New book from NYT bestselling author Lewis Howes is now available!

Join me LIVE at Summit of Greatness with special guests Jaspreet Singh, Inky Johnson, Vanessa Van Edwards and MORE.


Penn Jillette

Building the Longest Running Act in Vegas


There is a Buddhist metaphor of the elephant and the rider.

We are all riding an elephant.

We think that we are in control. We have the reigns.

But the elephant could overpower us at any moment.

No matter how much we use our minds, our emotions ultimately are more powerful.

Sometimes it takes something big to get back in control of our “elephant.”

On today’s episode of The School of Greatness, I talk about changing habits, being authentic, and what it takes to build the longest running act in Vegas with one of the world’s most famous magicians: Penn Jillette.

“I’ve never enjoyed moderation and I’ve never enjoyed easy.” @PennJillette  

Penn Jillette is a magician, actor, musician, inventor, television personality, and best-selling author best known for his work with fellow magician Teller as half of the team Penn & Teller. The duo has been featured in numerous stage and television shows such as Penn & Teller: Fool Us, and Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, and are currently headlining in Las Vegas at The Rio. He has published eight books, including the New York Times Bestseller, God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales.

Not many people can keep a marriage together for over forty years, let alone a working partnership.

Penn is someone who shows up authentically every day. He isn’t afraid to express his thoughts and values even though they upset some people.

So get ready to learn how to doubt yourself less and care about the things that matter on Episode 814.


“There is no god, there’s just us. Take care of each other.”@PennJillette  

Some Questions I Ask:

  • Why do we live in so much fear when we’re safer than ever? (8:00)
  • What are you most proud of in the last few years? (9:00)
  • Which of your parents is the most influential in your life? (47:00)
  • What’s the lesson you still need to learn about yourself? (54:00)
  • Is there anything you wish you would have done differently in the last years? (1:01:00)
  • What is your superpower? (1:09:00)

In this episode, you will learn:

  • About the “mono diet” (20:00)
  • Penn’s thoughts on religion (40:00)
  • What makes Penn and Teller successful as a partnership (58:00)
  • About “effective altruism” (1:13:00)
  • How empathy makes a great magician and artist (1:19:00)
  • Plus much more…
Connect with
Penn Jillette

Transcript of this Episode

Lewis: This is episode number 814 with Penn Jillette NYT best-selling author and longest running show in Las Vegas. Welcome to the school of greatness my name is Lewis Howes a former athlete turned lifestyle entrepreneur and each week we bring you an inspiring person or message to help you discover how to unlock your inner greatness. Thanks for spending some time with me today, now let the class begin.

Ronald Dahl said “And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who do not believe in magic will never find it.”

Welcome to this episode we’ve got Penn Jillette from Penn and Teller, who is an actor, musician, inventor, TV personality, and author best known for his work as half of the world renowned magic duo Penn and Teller.

For over 40 years Penn and Teller have been redefining the genre of magic and inventing their own very distinct niche and comedy. They have hosted Emmy award winning specials, performed sold out runs in Broadway and around the world and created the longest running headline act in Las Vegas.

Penn has written 3 books including the NYT best-sellers ‘God Know’ and ‘Presto’ and Penn and Teller currently host the hit series Penn and Teller [?] for the CW network which is a show that I love. The duo have recently join the masterclass family and releasing a 14 lesson series now available now online. His podcast Penn’s Sunday school is available for listening on all major platforms as well.

In this interview we talked about the many surprising ways that Penn’s weight loss changed his life. How being an atheist led him to having a deep intellectual relationship with religion. Penn’s powerful relationship with his parents and what they taught him about humor, optimism and pride. His important partnership with Teller and how it shape them into the longest running duo in Las Vegas and how empathy is the key to success in art and magic as well.

I am super excited about this make sure to share with your friends’

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If you haven’t check out the summit of greatness make sure to go there this is the inspirational event of the year for some of the biggest speakers in the world. September 5 through 7 Columbus, Ohio it’s going to be a massive celebration. World class training in the morning, world class speakers in the afternoon and special surprise every single night. Make sure to go to right now and get your tickets right now.

All right guys I am excited about this one without further ado let me introduce the one and only Penn Jillette.

Welcome to the school of greatness podcast we’ve got a non-changing interview with Penn.

Penn: Sure.

Lewis: Good to see you man.

Penn: Good to see you.

Lewis: Thanks for being here.

Penn: Good to talk to a tall guy.

Lewis: Usually I go down on my chair and I go like this.

Penn: You do the opposite of what Stern does. He’s about a half inch shorter than me.

Lewis: Really? You’re 6’6?

Penn: About 6’7. I’ve leaned out I’ve lost 110 pounds since I was 16 I am 64 now.

Lewis: I feel like that’s one of the hardest thing for someone to do as they get older is to change a habit they’re so used to doing.

Penn: We’re nothing but habits and it’s a very powerful thing. There’s Buddhist metaphor that we are all riding in an elephant and we have this little bit of control we can do and there’s all the stuff that’s below the conscious level that they use as the elephant metaphor. It’s very hard to kind of trick a part of your mind and body that have an agenda, momentum is tremendously powerful and your mind will play an awful lot of tricks to keep things stable.

Lewis: Keep it going the same. How long where you.

Penn: That is wicked evolutionary reasons for being fat, I mean that’s really good idea if your living in a [?] which is always never done. We have amount of time since agriculture 10,000 years, so you’ve got a million years that we’re set in doing one thing.

