[4 April 2007]
For Penn & Teller – Bullshit!, Las Vegas entertainer Penn Jillette and his longsuffering sidekick Teller follow in the footsteps of their idol, Harry Houdini, as magicians-turned-muckrakers. Working on the premise that con men can spot others like them, they seek to debunk bogus, though popular, ideas. The show seems to want to be informative as well as entertaining.
But Bullshit! isn’t like other shows with similar goals. To debunk urban legends and old wives’ tales, Mythbusters, for instance, sets up lovingly geeky scientific experiments to test hypotheses in logical ways. To challenge political and personal expectations, 30 Days sets up month-long social experiments. By contrast, to prove their points, Penn and Teller interview strippers and call everyone who doesn’t agree with them assholes.
That’s not an exaggeration. In the featureless DVD set of the show’s fourth season, the comedians take on manners and etiquette. To demonstrate the artifice of these societal rules, they ask an etiquette expert to critique a dinner party for business students. Then they proceed to call the expert an “asshole” in a voiceover for being nitpicky. Conceding at last that sometimes there is a need for rules and order, they go to a strip club and ask the strippers what rules are enforced for their safety. (for instance, “Don’t throw things” at the strippers.) That’s how the show concludes: manners for polite society are bad, rules to protect exotic dancers are good.
It’s not that Bullshit!‘s crude discussions and obvious biases make it hard to watch. It also lacks what might be called a point. While both Mythbusters and 30 Days also begin each episode with an agenda, and don’t spend much time detailing dissenting opinions. But Bullshit! isn’t even so subtle as this. It tells viewers what to think. If they disagree, they’re unequivocally “assholes”. Such tendency to underestimate the audience makes Bullshit! hard to watch for 10 episodes.
Even if you agree with what Penn and Teller are advocating, their methods are often so unfair that they undermine their ostensible arguments. In one episode, Penn explains that the Boy Scouts of America—an organization that is the recipient of public funds and other government assistance—should be forced to abolish their policy of excluding gays and atheists. It’s a valid opinion. But then, rather than discussing the matter, he embarrasses a scoutmaster who professes that the Scouts have a right to exclude whomever they want. The Bullshit! team secretly films the scoutmaster at a crosswalk, where he chooses not to help an old lady (who doesn’t look that feeble to begin with and certainly doesn’t ask for help) cross the street. In a voiceover, Penn calls him, once again, an “asshole.” End of discussion.
A better-intentioned stunt in the same episode had three gay men and three straight men accomplishing the same scout-related tasks to see which group does them faster. In the end, the gay men are faster. It’s not clear what this demonstrates: gay men are better prepared to be scouts than straight men? But that would be as biased as saying that gay scouts make bad role models. Penn and Teller are often guilty of using the same rhetorical tricks they argue against. The episode called “Numbers” is about how the media use numbers and statistics to distort the truth. But throughout the series, Penn and Teller cite statistics without sources and use specific instances to generalize about entire populations.
During the series’ first three seasons, they tackled interesting, factually murky topics like feng shui, alternative medicine, psychics, and regression therapy, mostly industries soaking money from consumers. Season Four, however, takes on the tough industrialists behind “cryptozoology”—the “science” of hunting down animals like the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot. If you need Penn and Teller to tell you that Bigfoot doesn’t exist, well, you probably wouldn’t believe them anyway.
Which is not to say that they don’t ever make thought-provoking arguments. In an episode about the dangers of abstinence-only education, the quoted experts—most notably Dr. Jocelyn Elders, former US Surgeon General—are able to fight their way through Penn and Teller’s bullshit to argue against state-sponsored religion. Another episode doesn’t debunk anything at all. Instead, it gives a straightforward account of the problems rebuilding Ground Zero. The show argues that it dishonors the victims of September 11 to let the site languish untouched for six years. Instead of ambushing the major players and calling them all “assholes,” here Penn and Teller let experts give a dispassionate, basically chronological account of the mistakes made in the rebuilding effort. Without the stars’ haranguing, this episode is the most persuasive of the season, with the least humbuggery and magic tricks.