, at all times, had $100 sewed into my backpack. Also not true for homeless people. I’ve never had a sip of alcohol or any recreational drug in my life, very unusual for — especially — homeless youth. I had a passport with me and a notarized note from my parents. But I did not have a place to live, and I did not have a job, and I hitchhiked and hopped trains all the time. How did my parents allow this? I have no idea. The capacity they had for love, and support, and freedom is beyond my understanding.
But my mom dropped me off at the rotary. As you can tell, I’m from Massachusetts, the rotary near our home, and I got on Route 91 and I hitchhiked. And during that time I would stop and stay with friends. I would stop at colleges and find a sex partner that I could stay with and take classes, audit classes, walk in, it didn’t make any difference. I was 19, I had hair down the middle of my back. I was indistinguishable from a college student. So I could go and go to whatever college I wanted to and sit in on classes. I would juggle. I would tell jokes. I would pass the hat. I would make money. I was thin. I didn’t need to eat that often. There was nothing to spend money on. Hitchhiking was — I still don’t understand why it’s not more common nowadays since the world is safer. But I think that because of information, we think the world is more dangerous. But it’s certainly an order of magnitude safer by any measure than it was when I was hitchhiking, and it was very, very safe when I was hitchhiking.
Country’s a really safe place. I don’t have any fear of it. And I hitchhiked probably, I don’t know, five times across the country widthwise, four or five times lengthwise up through Canada. And then during that time I also was at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth Clown College. I was street performing, occasionally work at a fair or carnival. And then finally when I teamed up with Teller, I started living in an apartment, but it was a gradual thing. And I was very happy that way.
The other thing is that very shortly I became a successful street performer. So by the time I was at the end of my homeless period, I was making several grand a week street performing that was all in cash. So I was a very wealthy homeless person.
Tim Ferriss: What constituted your street performance at the time?
Penn Jillette: I would do a crowd gather — now, Teller still claims that the greatest thing I’ve ever written was my street act. He thinks I haven’t come — I haven’t hit that in the rest of my life. I would gather a crowd using techniques that are still used that I created. I would gather a crowd of I mean three or 400, maybe 500 people. And I would — the crowd gathering itself would take about five minutes. The collection of money would take about five minutes, and I would do five minutes in between. It was about 15 minutes, only five minutes of which were the show. The rest was, I guess you would call meta. And I would juggle. And I would juggle balls, and I would juggle knives, and I was, at that time, a very good juggler. At my absolute peak of where I was juggling when I was practicing eight hours a day, six days a week with Mike Moschen, MacArthur Grant genius juggler.
We were practicing all the time at our absolute best and we were among the best in the world. We would not even be considered bush league nowadays. It’s just amazing. One of the things that, as far as I know, nobody predicted, is that the internet would make juggling better.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Penn Jillette: It’s amazing. I mean really, a 13-year-old who’s been juggling three years would now be better than I was at my best at my peak.
Tim Ferriss: If I could pry a little bit on the techniques that you created for gathering groups of people, could you give one example of what ingredients of —
Penn Jillette: Yeah —
Tim Ferriss: What you might do.
Penn Jillette: I would walk over to three or four people and say, “Hi, I’m going to be doing a juggling show here in a few minutes and it’ll be stupid without a crowd. So I need to get a crowd here and I need you to help me get a crowd. So what we’re going to do is I’m going to do nothing. And then you people cheer and applaud a little bit, even though there’s only four or five of you. And then other people around will see you and they’ll think something’s happening and they’ll come over here, and of course nothing will be happening, and you can turn around and laugh at them.”
I said, “This is just going to be kind of a joke we’ll play.” So I would do that, and I would do aggressively nothing. I would just stand there, no jokes, nothing. They would do that. And by that time, first time around I’d be working like Headhouse Square in Philly, or I would only work places where it was illegal. I refused to sign up anywhere. And that would get me to a couple dozen people. Then I would do a much bigger version of that same thing. “We’re going to see if we can get 150 people over here within the next minute.” And then I would go to full out screaming, “Maybe someone’s been hurt! Get over here. You don’t want to miss it! There’s a big thing happening!” And then you would have about a hundred people laughing, and about a hundred people that were running — now running — towards me. And then we would get all those people in, and I would do that once more until the original people that started were now in an enormous crowd, which they found supernaturally funny. It was just so meta and so goofy.
And then I would end my show by saying, “You know, you people in the very back row, you didn’t get to see any of the show. I don’t expect any money from you at all. That would be foolish for you to give me money when you haven’t seen the show. What I do expect you to do is hold hands and let nobody out who has not given me money. You people are now my theater.” And then I had a lot of stuff that went there.
And I also had all sorts of rules that I followed. I would not look in any way needy. The best dressed I’ve ever been, most expensively, was when I was doing street performing. I wore a $3,000 watch. My idea was that people should be ashamed to give me less than a $20. And I also — you’re talking to me in the morning, you hear be clearing my throat and coughing — working outdoors with no training for 500 people and screaming covered my larynx with scar tissue, and made it so that for years I was coughing up blood and drinking Chloraseptic for an anesthetic on my throat. And the sound of my voice now is the sound that you get from doing years of street performing and blowing it out every day.
Tim Ferriss: Wow.
Penn Jillette: Because you know, if you’re going to be outdoors in the wind and you’ve got 500 people listening to you, to be heard in the back takes every single thing you have. I mean, a 15-minute show was completely exhausting.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. So it sounds like even though you say it was five minutes of performing and really the gathering and asking for money, all of it was a performance.
Penn Jillette: Oh, there’s no doubt about that. I didn’t mean to misrepresent that. Yes, it was a 15-minute show, there was no doubt about it, and every single person was aware of that. No one thought like, “Oh, the juggling’s over, I guess there’s no fun coming.” Everybody knew that the collection of money was going to be more fun than the juggling. Everybody knew that. I mean, it did not take any sort of insight to go, “Oh, what this guy is doing is doing a show about street shows.”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. That’s genius. Did you take anything from that period of vagabonding aside from the development of the street performing that then led to things that came later? Were there other realizations, or anything else that came from that period that informed your life in a significant way?
