Penn Jillette needs a blog. In his second book of essays, Jillette, the blustery half of the comedy/magic/charlatan-debunking duo Penn & Teller, waxes poetic and profane about his atheism, his children, his sexual peccadilloes, his libertarianism, and his adventures in and out of showbiz. The upside is that some of his stories are uproarious. The downside is that most of them are repetitive and full of digressive asides derailing his points and stomping on his punchlines. Lazily edited work of this type is more appropriate for the free press of the Internet than the printed page.
A little of Jillette’s self-righteousness goes a long way, too. His brand of skepticism has a fundamentalist streak that he seemingly believes is merely righteous. For instance, the essay “Happy Birthday” makes a solid point about the Walt Disney Company’s hypocritical refusal to accept an EPCOT brick paid for by Jillette’s wife, on which she wanted inscribed “Dog On,” or “No God” written backward. Jillette proudly recounts how he led the poor Disney employee who was unfortunate enough to deliver the news into a thought experiment, where the essay’s title becomes code for “fuck you.” Then he reproduces the multi-page harangue he visited on his victim. Point made, the rich Vegas entertainer illustrated how clever and free he is in a smug essay about telling off a wage slave.
There are other stories in this vein, such as his mea culpa for appearing on Celebrity Apprentice, or his anecdote about bullying an old friend into going American Pie on a Thanksgiving dessert. The better stories are sweeter, though, and even occasionally wise. One essay starts with Jillette discussing a quote from his previous book, God, No!, that he tried and failed to attribute to Lenny Bruce. Flipping through some old beatnik magazines, Jillette discovered the actual quote, which is both better than he remembered and from Allen Ginsberg, to boot. Overwhelmed by his discovery, Jillette ties his conflation of Bruce and Ginsberg into a revelation about his own need to perform and to be himself. It manages to be touching even when it ends with Jillette stripping naked at a Hooters to prove some point or another.
Essays like that throw the majority of the book into sharp relief. At his best, Jillette is capable of cutting the fluff and toning down his attitude enough to lay out his position with an appealing sense of discovery and drive. On the other hand, too many of these essays are flabby and self-aggrandizing. Jillette should spare his fans the cost of a book and save his sloppier work for the Internet, just like everyone else with big ideas and a big mouth.