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Penn Jillette on Choosing Identity

Published January 4, 2007 in Television
By Fred Topel | Image property of NBC.
Identity Penn Jillette
Penn Jillette is a busy man. He's got nightly shows with Penn and Teller in Las Vegas and a Showtime documentary series, Bullsh*t gearing up for a fifth season. But the producers of NBC's new game show Identity snagged more of his time. Having spoken with NBC's other reluctant game show hosts, Jillette did not have to think twice about the gig.

Penn Jillette On Choosing Identity


"I'm friends with Howie and with Saget," said Jillette. "Right when they each got the show and had just taped their first show, I think Howie's had aired because his was much earlier but Saget's had not aired, I had them on my radio show where I do an hour. We were all in The Aristocrats together. I've known Saget 30 years, I'd known Howie a long time."

Mandel has a rather infamous story about refusing to do Deal or No Deal but relenting under the pressure of his wife and handlers. "Howie told me that story but he also told me that story off the air, so he told me the story not the way you heard it but much more intensely and how much he did not want to do this. And about his wife wanting him to and his manager and agent and so on. Then he also talked to me a long time about how he felt that his experience on stage had really helped with the game show and how he really enjoyed doing it. And I really mean this is very shortly after, two weeks, three weeks later, I had the same conversation with Saget. I mean, the exact same conversation, that he did not want to do it and then once he did it and was on stage doing it, it felt right and it felt natural."



This was all independent of NBC's offer, so it's just fortuitous that Jillette could learn from his colleagues' mistakes. "Those two conversations, I did not know I was going to be talking to them about Identity. So the call came from Identity and I like to think I could learn from advice from friends. Because they both told me the same story, I skipped that stage. I was really interested in how the game was played and what the ideas were behind it, but I didn't have to spend any time saying, 'This is not what I do. I'm not a game show host' because Howie and Saget had done that. Being the third person on the list and knowing the other two and having long conversations with them really did cut through a lot of the jive."

Even more than the stand-up comedians, Jillette has unique credentials to host a show about sizing people up. "They came to me and I didn't know it, Andrew [Robbins] had to explain this to me, but I didn't know that all of the time I was doing 50 shows a day out in the blazing sun eating fire and screaming and people and doing shows in Vegas, I was actually preparing to host his game show. And when he explained that to me, it was really a very important thing to me because I finally found out what my life was for."

A proponent of many art forms from stage to radio to television, Jillette believes Identity is exactly the sort of show that should be produced. "I think that what's going on is NBC is trying to figure out I think very nobly what television does well. 30 years ago, television just very simply did everything well. They had to pretend they did everything well because they were the only game in town. And now you have DVDs and movies, you have of course the web, we know that television does sports beautifully and is really made for that. What television is good at, what is important to me in real time and what is important to have that kind of video coverage opposed to film type coverage, I think NBC is digging around to find out what the whole medium of television is really good at. One of the things it ends up being good at is reality shows and another one of the things it ends up being good at is game shows. There's something that feels right about a show like Identity being done on television. It doesn't feel like a radio show, it doesn't feel like a movie, it doesn't feel like something on the web. It really does feel like TV but I think what you're seeing is NBC really stepping up to the plate, trying to figure out what it is that their medium does the best."

Identity airs at 8PM on NBC.

Stay tuned for updates.

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Fred Topel
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