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Penn Jillette Biography


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Birth Name: Penn Jillette
Born: 03/05/1955
Birth Place: Greenfield, Massachusetts, USA


Penn Fraser Jillette was born on March 5 1955, in the rural, western Massachusetts town of Greenfield. He was the youngest son of Canadian parents Valda and Sam, an antique coin dealer, and with his only sister 23 years his senior, he was essentially raised an only child. But young Jillette had no problems keeping himself entertained, the avid reader already exhibiting signs of an unusual worldview via his fascination with animal traps and juggling. His childhood neighbor Michael Moschen would grow up to be one of the most renowned jugglers in the world, and the pair learned their early skills together. But young Jillette's interest in staged magic was tempered by a disillusionment with showy performers who attempted to pass their tricks off as reality. Jillette's analytical mindset did not buy into that style, even if the liar in him wanted to. At age 18, he found a mentor and idol in James "The Amazing Randi" Randi, a professional debunker who presented magic as deceptive entertainment and not a supernatural talent.

Jillette took Randi's notion to heart, and after graduating from Greenfield High School in 1973, he spent a year honing his stage skills at the Ringling Brothers' Clown College in Sarasota, FL. In 1975, he moved to San Francisco, CA, where friends Robert Teller and Wier Chrisemer performed a musical magic show under the name of The Asparagus Valley Cultural Society. Jillette joined them and found a kindred creative spirit in Teller, with the two sharing similarly radical viewpoints on the world and an experimental approach to the well-worn genre of magic shows. Jillette's second passion was writing, and he began to incorporate his wordsmithing into the act in the form of running commentary. Jillette and Teller developed increasingly more outrageous ideas and Chrisemer, who was not quite on the same page creatively, left the act. They renamed themselves Penn and Teller and took their deconstructivist magic show on the road, immediately making an impression on audiences with Jillette's commanding 6' 6" frame, booming carnival barker voice, and intellectual arrogance, coupled with Teller's wide-eyed, mute creepiness. People were also thrown by the fact that each "trick" was followed with an explanation of how it had been pulled off.

By the mid-1980s, Penn and Teller's reputation for shaking up the stage show world with their unique blend of illusionism, performance art, dark humor and liberal commentary, brought them to New York's off-Broadway district with "Penn and Teller Go Public." The show was broadcast on PBS in 1985 and earned the duo an Emmy Award. They were promoted to Broadway in 1987, and went nationwide with appearances on edgier variety shows including "Late Night with David Letterman" (NBC, 1982-1993) and "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ). Jillette's increasingly recognizable persona was tapped for several low-budget productions including the Linda Blair exploitation film "Savage Island" (1985), "My Chauffeur" (1986), and the Norman Mailer cult favorite "Tough Guys Don't Dance" (1987). In 1989, the duo released a book and home video called "Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends," which gave step-by-step instructions for performing a number of tricks. They forayed into feature films with "Penn and Teller Get Killed" (1989) which, despite having legendary filmmaker Arthur Penn onboard as director, was a resounding flop.

While Penn and Teller spent the 1990s steadily touring the United States and Europe, they continued to expand their presence (as a pair and individually) across new pop culture mediums. In 1990, Jillette began to establish himself as a writer with a regular column in the fledgling PC/Computing magazine, in which the magazine's subject was often secondary to his intellectual commentary on unrelated humorous topics. The avowed fan of experimental rock and roll hosted "The Eyes Scream: A History of the Residents" (1991) a documentary about the avant-garde performers. Penn and Teller released their second "magic" book, Penn and Teller's How to Play With Your Food, and taped another PBS Special, "Behind the Scenes" in 1992. They released two more specials for Britain's Channel 4, and Stateside, Jillette was tapped for a suitably wicked recurring role as the head of the witches' council on "Sabrina The Teenage Witch" (ABC/The WB, 1996-2003). He also voiced the role of the TV announcer in Disney's "Toy Story" (1995) and became the signature network voice of Comedy Central.

As a pair, the certified pop culture figures were tapped for appearances on suitably irreverent TV shows including "The Drew Carey Show" (ABC, 1995-2004), "Babylon 5" (TNT, 1993-98), and "The Simpsons" (Fox, 1989- ). They also introduced the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment of "Fantasia 2000" (1999), and were popular celebrity guests on "Hollywood Squares" (syndicated, 1998-2004). In 1998, they sought to revive the dormant variety show format with the creation of "Penn and Teller's Sin City Spectacular" (FX, 1998-99), an offbeat blend of bawdy song, dance, comedy, and sideshow acts that earned an Emmy nomination. They returned to live performance in 2001 with a long-standing, six-night a week engagement at the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Adding to that demanding schedule, they launched Showtime's "Penn and Teller: Bullshit!" (2003- ), a controversial series that encouraged critical thinking by deconstructing commonly held theories about science, public policy, and religion. The documentary-style series offered them a chance focus on their passion for philosophical and political debate, earning them considerable criticism for their open atheism, skepticism, and libertarianism, but also earning several Emmy nominations and a Writers Guild Award in 2004.

Jillette realized a lifelong dream with the release of his first novel, Sock in 2004 and went on to further explore his fascination with cultural deconstruction as co-director and co-producer (along with comedian-actor Paul Provenza) of the feature "The Aristocrats" (2005). The shocking and hilarious documentary allowed a cross-section of comic talent to offer their take on the history and allure of an oft-told and exceedingly filthy in-joke in the entertainment world. The picture received excellent reviews and an enthusiastic response from indie film fans, as well as a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. While still maintaining his six-day a week performance schedule at the Rio and production of "Bullshit," Jillette conquered new territory in 2006 as the host of an hour-long, live radio show on Vegas-area station Free-FM. The certified comic personality also hosted the primetime game show "Identity" (NBC, 2006-07), and in early 2008, was added to the cast of the reality show hit "Dancing with the Stars" (ABC, 2005- ).

Jillette realized a lifelong dream with the release of his first novel, Sock in 2004 and went on to further explore his fascination with cultural deconstruction as co-director and co-producer (along with comedian-actor Paul Provenza) of the feature "The Aristocrats" (2005). The shocking and hilarious documentary allowed a cross-section of comic talent to offer their take on the history and allure of an oft-told and exceedingly filthy in-joke in the entertainment world. The picture received excellent reviews and an enthusiastic response from indie film fans, as well as a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. While still maintaining his six-day a week performance schedule at the Rio and production of "Bullshit," Jillette conquered new territory in 2006 as the host of an hour-long, live radio show on Vegas-area station Free-FM. The certified comic personality also hosted the primetime game show "Identity" (NBC, 2006-07), and in early 2008, was added to the cast of the reality show hit "Dancing with the Stars" (ABC, 2005- ). He was eliminated after the first round. Meanwhile, he published the New York Times bestseller, God, No! Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales (2011), and joined the cast of "Celebrity Apprentice" (NBC, 2004- ) alongside Arsenio Hall, Debbie Gibson, Clay Aiken and Adam Carolla.