Penn Jillette: Yeah, I mean everything. I got to be phenomenally trusting. I believe that atheism and libertarianism come from pathological optimism, which I have. I found myself at two in the morning rest stops where I could easily be beaten to death. I’ve found myself in inner city places and I even — and I mean this is saying exactly the opposite of what I should be saying, but I don’t know how it fits in. I had guns pulled on me, knives pulled on me, and I was in the worst kind of situation, and it was okay. And I came out of that very trusting of people.
I also came out of it being incredibly good at deescalating hostility. A very odd thing happened to me where I did two tours of duty on Celebrity Apprentice. And I was on there with people who were volatile, and there was one time after it aired, there’s that big lag in television. So it was like six months after it happened, and I don’t ever watch myself on TV, so I hadn’t seen the show. But we got a call from an FBI guy at our office. And the FBI guy wanted to talk to me, and of course the first reaction you should have when the FBI calls you is to lawyer up! And our manager said, “Why do you want to talk to Penn?” And they assured him it was nothing criminal, which the FBI does even when it is something criminal, so we were still a little wary.
But the guy then got my email address and wrote to me and said that he had watched an altercation between me and Lou Ferrigno on Celebrity Apprentice. On the television show, on TV. And that Lou Ferrigno was becoming very aggressive to me. And the guy at Quantico said, “It’s really interesting that you followed all that we teach our FBI guys on how to defuse a situation. Your eye contact, your body language, your calmness without backing down.” He had a whole list of things. He said, “You do every one of them in order, and you defuse the situation completely.” And he said, “We want to know where you studied this.” And I said, “Well, I lived hitchhiking for quite a while and you’d find yourself in a biker bar, with long hair, and wearing eye makeup, and you’d find yourself with somebody that didn’t like that.” And I said, “I’ve never hit anybody in anger in my life, ever. I am completely a pacifist. I’m completely nonviolent. And I have been around very violent people. And I never wanted them to go a step further.”
And he said, “You know, would you come and speak at Quantico about defusion?” I said, “No, you asshole. I’m a magician, you fool. I don’t know anything. You go and study this and teach clean-cut people with guns to do it!” I said, “I think being a clean-cut person with a gun makes this harder to do, actually. But no, but I’m so flattered.” It’s so amazing. So I think that I carried that through life. I have done some very transgressive performing and I don’t get beat up much.
Tim Ferriss: So let’s jump into that for one second, because this is a very valuable skill. Could you give an example of how you deescalated a situation, and what the steps or strategies were that you used? Could be with Lou, could be with anyone, but just an example of how you deescalated a situation.
Penn Jillette: Well, I don’t really because I didn’t learn it, because I developed it, trial and error. I don’t really have a checklist I go through. But I can tell you one story. I was somewhere like Nebraska, and this was early on hitchhiking, I was 18 maybe. And I did not have a lot of money at that point. And I did have very long hair and very eccentric clothes. And I was a hippie and it was ’73. And history hasn’t shown it, but the ’60s actually happened in the early ’70s. You know, ’68, it wasn’t until the ’70s that the hippie movement hit the rural areas really. And there was still a lot of fear and aggression towards people with long hair, even as late as ’73.
And I was in a diner, and I was flirting with the waitress and it was — I’m sorry, server — it was the middle of the night, and a little counter, little tiny diner. And I had ordered a milkshake and a piece of pie, which was my entire diet for weeks then. And that was all the money I happened to have at that point was to buy a milkshake and a piece of pie and leave a tip, which I always did because I was a street performer. And so I put my whatever that was, $3 down for that; you’ve got to figure with inflation it’s about — add a zero to it. So that’s about $30 nowadays. I bought my milkshake and I had one of those really good ones, it’s in the can and the whole thing when it used to be a frappe and —
Tim Ferriss: The best.
Penn Jillette: The best, yeah. And two guys driving a truck, two separate trucks came in, and they were not in the mood to see a hippie. And they were also — that was also tied in at that time with a sexual preference. They’re going to call me things like homosexual slurs and so on, and they’re going to confuse the politics and the sexuality. And so they’re getting very, very aggressive and they’re also showing off in front of the server, who was attractive. And they’re coming in towards me and they’re very, very clearly going to hit me. It’s escalating very, very quickly. And so I said, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute!”
And I picked up my milkshake, the glass in one hand and the metal container in the other, and I poured them over my head in front of them. Just picked them up and poured cold, sticky milkshake over my head. And they then said, and I’m going to use another slur here, please forgive me. They then said, “He’s just retarded.” They weren’t going to hit somebody who was covered with milkshake. It wasn’t going to make them appear macho.
So they actually just grabbed their coffee to go and got in their truck and left. And the server was rather impressed. And I said, “Yeah, I did defuse the situation, but now I’ve covered in milkshake.” And then I had to go into the restroom at this little diner and try to clean my clothes, and my hair, and everything of milkshake in a dirty sink. And then came back out and she was very, very kind. The guy who was a short order cook in the back came out and they gave me another piece of pie and another milkshake on the house. And I remember smelling the milkshake in my hair for about 48 hours.
But that is a clear case of how you can stop someone from hitting you. Now you have to have no ego involved in this at all. You can’t say, “I want to prove — ” well, actually, that’s not true. I feel in telling this story, in my narrative, I proved I was a genius. But to them I didn’t prove that.
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Penn Jillette: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. I want to talk about — oh, go ahead.
Penn Jillette: Well one of the ways to defuse a situation is very simply to give the other side everything they want. I mean, right?
Tim Ferriss: Yep.
Penn Jillette: Yes, I’m a dirty, filthy hippie, I’m an awful person. I’m this, I’m that. If you don’t have — if you don’t fall into the macho trap of “I have to prove something to a stranger about my intellect, my morality, or my sexuality,” if those just go away and aren’t important, you have defused, what, 70 percent of those situations. And if you’re not drinking, you’ve defused 100 percent of them.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Yeah. You’ve really —
Penn Jillette: You know, if you go to any trauma unit and ask them what percentage of people in here have alcohol or drugs part of their problem, they will tell you 100 percent. If you move sober through the world, you have this huge advantage. Right? I mean, just a remarkable advantage because you can make kind of rational decisions and you don’t have certain parts of your thinking reduced. You know?
