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Classic Hollywood: Shirley MacLaine sows ‘Wild Oats’ and harvests a new book, ‘Above the Line’

March 14, 2016

Penn Jillette talks about his current extreme: His diet

(PHOTO)

By Morgan Greene

Chicago Tribune

(TNS)

"If you take medical advice from a Las Vegas magician, you … deserve to die," said Penn Jillette, the louder half of Penn and Teller, at Francis W. Parker School in Chicago on Friday night. The introduced "magician, author, auteur, atheist, weight loser and loser" seemed to want the audience to take the extreme diet detailed in his latest book, "Presto! How I Made Over 100 Pounds Disappear and Other Magical Tales," with a grain of salt. But, as Jillette writes in "Presto!": "only a grain — salt is poison, as even this idiot now knows."

"It’s the only book that people seemed to want me to write," said Jillette, tall as ever but now much smaller, seated across from Chicago Humanities Festival associate artistic director Alison Cuddy. A dive into health and wellness may be a detour from Jillette’s usual bag of tricks, but "Presto!" contains as many Jillette-isms about atheism, libertarianism and masturbation as ever.

The real-life story that inspired the book came about when Jillette, who was nearing 60, had topped 300 pounds and was struggling to keep his blood pressure at a level that didn’t invite swift death, shirked his doc’s recommendation of a stomach sleeve and transformed his health by doing what he does best: going to extremes.

It all began with potatoes.

Jillette embarked on a two-week mono-diet, guided by scientist Ray Cronise (Jillette calls him "CrayRay"). Phase one was eating just potatoes. Next they added "whole plants," or other vegetables.

"It’s kind of like if you’re listening to nothing but three-chord rock ‘n’ roll at deafening volumes, and you love it because three-chord rock ‘n’ roll at deafening volumes is wonderful, and then all of a sudden you decide to turn it down, and playing there is Miles Davis and Stravinsky," he said about the palate-cleansing experience. He talked about a piece of post-potato corn like it was a dish at Alinea. It was plain corn.

Jillette told the Humanities Fest audience that he lost an average of 0.9 pounds a day while getting down to his goal weight of 230 pounds. That claim elicited a reaction of oohs and aahs.

He claims he now has a diet mostly free of sugar, salt and fat — the staples of what he refers to in "Presto!" as the Standard American Diet, or SAD. Jillette, lover of Bob Dylan, Lenny Bruce and Jack Kerouac, said, "The people that I love and respect are not good at moderation."

But don’t count Donald Trump, who Jillette competed to impress twice on "Celebrity Apprentice," as a member of that group.

Jillette said he couldn’t help reacting to Trump’s remarks on the show.

"I rolled my eyes so loudly in the boardroom that Donald Trump took the habit of turning to me and saying, ‘That isn’t sexist, is it Penn?’ To which I would reply, ‘I believe it’s the textbook definition.’"

The casual conversation with Cuddy turned to politics.

Jillette was a supporter of Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, whom he credited for "not running the campaign based on hate and fear." He said he ultimately was voting for Hillary Clinton because he lives in a swing state, but still criticized her shortcomings, specifically calling her out for being too anti-immigration.

"I think that immigrants deserve to be here more than I do," he said.

But his post-weight loss self seemed happy to stick around and spend as much time as possible with his family. He spoke of a game that asks what show a music snob would go back in time to see. Jillette said he would see Dylan in his first appearance post-winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

"Wait a minute, I was there!" he said. "All of my dreams have come true now."

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