'You, My Friend, Have Been Had'

It sounded too good to be true, and of course it was. The half-page ad in PC Computing magazine offered a high-end computer system worth more than $20,000, boasting every conceivable bell and whistle-a zippy Intel 80486 microprocessor, a large-capacity hard-disk drive, huge color screen and even a color laser printer-for an astonishing $1,278.43. If you dialed the number, a recorded voice at the other end of the line derided you mercilessly: " You, my credulous friend, have been had ... Stay on the line for Florida time-sharing information. " Don't feel too bad-more than 12,000 other suckers called the number by April 1 and the magazine had been on the newsstands only a few days. One St. Louis reader actually sold his Audi to buy the faux computer before he found out it was a gag.

Who would pull such a dirty April Fools' trick? Penn Jillette would. He's the tall, kinetic half of Penn &Teller, the magic-and-comedy team that has entertained vast audiences on Broadway and television. (They're the ones who dumped live roaches on David Letterman's desk.) For more than a year, though, Jillette has also been making monthly solo appearances in print: he's PC Computing's backpage columnist.

It's no joke; good columnists boost a computer magazine's bottom line. The high-tech publications can be astoundingly lucrative-industry leader PC Magazine raked in $160 million in ad revenues last year, according to the Computer Publishing &Advertising Report in Larchmont, N.Y. PC Computing made about a fifth of that, but is out for more. And attention-getting columnists are one way to stand apart from the pack. The acerbic John C. Dvorak writes for several Ziff-Davis publications, and Infoworld has "Robert X. Cringely, " an accomplished rumormonger. Jillette's columns run the gamut from abusive to absurd. In a column entitled THIS JOKE COULD SEND YOU TO PRISON, Jillette suggested laptop-computer users program their machines so that when airport security guards test them, the screen would read Ready ... Arming ... Armed. .. 0:17.00 until detonation. About half of the readers who write in about Jillette's work are seriously angry. One Terri Davis of Portland, Ore., wrote that a column about using computers to decode the Dead Sea scrolls "was an insult to everything I believe in ... the article was filthy and uncalled for. " Publisher Mike Edelhart enjoys the controversy: " It's not like we need another columnist with his 'I am a nerd' button on. "

If Jillette was just a funny guy with a keyboard, the gig would fall flat. But Penn knows PCs. He relishes the feeling of putting thoughts directly onto a screen, like a painter daubing colors: "My love for computing is very esthetic and very sensual. " Jillette happily discusses the arcana of computing from file extension names to AUTOEXEC.BAT files. And when he excitedly explains his complex scheme to back up his work so that data is never lost, you'd swear you could see a pocket protector peeking out of his shirt.

So even though Jillette sports a ponytail and one red fingernail, he's not so different from his audience. Edelhart says readers identify with Jillette's rebellious rap, "guys walking around with male-pattern baldness and briefcases who remember a mean, counterculture dude-that's how a lot of these guys see themselves. It's not what you'd see in the mirror. " Once you get past the jokes, Jillette's message is clear: that computerphilia isn't just for nerds. No. Backspace. Delete. Jillette's message is clear: that each of us has a nerd within us, yearning to strut.