Tim Ferriss: So I’ve read about your abstinence from alcohol and drugs and so on, and you can’t believe everything you read on the internet of course, but the line that popped out at me, maybe true, maybe not, is that you feel you have an addictive personality and therefore you didn’t do these things. Has that always been the case? And how did you, if that’s true, how did you come to that conclusion to begin with?
Penn Jillette: Well, I have five or six narratives for the not drinking and not doing drugs that are — I don’t have access to why I really do stuff anymore than anyone else does. I do know that I come from a long line of teetotalers, and if you look at any sort of data, parents not doing drugs and not drinking is the biggest indicator of offspring not doing drugs and drinking. Now, a lot of that’s tied in with certain sort of cults and so on, fundamentalist things, so that data’s confused. But the fact that my mom and dad never mentioned drugs or alcohol, that it was never in the house. They never told me not to do it. It just did not exist in my world.
I remember talking to my buddy Christopher Hitchens, who drank a lot, and we had — there was a lot of discussion over that, being friends, one of whom drank heavily and one who drank not at all. One time I said to him, and it seemed pretty heavy. I said, “When you think of someone drinking, who do you picture?” And he said, “Winston Churchill.” And I said, “Oh, that’s interesting.” And he said, “Who do you picture?” I said, “Ronnie Peronto.” And Christopher Hitchens, who knew everything, went crazy trying to remember who Ronnie Peronto was. I said, “Oh, you don’t know him. He wrapped his car around a tree when I was in high school.”
So the first people I saw drink, the first people I saw drink were 12-year-olds, 13-year-olds, vomiting on themselves. The first people other people saw drink were adults interacting in a sane way. I think that’s part of it. The other part of it is I’ve always wanted to be smarter than I am. When I saw people doing drugs and alcohol, they didn’t seem like they were smarter than they were. They seemed stupider. I now know that you can make the argument and Joe Rogan can make the argument and Sam Harris can make the argument that with certain psychedelics that may not be true, but let’s not go there this answer.
And then the other thing was I was obsessed. All I wanted when I was in junior high and high school was to be Jewish, gay, and live in New York City. That’s all I wanted. But I was a big, dumb farm boy. You know? I wanted to be 5’7″, 5’8″. I wanted to have an enormous nose, and I wanted to talk with a lisp, and I wanted to live in The Village. That’s all I wanted. And I loved Lenny Bruce, and then Lenny Bruce was dead before I knew about him. I only knew the records. And my understanding of him was that drugs killed him. I loved Hendrix, and drugs killed him.
And I wanted to pursue a life in the arts, which I’d never met anybody in the arts, in my little town, never met one person in the arts, but I wanted to do that. I felt that people with my personality seemed, and I realize this is incredibly pretentious and presumptuous and forgive me, but my self-image was such that I tried to find parts of my heart that overlapped with Lenny Bruce. I’m not saying now that I’m at that talented a level, but as a child, I wanted to be that. And I thought, “Boy, if I want to be that, that sure kills a lot of people that have this personality type.” I also knew that I did not respect moderation in any way. I wanted to be all or nothing on everything, and I just thought if I had one sip of alcohol, I would be mainlining heroin within a week. I really felt that.
Tim Ferriss: So let’s —
Penn Jillette: And —
Tim Ferriss: You have a lot of proof points for the intensity, at least, that dislike of moderation, right? I mean, this is not unfounded. Sorry to interrupt, but I have to ask because people are going to want to hear about it, and I want to hear about it. Just kind of segueing from the dislike of moderation, let’s talk about your weight loss. Exceptionally hardcore, I believe, but I want you to correct me if I’m wrong, that this really sort of had rocket fuel poured on it late 2014 something like that, but how much, just as a starting point, how much weight did you lose over what period of time?
Penn Jillette: If you want the real metrics, I lost an average of 0.9 pounds a day for four months. That’s the average, 0.9, which is pretty amazing.
Tim Ferriss: It is.
Penn Jillette: If you look at the whole thing, we tend not to weigh ourselves at the heaviest, so I don’t really have the metric. But I know that I have an actual data point at like 335, 340. I have that actual data point. I probably was higher than that. I probably was maybe 10, maybe 15 pounds higher than that, and at my lowest, which was on my birthday, you know Cray Ray, Ray Cronise.
Tim Ferriss: I do.
Penn Jillette: You wrote a chapter in your book about him.
Tim Ferriss: I do.
Penn Jillette: This is all Ray, or Cray Ray, as I call him.
Tim Ferriss: Cray Ray!
Penn Jillette: This was all Cray Ray, and in what I believe is as difficult mathematics as landing a man on the moon, he was able to predict my weight four months in advance to within two-tenths of a pound.
Tim Ferriss: That’s incredible.
Penn Jillette: Yeah. But he also says that, in his experience, I am the only one that has followed every rule without one deviation point for the whole time.
Tim Ferriss: Okay, so let’s pause for one second because I want to give people context on Ray. So Cray Ray, I didn’t realize you called him that. Ray Cronise, C-R-O-N-I-S-E, former NASA scientist, I met a long time ago, something like 2007, 2008 at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. I wanted to talk to him because a mutual friend had described experimentation he had done using cold exposure to accelerate fat loss, and you mentioned thermodynamics earlier. Ray knows a lot about thermodynamics, and he then became the profile for a chapter in The 4-Hour Body about using cold exposure to accelerate fat loss and body recomposition. But his thinking and his approaches have developed over time, and he’s added a lot more to the toolkit. What were some of the rules that he had you follow?
Penn Jillette: Well, both Ray and I are atheists and skeptics, and we did a really interesting thing. Cray Ray said, “You know, we know that there are things that work in joining a cult, and we also know that we can access things that we know are wrong to modify behaviors.” So he said, “You are going to decide to join my cult for this amount of time, and you are going to follow cult rules, and we both know they’re bullshit, but we’re doing them just for fun.” He said, “You’re not going to talk to anybody about what you’re doing. You are going to cut off your family and friends from this. You are going to do whatever I say absolutely and without question, and you are going to deal with me as though I had complete power. Now, you and I know, Penn, that at least half of what I think about this is wrong. We just don’t know what half. We don’t know what parts. So you’re just going to go along with it and you’re going to use all that cult stuff. Here’s what you’re going to do.