Lewis: The human brain of conditioning.

Penn: Yeah conditioning and also just evolving for that. For a billion years the biggest problem every living thing had was too few calories and then for half a century one species in one geographical area and all only some of them have the problem of too many calories, it’s a problem that really is not gonna be solve in a few generations.

One issue of the New York Times we have more information than somebody a hundred years ago. And so to be able to process that much information is like going through that many calories. 

Lewis: How do we handle it all?

Penn: The remarkable thing is with all these breathtaking challenges things have continue to get better at an astonishing rate and also the rate at which they are getting better is also improving. One of the real headscratchers scientist have is trying to figure out why even since the 80’s violence is just going away.

Lewis: It’s going away.

Penn: We live in a least violent time that’s ever existed in the planet.

Lewis: Why do they make it seem like more violent?

Penn: It’s the information, I mean both study say we’re pretty much geared to deal with 2 or 3 hundred people, we can imagine barely 2 or 3 hundred people, and if we still have the information for 2 or 3 hundred people you would probably not know anybody who’d been shot. You wouldn’t know anybody that had been mugged. And now that we have this information some very hard to watch a television footage of some [?] and remember it didn’t happen to you or anyone around you.

Lewis: Right.

Penn: I mean the school shootings is horrific as they are just going down. My daughter at her school I was so angry they were giving them drills on how to deal with an active shooter and I said to my daughter “Max, are they giving you drills on a bear attack? Because you are more likely to be attack by a bear in your school.” You would think that giving the information to your children when they are safe would be a joyous thing, but people don’t find it sexy.

Lewis: Why do we live in so much fear when we’re safer than ever?

Penn: I don’t want to be [?] because I am not and I don’t think there’s a conspiracy, but there’s a lot of money to be made by attention. Fear is one of the quickest ways to get attention which is why you all the shot quotes and shot headlines. If a headline has a question in it the answer is no. 

Lewis: What are you most proud of the last few years about yourself?

Penn: I think I’m proud of being a little kinder I think that’s important.

Lewis: Were you not always kind?

Penn: There’s an [?] wine I don’t mean to be mean much anymore, I don’t think I was ever especially in the waters in which I swim and comics and so on, I don’t think I was at the high end of mean but I think for regular humanity I was probably in the middle and I’d like to go the other way.

Lewis: Why is it something that matters to you now? 

Penn: We’ve come to a place no one knows the reason but there seems to be more of a sense of thinking that people are evil instead of thinking they’re wrong, somehow we don’t use the word wrong very often and we use all sorts of other vilification. So, someone who disagrees with someone politically is more up to say that person has some [?]. I mean you look back on Martin Luther King or Gandhi and all they accomplish, very rarely you can find a few cases but they’re rare. Martin Luther King he doesn’t talk about racist bastards or people keeping us down, all he’s talking about is ‘could we get the same deal?’ and you just don’t see that kind of [?]. I think maybe because we don’t have anyone who is as good as a speaker, it’s easier to write stuff that’s full of hate than stuff that’s full of kindness.

Lewis: And anyone can do it on social media quickly behind faceless.

Penn: I tried to take a blame for this and a tech person that I know said ‘we’ll lose everybody.’ I believe and I even spoke about it. I believe in early 90’s when the gatekeepers were gone and anybody could talk about anything without someone editing coming in. I really believe that the egalitarian quality of that was going to be wonderful, and I did not see any downside to it at all and no one else did. It’s very hard to find at that time and it turns out there’s a big downside to it, turns out it’s blamed on twitter and having a situation where what gets the most attention is something that’s shocking can lead to, it leads to almost [?].

Lewis: Yeah.

Penn: Of sloppy thinking. Weaponized shock you know I think that a lot and it’s just an adjustment, you know the danger of that is there’s a great Bob Dylan line “Fearing not I become my enemy.” But it’s very hard to explain there is some problems with twitter and information without actually saying things are getting worse, because you need to remember while this is happening everything is getting better.

Lewis: Yeah.

Penn: There are fewer people I mean this is the start of astonishing fact, there are fewer people starving today that a hundred years ago and that’s not a percentage that’s actual numbers. And when you realize the population has doubled it’s phenomenal. Most of our improvements have been in developing countries.

Lewis: Yeah food, water, education and all these things are available.

Penn: You’ve got a number of girls going to school now. Girls going to school is a really indicator of everything else good, the more girls that go to school fewer people are starving.

Lewis: Economy is better.

Penn: All that stuff just happens. So, things are good and that’s one of the most radical unpopular things you can say is that things are going better.

Lewis: Yeah.

Penn: People try to misrepresent that often as complacency and not caring and it’s actually quite the opposite, you can very much about one person while saying 6 people are suffering that were not before.

Lewis: Right. One of the problems that you had sounds like was your wait, now how did you trick yourself to change your momentum to actually stay committed?

Penn: You know I thought about it this a lot and I get asked about this a lot and you know we don’t really have access to what the real truth is. I was wicked fat and wicked sick from being fat.

Lewis: Taken a lot of medication.

Penn: Which is they try to pretend is genetic but it seems to not be.

Lewis: You don’t have high blood pressure now right?

