Penn Jillette talks ‘Celebrity Apprentice’

By Caroline Fontein

Penn Jillette

Penn Jillette (left) is the larger and louder half of the magic duo Penn & Teller.

The new season of NBC’s “Celebrity Apprentice” premieres Feb. 19, and this time Las Vegas magician Pen Jillette is one of the 18 celebrities competing on the show.

For those of you unfamiliar with the reality TV show, “Celebrity Apprentice” features a group of contestants (musicians, actors, comedians, TV stars and other big-name business savvy celebrities) who compete to win a $250,000 bonus check that is donated to the charity of their choice. Jillette selected the Vegas-based charity Opportunity Village, which serves people with intellectual disabilities.

Each week the contestants are divided into two teams. Under the direction of a designated project manager, the teams are given business-driven tasks around New York City. The teams are faced with long hours, tough deadlines, personality clashes and the scrutiny of Donald Trump and his advisors.  Fans of the show know that one of the biggest challenges the contestants face is being able to cooperate with their teammates in order to produce a good finished product.

The other contestants on the show this year include: Adam Carolla, Arsenio Hall, Aubrey O’Day, Cheryl Tiegs, Clay Aiken, Dayana Mendoza, Debbie Gibson, Dee Snider, George Takei, Lisa Lampanelli, Lou Ferrigno, Michael Andretti, Patricia Velasquez, Paul Teutul, Sr., Teresa Giudice, Tia Carrere and Victoria Gotti.

For Jillette working on a team is nothing new. At six feet, five inches tall, he’s known as the larger and louder half of the magic duo Penn & Teller. The two have been working together for 37 years. Of that time, Penn & Teller have been performing in Vegas at the Rio Hotel and Casino in their own theater for 11 years. Out of all the contestants on “Celebrity Apprentice,” he probably has the most experience with working as part of a team. However, Jillette explained in an interview that the team environment he experienced on the show was much different than what he’s used to when collaborating with his best friend, Teller.

Along with their show in Vegas, Penn & Teller are also known for their Showtime series “Penn & Teller: Bulls**t!” where they debunk ideas and common beliefs about various topics, by scrutinizing the basis for those opinions. The show emphasizes the importance of being a critical thinker, a quality that defines Jillette.  An avid reader, he thrives off of researching, learning new information and being able to discuss it with others. got a chance to talk to  Jillette about being a contestant on the show, what it was like working alongside other celebrities and how it felt to have a camera on him, recording his every move.

Why did you decide to be on Celebrity Apprentice?

“Well there are three reasons. Every celebrity on there is kind of told to say that you do it for charity, and of course, that is very appealing. Opportunity Village, as anyone in Vegas knows, is a fabulous charity on every single level whether you’re talking compassion or whether you’re talking politically because it does so much privately. It’s got a heart, and it’s got brains.”

“Another reason I did it is certainly because it’s my job. My job is to do my show at the Rio, and one of the parts of that job is to do TV spots because TV appearances have people come to see my show, and what I care about most is my job and people seeing our show because I think it’s wicked good.”

“I also have a third reason, which is, the turn of the century is really defined by unscripted television. I don’t think you should call it reality, but unscripted TV, and ignorance of your culture is not considered cool… and I know nothing about this type of thing… I really want to see what it felt like because there’s this book out by Daniel Kahneman (Nobel Prize Winner) called ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ where he talks about the latest studies that have been done with ego depletion, which is fascinating stuff. It turns out that if you put a camera in front of anybody, not just a narcissistic amoral celebrity, but actually a good human being, if you put a camera on them for four, five, six hours and tell them to simply be careful what they say, not even in any particular direction but just weigh each word before you say it, and if you do that for like a bunch of hours without giving that person a break, that person ends up with their willpower depleted. They lose the same kind of governing that people get when they’re really drunk.  It’s fascinating to watch people who are being careful about what they say and trying to come off very well lose that governing.”

How did you respond to having a camera on you for an extended period of time? Did you feel like you needed to censor yourself?

“That’s the funny thing about it. Everybody else on the show, as they got tired and as they got put under pressure, got louder and more offensive. As I got more tired and put under more pressure, I got quieter… You know the joke of Penn and Teller is: Teller never talks on stage and Penn never talks off stage.”

What was the hardest thing about being on the show?