“First two weeks, you’re eating nothing but potatoes, and that is going to knock you out of your social eating, and that is going to let you feel what hunger feels like, and that is going to let you see what the advertising looks like. That will take the blinders away. And then we’re going to add in food, and this is what you will eat every day up until here. And you are allowed none of this, this, this, this, or this,” and I guess you’ll want to hear what that is. So I did potatoes for two weeks, then we added in some beans and chili and some rice and vegetables and salads, and it was four months before I had a taste of fruit or nuts. He also allowed me to not think that this was going to be forever, you know? “Oh, you’ll have a steak again. You’ll have steak, you’ll have all that, but for right now we’re just going to do this.”
He also, and I can’t stress how important this is, and I think you’ve discovered this a lot in your work as well, but every time I tried to lose weight before, every fucking doctor, every article in The New York Times, had always said, “This is an easy way to weight loss. This is the easy way to weight loss.” And it was like, as Brando says in Apocalypse, “like a diamond bullet” in my forehead. In a simple exchange with Ray, I said to him, “So I could lose like 40 pounds easily?” He went, “No, it’s going to be really, really hard.” And I went, “Oh.” No one had ever said that to me before. No one. They’d always said, “You’re going to cut down your portions a little bit. You’ll have a smaller bit of dessert, and you’ll lose a pound a week over the next 150 years.” You know? “We’re going to go nice and slow and easy. You won’t even notice, Penn. You won’t even notice.” And he said, “Oh, it’s going to be really hard,” and I realized in that instant that nobody brags about walking up a grassy slope. They brag about climbing Everest. You know? I have never, ever wanted to do anything easy in my life. Why, with my health, was I deciding that that was the thing that had to be easy? And I realized that not only do I not respect moderation, I don’t respect people who have moderation. Want to quote the Kerouac here? I want the people that — the madmen who burst into flames. That’s who I want to love. And so he had me do contrast showers, hot to cold, back and forth. He had me eat potatoes whenever I wanted, but then I went down to very strict amounts of time, and there were things that I think we’re probably borderline irresponsible. We cut down my calorie intake enough that I was light-headed probably too much of the time, but it was okay. It ended up all right.
What we really do, you can always do the arithmetic. Cray Ray doesn’t care at all about calories, and I don’t count calories, and I don’t care at all. But if you want to do the arithmetic, you can say what 0.9 pounds a day in terms of calories are, you know? So we can probably say I was eating 4,000 to 5,000 calories a day, and we cut it back to probably 600. We’re talking about very, very — but here is the thing that I’m most embarrassed about and also, kind of like you often are with embarrassing things, most proud of having learned. Being an atheist, I did not believe in mind-body duality. I did not believe there was a spirit. I believed that I was my body and that all my thinking and all my love and all my awareness and all my consciousness, although nobody knows what consciousness is, but all of that did have an organic place.
I believed that completely, or so I thought. And when I started losing the weight and my mood started changing, I mean, there were psychological changes in me, I became gentler, kinder, and let’s underline this and put it in all caps: HAPPIER. And this is from someone who was not depressed, who was very, very happy, who didn’t have any problems. I wasn’t violent. It wasn’t any of that. But still, wherever you are, you can go up further. You know? And I realized that I did not believe the organic view of humanity completely. I had this sense that there was a homunculus driving myself behind my eyeballs that was kind of my spirit that didn’t care that it was functioning in a fat body. And as I started to lose that weight, I went, “Oh, yeah, I get it. I mean, in a certain sense, I’m thinking and feeling with my whole body. It’s not just this lump of brain inside my head,” and that was a phenomenal thing to realize how wrong I had been.
There was a weird thing. I went on the Vomit Comet, also because of Cray Ray, because you brag about knowing him in the 2000s. I knew him in the ’90s. I went on the Vomit Comet, so I went from weightless to double my weight in approximately 30-second intervals, like 26 seconds or something. And I did a lot of parabolas, because I was on an illegal flight. It was all very illegal, so we did like 40 parabolas, so I was weightless for a long time and I was heavy for a long time. I was heavy at that time. I was fat then, too, and I went to twice my weight. What I remembered later was that when I went to twice my weight, my mood changed. It’s incredible how you can learn what weight loss will do to you emotionally by going in the Vomit Comet and going from, as I was going from, zero to 600 pounds back and forth in one minute intervals. It’s amazing how when you’re heavier, you get sadder.
Now, I don’t know if this directly maps onto it, and this may be more poetic than scientific. I don’t want to make claims I don’t really understand. But I, as I lost weight, I lost weight, I lost concerns. Things were lighter, things were easier. I didn’t have to think about wanting to play with my children, you know? “Oh, I should do this.” I just did it. It was really remarkable, remarkable changes in my life, you know?
I have also, since then, I’ve done a two-week fast. I guess I have to underline medically supervised, because I don’t want anybody to think they can just do that. It’s not safe. Three days you’re safe, but over three days, be careful. I’ve also gained weight since then, and I’m now going down again, but I have made — the magic moment is two years. Everybody gains back their weight in two years, and if you don’t gain back the weight in two years, you are in this very small percentage. Different studies say different amounts, but two to five percent of people keep it off after two years. What Cray Ray is discovering, which someone of your build doesn’t get to discover this, but the faster you lose the weight, the more likely you are to keep it off, which is contrary to everything that we believed five years ago. So it’s worked well for me.
Tim Ferriss: And you mentioned the extended fast, the 14-day fast. You’ve also found a place for, as we’ve mentioned before recording, people in Silicon Valley and elsewhere would call intermittent fasting. But it sounds like your current default when you are behaving is roughly 23 hours of fasting, one hour of feeding per day?
Penn Jillette: Yeah. Yup. And I will tell you that if you were to sit down with me during that one hour of feeding, you would be appalled. The actual volume of food that I eat is phenomenal. I mean, I eat a salad the size of your head, gigantic salad. I eat probably six servings of brown rice or some whole grain, farro. One of those things. I try to eat a little less brown rice. It’s a little less healthy, but it’s my favorite food in the world. Chili, beans, stew, maybe even some fat stuff like guacamole. My wife is an incredible vegan cook and follows — I follow the Fuhrman thing absolutely. Incredibly low salt. Incredibly low oil. Really, very little processed, and then the amount of fruit that I have for dessert is, you know those containers of blueberries? Like five of those, and like two cups of pomegranate seeds on top of those. I mean, a gigantic bowl. Would not fit in any bowl you have. Has to be like an industrial bowl that I’m eating out of.
