Las Vegas Photo and Video
Saturday, May 3, 2014 | 3:15 p.m.
We have been through so many AFAN AIDS Walks with Penn Jillette that it seems there is not much else for him to say.
“Just take everything I’ve said in the past years and say that again,” he said during a phone conversation this week.
That’s a lot of territory to cover.
Jillette has already said the reason performing partner Teller and he have chosen AIDS as a charity meriting support is because “sometimes you just fall into things.” Five years ago, I asked how long Teller and he were supporters of the event, and he responded, “Ten years. Ten, or 37.”
And there was the moment during the charity run seven years ago when I asked Jillette about the competitive environment of entertainment in Las Vegas and he said, “If you go to a show on the Strip in 2007 and see someone doing a George Burns impersonation, you are not going to want to see another show on the Strip. That hurts us. But if you go see Blue Man Group and love it, you'll come back and see Penn & Teller.”
Jillette again talked of the entertainment scene in Las Vegas during a phone interview this week promoting this year’s AFAN AIDS Walk, set for 9 a.m. (opening ceremonies) and 10:30 a.m. (the actual walk) Sunday at the grass courtyard at UNLV’s Student Union (go to the AFAN website for information).
Singing the national anthem will be Josh Strickland from “Vegas! The Show.” Performers scheduled to appear include those from “Le Reve — The Dream,” Rose. Rabbit. Lie.’s “Vegas Nocturne,” “Absinthe,” Mo5aic, “Million Dollar Quartet,” “Panda!” Las Vegas Kaminari Taiko Drummers, Zodiac Dragon and the Kaution Dance Kru. Pet trainer Gregory Popovich and DJ Axis also are on the bill.
Money raised is delivered to Aid for AIDS of Nevada, the oldest and largest AIDS support service organization in the state. AFAN is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
Jillette’s predisposition is to express his opinions, and this week he furnished an update of his view of Vegas entertainment over the years. Last year, Penn & Teller celebrated their 20th anniversary of performing on the Strip, premiering in 1993 at Bally’s and have headlined at the Rio for better than a decade.
In Las Vegas, Jillette says, “You’re not going to get a time like the '90s, when Vegas entertainment did a complete change — when Blue Man Group came in and Cirque du Soleil starting flourishing, you had to change from ironic entertainment to real entertainment. And the change from real entertainment to ironic entertainment took from like ’65 to maybe 1980.”
Jillette says of that period that Las Vegas “was a real happening place to be. I mean, the Rat Pack was there, which on a certain level was the most interesting art you could find. And then Elvis comes and that’s exciting for a while, and then that kind of goes ironic, and by 1980 people started coming to make fun of Vegas — people who don’t smoke cigars start smoking cigars and that whole (lounge satirist) Richard Cheese, finger-popping-with-a-wink attitude was coming in. We would eat at a lousy steakhouse and see a show that sucks, and that’s our three-day experience.”
The advent of such high-caliber shows as Cirque and Blue Man Group and the residencies of superstars at many Las Vegas venues has returned the city to the top tier of entertainment destinations, Jillette says. But the entertainment trend booming up and down the Strip today is largely a mystery to the famed comedy-magic team.
“The exciting stuff that’s happening in Vegas is the whole nightclub DJ scene, which I’m not well-versed in and which I’m kind of left out of,” he says. “If you really had to say what is the Sammy, Dean and Sinatra in the 21st century — what’s the oddest finger-popping and skinny tie and too-cool-for school attitude today, you’ve got to say, it’s the electronic dance culture.”
How Penn & Teller might fit into this culture is a curious concept. P&T rarely turn down any artistic crossover idea out of hand, but the idea of the duo appearing with Tiesto at the Electric Daisy Carnival is certainly uncharted territory. Would they ever consider, say, an appearance at EDC?
“Of course we would. I would love to do that,” Jillette said. “I would not want to ever do it pretending we deeply understood it, you know.”
Jillette recalled the admiration held by Frank Zappa for legendary comic Lenny Bruce. Zappa was a big fan of the groundbreaking Bruce dating to the comedian’s start in New York. Bruce attended a Mothers of Invention show in the mid-1960s, and Zappa opened for Bruce at the Fillmore Auditorium in June 1966.
“It was a big deal because Zappa was a huge Lenny Bruce fan, and Lenny Bruce was a jazz fan and was never affiliated with rock and roll in any way,” Jillette says. “I’ve always loved the fact that Lenny just went to the show, watched the show and then said to Zappa very simply: 'You know, I really don’t understand this. This is really beyond me. I don’t get it. It’s great, but I don’t get it.’"
Jillette shares that same assessment of a lot of the electronic music thundering through Las Vegas nightclubs.
“I’ve always tried to keep that in mind that that’s OK, you know, not to get something,” he says. “I don’t want to be the guy that says, 'Get off my lawn!' These are just guys playing records. They’re turning on their iPods, and what is that? That’s not music! Go learn to play the effing guitar!’ I don’t want to be that guy. But I also don’t want to be the guy who pretends to like the Mothers when it’s really not his scene.”
And if someone came to the duo with an idea to incorporate the P&T stage show to a massive EDM event?
“I would be thrilled, seriously,” Jillette says. “I would be thrilled to pieces.”