Every Day Is an Atheist Holiday!, by Penn Jillette (New York: Blue Rider Press, the Penguin Group, 2012, ISBN 978-0-399-16156-8). pp. Hardcover, $25.95.
Golden Compass author Philip Pullman has written that “after nourishment, shelter, and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” Had Penn Jillette authored this sentiment, one could be reasonably certain it would have contained three additional words: “and dick jokes.”
This is not a criticism. Anyone familiar with Jillette’s Bullshit!, which he cohosted for seven years on Showtime with his adorably mute sidekick, Teller, knows he is not merely a lewd showman,but also a sage thinker: Somehow, Jillette has perfected an ability to T.M.I. all over the place (and march in out-of-nowhere bare-breasted women) without cheapening the quality of discourse. In God, No! and now again in Every Day Is an Atheist Holiday, Jillette also proves himself to be a great storyteller, an adroit communicator of the weirdest and most poignant details in a stream-of-consciousness collection of life lessons, showbiz tribulations, and philosophical musings that are loosely inspired by holiday memories and religious trivia.
Loosely. Like a Seinfeld episode, Every Day is an Atheist Holiday is stubbornly unbeholden to the rigors of context. And like Seinfeld, Every Day is an Atheist Holiday is not really about anything in particular. In the first chapter, Jillette spends several pages explaining the frequently misused English idiom “the exception that proves the rule,” which does not mean “the exception that proves the rule is correct” but rather, “the exception that proves that a rule exists in the first place.” Of course, he then cleverly connects the dots: “Everything good in [the Christmas song] ‘Joy to the world’ is an exception that proves the rule. The joy itself is after the lord is come. Before the lord is come, no joy.”
Jillette’s freethinking fans will be pleased to find much more calling-out of religious bullshit throughout the book. In what is perhaps the most thoughtful and historically relevant chapter (which also is a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King and the spirit of inclusiveness), Jillette discusses the evolution of Christian, a word that, until the last part of the twentieth century, was rarely used. (Susan Jacoby explained the appearance of Christian as a way to pull pro-life advocates under the same tent.) Wouldn’t it be nice, Jillette muses, if one day instead of using the magic word “Christian,” politicians would just appeal to voters as “Americans” or even “humanity”? After some obligatory harpooning of Romney (and his magic underwear) and Santorum (duly noted is the neologism inspired by the politician’s last name), Jillette moves on to President Barack Obama. A dyed-in-the-wool Libertarian, Jillette is valiantly unwilling to toe either camp’s party line: He calls out Obama for perpetuating the war, as well as the president’s atheist supporters who insist that he is a nonbeliever whose only choice is to play the role of the faithful Christian. “I’ve had many liberal friends defend Obama by calling him a liar…. These people may be right, but it doesn’t make Obama a hero to me. I’m way more against lying than I am against Christians.”
In several chapters dedicated to his experiences in show business, Jillette bloviates and name-drops with a healthy side of self-deprecating frankness. On the set of The Celebrity Apprentice, Clay Aiken initiates an excruciating on-camera heart-to-heart that makes Jillette seriously consider jumping off a roof. Behind the scenes, (surprise, surprise!) Donald Trump really is a pompous douche bag with scary hair. British journalist Piers Morgan snobbily answers texts on his designer Porche BlackBerry, then tries to snare an on-camera atheist-to-theist conversion by steering the interview to Jillette’s mother’s death. “It’s show business,” Jillette reminds us matter-of-factly. The unglamourous life of the performer is a favorite theme of Jillette’s: Those who enjoyed the penis-in-blowdryer episode featured in God, No! will be similarly tickled by a case of “bathtub syphilis” that grosses out even Adam Carolla and a showbiz line-of-duty incident involving bees and a bloody scrotum.
Jillette is at his warmest when he is writing about his children, Moxie CrimeFighter and Zolten Penn. One of the first stories, set during Halloween, involves an accidentally racist ghost costume–a white sheet resembling a KKK robe–that Jillette unwittingly dons during story time at his daughter’s “bullshit fancy-ass MILF/DILF uniform private school.” While the adults scramble to think up a last-minute replacement costume, the children, unburdened by any awareness of racial faux pas, giddily receive their “mystery reader” and all his creepy Klaniness. In the last chapter, Jillette describes his son taking his first wobbly steps into the arms of porn star Nina Hartley (no great life lesson there; just a cool story) and how the boy develops a code of ethics as children often do– without (despite) gods or authority figures and through a process of trial, error, and honest consideration of other people’s feelings.
Jillette writes with both tenderness and candor about losing his mother, who insisted he perform his show even on the night of her death, and how his atheism gave him solace – the freedom not to worry about praying to the right god or in the right way. Departed friends also are remembered fondly: Johnny Carson was a genuine intellectual who exchanged e-mails with Jillette about skepticism. Christopher Hitchens once showed up at teetotaling Jillette’s house, bottle in hand, and an uncomfortable showdown ensued. Tommy Ardolino, rock drummer for NRBQ, collected “song poems”–lyrics that amateurs have paid con artists to set to music. “Their lives feel like they mattered,” Jillette concludes. “Nothing but the feeling of mattering matters. That feeling is life.”
In his books and in interviews, Jillette often makes a point of proclaiming, “Look, I’m an asshole.” That much may be true; after all, a certain amount of assholery is probably a prerequisite for a successful career as a performer. But Jillette is also just an interesting guy with a fascinating life story sharing the conversations he has with himself: “I do rape and kill all I want. The amount I want to rape and kill is zero.” Both an unconventional autobiography and a philosophical treatise, Every Day Is an Atheist Holiday is Jillette at his self-reflective best. This is a book to be appreciated for its insight into morality, show business, and the bonding and breaking power of holidays. And dick jokes.
Katrina Voss is a science and research writer at Penn State’s Eberly College of Science and a frequent contributor to Free Inquiry.