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Penn & Teller: Bullshit!
Reviewed by Shawn Fisher

Who could have expected that when a young Penn Fraser Jillette, a jack of all trades entertainer happened upon a young Latin teacher named Raymond Joseph Teller back in the mid 1970’s, that they would become not only such a popular entertainment duo with their comedic magic routine, but would go on to be such a major political, consumer and life watchdog for the common man. Penn & Teller: Bullshit! hit the airwaves in 2003 debuting on the ShowTime cable network and pulling no punches. The creation of the series was based upon or inspired by the practices of master magician Harry Houdini, who devoted the latter part of his life to debunking some widely accepted (as he called it) “Humbug”.

Penn & TellerSo what exactly is Bullshit, beyond the literal definition? Now in its third season the program is technically called a reality show, though the reality is that it has more in common with a television news watchdog program than a bunch of whiney wannabees being voted off some island. Bullshit would be any situation, belief, product organization or service that is built upon misconceptions deliberate or otherwise by a person or group looking to take advantage of the trust and ignorance of innocent people. Basically Penn and Teller hunt down and expose con artists, by using informed commentary. They bring in representatives on the issue as well as opponents and non-involved third parties—usually a scientist or an expert in some field that can offer facts to back up or debunk the challenged opinion. Penn and Teller make no attempt themselves to hide how they feel on the subject and they express that opinion (well, Penn does anyway) throughout the program, but they always give equal airtime to those their argument is against. 

In one such case, Penn & Teller go after alleged psychics who claim that they can speak to the dead and use this claimed power to earn a living from bereaved persons who have lost loved ones. They brought in John Edward, James Von Praagh, and Rosemary Altea all of whom are well-known self proclaimed mediums. “One of the weird things Houdini discovered is that some of these mediums actually slip into believing their own bullshit. They forget their own misses, or as John Edward, the biggest douche in the universe, does, rewrite them as hits that we’re just not able to recognize,” said Penn. “Cold reading can be done accidentally. That doesn’t mean the psychic is a better person. Lying to themselves does not make lying to others ok. It can make intellectually lazy scumbags more convincing and dangerous. But even if these fucks know they’re just making shit up and pushing people’s buttons, they tell themselves, ‘At least I’m comforting the bereaved (Penn paraphrasing the Psychics).’ Who the fuck are they to decide that lying about the universe and a dead loved one is what the bereaved needs? That’s condescending bullshit,” said Penn during the episode.

Not every episode deals with such heavy-handed subjects such as death; the duo has no problem going after more laughable topics that still can be considered con-jobs, such as their recent episode on hair, where they go after an industry that has taken advantage peoples vanity and insecurity. They’ve also challenged the bottle water industry; “Consumers are offered water with names conveying pure and pristine water sources. Ever hear of Alaskan Falls water? That must come from the crystal-clear glacial waters of our 49th state, right?” said Penn. “Sorry, folks. Alaskan flows from this liqui-box corporation building in Worthington, Ohio. Does the brand Yosemite conjure up visions of the cool, pristine waters rushing through California’s high sierras? Well, then the marketers have done their jobs. The source of Yosemite bottled water is actually 400 miles away in Northwest Los Angeles. How about Everest Water? Could our piddly show possibly afford to send a camera crew to Nepal? Not necessary! Everest comes from the industrial section of Corpus Cristi, Texas! In fact if you read the fine print on the fucking label, they even admit that the water comes from a municipal source! That is tap water, brothers and sisters of the cult of the bottle,” said Penn during the episode.

As one might observe 30 seconds into any given episode, Penn has quite a penchant for profanity so much so that he could make a sailor blush. There is method behind this madness though.    
As Penn admits the title of the show and the constant use of profanity is, a “legal maneuver” since calling people liars, frauds, charlatans and hacks could be construed as slander, calling someone a “fucker” and say that they’re selling “bullshit” is okay. Penn does, however, seems to take great joy in using the phrase “and then there’s this asshole!” Ironically during the episode on Profanity Penn went through the entire episode without swearing.

There is no subject or person that can be considered taboo for this diatribic duo and to prove it they’ve even gone after some major icons of the twentieth century such as Gandhi, Mother Theresa and the Dali Lama. Debunking a lot of the deification that has grown around the three figures throughout the last several decades, they restore them to the level of human being again. Noted scholar Noam Chomsky who has been interviewed has also become a favored target of the two who where disappointed by his verbal sleight of hand in a season three episodes on the bullshit college.

Penn & Tellers: Bullshit! could be considered the illegitimate child of Howard Stern and Ralph Nader. Bullshit, has all the shock of Stern without said shock simply being for shocks sake and all the heart of a true consumer advocate like Nader without the whininess. Bullshit, in a way has become somewhat a prophetic fulfillment, of  an appearance by the two on the television series Babylon 5 in 1998 where while playing characters similar to their real life personas they expressed a desire to get more involved in society beyond entertainment to effect true and positive change in their world. So have the real Penn and Teller who have now created a platform to effect positive change in the world not by telling people what to and not to do—rather by reminding them that it is foolish to blindly follow any person, organization or belief and that only those willing to critically question everything in their life can avoid stepping in bullshit!



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