Vegas Library: Penn Jillette's 'God, No!'
You likely know Penn Jillette as the larger, louder half of the magical duo Penn & Teller. At surface level, Jillette is a jovial performer dripping with charisma, but what’s not as obvious is the complexity of his character. Yet, dive into his book God, No! Signs You May Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales, and you’ll get an up-close and unfiltered glimpse into the mind of one of the most unique performers on the Las Vegas Strip.
But there’s an elephant in the room: If you hadn’t guessed by the book’s title, Jillette is an unabashed atheist. If you’re a big fan of the Penn & Teller universe, this is not news. Though, if you didn’t know that already, then … surprise! But don’t worry, the subtitle, after all, includes other magical tales. So, much of the book’s content isn’t directly about atheism. Rather, as Jillette puts it, this book will “give you a feel for how one goofy atheist lives his life in turn-of-the-century America.” It goes beyond belief; it’s about being human.
Much of Jillette’s life revolves around the world of magic. And having performed in Las Vegas with Teller for more than 20 years, he has firsthand experiences with some of Vegas’s most recognized magicians, and those stories glow like burning coal. In one story, he describes how even though he thought Siegfried & Roy’s magic “sucked,” their show was nonetheless influential and made him proud to be in the entertainment business. Jillette explains that “when you take something easy and safe and make it look difficult and death-defying, you are a cheesy circus act. When you take something impossible and make it look easy, you’re an artist … What they do looks easy and simple and, well, it just happens to be close to impossible and stirs your heart to the very depths. That’s the way Roy played the tigers.” Jillette later parlays that story with a deeper look into the purpose of magic, discussing a debate he had with David Blaine over the word “trick,” a word Blaine supposedly hates. “He thinks that a trick is supposed to be something mystical,” writes Jillette, “which I guess I agree with; everything mystical is just a trick.” Magicians like David Blaine and Criss Angel want people to believe that what they’re seeing is real, while Jillette argues that “a magic trick has to be good enough as a magic trick that when you know [it’s not real], it’s still interesting. It still needs to mean something.” Mind you, God, No! was published in 2011, but this is a sentiment that appears to have influenced a new wave of Vegas magicians, such as Piff the Magic Dragon, Mat Franco and Shin Lim.
Besides being a magician, Jillette is also somewhat of a comedian, and God, No! includes some utterly hilarious moments, like the fateful day one of Jillette’s more delicate appendages met the white-hot end of a blow dryer, and the time when he flew on a reduced-gravity aircraft, aka vomit comet, with Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top. But if you’re a fan of Jillette, you expect the humor. What might surprise you, however, is Jillette’s ability to write about tragic moments with remarkable tenderness and grace. Sure, he’ll broach such subjects with light humor, but he does not shy away from sadness. One story about his family and the way he, as an atheist, memorializes his parents, his sister and other family and friends he’s lost is deeply moving. He clearly wears his heart and soul on his sleeve.
Jillette is not lacking in self-awareness, either. He knows he’s a large man with an even larger personality and a loud mouth. He knows he can be overwhelming and he fully embraces his nature. But remember, it’s a book. If you’re a few chapters in and you start to find Jillette’s style tiresome, put the book down. Though, it’s doubtful you’ll want to quit reading. Jillette’s writing is electric and engaging, lyrical and expressive, rambling and uncensored. He is so not afraid to be himself, and you might find that authenticity endearing.
Click here for your free subscription to Las Vegas Magazine’s digital edition. Keep up with everything happening in Las Vegas, including reopening information. You’ll also receive the “Lost Issue” of Las Vegas Magazine, published right before the shutdown.