Penn Jillette never expected to be a star. He also had no interest in doing magic. In the late ‘70s, he and Teller were two-thirds of an act called the Asparagus Valley Cultural Society. As part of that group — and then later as Penn & Teller — they played carnivals and renaissance festivals.
In a recent interview, Jillette says Teller brought the idea of doing magic to the duo and they started incorporating it into their show. But they were still essentially a carnival act trying to figure out what they were — what sort of art they were making and who their audience might be. They had been making a living — barely — for most of a decade and were still trying to figure out what they were.
They got the idea to take their show to theaters, so they committed to a full year of theater shows to see whether they could make it in that world. But as they started performing to small crowds, Jillette panicked. He said they were selling 10 or 15 tickets in a theater that seated 90 people — so he started trying to line up carnival gigs again.
Then something happened — and I can’t stop thinking about how this lesson might apply to me.
During the year or so that they had agreed to try theater shows, Jillette assumed they were going to be a commercial failure — based on the horrible ticket sales they were generating. They were getting an audience that wanted a smarter act, but there just weren’t enough of them to support the duo.
Then some producers asked them to bring their show to an off-Broadway theater in New York City. Jillette said he and Teller were willing to take the job, but they were certain it was going to fail. Jillette admits that he was working phones trying to line up carnival and festival gigs for when they went back to reality.
Suddenly, though, they found an audience. After years of trying to figure out who they were and what their act would be — and then going through the painful process of failing to find an initial audience, the crowds started showing up.
During the ‘80s and ’90s, they became huge stars. For almost 20 years now, they have been performing sold-out shows at a Las Vegas theater which bears their names.
The “carny trash” — to use Jillette’s term for what he expected the pair to be — had become wildly successful stars, not by doing what anybody else had done before, but by struggling to find the right niche in which they could do the original art that represented who they really were.
About 10 or 15 years ago, I was sure what I was doing. I was a political consultant and I was paid very well for my work. But the work itself was trash. I created personas for politicians and sold those false images like bars of soap to gullible crowds. I followed cookie-cutter formulas, because that’s what worked.
There was nothing about what I did that was original. There was nothing about it that had integrity. There was really nothing about it the was honest.
And I was miserable, despite the money.
I stepped away from that world — cutting the ties firmly enough that I couldn’t go back — and started trying to figure out who I am and what I need to make and who my audience is. I found an audience writing about politics — you could say I grew some degree of popularity with an “anti-political act” — but as I turned to things that were more authentic and more original, a lot of that crowd disappeared.
In the last few years, I’ve been struggling to find my artistic and commercial niche. I’ve always known that when I find my right “act,” it’s going to turn out that I am my product.
I might make films. I might write books. I might do a lot of things. But at the root, something about the person I am — and the way in which I will learn to project that — is the product that I have to sell.
I haven’t perfected my act. I’m still trying to figure it out. I’m still trying to figure out who my audience is. As I’ve tried to find the audiences I need to make it commercially, I’ve felt the sort of panic that Jillette did when they played to almost-empty houses.
But I have this crazy idea that I’m going to do original work that will find its audience. (The new video studio I showed you over the weekend is part of that.)
I could abandon this struggle and devote full time to making money the way I’ve done it in the past or through some traditional route to wealth and success. It’s not that I don’t know how. But I would be miserable living the life most people live. I would be miserable not pursuing this desire to do something original. I would be miserable giving up on this notion that I have something bigger to offer than just making a nice living.
I have something that I need to say and to create. I have something I need to be.
Penn & Teller found their art and are now doing their best work ever. They’ve found their audience and are making more money than ever.
I have faith that I’m going to figure out the original niche I need to fill — how to be the person who people will pay to experience — so I’ll keep playing to these comparatively empty theaters while I work it out.
I have confidence that I’ll one day be the “overnight success” who struggled for years to find his place. So I’m grateful to Jillette for reminding me to stay the course.