Tim Ferriss: It’s just a mixing bowl.
Penn Jillette: Like Michael Jordan eating banana pudding. It’s that amount of food, and then usually a few squares of incredibly dark 90 percent chocolate, and that is really an hour of eating. My children join me for supper about 15 minutes in and leave before a half hour, oh, I still have a half hour to go. It’s one of the reasons I can’t eat at restaurants is I can’t get the volume of food I want. We’re really talking about the equivalent — I mean, to put this in terms that are kind of easy to visualize, I probably eat the equivalent of like eight baked potatoes, you know?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Penn Jillette: It’s a huge amount. But then again, if you’re looking at caloric content or fat content or any of that, it’s really low, and what my body’s trying to do is to desperately get whatever I need a day, whatever that is, 1,500 to 2,000 calories. Trying to get that out of incredibly nutrient-rich but not calorie-rich food. Also, I’m very fortunate. We give a lot of credit to Cray Ray, but also my wife, who’s been not eating mammals for years and years and takes cooking very seriously and really enjoyed the Fuhrman challenge.
I eat really different food every single night and it’s always gourmet quality. And you know, Dr. Klaper has had supper with me, and Cray Ray’s had supper many times with me, and they’re just blown away. They just go, “With this kind of food delivered to you every night, anyone can do this.” There’s nothing required. It’s just incredibly, incredibly good food that’s labor intensive. And when I go on the road and I go down to just eating 10 containers of watermelon and rice and beans and stuff plain, it’s fine. But then again, that’s rare for me.
And then, you know, there is all I really want to eat, which is peanut butter. If I had my way, I would eat nothing but peanut butter all day, all night, all the time. The other thing that blew my mind, and you read these books on habit, and I read this book One Bite, or First Bite, I think. Really great book. And this woman set out to find what scientists believe that food desires were innate and what scientists believe that food desires were learned, cultural and habitual. And she couldn’t find any scientists that believed it was innate. It is incredible how I thought that foods that I absolutely loved are now repulsive to me just because they’re out of habit.
I mean, my favorite foods I now look at and go, “Ewww.” Even uncomfortable watching other people eat them. My new comfort foods have just changed. There’s a lot of stuff, we don’t know anything about this, but you know, your microbiome changes over three or four months. There’s certainly feedback to the brain from the microbiome. We know that, although it’s in its infancy, and all of that stuff, when you read those scientific articles, all of that stuff completely maps over my first-hand experience. And I don’t want to, please don’t allow me to claim stuff I don’t know. I’d like very much to talk about how the microbiome changed my personality and all of that, but I can’t prove that. I have no evidence, so don’t let me go there. But what I feel about is that my diet has changed me profoundly. But of course, at the same time I started meditating and other stuff changed in my life, so we don’t have that control. We never have a control in our own lives.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, it’s one of the big challenges of a multifactorial life outside of the laboratory. It’s tough. And I want to really congratulate you on not just the weight loss, but also inspiring people to pursue better health as an example of what can be done. I know that a lot of people have lost a lot of weight after seeing you so publicly take better control of your health, so it’s really remarkable.
Penn Jillette: It’s very gratifying. I also want to say, and this is the part that you might quibble with, and I’d be interested. Cray Ray also allowed no exercise whatsoever during the time I was losing weight. He believes that weight loss and bodybuilding fight each other and that you should not be doing great exertion. You should be sitting, you should be doing very little when you’re doing weight loss. And people had misunderstood that as Penn’s miraculous just eat potatoes and don’t exercise diet, which you know very well, but I want to say it, is very contrary to what I did. I ate full, rounded, full meals. For two weeks, I did potatoes as a stunt to teach myself things about food. It was not done as a healthy diet. It’s not done for a lifetime. It’s done for two weeks. And the not exercising was not done for a lifetime. It was done for that time while I wanted to take a lot of weight off and then exercise starts back in.
Tim Ferriss: Yep. So let me respond to that, because Ray and I meet eye-to-eye on a lot of things, and I don’t think we’re as far away as one might suspect. I do think that exercise can act as a lead domino that then causes, just through cognitive dissonance, better behavior when it comes to diet. But Ray is right I think, and I don’t want to speak for him, but I can only speak to my position, and that is you cannot outwork your mouth, and there is one of the common consequences —
Penn Jillette: If you want to quote him exactly, it’s, “You can’t outrun your mouth.”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Oh, I’m just — yeah, I’m not even necessarily quoting, but it’s a very common mistake that when you take someone who is accustomed to overeating, who then layers on exercise that is not necessarily building muscle mass but creates the illusion of great energy expenditure, say, certain types of cardiovascular exercise, that they compensate by rewarding themselves with 10 times the number of calories that they would have burned in that given session. So I do think there’s a place for resistance training. I don’t think it has to be frequent, but that in the beginning it is really important to make the primary focus dietary so people understand that if you want to change the musculature that is attached to your skeletal system, you do that by lifting weights. If you want to really lose body fat for body recomposition, it is 90 percent plus diet, and you have to prove that to yourself, and a very effective way of doing that is taking exercise off the table for a short period of time in which span you can prove to yourself quite easily that you lose pounds in the kitchen, not primarily in the gym. So I do agree with him, I think, in principle on that.
Penn Jillette: Well, everything you just said is right in line. I think that it was certainly a way. The other thing is that, that I should say that I stopped exercise, but I didn’t stop doing the show. Ray strapped on one of those calorie counters that takes all your breath and everything and had me do five minutes of our show at full volume and full energy and was astonished by the amount of calories I was burning. So he said, “You’re kind of doing a run every night, so my no-exercise thing is kind of sort of bullshit.”
Tim Ferriss: That’s a great point. Great point.
Penn Jillette: Yeah. So you have to remember that, although I tell you I was sitting during that time, I was going out on stage and jumping and running and yelling for 90 minutes every night.
Tim Ferriss: And that’s, even at a lighter version of Penn, that’s still quite a bit of mass to move around.
Penn Jillette: You’re moving a lot of meat. You’re moving a lot of meat.