Penn: Actually I do but that’s because 50 years of a bad diet will clogged you a lot. So the people that change diets phenomenally the improvement is 10 – 15 years it’s not instant because you got all these shit to clean out in your system. So, I was in the hospital and my doctor said that they were gonna do a stomach operation and because I didn’t want to argue I said ‘okay.’ I got out of the hospital and sort of epiphany I began doing the [?]. A friend of mine happen to come backstage and he’s from NASA and he’s really interested in [?] stuff, and the sentence that was said that completely change me was ‘Why would you go for like over a hundred? 30 pounds is nothing.” And I said “Well, I don’t know to lose that much can I do that easily?” and he said “No! It’d be really hard.” And I realize later it wasn’t at that moment, but I realized that I have never enjoyed moderation and I have never enjoyed easy, and I don’t respect who have moderation I don’t even have that kind, I don’t think it’s equanimity I don’t think it is a positive quality. People do not celebrate walking up a grassy slope they celebrate climbing mountains and I realized that everything I enjoyed doing have been difficult and here I was trying to change my diet in really easy way.

Lewis: Right.

Penn: Everything says moderation and there’s even these very deeply [?] myths that you can’t lose weight quickly you have to lose it slowly. And [?] came in and said “This is going to be really hard, this will be as hard as getting your name in the theater in Vegas.” 

Lewis: Speak my language.

Penn: I haven’t realize that about myself, but it never affected lifestyle. So, I did very extreme stuff I am a very strong skeptic, a very strong atheist.

So, although this is bullshit we’re gonna do some of it.

Lewis: Right.

Penn: From now on you don’t talk to anybody about what you eat at all ever. From now you do everything I say all the time. We know it is not true but we’re gonna go with it like we’re watching a movie. He said “50% of what I am saying to you is bullshit but we don’t which 50%.”

Lewis: Right.

Penn: So, I did a mono-diet for 2 weeks which means one food.

Lewis: One food for all day?

Penn: Yeah, what you’re doing is you have them is you have eliminated yourself from the food culture. You have also teach yourself something about hunger. If you have a desire for a certain food you’re not hungry you’re craving.

Lewis: You’re salivating.

Penn: If you want anything you’re hungry.

Lewis: Yeah.

Penn: But if you want a potato then you’re hungry, if you want pizza then its advertising. So you do 2 weeks of that and it’s amazing there’s physiological changes that are astonishing. When I say potatoes I really do mean potatoes, I don’t mean mashed potatoes I don’t mean fried potatoes I mean nothing whatsoever added.

Lewis: No olive oil or salt.

Penn: Not a bit of pepper or salt nothing just that, and also no schedule that’s really important just whenever you want. And I say to him “Can I eat any amount?” He said “Sure.” So for 2 weeks I ate potatoes and at the end of that it was amazing how billboards got disgusting, other people eating sloppy foods got really disgusting to me, also you get so many nutrients from potatoes. So you’re healthy but you are operating at a huge calorie deficit because you can’t eat that much, no matter how much they tell you potatoes are full of starch and make you fat, to eat a thousand calories of potatoes every day is wicked hard.

Lewis: Yeah.

Penn: So if you figure that I don’t do calorie counting, if you figure when I was wicked fat I immediately pop down to 800 you start losing and of course a lot of this is water, but you start losing 3 or 4 pounds a day.

Lewis: Wow.

Penn: And you actually feel different. And then over the next 3 months, in 2 weeks you are down. And then you start adding things that very slowly and there’s a moment that is so fascinating and no one believes me except I’ve had 5 or 6 dozen friends looked on the same thing, and you tell them “Day 14 you’re gonna have an ear of corn, it’s gonna be the best food you ever had.”

Lewis: Ever.

Penn: And the great thing is and I have a friend and I do not think he’s kidding in anyway, he believed he had been prank and he believed that we have put salt, sugar and butter on the corn.

Lewis: On the corn yeah.

Penn: And he absolutely sure of it. It’s like candy, it’s like the most intense food and what you’ve done is you’ve taken you know, I’ve been [?] my taste buds with salt, sugar and fat for 50 years.

Lewis: Wow.

Penn: And all of a sudden they got 2 weeks to just go ‘we’re not doing that anymore’ and I actually got to taste corn. I remember 3 weeks later saying ‘celery is salty.’ 

Lewis: Wow.

Penn: And then the number that matters is over 3 and a half months closer to 4, over 4 months I averaged .9 pounds a day which means you get all these psychological effects that are shocking. You get mirror shock.

Lewis: You see yourself like woah.

Penn: The first time you walk by a mirror you don’t recognize yourself and it happens because you are losing weight really fast, you also get these weird superman feelings because if you’re losing 6 or 7 pounds in a week taking 6 or 7 pounds off your shoulders is noticeable. And they found from studies that the faster you lose weight the more likely you are to keep it off, which is contrary to a lot of people say. And the other thing is during that 3 to 4 months not allowed to exercise at all. It’s amazing how you can fight against that. One of the quickest ways to gain weight is to eat a lot of frequent meals of proteins and exercise a lot which is precisely what they’re giving people to do.

So, I lost that weight I have rebounded some over the 4 and a half years I put on back 20 pounds a little bit, I did some playing around with fasting but I feel so much better I’m off almost all the drugs. I became totally vegan.

Lewis: Right no meat.

Penn: No animal products. And the really funny thing is I became vegan strictly for health reasons and scoff at the idea at being [?] vegan, and then about 2 and a half years in 3 years in after you stop eating animal products you’re no longer trying to resolve your [?] with eating animal products, because no one feels good about factory farming nobody.

