Penn Jillette Reveals the Secrets of Fire-Eating | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
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Penn Jillette demonstrates the art of fire breathing. (Jared McMillen)

Penn Jillette Reveals the Secrets of Fire-Eating

The more talkative half of the famed magic duo says that even for professionals, this magic act is a tough act to swallow

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I didn’t learn fire-eating to conquer my fears. I learned fire-eating because I desperately wanted to be in show business. You don’t want to learn fire-eating from a book, but that’s how I started. I read Step Right Up! by Dan Mannix—the 1950 memoir of a real-life carny—and I wanted to be “with it.” Dan didn’t explain how to eat fire, but I felt I could read between the lines and figure it out. I was 19 years old, and like many men that age, I felt invincible. I wasn’t, and you aren’t. Remember that. Do not eat fire!

I practiced all afternoon and burned the snot out of my mouth and lips. My mouth looked like wall-to-wall herpes sores, with cartoonish, giant teeth glued to my lips. There were so many blisters I couldn’t press my lips together. I sure couldn’t have whistled. I thought I had to ignore the pain and I did. I’ve always been good at focus. My girlfriend arrived home and screamed in horror (19-year-old men often make 19-year-old women do that). We didn’t kiss for a week . . . and we were 19.

Don’t learn fire-eating from a magazine, but here’s how it works. Just, don’t do it!

You build a torch by tying cotton onto a straightened coat hanger. Don’t tie the cotton with metal wire that’ll get hot, or with nylon mono- filament that will get molten. Use thread and make sure the cotton won’t fall off. You don’t want it to fall off.

Get something to eat. Eating fire on an empty stomach can give you a weird chemical headache. When you’re done you’re going to belch petroleum for a while, so avoid carbonated beverages. Against my own advice, I enjoy an RC Cola and a MoonPie before fire-eating, but, if you’re unaccustomed to dead dinosaur burps, have whole milk with your marshmallow chocolate-coated cookie goodness. Eat something you really enjoy, since you won’t want to eat after.

Learn to stick the unlit torch into your mouth without the cotton touching the sides of your mouth. Put your head back far enough that the fire will go straight up toward your hand. The torch needs to be long enough that your hand will not get burned. Most of the heat is at the top of the flame. You’re going to be counting on that.

Get away from any breeze and way far away from smoke detectors. Use fuel without lead in it. Coleman camping fuel is the brand I use. (And there was no promotional compensation for mentioning that—Coleman doesn’t want me to mention that.) Dip the torch into the fuel, close the container completely and get it the hell away from you. Make sure you have high ceilings. If the fire department shows up, you’re going to feel like a real idiot. If the fire department shows up, you are a real idiot.

Get your hair out of your face. If you wear your hair like Joey Ramone, don’t eat fire. Get your mouth wet. Think of lemons, Scarlett Johansson or Brad Pitt, whatever works for you. Light the torch. Bend your head back, open wide and shove it in. Hold your breath. When you can lower the wire torch deep enough to get your lips around the whole flaming cotton, close your lips tight enough to smother the fire with your wet mouth. It takes practice to close your lips tightly, but not so tight your lips touch the red-hot coat hanger metal. In a couple of seconds, the fire will go out. You just ate fire, but not because I told you to. I told you not to!

You will have annoying little burns all over your mouth and lips. If you’re a wimp, get some ice. If you’re a 19-year-old man, do it another 50 times. You shouldn’t be doing this. It’s dangerous and if you do everything right, you’ll still get hurt. The definition of a stupid thing is something that if you do everything right, you still get hurt. Fire-eating and love are stupid things.

Even if you aren’t burned badly, you’ll still be poisoned a bit from the fuel. It’s harmful or fatal if swallowed—it says that right on the can that’s currently way far away from you. You’ll have a headache and your mouth will taste awful. You’ll have tastes, burps and smells you’ve never experienced before. Weirder tastes and smells than those bugnutty pickles you get at Indian restaurants. You’ll have little salty blisters oozing and breaking inside and outside of your mouth.

And if you’re anything like me, you’ll love it.

Don’t do it!

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