Tim Ferriss: So let’s talk about — this is a bit of a left turn, but that’s okay. I’d like to talk about one of my favorite physicists, because I certainly never had a chance to meet him, but it sounds like you did, and that is Richard Feynman.
Penn Jillette: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: I’ve been fascinated by Feynman for decades, and actually recently ended up buying a set of his encyclopedias that he kept in his office.
Penn Jillette: Oh, wow.
Tim Ferriss: But never had a chance to have any interactions. And I was hoping you could describe your interactions with Richard and anything that you might’ve taken from those encounters with him.
Penn Jillette: Yeah. You know, I met him a very long time ago. It’s funny because there was a show on television called Numbers. It was actually spelled NUMB3RS, it’s been a three in there. And the premise was a mathematician who solves crimes. And they had a scientist who was the consultant for the television show. And I came on playing myself, and one of the script writers had written in a line for me where I talked about being friends with Richard Feynman. And the scientist who was consulted on the show flagged it and said, “I don’t think you want to do this line because there is really — it’s a real stretch of the imagination to believe that Penn Jillette could have known Richard Feynman.”
And I said, “Well, I did.” And he went, “Oh.” I said, “Well, I did. So it’s a stretch of the imagination, but not for me. It’s a memory.” So they let that line go. I, I think read — maybe it was “Surely You’re Joking” — as soon as it came out. And I was a big fan of Richard Feynman, and we were doing a show at the Las Palmas, the L.A. Stage Company it’s called now, in Hollywood. About a 500-seat theater. And we had done this list in our program of people we’d like to see the show. It was a funny kind of idea we had. We had a list of like 50 names, that included Samuel Beckett and George Romero and Richard Feynman and Debbie Harry and Lou Reed were on this list of people.
It just said people we’d like to have see our show. That was it. And Feynman was on the list. And Crispin Glover was on the list. And Feynman came to the show. And we ended the show at that time with my favorite monologue I’ve ever written, and my favorite to do. Which was the thing we call Ten-in-One, which is what the carnival sideshow is actually called among the carnival people is Ten-in-One, where I described the physics of fire eating, the biology of fire eating. I teach fire eating, then perform it.
And during that time, I talk about how we think that skeptics are against the mystery, whereas it’s religious people are against the mystery. Religious people see a mystery and they want to have an answer: “This is how things happen,” and so on. I do it much better in the real monologue, but I can’t get into it this way. And scientists are willing to say, “I don’t know,” and that’s embracing the mystery. And lo and behold, Richard Feynman came up to me after one of the shows and said that I had said something in that monologue that he had never been able to say that clearly. And that he had brought his wife and he had said to her afterwards, “See? That’s what I mean.” And she’d understood something that she hadn’t understood before. I mean, a mind-blowing thing to have said to somebody. I was pretty — I pretty much fell apart.
And then over the next run of the show, he came back to the show several times, and at one point he brought five — count them — five Nobel laureates with him to see the show. We may have had the highest concentration of Nobel laureates outside of Stockholm at the L.A. Stage Company! And “became friends,” I think, would be exaggerating, but I had his home phone number and we went out to dinner a few times and I met Murray Gell-Mann and talked with him. To show you the clash of cultures, Murray Gell-Mann once said to me, “I’ve heard there’s a television program on late at night hosted by David Letterman that might be a good move for your career for you to go on.” He’d never seen it, mind you! He’d never seen it.
Tim Ferriss: “This David…Letter-man.”
Penn Jillette: Yeah, exactly. And so the story I tell that makes science friends of mine bang their head against the wall is I would pick up Feynman’s books on physics and I would realize that I — because I got out of high school on a plea bargain and didn’t really graduate — I didn’t know the algebra for. He would explain something and I wouldn’t get it.
So I would call him up and I would say, “Hey, Richard, I’m reading your book here, and this whole paragraph here, I get trouble with it.” And he would say, “Well that’s just your high school algebra, Penn.” And I said, “Well, I didn’t have high school algebra.” He would say, “Okay, get a piece of paper and a pencil and let’s go through high school algebra.”
Tim Ferriss: Amazing, that’s so incredible.
Penn Jillette: And I’d be on the phone with him for like an hour and a half, where he’d be going, “So you cancel out the a on that side of the equal sign, you cancel it out over there.” And that — I mean arithmetic, he was teaching me arithmetic. And I’d get through his book and I’d call him up and say, “I got a few questions about vectors.” And he’d go, “Okay, shoot!”
Tim Ferriss: That’s incredible!
Penn Jillette: And then perhaps the funniest was Teller and I wanted to do a bit on Letterman with liquid air. We wanted liquid nitrogen. And the gag was we’re going to drop things in and freeze them and smash them, and then Teller’s hand was going to go in and we’d smash his hand. And then we’d drop a mouse in and then show the mouse was okay and then the mouse would jump in. And that was the gag. So we needed to have a lot of liquid nitrogen, we needed to play around with it. And at that time, it’s amazing how stupid I was. That was in the ’80s. I didn’t know what you could do with liquid nitrogen or where to get it.
So Teller said, “Well, we got to find a physicist to get on board to help us with this liquid nitrogen thing.” And I said, “Well, I’ll call Feynman.” So I called Richard and I said, “Listen man, we want to do this bit on Letterman. We want to do liquid nitrogen, we want to do a liquid air show.” And he went, “Awww, fuck, I haven’t dealt with any, like, real physics in 50 years. I don’t know. I don’t know. So I don’t know. I don’t know what to do.” And Feynman said, “Let me get on it.” And like an hour later, a professor called me from a community college in Brooklyn and he said, “May I speak to Penn Jillette, please?” I said, “Yeah, this is Penn.” He said, “I know this is a gag. I know this is a practical joke, but someone claiming to be Richard Feynman called me and asked me if I would call Penn of Penn & Teller to set up a liquid air show on Letterman. I know I’m the brunt of the joke. I just don’t know what the joke is. Who is this and who called me?”
I said, “Well, this is Penn, and it was Richard Feynman that called you.” And he just went, “I get a call from Richard Feynman?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Where’d he get my number?” I said, “Maybe there’s like a directory of physicists. I don’t know!” He said, “I teach at a community college!” So we got together with that guy and we worked with him for three weeks and did the liquid air show on Letterman, which was a bit that went very well.