I tried I read Peter Singer and the philosophers who talked about compassion for animals and I was bothered by PETA who sometimes [?] what we’re doing to chickens. I was offended and [?] by that and then I realized that if you were to do some sort of metric let’s say that ‘the suffering of a million chickens adds up to 1 human being’ still if you don’t hurt those million chickens [?] degree of suffering.

Lewis: Yeah.

Penn: It doesn’t matter what the ratio is less suffering is good. So my children 13 and 14 it’s very difficult with their friends and stuff to get them to do any sort of vegan diet, but we also know from studies that just what I’m doing makes a huge influence on them.

Lewis: Of course.

Penn: So you know I’m still involve in giving money to that.

Lewis: Do you think you’d ever go back to eating meat?

Penn: I don’t think so I really don’t think so. I am making stuff up now I don’t really know this but the microbiome, we have more cells that are foreign and we do cells of ourselves.

Lewis: Guns all over us.

Penn: The crazy thing is that they have found and this is a brand new science. The [?] that lives in our gut sends hormones and stuff to our brain. So the weird thing is that I was sure that although I would eat carefully, that every few weeks I would go out and have a steak and stuff and [?] said to me “Sure, just the 3 months you’re not gonna. For right now let’s do it right.” And you go 3 months without animal products at all and your microbiome changes, and the hormones change and you don’t have the desire. You would have never been able to convince me that I would be able to look at a steak and just go “”. I don’t mean it any sort of intellectual level, I mean at a physiological level just knowing that’s not just something I eat. I thought that cheese.

Lewis: Best thing ever.

Penn: Best thing in the world and then it took like 3 years and now I look at cheese and kind of go “That’s milk gone bad.” 

Lewis: Yeah.

Penn: If you go to Japan cheese is a part of their diet. A 1950’s resident Japan would have had the same reaction to cheese as a 1950’s United States resident would have had with raw fish. So, now I am strictly vegan but vegan is the ethical part of it.

Lewis: Wow.

Penn: Dietary part of it is really 2 words, you know I wrote a whole book called “[?]” The whole book can be sum up in 2 words which is ‘whole plants.’ And the word whole is really important there because that includes extremely low salt and sugar and fat.

Lewis: Yeah.

Penn: Olive oil is not whole, you can eat any amount of sugar you want but make sure it’s in fruit. There is a limit although it seems to me to be huge of how many blueberries you can eat. I can eat enough blueberries to fill my head, but that’s nothing compared to the amount of sugar you can eat.

Lewis: Wow.

Penn: I also feel really good and this is something you know that so embarrassing, being atheist I don’t have any sort of [?] of soul and physical. I believe that our mind is our brain. Even though I believe that the thought that I understood that I was still shocked at the emotional changes in me from my diet changing.

Lewis: Wow.

Penn: Now, obviously if you’re an atheist and you believe everything is material then that’s, apparently I didn’t because I always thought there was me and then the food was separate, but now I realized I got happier.

Lewis: That you are connected.

Penn: All the stuff that just happened that was clearly, there were totally separate from my body. You know it’s also very different when your children come in and say “You want to play?” And you know you want to and you kind of push yourself to do that and being able to just jump and not think about it, those are different things too. 

Lewis: That’s amazing. And you talked about being an atheist a bunch, I read that you read the bible when you were younger and that’s what influence you to be an atheist?

Penn: I try to always read the bible a little bit.

Lewis: Even now?

Penn: Yeah. When you’re an atheist there’s this silliness that people say ‘Christian treated you badly’ I go ‘Christian treated me too good.’ I am from an extremely happy family with a mother and father and sister who treated me perfectly, and I went to the first congregational church in Greenfield, Massachusetts which was filled with wonderful people. We had a tremendous pastor and I went to a youth group.

Lewis: Wow.

Penn: During youth group I took it very seriously and the pastor asked us to read parts of the bible and I read the whole bible and came back. I really don’t like the anti-family stuff, I really don’t like the violence. I don’t like Jesus speaking bad about the family and I don’t like any of that stuff and that lead me to [?], and finally the pastor said “You know maybe you don’t need to come to youth group anymore because you are doing a better job at convincing the other children to not believe in God.”

Lewis: Oh wow.

Penn: But that’s so easy to present as he threw me out and I remain friendly with him. I think if you take children and take away their fear and bathe them in love you have a little more trouble keeping religion, because I didn’t have. My dad who was a Christian until the day he died, we maintained a wonderful relationship and my dad. But my dad said to me “You know it’s gonna be so hard after I’m dead to convince God to bring you into heaven, but I’ll tell you I’m gonna do it.” 

Lewis: That’s beautiful.

Penn: And my dad would always say to me “What bothers me Penn is you’re such a good Christian.” My dad he remained, my dad didn’t get that memo about dad’s doing conditional love, my dad’s love and mom completely unconditional and they were fabulous and the people of the church were fabulous. So therefore I went strictly to the dogma, if I had gone with how Christians treated me I would be the most hardcore Christian you’ve ever seen, strictly intellectual with me.

Lewis: Wow.

Penn: You know I’m friends with Donny Osman and talked about this famously a Mormon and I’m friends with Glenn Beck famously a Mormon.

Lewis: Went on here yeah.

