Close Encounters with Penn Jillette
In the weeks before I met magician/con artist/professional wiseass Penn Jillette backstage at Las Vegas’ Huntridge Theater, I experienced a number of Penn sightings which were every bit as dubious and fleeting as UFO sightings. His towering silhouette would mask out the sun for a moment, and I would feel woozy and disoriented. When I snapped to, he’d be long gone and I’d discover that I’d lost several minutes wondering why it was I never happened across Penn’s less talkative partner instead.
Applying J. Allen Hynek’s classification scale for UFO sightings – set down in the scientist’s 1972 book “The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry” – I find that I am now ready to describe the seeming impossibility of making first contact with Penn Jillette, some ten years after the event.
A Penn Encounter of the First Kind: Sightings
It was difficult to live in Las Vegas and not spot Penn Jillette from time to time. In a town known for its conspicuous consumption, his was more conspicuous than most. He drove a pink Ford Bronco with the legend “PINK DEATH” written on the doors in ornate orange letters. His Vegas home was a towering A-Frame that the occupant had nicknamed “The F—in’ A.” And through some convoluted means I came to hold one of his business cards – shiny black ink on black matte stock, emblazoned with a curt, blasphemous phrase.
The first time I ever heard him speak outside of his “persona” was at a Consumer Electronics Show event in 1995, where Penn & Teller were debuting a new video game for the Sega Genesis system. (That was “Penn & Teller’s Smoke and Mirrors,” infamous for its eight-hour, real-time driving simulator Desert Bus.) That was the same year that Microsoft was doing hardcore promotion for their stillborn Bob user interface – there were ads for the software on virtually every flat surface in town; its stupid smiley-face-with-glasses was even emblazoned on banners trailing from circling planes – and near the end of the press conference, someone asked Penn if “Smoke and Mirrors” would “interface with Bob.”
“No,” Penn said. “I’ll tell you what: Let’s all take a solemn oath not to give a shit about ‘Bob.’ Let’s all agree not to speak of ‘Bob’ again, and that we’ve all seen our last Oliver Stone movie.”
To a man, we agreed. And until today, I’ve never gone back on that agreement. Okay, I slipped once and saw “U-Turn,” but by and large, I have done as I was told. I wouldn’t call it mind control per se.
A Penn Encounter of the Second Kind: Observation, and Associated Physical Effects
One night at a friend’s restaurant on Las Vegas’ east side, I invested the better part of an hour talking up a pretty, vaguely Uma Thurman-esque blonde. She was largely disinterested in me, yet kept the conversation going anyway – asking what kind of articles I wrote for the local papers, telling me about her work (she dressed sets for movies and photo shoots), and asking questions about Las Vegas’ bars and restaurants, a subject I was more or less expert in.
Near the end of the hour she seemed to warm to me a bit – she began to smile, and even touched me lightly on the shoulder as she laughed at a joke. But all of that evaporated when Penn showed up at the restaurant, and she shot to his side as if fired from a cannon. For the rest of the evening, she acted as if we’d never spoken at all. I had only served to fill time.
I wasn’t much bothered by the snub. I’ve been shot down thousands of times, and have fallen short of many a bloke who didn’t have a top Vegas show and a hit on basic cable. It wasn’t until the following week, when the magician stepped in front of me to watch a drunk girl riding the Double Down Saloon’s quarter-operated bouncing pony, that Penn Jillette really began to annoy me.
A Penn Encounter of the Third Kind: Contact
I finally met the man a couple of months later, when I went backstage at downtown Vegas’ Huntridge Theater to meet Jim Rose of the Jim Rose Circus. I’d already interviewed Rose over the phone, and this meeting was just a friendly event; as it turns out, the freakishly talented Rose, who can chew lightbulbs and hammer nails into his head, is one of the sweetest, most gentle-natured men you’ll ever meet.
Penn and his girlfriend stood just outside the Huntridge’s green room. Penn had his hands in his pockets and was starting into space.
“Hey, Geoff,” the girlfriend said. “Liked your Jim Rose article.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I’m here to see if he liked it.”
“I’m sure he does. By the way, have you two met? Penn, this is Geoff Carter with Scope Magazine.”
He snapped out of his reverie, bowed down slightly – it was the only way he could look me in the eye – and shook my hand.
“Good to meet ya,” he said. “I read your stuff. I like it.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I read your stuff, too.”
Before I could really lay it on, Jim Rose emerged from the green room with the promoter, who gestured in my direction and said, “That’s him.” Rose made a beeline for me and started pumping my hand.
“John, that was one of the best articles I’ve ever read on the Jim Rose Circus,” he said. “I tell you, John…”
“Geoff,” I said.
“… Most people don’t get what we’re about. But I gotta tell you, John, you’ve got real good idea of what…”
“My … my name’s Geoff, Jim.”
There followed an awkward silence that seemed to last a solid minute. Rose looked stricken, and extracted his hand to cover his mouth. Penn’s girlfriend grinned and shook her head.
Finally, the clouds opened up and the heavens spoke.
“But he really felt that ‘John’,” said Penn. “He really leaned into it.”
We never spoke again, Penn being a Vegas headliner and me a mere earthling. But I did see him out and about one more time, at a Residents show at the House of Blues just a couple of days after the student killings at Columbine.
It happened a few minutes before showtime: Penn leaned over the balcony railing and screamed at the crowd below: “Where are the jocks? Where are the jocks?”
If this shocked the crowd, they gave no sign. One of my friends said, “Aww, it’s just Penn.”
And that’s the whole of Penn’s effect on the average Las Vegan. He faces down Oliver Stone and brings pink death, and the locals can only react with aww. Such is the power of extraterrestrial influence.