And the guy brought a ton of liquid nitrogen and we said, “Tell us the stuff you do when it’s not in front of school classes. The stuff that’s a little bit too dangerous and a little bit too crazy and let’s play with it.” So we played with liquid nitrogen and even liquid oxygen and all sorts of stuff for weeks and did a bit on the show that went very well. But when I try to tell science friends of mine that to get liquid nitrogen I called Richard Feynman, they just go, “We knew you were an asshole Penn, but — “
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. All right. “And then I called Picasso to ask him where I could buy some number two pencils,” right?
Penn Jillette: Exactly. It’s exactly that level. Exactly that level, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: And you mentioned a book. I just want to underscore for people because it’s such a fun read, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! F-E-Y-N-M-A-N is a fit is a fantastic read for people who want to understand why I get so giddy talking about Richard Feynman, why I’d be so interested in him, not just as a physicist, but also as a teacher, right? I mean, he’s such an incredible teacher and —
Penn Jillette: Yeah, but more important than either of those two is he was a person that you want to be. I mean, Bob Dylan sings, “To live outside the law, you must be honest.” And Richard Feynman had found a way to live outside the law that was phenomenal. He would not fall into any cliche whatsoever. You know, my friend Tim Jenison, who is how I know Ray Cronise. We did a movie about him called —
Tim Ferriss: Tim’s Vermeer.
Penn Jillette: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Spectacular movie, by the way.
Penn Jillette: Tim, thank you! Tim said to me that when he’s meeting somebody, if he learns two things about them and can guess the third, he’s really uninterested. Like if he finds out that they’re vegan and they like The Grateful Dead, and then he finds out they’re against nuclear power, he says, “I’m kind of done. I kind of know that kind of person.” And it’s really interesting to look at oneself and say, “If someone has two cliche data points on me, can they guess the third to be absolutely right?”
And Feynman was the perfect example of that. You could say Nobel prize winner, professor, drummer. He wasn’t like a guy who listened to opera, you know what I mean? He was a drummer — and he was a South American style music drummer. The way he spoke, the way he carried himself. You could not guess what the other thing was going to be. And it’s one of the ways, probably unfairly, that you can decide how close you want to be to somebody is just, if they can tell you something really early on that surprises you. As we build our theory of other minds, we get these points, and then we guess the other points. And if you can’t do that, that’s someone you want to fall in love with.
Tim Ferriss: Definitely. I was planning, this was actually the next point was related to Tim’s Vermeer that I wanted to bring up, because it relates to Feynman also in another respect. And that is in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, it may have been one of his later works, Richard talks about learning to paint and having a debate with his painter friend about who can better appreciate the flower: the person who only sees the extrinsic beauty of observation, or the person who has a better understanding of the mechanisms underlying the biology, the botany underlying the flower itself? And Richard would argue for the latter, having additional layers of appreciation for this thing that they’re painting. And one of the aspects of your work, and your work with Teller that I so appreciate, is not just the beauty of the trick or the gag, but also the beauty of what comes behind it.
And I’d love to hear, because you have an infinite number of projects you could choose from. How did you choose to put the time into Tim’s Vermeer? It is one of my favorite documentaries in the last many years and I highly recommend everybody to check it out. But maybe you could — I’d love to hear you explain how you decided to pursue that.
Penn Jillette: Because I couldn’t find another way. I didn’t want to, I did not have the time and it was not on my agenda to get done. But I had young children, very young children, and I realized that I had not had a conversation with an adult that I was not — outside of my family — that I was not being paid for in a year. And that really distressed me. So I called up Tim and I thought it was a social call. He remembers it as an emergency call. And I said, “Hey, Tim, I’ve just got to talk to somebody.” And he said, “Okay, I’ll fly in.” So he flew into Vegas and at that time we were both eating meat, which we don’t do now. We went to Texas de Brazil and sat down and I said, “Tim, tell me something I can’t possibly make money on, I can’t possibly use in my show, and I don’t know about.”
And he said, “How much do you know about Vermeer?” And I said, “First two paragraphs of Wikipedia and I’m out.” And then Tim sat there and then he pulled out audio visual aids. At that time you didn’t do that with a cell phone as easily. He had an actual video camera with him, with the little screen on it. And he showed me his early experiments with Vermeer. And I said, “Boy, Tim, you have fucked up royally, because this is something that’s involved in my business. This should be a documentary.” Tim said, “No, nobody cares about this at all.” I said, “No, no, the world will care about this, Tim.” He said, “No, no, nobody cares about this. This is one scientific paper. No one cares.” I said, “No, no, this is a movie.” And then I said, “Let’s find you somebody.”
So I talked to a lot of producers and a lot of directors. Tim and I flew to L.A. We flew to New York. Actually, I was a hindrance because people thought that his extraordinary claim was a gag because I was with him —
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Penn Jillette: — that I was doing some sort of — this is some sort of hidden camera gag, but you know, BBC was a little interested and I had a couple of good directors that were a little interested. And then I sucked him into my horrible show business world in meetings with people that go nowhere, which I’m sure you’re very familiar with.
Tim Ferriss: I’ve had a few.
Penn Jillette: Yeah, as Jesse Dylan says, “Every meeting in Hollywood is a month of your life.” And finally I was — we’d finished four meetings in New York. We were at some coffee place and I said to Tim, “You know Tim, fuck it. Just, I don’t want to deal with these people anymore. Forget about it. Let’s just do it.” And he said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Just let’s put the money up, make the goddamn movie.” And I said, “Because I would rather spend the money than take any more of these meetings with dipshits. I can’t do it.” Tim said, “Okay, let’s go.”
And he said, “You’re going to direct it.” I said, “I’m not going to direct that. I can’t direct, I can’t visualize things. I can’t direct, but I’ll produce it. I’ll put it all together.” And Tim said, “Okay.” And he said, “I can do the tech on it and I’ll just buy the cameras.” I said, “Okay, good.” And I said, “Let’s find a director.” And I mean, this is embarrassing, but of course Teller and I are very frank with each other. Teller was my fifth choice to direct it.
And finally we went through a few people that didn’t like him. It didn’t seem right. They didn’t get it and they didn’t have time. And finally, Teller knew nothing about any of this. We approached Teller, Tim and I together, and said, “Tim’s doing this crazy thing. We think it should be a movie. What do you think?” And then we started on this five-year journey of Tim painting the Vermeer, which he tells everybody over and over again, he would have never finished if not for the movie.