Penn: And I talked about the fact that I agree with them on almost everything, it just happens that I don’t see the evidence for God and that was the way I was.

Lewis: Yeah.

Penn: My mom in her later years became atheist, and my sister in her later years became atheist as well, but my dad [?] the line.

Lewis: So why don’t you see any evidence for God?

Penn: You stated that backwards the question would be ‘where is the evidence?’ because you can’t prove a negative. Any sort of evidence for God would be welcome and I’d love to hear more about it. I was good friends with Christopher [?] and I’m friends with Dawkins, actually all 4 horsemen of the new atheism. That’s a really good argument except what you said God, so you only move it back one day you have to explain it.

Lewis: There’s no way to prove it.

Penn: We don’t have it falsifiable. So, I think if you want to get it’s not that we don’t have any evidence, it’s not that I know that there’s no God it’s that I don’t think I know and I also think anyone knows and that’s the important thing.

The important thing is not believing someone else knows. I believe there is someone else an evidence of God they would have been able to present it well.

Lewis: Now there’s an argument.

Penn: I think we would see, the problem is that physics and biology has presented a world that does not need a God to explain anything, I mean your founding fathers everybody before the middle 19th century that would be called atheist now was called [?], because they didn’t have a Jefferson. Jefferson seems to have this point of view that there is no intervention as God, God has nothing to do with us but he might have started things rolling. But then Darwin comes along, Darwin popularizes the idea of evolution as we know it now and once you have that piece of the puzzle you don’t really need any other explanation. 

Lewis: Right.

Penn: And you don’t even have to go to [?] multiverse, you can kind of had subatomic levels, we do have things that can pop up, but not knowing does not answer God. I don’t know does not mean that the answer is God, as a matter of fact all of science in the past 300 years can be sum up in those few words ‘I don’t know.’ Because those 3 words were not said really before science. 

Those are the most difficult and the most powerful words that someone can say, which is why it is so odd that atheist get the wrath of being arrogant, whereas the atheist point of view is I don’t know and the people who sometimes call atheist arrogant or the people that say ‘oh yeah there’s a God and he cares a lot if I masturbate.’ So, you’re the center of the universe.

Lewis: Right.

Penn: And yet the atheist are the ones that are arrogant because we say ‘there isn’t someone watching over us every second.’

Lewis: So it’s not that you don’t believe there’s no God you just don’t know if there is?

Penn: Yeah, but when I say I don’t know you have to be, I feel I have to be careful. I don’t know that there’s a God, it is possible there’s a God the same way it’s possible that a fairy lives in my toaster. I mean when I’m talking about possible very unlikely.

Lewis: Sure.

Penn: And if there were something we’re gonna call a God the chances that it’s a Judeo-Christian seems to be really, because you got this whole what some would call the Mediterranean death cults, you got those Abrahamic religions which gives you Judaism, Christianity and Muslims they all have Abraham. They have one basic idea and we now have it setup so that if one is true the others are not.

Lewis: So you’re wrong I’m right?

Penn: It’s the problem with the wager you know that you might as well bet there’s a God because if not there’s no harm and if there is you go to heaven, but that does work because there is infinite number of possible religions and you could be believing in a God and the God there really is one rule [?].

Lewis: That’s true.

Penn: And you have that very strongly and we have to be very careful to be fair because we so want to make people identify as atheist want to make their arguments from the most extreme.

Lewis: Yeah right.

Penn: That’s really not fair because the vast majority of religious people are good because the vast majority of people are good, you know out of 7 billion people in this planet about 7 billion are good.

Lewis: Exactly.

Penn: The people that are bad are just noise. The number of people that actually try to do bad for other people are really hard to find. I was homeless and hitchhiking for years and the number of bad people I found really hard to find. People that are wrong would be 100% and myself. People that are wrong are very common. The simple truth is I don’t believe there’s such a thing as evil, I just believe there’s such a thing such as mistake and people wrong .

Lewis: You talked about your parents and loving experience from both of them who is the most influential in your life and what was the biggest lesson they taught you? 

Penn: Well, you know Teller always say “Penn got his sense of humor from his dad and his balls from his mom.” My mom and I we’re the same person, I mean my mom is really old when I was born she was 45, so I had a sister who is 23 years older than me and we’re the only children. My mom is 45 and so I was a long haired hippy freak at 17 with mother that was a little old lady and we had the same syntax the way we spoke, the exact same opinions on everything and my mom got along so well it was almost creepy. My mom and I would say the exact same things, and I was as closed to my dad and as anyone I know was closed to their dads, but I was even closer to my mom. It was very difficult for them I mean my mom was born in 1909. 1909 she was born and then she went from seeing horse and wagon to a person on the moon and she was then at the age of my age that I am now, she then had to deal with someone who is listening to rock and roll and growing his hair down his back and wearing eye makeup.

I think the most important lesson at least in terms of how I deal with my children is when we opened off Broadway there’s a tradition and it’s not important anymore because, as late as the 80’s when we opened off Broadway there was a tradition where you’d have a party and probably still is.

Lewis: Yeah.

Penn: You’d have a party on opening night, and the New York Times who come out about 2:30 or 3:00 AM, you’d have party in the time square and somebody would run and get the paper and they bring the paper and review of the NYT. In the 80’s the review of the NYT would really give you a hint whether you had a hit or not.

Lewis: Wow.

