(Editor's note: This column was originally published on July 13, 2017.) World-renowned illusionists Penn Jillette and Teller return this week to The CW for a fourth season of their series Penn & Teller: Fool Us. Hosted by Alyson Hannigan (pictured at top center with Jillette, left, and Teller), the show puts the spotlight on aspiring magicians who perform their trickiest tricks. Jillette and Teller then try to figure out how they were done. Anyone who successfully stumps the guys wins an opportunity to share the stage with them during their show at the Rio Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.
While Penn & Teller together are a household name, it’s one half of the act that gets recognized more and, surprisingly, it’s not for his magic tricks. Twenty years ago during its fourth season, Jillette appeared on a little show called Friends playing an encyclopedia salesman. It tuned out to be a guest appearance that, thanks to constant reruns, is likely to live on forever. “Every night and every time we do a show someone will come up and mention selling encyclopedias to Joey Tribbiani [Matt LeBlanc],” he tells me. “It happens every night. Every night! (LeBlanc and Jillette are pictured below in a scene from Friends.)
“That was a really great experience,” he continued. “It’s wonderful to have been on a show that was so much a part of the culture at the time. But I must confess I am more blown away by surfing on the wave than the actual particular things of the show.”
Jillette equates his Friends experience to that of doing The Howard Stern Show in the 1980s, where his on-air conversations with the shock jock would often continue long after his appearances were over. “Cab drivers afterwards would continue the conversation I had on Stern,” he recalled. “It was just so much part of the fabric of our culture for that moment. People knew my voice -- and Friends was kind of like that. It doesn't have the continuity in real time, but that [Friends episode] would air and all of a sudden everyone, everywhere, would have the same comment about the encyclopedias.”
According to Jillette his brief yet memorable appearance came out of the blue. “They just called up and said, ‘Do you want to do the show?’ The same thing happened when I did Modern Family. They just said, ‘You’d be good for this part.’
“They were all real pros,” he added. “It was just great to work with people who knew what they were doing. It gets really wonderful and when you have people, if they're good, professional and creative, you have people that really know what they're doing.”
Unlike the hordes of Friends fanatics that like to remind Jillette of his appearance on the show, the man himself has yet to see it! “I've never seen it because I don't care to watch myself,” he admitted. “It’s just not what I do. My kids have watched it, but I just don't have the willpower to not want to redo something I've done if I watch it. That happens every moment I watch [myself].”
Editor’s note: This is the latest in Steve Gidlow’s recurring series of interviews with actors who guest-starred in the iconic sitcom Friends, a personal obsession of his. He has also interview Friends alumni Eddie Cahill, Leah Remini and Anna Faris.
Penn & Teller: Fool Usis telecast Thursday at 8:00 p.m. on The CW.
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