“The hardest thing about ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ is not leaving. They don’t let you leave, and that makes you crazy.”

“I don’t read a lot, but I read a couple hours a day, and I tried to read the paper. I get to read the paper during makeup a little bit, but I didn’t get a chance to read books and the reason is, although you spend a lot of time on ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ doing nothing, if you do something that looks like it underlines that you’re doing nothing, like if you were to take a nap or pull out a book, they put a camera on you. Then everybody later will say, ‘When we were all supposed to be working, what Clay Aiken was doing was reading a book’, and that would be this horrible, horrible, horrible thing. Whereas when I’m working with Penn and Teller and we have a horrible deadline, the gun’s to our head, and I have 15 minutes of nothing to do, I can pull out a book and Teller’s never going to say later, ‘You know you were reading.’ So that was the hard part.”

What was it like working on a team with other celebrities?

“Remember, my family and Teller I chose as teammates, so to speak. On here they did that thing that I never understood in high school, and I still don’t understand, where you get thrown onto a team with no choice of your own. Then you pretend that that team is a big deal to you. It’s so nutty.”

“So, I would work on stuff on ‘Celebrity Apprentice,’ but they (his teammates) would say all the time, busting me, ‘He didn’t high five with us. He didn’t say we were the best team ever.’ I would say, ‘How can I know we were the best team ever, and what are the chances of us being the best team ever?’ I would think the best team ever was probably [James] Watson and [Francis] Crick when they were discovering DNA. Why would the best team ever be involved in somebody who came in second place in ‘American Idol?’ What are the chances he’s involved in the best team ever? What are the chances that a magician from Vegas is involved in the best team ever? Maybe Iwo Jima that was the best team ever? Maybe the heart transplant team in South Africa, maybe that was the best team ever, but there’s no chance that the best team ever was in entertainment. Zero chance. Zero chance of that.”

How did you manage working with a group where everyone has such a strong personality and presence?

“The one thing different from me from everyone else on the show, I think, was that everything that they said bad about me, I agreed with. Everybody else defended themselves. They would say to me like, ‘He’s not a team player,’ which I clearly am not, ‘He tends to be condescending,’ which they were misusing the word condescending, but when someone’s calling you condescending, it’s best not to correct their word usage because it makes you look worse. What they really meant was pompous, and I certainly am.

They also said that I was obsessed with information and all I cared about was what people had read and what they knew… But you know I’d want to talk about s**t. I would want to talk about what was happening in the news, what was happening in science, current events, the way I talk to Teller, and they wanted to talk about how we were the best and how we were going to win… It’s not that the people are stupid. They are very smart people that are on the show. It’s just that the focus is on something that I just can’t stay focused on.”

Why do you think you were asked to be on “Celebrity Apprentice”?

“I think probably because I’m crazy, part of it. I’m well known enough to do the show, and I think they believe I’m volatile, and I believe I am different and have always been and they would stay stuff like, ‘You don’t do this, you don’t do that,’ and it’s exactly what my son is. It’s seems almost genetic. It’s what my dad is.”

“All the things that people said against me on ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ they would have said against my dad, and they would say against my son. If you were to ask Teller what are the worst qualities of Penn, he would repeat precisely what the people on that show said. It’s all just simply true, and I think they (the casting crew from ‘Celebrity Apprentice’)  did think that my eccentricity would lead to more volatile behavior on my part.”

Why do you think you’ve been so successful as a magician in Vegas?

“I really believe that the reason is not having your goal be success. The people that I’ve seen with the worst shows are the people who most wanted to obtain a goal. All that self help jive, all that ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ jive that says, ‘We’re going to do it, we’re just going to get it done. I’m a perfectionist, I don’t take no for an answer, and when I get my eye on something I do it.’ It turns out s**t. It turns out empty, vapid, moral-less, groundless complete unwatchable s**t.”

“What you’ve got to do is love the actual work and love the actual show. The number of people that say I want to have a show in Vegas and never mention what they want that show to be, that is the definition of suck. I don’t give a f**k about being in Vegas. I don’t give a f**k about being on Broadway. I want to do the show we’re doing, and I want to do it with Teller.”

“The fact is that you just can’t f***ing lie to people. They know, they really do know whether you just want to get your f***ing fat ass on TV or if you really have something in your heart that you need to say.”