Penn: So, they have a party this really goofy thing where if they read the review you all celebrate and if they don’t read the review you’re closing. So, you have this awkward thing we finish up the show about 11 and then there’s this 3 hour party where people investors have a million bucks riding on it, and the performers have their whole career. You’re trying to pretend that you are celebrating what you just did but you’re just really wondering what’s gonna be said.

Well, the NYT came out was as we say a ‘blowjob’ they just absolutely love Penn and Teller.

Lewis: Amazing.

Penn: And it then meant for not only our careers to take off but also all the producers who were very new they are still very successful producer, the most success produce in New York and our show was their first show.

Lewis: Wow.

Penn: So my mother and my father were sitting with a producer. So this producer his whole life was this roll on the dice and his whole life, but that night it seem like there’s nothing else in the world for that guy. One of the investors stands up and reads the review loud and its people kind of in shocked because it was good.

Lewis: Too good? 

Penn: There must be something that’s gonna turn in here, but all that being said they suck. So our producer who is so relieved and the relief is the strongest thing even more than joy turns to my mother and says “Doesn’t that make you proud of your son?” To which my mother responded “Of course not what’s wrong with you? I’ve been proud of him the day he was born.” The next day my mom now has this billboards in time square, there’s tickets that are selling out like crazy. My mom goes “That was just so sad when he turned and acted like there’d be some difference in the way that I felt about you after the review on the NYT. How can you feel that way?” I said “Mom, his got a million bucks riding on it and that whole review comes out and he’s not gonna be picking his words carefully.”

That really shook me up, I said “mom, there is a good review at times and things are going great.”

Lewis: She should be happy.

Penn: And I am very proud of you but from the day you were born. So, whenever my children say to me you know ‘I got this good thing in school or I did this, are you proud of me?’ From the day you were born and by the way when you’re 35 and miserable suffering alcoholic who’s on death row I will still be proud of you.

Lewis: Wow.

Penn: That’s not changing you don’t have any power over that, there’s nothing you can do that can ruin that.

Lewis: Disappointed in you?

Penn: Sure, I can be all of those things but I got to learn something from my mom.

Lewis: That’s a great lesson. What about your dad?

Penn:  My dad wasn’t articulate about that and also being an American man, he was very comfortable saying ‘I love you’ but might not be. 

Lewis: That’s cool lessons from your parents. I’m curious what’s the lesson you feel like you still want to learn about yourself? 

Penn: I would like to learn to do things without ambition. I think that.

Lewis: Because you seem like a very ambitious person your life.

Penn: I would rather be less.

Lewis: Why?

Penn: I think that things you accomplish with gentleness can have a certain kind of beauty that I’ve ignored. I always hit all my deadlines sometimes I think that can be used as a cheat for not having a sweet relax quality. I wish I were a little sloppier, a little less focus, a little less hard ass and I’ve been doing a lot of things toward that. It’s very odd that you’d be talking about wanting to be less productive, a little less focus but I think that’s exactly what I am saying.

Lewis: How long have you been doing magic?

Penn: I’ve been working with Teller without a break and that’s important, without even a break like 10 days for 44 years.

Lewis: 44 years?!

Penn: Yeah, and we are the longest running headliners in the history of Las Vegas. We’ve been in Vegas now for 24 or 25, but it’s been 44 years.

Lewis: Wow.

Penn: I started working with Teller actually a little before I turn 20 and it’s all I’ve ever done and my children have said to me ‘if you weren’t doing a magic show with Teller what would you be doing?’ I said ‘I would be in prison.’ 

Lewis: This kept you focus.

Penn: There’s nothing else I can do, I have no other skills at all. I believe Tommy Smothers when the Smothers brothers retired said “It’s now Penn and Teller who’ve been working the longest’ and that’s the way it will be for a while. I believe there may be a writing team or song writing team that I haven’t been aware, but for people on stage together, this is a weird thing that happened but you can also write sociological paper on this but if you are talking about comedy teams and performance teams in the 50’s and 60’s you would have been able to name a couple of dozen without any study. Now, you ask somebody and they got Penn and Teller then try to do stuff like Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David but they don’t perform.

Lewis: Yeah.

Penn: It gets very hard. I remember once maybe I laugh so hard a woman was interviewing and said “I used to work for people that I work us now I am working for self.”

Lewis: That’s funny.

Penn: But it’s very funny because the idea of a partnership started having words like co-dependents as [?], partnerships can be very powerful and the co-dependents becomes very interesting because there’s stuff that I might have ended up being good at that I have no skills at all, because Teller is so good at them. When we started if one of us was a little better at something they just do it. So, there’s all these time that I don’t know how to do that because Teller is good at it. 

Lewis: Yeah.

Penn: We didn’t start out that way you develop that. When you’re in your early 20’s you’re learning what you’re gonna do and they put you on the track where you are not you know and see that in sports.

Lewis: Yeah. Is there anything you wish you would have done differently over the last 44 years?

Penn: I don’t know it’s all been perfect. There’s one of the things I think one has to do for self-worth is to find a way to enjoy where you are now and you can’t spend too much time, it’s useful to have embarrassment and regret, but there’s all these certain that that’s useful.

Lewis: Yes.

Penn: I mean every single thing I would do slightly differently.

Lewis: Really?

Penn: But being here now I am also completely happy. If you look back and said “Should you have written a better clause off your contract?” Yeah. Should I have invested all my money in Apple when they first started?

