If you’re a fan of the magicians-cum-skeptics Penn & Teller, you’ve likely noticed the absolutely incredible disappearing act they unveiled a year or so ago on the stage of Vegas’ Rio casino. No, not “The Vanishing African Spotted Pygmy Elephant Act,” in which they make a cow dressed like an elephant go poof, but the one in which Penn, the “larger and louder half of the duo,” lost around one-third of his body weight in a five-month span.
Penn gives away the trick in his brand-new book, Presto!: How I Made More than 100 Pounds Magically Disappear and Other Magical Tales, which details his diet regimen as laid out by Ray Cronise, a former NASA scientist and entrepreneur who pushes an extremely restricted plant-based diet (essentially, veganism but with little-to-no added salt, sugar, oil, and fat). Like Penn’s old “fat fuck” body (his term), Presto! contains multitudes—it’s less a diet memoir than a wide-ranging meditation on contemporary American culture and politics, including the 2016 election.
In the book and in a recent interview, Penn, an outspoken libertarian, has nothing good to say about Hillary Clinton—and even less positive to utter about Donald Trump, with whom he appeared twice on Celebrity Apprentice. Each time, he says with pride, he delivered the best products but lost because he insulted Trump by refusing to pledge his support should the billionaire run for president and saying that his hair looks like “cotton candy made from piss.” “There is no one worse than Hillary Clinton,” he told me a few weeks ago, “except Donald Trump.” As a “war-monger,” says Penn, Clinton “will certainly be the killingest president we’ve had in a long time” but she is ultimately less dangerous than Trump, who he fears will actually unleash nuclear weapons. “If someone questioned his authority in just the right way…” he said, miming the pushing of what we all assume is a bright-red LAUNCH button somewhere in the Oval Office. “I’m supporting [libertarian] Gary Johnson all the way,” he says. “You can’t find Gary Johnson saying, ‘You know, if you don’t vote for me, it’s the end of the world.’”
That is about the only moderating sentiment you’ll hear from Penn in person or encounter in Presto!, which is a convincing brief for a nouveau-Beat sensibility of extremism in the pursuit of health and longevity, a 21st-century version of Jack Kerouac’s hosanna to the “mad ones,” the “ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” The main difference is that Kerouac drank himself to death before reaching 50 while Penn, now 61 and a life-long teetotaler, is trying to live as long as he can both because as an atheist he believes there’s nothing after this life, and because he has two kids whom he doesn’t want to have “to deal with [him] dropping dead of fat when they’re just teenagers.”
After decades of chowing down on what he derides as the “Standard American Diet” or SAD—think huge, Cheesecake Factory-sized portions of everything fried, battered, sweetened, fried, and salted—Penn was not only obese but depressed, constantly winded, and on multiple blood-pressure drugs. His descriptions of his pig-out sessions—buttered steaks, movie theater popcorn covered in oil and Milk Duds, Cinnabons chased by sweet drinks, and hunks of cheese slathered with peanut butter—would give Dr. Oz vicarious diabetes. Penn’s come-to-Jesus moment (if an atheist can be said to have such an epiphany) came when he had a stent put in his heart and his doctor told him he either needed to lose a ton of weight or get stomach-shrinking surgery within six months.
Having been given “official permission to go crazy” in pursuit of dieting, he soon found himself under the care of Cronise or “CrayRay” (short for “Crazy Ray”), who put Penn on a two-week regimen of only eating potatoes as a way to reset his cravings and taste buds. Slowly after that, Penn started adding back other vegetables and whole grains, small amounts of hot sauce, and eventually fruit after hitting his maintenance weight. His medical problems disappeared along with the flab but, ever the skeptic, he repeatedly cautions his readers about taking advice from a “fucking juggler whose only higher education was Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College.” He is, he admits, only “a zealot wearing a broccoli suicide vest to Burger King.”
Penn’s brush with mortality led him not so much to a change of heart but a change in direction. “The kind of guy I am, if I couldn’t eat nothing, I was going to eat everything,” he writes. “There is nothing fun and sexy about moderation. To be thin, I needed to find a way to make my diet as extreme as my other lifestyle choices.”
In this, he has certainly succeeded and provides not a role model per se but an inspiration for charting your own course forward in a crazy world where Donald Trump may well be the next president of these United States. “Enjoy the difficulty,” he writes to a former, fatter version of himself toward the end of Presto!. “Everything you love in life, everything you’re proud of, you had to work for… Live outside the law.”