Friday, January 31, 2014


First of all, I should mention this isn’t the first time I’ve met Penn Jillette. Back in the ‘Nineties, my father took me to a Penn & Teller show in Vegas, and I met both of them as we came out after. The last part of their act featured them dressed in togas and covered in blood, so that’s how they stood out in the lobby of the theater, signing autographs. Fast forward maybe ten years, and my grandfather, my brothers and I went to a Penn & Teller show in Chicago. During one of their acts, Penn, who is a giant, was stuffed into a barrel with a bunch of rods stuck through it. He invited everyone in the theater to come on stage and take a look in the barrel to see there were no tricks involved. I went down and couldn’t believe my own eyes. I also met him again as we left the theater, and he signed more autographs.

But those times were as a magician. This time, I got to meet Penn Jillette, the author.

He’s written a few books with Teller, but he’s also done quite a few solo books. My favorite is SOCK, which is one of the most inventive cop novels I’ve ever read. His new book is EVERY DAY IS AN ATHEIST HOLIDAY!, and I rushed out to Anderson’s in Naperville to get my own copy. This time, I got there early enough to get a seat, which turned out to be a good idea since by the time I turned around at the start of the presentation, the bookstore was stuffed with people.

I sat there, reading the book when I heard Penn on the other side of the book shelf from me. Holy shit, he was early. Considering how many authors have been early to signings lately, I’m going to have to renew my general theory that everyone is late, and those who aren’t are exceptions.

I heard him talking with an Anderson’s rep about the details of the signing. And then I heard him reference bringing a friend with him. I wondered if it might be Teller, but then I heard the name “Tony.” I knew Penn was friends with Tony Fitzpatrick, who lives in the area, and I wondered if maybe that was the friend in question. That would be very cool.

Not too long after, Penn stepped out and greeted us all. He looked even taller than I remembered, and with his hair NOT tied back in a ponytail, he looked like a caveman dressed in modern clothes. The first thing he said? “I just want to check with everyone before we begin. Is it okay if I curse? I mean, I can do this clean, but I just want to check with everyone.”

I was the first person to respond to this, and can you guess what I said? Oh yeah.

And he cursed. He cursed like a motherfucker.

He also said that he’d brought a friend with him. “I’m sure since this is Chicago, Tony Fitzpatrick needs no introduction.” And he pointed back.

It was too crowded. I couldn’t see him. But fuck, how cool is that? According to Terry, the guy who runs the comic book shop I go to, Fitzpatrick used to have his studio on that very block in Villa Park. I love his art, but I was a bigger fan of his Comedy Central show back in the day, DRIVE-IN REVIEWS with Buzz Kilman. Fitzpatrick is an artist whose work adorns the private collections of top names like Harrison Ford, Johnny Depp, Kevin Bacon, Andrew Vachss, Bill Gates, Morgan Freeman, Martin Scorsese and so on. But as I looked around at my fellow fans, I suddenly got the impression that I was the only one who knew who Fitzpatrick is.

Penn began his presentation, and he spoke with the power of a hell-fire preacher, which is pretty funny, considering his atheism. He’s a riveting speaker, as he should be after years of being a stage magician. Not once in all the time he spoke did he become boring. He spoke on a lot of topics, mostly atheism and his run on CELEBRITY APPRENTICE. He brought out the one question us atheists are asked all the time by people who have at least some spiritual belief: “If you don’t believe in God, then what motivates you to be good?”

I usually respond with something like, “We’re all in this together. Why make each other miserable in our short time on this planet?” I like Penn’s answer a lot better: “I rape and murder all the people I want to. That number of people is ZERO.” He finds it abhorrent that people need to be threatened with punishment in the afterlife to be good on this planet. I agree.

He also told a great story about one of his friends on CELEBRITY APPRENTICE having a breakdown, and the cameras wanted to get the most out of the situation. Penn, feeling bad for his friend, started singing “Hey Jude,” and the cameras stopped rolling instantly. Apparently, it is very expensive to get the rights to use that song, and no one at the network wanted to pay the price. He also explained why he thought people tended to act like assholes on reality shows. It’s a very interesting theory, but it’s in the book, and Penn tells it better than I can here.

At one point, he broke the microphone. To the best of my memory, I think he dropped it on the table in faux-shock at something. The top just cracked off, and he did his best to put it back on. It worked for a while, but it kept falling back off. Finally, he gave up, asking the audience if he even needed the fucking thing. Of course he didn’t. His voice is deep and resonating. I’m certain people across the street could hear him.

It came time for the Q&A. As always, I wanted to ask a question that the author in question has never been asked. I figured most of the crowd was here due to his reality show appearances, and maybe from his magic shows with Teller. I felt fairly confident that no one else would ask about his movie (again, with Teller) called PENN & TELLER GET KILLED. A smile bloomed on his face as he talked about the project, which he really had fun with, but he knew they’d never get another chance at a movie because it flopped pretty badly. He couldn’t believe they’d gotten a real director for the movie, either. Arthur Penn directed BONNIE AND CLYDE, THE MIRACLE WORKER and LITTLE BIG MAN, among others. On set, they had to refer to the two Penns by their other names in order to differentiate between them.

After the questions, we all got lined up to get our books signed. When I got up there, I asked the Anderson’s rep if he’d also sign SOCK, which I had brought as well. She said sure. I put both books down in front of him, and as he signed, I talked about that first show that I’d seen. He loved talking about the blood and togas. He got a kick out of the fact that someone remembered that show, especially since he winds up mentioning it in the book. But there were a lot of people in line, so there wasn’t much time to talk. We said our goodbyes, and as I headed for the door, I kept looking left and right, hoping to run into Tony Fitzpatrick. I remembered reading a book of his poetry at the library maybe fifteen years ago, and I wanted to talk to him about it. Sadly, I didn’t see him.

I’ve met so many awesome writers at Anderson’s over the years. Clive Barker, Dave Barry, John Sandford, Joe Hill, Weird Al and the list goes on. I can’t thank Anderson’s enough for bringing them all in, and I hope to see more there in the future. They’re the best bookstore in the area, and I highly recommend you all give them a visit.

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