He says, the moment his blood ran cold was when he said to Teller, “I may not be able to finish this. And there’s no movie.” And Teller went, “Oh, there’ll be a movie Tim.” And Tim said it was just the most complete terror he’s ever felt.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, man.
Penn Jillette: So I really tried very hard. My plan on Tim’s Vermeer was after that night to hand it off to a company and a producer and a director and just stand on the side and cheer. And I just couldn’t find someone that was easy enough to do that. And Teller’s plan was for this to be a Penn project he didn’t have to worry about. And he got sucked in too. And now I mean, I have to change the spin. I did not want to do it. I am incredibly proud and happy that I did do it. I mean, I don’t want to add that. I don’t want to leave without adding that. That’d be disingenuous.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. And please correct me if I get any of this wrong, but just to, pun intended, paint a little bit of a picture for people who aren’t familiar with the film. So Tim’s Vermeer tracks your friend Tim Jenison, who’s a very good engineer, also an inventor, the general tinkerer of high intellect who became interested in Johannes Vermeer, who is this Baroque period painter who achieved photorealistic effects in his paintings that kind of defied belief. And follows Tim’s attempt to determine how he made those paintings and to replicate one himself. Is that a fair description?
Penn Jillette: Ah, yes, yes. Very much, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: And it’s a really fantastic portrait, also pun intended of not just Tim, but also obsession and so many things that tickle my fancy. I saw it in the theater, I suppose quite a few years ago now, and just loved it. So I know we’ve had a pretty long conversation thus far, so I don’t want to take up too much more of your time. But this has been so much fun for me, Penn.
Penn Jillette: It’s been a blast!
I’m glad that we finally got to connect, and I have a whole slew of other things I’d love to ask you. So maybe another time.
Penn Jillette: Sure.
Tim Ferriss: But I’d like to ask just a few quick closing questions, and these are questions I ask pretty often. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. But the question is one of what you would put on a billboard. This is metaphorically speaking. If you could put anything on a billboard, non-commercial, it could be a question, quote, statement, image, anything to get something out to billions of people let’s say. Is there anything that comes to mind that you would put on such a billboard?
Penn Jillette: Jesus had a swimmer’s body.
Tim Ferriss: Okay! Can you explain why that’s what you would choose?
Penn Jillette: For some reason, I’ve actually looked into pricing to put that billboard up. It makes me laugh so much. It seems like the perfect absurdist thing that seems to have a great deal of poetic depth to me. You probably ask this question to people hypothetically, but I actually, within the past six months, have looked into prices for a billboard in Vegas that simply says, “Jesus had a swimmer’s body.”
Tim Ferriss: How did this occur to you?
Penn Jillette: I don’t know. It just struck me! It seems to be just pure, pure, poetic view of love of life and atheism.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. That’s enough. That’s enough. Do you have any parting comments, suggestions, anything you’d like to say before we wrap up? I’ll link to you everything we’ve talked about in the show notes for people at tim.blog/podcast. So certainly they’ll be able to find you on Twitter, @pennjillette and so on.
Penn Jillette: Yeah. And I do a podcast called Penn’s Sunday School every Sunday where I talk like this. I don’t know, in the age of Trump, one of the worst things they say, and I hate to follow Godwin’s law here, but they say one of the worst things about Hitler was he turned his enemies into him. And I know Trump very well, and one of the worst things Trump has done — and the one that I was the furthest from predicting — was what he’s done to the other side. The people that really, really dislike Trump for, I will add, very good reasons, have become so unkind and so angry. And you have stuff like, “If you’re a Trump voter, I don’t want to talk to you if you’re a Trump voter.”
I was told by, what’s his name? Frank, the big pollster, that they had the largest number of Thanksgiving dinners canceled because relatives did not want to talk to each other because of the Trump thing.
I’ve been trying to do this thing, which is impossible, by the way. And if I’m successful, I will simply go mad. But I’ve been trying this thought experiment of trying not to use the words us and them. I’ve tried to say the sentence, “Those of us who voted for Trump,” which is a very difficult sentence to say. But if you say it, it’s very profound. Because it is those of us who voted for Trump. It’s not them who voted for Trump, it’s us. And I also had been trying very hard to think that my only — the only team I can belong to, I have two choices. I can be Penn, or I could be one of seven billion. And seven billion is being conservative.
I’d actually like to do 108 billion for everybody that’s ever lived. And I might want to start adding primates and maybe other mammals into there, but I don’t want to see teams anymore. I don’t want to see us and them. And I think the biggest challenge we face, even with climate change on the table, one of the biggest challenges we face is staying kind with profound disagreement — and staying kind when a mechanism has been set up to make money and power out of hate.
And I want to believe all the cliches about love and kindness triumphing. And right now, politically, that’s not the case. They have found a way to weaponize hate in the social media that we thought was going to lead to utopia. And that’s heartbreaking to me, but I still kind of believe it and I still kind of believe the mathematics that if you want to change the world, you are better off with nonviolence. If you don’t even care, if you even put violence on the table, nonviolent revolutions have been successful more often than violent ones.
And Martin Luther King and Mandela and Gandhi were not, as Obama portrayed them, kind of silly, wild-eyed people that it kind of happened to work for them, but it can’t work all the time. That might not be true. They might actually be the scientists among us who have done proper social change in a way that is not morally right, but is also the most efficient. And my obsession right now is to try to find a way to use an insane phrase, “Weaponize kindness” and to be able to see ourselves as not teams. And I mean teams in every fucking way. Whether teams is atheist, whether team is Democrat, whether teams is sports fans, whether teams is, “I love Miles Davis and hate Kenny G”, whether teams are anything. I know it’s impossible, but God damn it, we’ve got to work on that or we’ve got bigger problems coming up.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, agreed. That is an excellent way to close. Thank you so much, Penn, and —
Penn Jillette: Was a pleasure, Tim!
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, to be continued. I hope we have a chance to eat a bushel of blueberries together and continue the conversation sometime, but —
Penn Jillette: Get your spoon in there fast, or you ain’t getting any!
Tim Ferriss: It sounds like a plan, man. Thanks so much!
The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 500 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.