Lewis: Yeah.

Penn: Probably should have done that. I could have done all that but it is the argument of course that we have against psychic phenomenon which is ‘if there are psychics the question is what were you doing on September 10, 2001?’ and if the answer is you weren’t trying to help you go to jail now.

Lewis: Wow.

Penn: Every psychic has to go to jail after 9/11.

Lewis: Yeah.

Penn: I would be even nicer to Teller.

Lewis: Were you mean to him?

Penn: Not particularly but we both treat each other better now than we used to but that’s just age. I would have been even less careful with money. Teller and I we’re so frugal which is one of the reasons we are here now. When we would sign with other people would sign a contract they would go out and buy a car, when Teller and I would sign a contract we would go out and have a coffee each.

Lewis: Celebrate.

Penn: That was our celebration because we saw so many of our peers go broke. So, we were able to have ups and downs and that was the thing that was so odd, it was 84 or 85 that we hit off Broadway and we became what everybody considered successful. What nobody knew for a street performers and for fares, and for the circuit we were on we were really successful at a different level. We were prepared to live our whole life that way we have no intention of the success we have now. Our sights are always very low and we accomplished our goals within two years of working together and we’re happy to go like that.

Lewis: Yeah.

Penn: It wasn’t till I was 25 that I went ‘wait a minute you had a shitty job.’ 

Lewis: Anyone talk about it yeah.

Penn: My dad was as light and sunny a person you can ever find, when he told later in life he was gonna be going in life he was depressed for 3 minutes and 5 minutes he said ‘gonna find a white cane for my white car.’

Lewis: That’s cool.

Penn: I think his optimism is psychopathic. When we were working renaissance festivals and fares we were very careful with money and very wise and if I were to know the future I would have said [?]

Lewis: You’re gonna have money in the future so have fun.

Penn: But it wasn’t. So, what I am saying is Teller’s father was a commercial artist and his mother worked a retail at a department store and my dad was a jail guard and my mother was mostly homemaker. So we were making as much money as our families making in show business by the time I was 21. If you talk to Houdini, Madonna, Lady Gaga, Paul McCartney every one of those people has said that they should have been more successful.

Lewis: Wow.

Penn: Paul McCartney has said multiple times The Beatles should have been more successful.

Lewis: They were huge.

Penn: My point is that’s a different kind of person. Teller and I are more successful than we planned, our life was laid out to we can probably [?] shows for 2 or 300 people a night. It turned out we were off by most of order in magnitude it’s about 2,000 people a night. We are much more successful that we should have been.

Lewis: Sure.

Penn: It’s not like, you know Paul McCartney actually thinks I should push a little more. 

Lewis: What do you think is your superpower back when you were 20 to 22 range to now? What is your superpower?

Penn: My superpower is always been knowing what I care about. I tend to be able to do that, I’m not as good as with some. Bob Dylan’s major skill is he always knows what he should be doing now, I haven’t quite got that but I am really good at not caring about things and then caring about the stuff I care about. I see people who don’t have that skill.

Lewis: Yeah.

Penn: When Teller was setting up stuffs and Teller didn’t even ask me [?].

Lewis: Didn’t care.

Penn: I’ll write a copy of something and it is never clear with Teller as it goes in, we know what we care about.

Lewis: What do you care about?

Penn: I care about art, I care about ideas in shows. It’s very easy for me, I see people who have an opinion on everything, now sometimes professionally there are times in my life when I have augmented our career and got impressed by doing [?] type stuff.

Lewis: Right.

Penn: One time I went to [?] there was a whole section in the middle they got off on a tangent and I hadn’t done the prep work so I didn’t know.

Lewis: Right.

Penn: So, I sat quietly on [?] for 4 minutes. You cannot realize how much you will be yelled at by everybody if you actually don’t know and don’t care in the middle of a television show. So, now I try to have professionally opinions when I am put in that situation.

Lewis: Sure.

Penn: If you but I am talking about in a bigger sense of my life, knowing what you care about. I also think that reading is really important and harder to remember that that’s important because we have so many easier ways to get information that we sometimes forget that there’s more personal than reading, because you have to decode and coding that is really important in terms of dealing with information. I try really hard not to let myself be exposed to information that I don’t know is accurate and maybe too emotional.

Lewis: That’s good.

Penn: It’s just that I don’t want to see footage of people being shot and blown up because if I read about that I can put it in the right statistical thing. I am also trying really hard and thinking a lot lately about how useless empathy is for helping other people.

Lewis: How useless empathy is?

Penn: Empathy seems really bad indicator because empathy tends to be familiar and tribal. I care more about the people in this room but I care about people halfway around the globe. There’s a whole movement now that I am getting interested in, I haven’t done much with it.

Lewis: Yeah.

Penn: I was seeing somebody speaking the other day and bragging on their charity. We have a charity that every penny goes right to the Las Vegas area. 

Lewis: Yeah.

Penn: But you know there’s reasons for that because people that didn’t care more about their families and other things didn’t reproduce and I obviously want to take care of my children, but I have to also remember that there’s bigger ways to take care of them. So, I am thinking a lot lately about information and empathy and kindness.

Lewis: It’s interesting because I read this and I don’t know if it’s accurate that you said “Magic has a lot to do with empathy and seeing thing through.”

