Penn Jillette

1-pennjillette-001Penn Jillette (
@PennJillette) joined James Altucher for a rapid fire QA that covered a lot of good ground. Jillette talked about how to find your passion, the lessons of clown college, and sleeping in his car. The big points:

– The career advice in supermarket music.

– The clown college education.

– What you learn when you sleep in your car.

– The biggest magic trick is one anyone can do.

– How to do something great.

Let’s get started.

“If you don’t like supermarket music, make supermarket music.”

Jillette tells James this, and his logic makes sense, but before we look at that, let’s flip around to the easier expression – do what you love.

Actually, suggests Jillette, maybe not. If you love something then you probably already love someone doing it. This is where the problem lies. You can’t improve it. Jillette says that Guns ‘N Roses loved the Rolling Stones, but knew they couldn’t do it  better, so they didn’t.

Neil Gaiman has similar advice about writing. “Don’t read Tolkien if you want to write epic fantasies,” he says. Instead read different things and read them widely, Tolkien didn’t read Tolkien like books.

The quote above about supermarkets is attributed to Gary Panter, who wrote, “If you want better media, go make it.” This is Jillette’s point, find something you don’t like, and improve it. When Jillette and Teller first teamed up, they came up with the list of things they wouldn’t do. “What I really learned during all those shows,” Jillette says,  “was what Teller and I did not want to see in a show.”  By eliminating those, they created something else.

When Michael Lombardi looks acquire NFL players, he looks to eliminate first. When Astro Teller gave parenting advice, he said what not to do first. Nassim Taleb tweeted, “You get more info from “What failed People Do Before Breakfast” than “What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast”.”

Look at something you can do better, and do that. 

The Clown College Months

Clown college, Jillette said, was great because he found his scenius. He doesn’t literally use the term that Austin Kleon began to spread, but the idea is there. Jillette’s biggest opposition to college wasn’t the school part, it was the people part. “What I hated about high school,” Jillette says, “was drugs and bad music.”

It was the people he didn’t like. At clown college he found people he did. “This was really really important to me,” Jillette says when he learned that people could actually talk about what made things funny. It was a scenius.

Jay Jay French told a similar story to Altucher, only about music rather than comedy. He went through 11 versions of Twisted Sister before he met Dee Snyder to create the band we know today. That only happened, French said, because he and Dee were focused on the same thing, making great music. It was a scenius.

Nicholas Megalis learned this too and said, “find a group of people who are like minded who can help you achieve certain goals like production, composition, press. Everything is a team effort.” It was a scenius.

Clown college was Jillette’s first scenius.

What you learn, when you sleep in your car

Early in his career, Jillette spent a lot of time sleeping in his car. “Was there ever a low point?” James asks. Not really Jillette says. Why, because how much lower could he go?

“My needs were low,” Jillette says, “I was 19, single, and didn’t care where I slept or what I ate.” He didn’t have much money but he didn’t need much money. This is a liberating idea.

When Kevin Kelly talked with James, he said that after he lived in Asia, eating lentils and living in a house he built himself, he realized how much money he really needed. Not much.

Billionaire Mark Cuban said he had a similar goal. He just wanted to retire and was willing to live like a student if that’s what it took. Cuban knew he could have the life he wanted this way.

Simplicity for it’s own sake isn’t the problem. The problem comes when money leads to needs and needs lead to reaches. Once you reach you become off balance and fall. 

In his book, The Hour Between Dog and Wolf, John Coates writes about Wall Street traders who start to think risking a bit more so they can buy (rather than rent) homes on Cape Cod or Nantucket. Those influences start to nudge them to reach a bit further. Then a bit further.

The reaching often continues because it’s not just the house they want to own. It’s a bigger house, bigger lot, more water in the view from the bathroom window. It’s reaching more until they lose their balance. Then comes the fall. 

About three months after Jillette and Teller teamed up, they were making the same that their fathers did, and did what they loved. This, to Jillette, meant they were a success.

Jillette also says that he had few options. “That door was closed to me, because I couldn’t do anything.” Jim Norton said the same thing, “I personally left myself with no safety net.” When there is no where else to go, you have to move forward. It worked for Jillette.

The only magic trick you need to know

There’s one trick to magic Jillette say, and that’s to work harder than the audience thinks he would.

A recent trick he and Teller added to their act is  3 minute long and took 6 years to figure. Would you spend that long? No, but he and Teller did.

This led to the most memorable quote of the episode, “the most important thing is everything.” Jillette first saw this idea when he was in high school and had a substitute teacher for the creative writing class. That teacher, he recalls, said “no one wants to read what you write, so make it as easy for them as you can.” If there are misspellings, people are gone. If there are unknown words, people leave. Anything that doesn’t fit will dissuade them from continuing.

Jillette applies this to his act when they test out new tricks. They’ll have someone sit far off to the right and left. They’ll have someone in the balcony, at the bar, and up close. These spotters will call out, “nope, nope, nope” as they see things that don’t work. This is annoying, Jillette says, but you have to do it.


A final piece of advice.

To be great, Jillette says, you need two things; inspiration and skill. “You’ve got to be brave enough to do shit that is absolutely crazy and then you got to work hard enough to do it perfectly well.”

Thanks for reading, I’m @MikeDariano on Twitter. Here’s the trick James and Penn reference in the podcast.

21 thoughts on “Penn Jillette”

  1. […] Penn Jillette said the same thing about going to clown college. Wow, Jillette felt, there are people who want to analyze jokes. This is amazing. B.J. Novak said, “the biggest advantage (to the Harvard Lampoon) is to not think it’s crazy to be a comedy writer or to be a writer at all.” […]


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