Penn: It’s usually the same words but it is different to what I am talking about right now. Teller is probably the best alive now among the best that’s ever live at being able to see the stage from the audience point of view and forget what he knows. It is a skill that is always important in art.

Lewis: When you’re doing a performance.

Penn: You have to have a theory in mind and talking to somebody you have to able to in order to say a sentence you have to able to imagine what it’s like hearing that. If I was doing this interview with someone with English as their 2nd language we change the entirety of it.

Lewis: Sure.

Penn: In magic you’ve got a whole different thing because you know things that they will never know, but if they did know it would change their experience. So, Teller is able to say ‘no one is gonna see your left hand in that pocket right there.’ Talking about empathy artistically and talking about empathy [?] are two very different things. Theory of mind was something we believed specific human, now we find out that birds [?] that every animal has it. 

Lewis: Right.

Penn: We now find the crows when they are storing foods differently if they know another crow is watching.

Lewis: Interesting.

Penn: Profound theory of mind. So, what I’m talking about in the masterclass that we did I talked a lot about empathy artistically because being able to imagine yourself as someone else is very important.

Lewis: You’ve got this masterclass is it out right now?

Penn: it is out and doing well.

Lewis: And people can get that at

Penn: We try to teach magic in general although we do all the stuff we need to do to teach magic, we teach actual tricks that they can really perform.

Lewis: Someone like me.

Penn: We also in masterclass let us do this and it is really important, we also talked a lot about theory what we’ve learned from magic and we’ve gotten a lot of feedback who have no desire to learn magic but really want to learn what they can learn from that.

Lewis: That’s cool.

Penn: I’m actually much more interested in the theory of magic that to trick and fool people. There have been 5 or 6 examples in a 7 year run where Teller was fool and I was.

Lewis: I got it.

Penn: What I am saying now is out of 300 performance I’m talking about 5.

Lewis: How many times have you guys been guess wrong when you thought you have it figured out? 

Penn: It’s always more great than that. A number of times we’ve had the feeling we wrote the show to get the feeling of, which is we do not have a clue. 

Lewis: Wow, that’s got to feel amazing. How did they get me?

Penn: No idea just totally got us.

Lewis: Afterwards did you talk to the magician?

Penn: No we don’t talk.

Lewis: Reveal.

Penn: The second it happens they go to commercial and they run to us. There was one exception of that and he’s a good friend of ours handsome Jack. After he fooled us he came up afterwards and went ‘so you wonder how I did that?’ Then a few weeks later he revealed.

Lewis: That’s cool. You’ve got your podcast which is called?

Penn: Penn sunny school.

Lewis: It’s about you?

Penn: It’s about whatever that pops in my head. We talked a lot about magic and philosophy and talked a lot about art and try to keep it funny.

Lewis: And you’ve got your show in Vegas?

Penn: Yeah. It is Saturday through Wednesday every week, 250 shows a year about a quarter of a million people see us there. 

Lewis: This is called the 3 truths. So, I want you to imagine it’s your last day performing whenever you want it to be your last day and imagine the whole world is watching. You get to leave 3 things you know to be true behind the whole world watching or listening wherever they are and these will be your 3 lessons to the world, the things that you know to be true that you would to leave behind as a message of inspiration. What would you say are your 3 truths?

Penn: There is no God there is just us taking care of each other. People are good. Things are getting better.

Lewis: Powerful I like that. How can we find you online?

Penn: I am completely invisible online, actually any search on me you can find me. Its

Lewis: And you guys are on social media? 

Penn: I’m on twitter as @pennjillette. I told a friend of mine that my grandfather change the spelling from G to J because he said G is a [] sound and J is a [] sound.

Lewis: Before I ask the final question I want to acknowledge you Penn for your consistency. For showing up consistently as yourself. From what I know about you and what I’ve seen over the years and all the stuff you’ve done your authentic to who you are and your beliefs and you don’t suddenly doubt yourself and I think it’s inspiring to see someone show up every day in partnership with someone else in a world where people want to isolate and have all the credit themselves. You show up as the seeming louder and more aggressive personality but still in partnership to inspire so many people every single day.

Penn: Thank you.

Lewis: In your act and performances and I think it’s really inspiring that you outperformed what you thought you are capable of.

Penn: Did a lot better we got lucky.

Lewis: 44 years and I’m excited to see what’s in the future.

My final question is what’s your definition of greatness? 

Penn: The [?] monk said “The genius is the one who is most like himself.” Being most like yourself or as Mile Davis said “It takes a long time to sound like you.” I think that there’s a certain kind of purity and greatness in just trying to be as honest as possible.

Lewis: Penn thank you man.

Penn: Appreciate it man.

Lewis: There you have it my friends I hope you enjoyed this episode. So exciting to hear about the transformation that Penn has in his health and everything he’s up to in magic still 40 years later. It’s really hard to get to the top in any industry in our lives, but to stay at the top for that long it’s impressive and there’s lessons to be learn from this model that you can apply to your business and your life and your health.

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To bring it back to the beginning Ronald Dahl said “And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who do not believe in magic will never find it.”

You get to create magic every single day of your life: In the dull moments, in the sad moments, in the uncertain moments be magic in the world. Bring the energy, the love, joy and the excitement. The world makes room for passionate people and you get to create the passion that you want to experience around you. When people are sad or frustrated or unsure of themselves shift the energy by being the magic that they have been waiting for. I love you all so very much and you know what time it is, it’s time to go out there and do something great.


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