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Penn & Teller: Bullshit!

Penn & Teller: Bullshit! (sometimes rendered Penn & Teller: B.S.!, Bulls***! or Bull!) is an Emmy-nominated American documentary television series that has been on the air since 2003 on the premium cable channel Showtime on Thursday nights at 10 pm EST. In Canada, the series airs on The Movie Network. It is hosted by professional magicians/comedians Penn & Teller. Many episodes aim to debunk what the hosts see as pseudoscientific ideas, supernatural beliefs, popular fads and misconceptions, and often from a libertarian point of view, the political philosophy espoused by both Penn and Teller. The show criticizes proponents of what they perceive as nonsense and dishonesty—bullshit—often citing ulterior political or financial motives. The stated aim of the show is to apply critical thinking to misconceptions, and as is indicated by the show's title, the program adheres to Penn & Teller's characteristically blunt, aggressive presentation.

Supernatural subjects of episodes include alien abduction, alternative medicine, and ESP; other episodes cover social issues such as the War on Drugs, animal rights, gun control, and environmentalism. Penn & Teller approach the topics in the manner of Harry Houdini and James Randi (who has appeared more than once on the show), who are known for debunking claims of supernatural powers.

The ongoing show is currently airing its sixth season in the United States. The series has achieved worldwide success, being shown in countries such as Argentina, Australia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, Finland, Mexico, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

Episodes

Show format

In each episode, Penn and Teller debunk a chosen misconception such as cryptozoology or debate a controversial topic like gun control. Sometimes their objective is not to completely dismiss the topic at hand but to decry certain aspects of the topic that they believe to be pernicious, misleading, unnecessary, or overemphasized. For example, in the case of college they argue that while college is a great place "if you love to learn, if you love to drink beer, or if you need training for a certain career", they feel that using "student diversity" as promotion is "bullshit". Similarly, they state: "so the casual asshole, or just plain dickhead, might do well in an anger management program" but using "venting" as a technique in anger management is "bullshit" since venting increases aggressiveness in a person by "twice as much" over time, especially in cases of domestic violence.

Proponents of the topic make their case in interviews; however, they often end up appearing fallacious or self-contradicting. For example, in "Safety Hysteria", a manufacturer of "radiation guards" for mobile phones admits that there is no proven link between mobile phone radiation and brain cancer, but assures viewers that "you can't be too safe" (mobile phones use conventional radio waves for communication, which are non-ionizing radiation). When he states his background is in advertising, not medical science, it is implied that he knows his product is useless but exploits people's fears to turn a profit. A second consecutive interview with another proponent is often started with the phrase: "And then there's this asshole..."

Penn Jillette has stated that those being interviewed know what show the interview is for and its purpose. One episode shows a video crew from the show going into a building to perform an interview, and Jillette points out that a member of the crew is wearing a Penn & Teller: Bullshit! baseball cap. Opponents are then interviewed and they offer rebuttals to the proponents' arguments. These are usually experts, celebrities, or sometimes speakers from the Center for Inquiry, James Randi Educational Foundation, and the Cato Institute.

Penn and Teller often conduct informal experiments, which are admittedly unscientific at times. For example, in the episode "Bottled Water", diners in an upscale restaurant are presented with a variety of apparently fancy bottled water brands. After the diners praise and pick a favorite, it is revealed that each bottle was filled by the same garden hose behind the restaurant. In one of their more serious experiments during the "Conspiracy Theories" episode, Teller fires a rifle at a melon wrapped in one-inch fiberglass tape to demonstrate that when a human head is shot, it is likely to be forced in the direction opposite to the bullet's trajectory. This demonstration was aimed at discrediting a John F. Kennedy conspiracy theory that points out that the fatal gunshot rocked JFK toward the shot through the use of simple principles of physics (i.e. "back and to the left." The fallacious belief that a shot from behind would cause a head to jerk forward is used as evidence that JFK must have been shot from the grassy knoll, in front of the vehicle). Penn and Teller look over the scene of the aftermath of the experiment to which Penn comments, "Second gunman my aching ass..."

Penn and Teller often have skits and stunts performed with them on set or use stock footage, to combine reasonable arguments with straightforward, entertaining ridicule. For example, the "Sex, Sex, Sex" episode may be satirizing the media's obsession with sex appeal by having the hosts constantly surrounded by naked actors and actresses. Penn and Teller often close episodes with an impassioned ethical plea against whatever they are debunking, explaining how this particular belief is harmful and should be resisted. The presenters distinguish between believers (often explaining that Penn and Teller themselves would like to believe these things are true, and showing compassion to the people who do think the things are true) and those they see as charlatans out for money or to advance a political agenda, at whom their anger is directed. For example, in their premiere episode, they debunk the idea that psychics can talk to the dead. While expressing the utmost sympathy towards people who are desperate for any chance to speak to a loved one who has passed away, they explain that charlatans take advantage of this love to get money from people, and deliver false messages that have nothing to do with the genuine character of the departed.

Since their act is not normally associated with a frequent use of profanity, Jillette explains their choice of using the term bullshit in the opening episode: if they referred to people as frauds or liars, they could be sued for slander, even in the face of overwhelming evidence of chicanery, but as "vulgar abuse" is not legally considered slanderous, referring to them as assholes or motherfuckers ostensibly expresses an opinion rather than a statement of fact and is legally safer for them.

Title

Since the show's title contains an obscenity (by common standards in the United States), the series is often listed in newspaper television listings there under the alternate title B.S. Some printings of the show's DVD releases also carry this alternate title. Dish Network and DirecTV lists the show as Penn & Teller: Bulls...! Comcast Digital Cable lists the show as "Penn & Teller: Bull!"

In the "Profanity" episode, Penn tells the viewers that the planned title for Bullshit! was Humbug! This, Penn goes on to say, relates their skepticism (and TV show) to Harry Houdini's reactions to the popular misconceptions of his day; but the idea was scrapped due to humbug not having as much of an impact as the more profane, more informal word, bullshit. It is also discussed during the profanity episode that humbug was considered as profane at one time as bullshit today. During that same episode, Penn and Teller themselves did not use any profanity, even changing the name of the show to Humbug! for that episode. At one point, Penn suggests the use of the phrase Jesus Christ! by a non-Christian is not profanity, but as Teller apparently drops a bowling ball on his foot just as he mentions the phrase, his yelling of the expression makes its use ambiguous. (See Bullshit!#bowling-ball.)

When discussing Bullshit! on his radio show, Penn would either break the word in half, usually with a clap and a slight pause, for example Bulls[Clap]Hit, or change it to Bullshot. In an episode of the public radio program Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!, Penn refers to the show as Bushlit. When discussing the title with the Showtime producers, Penn stated, "You can't make a show about bullshit, and then wimp out on the title."

Acknowledged bias

Many critics accuse Penn and Teller of being biased in their approach to debunking their opponents' arguments. For example, Chaz Miller, who was interviewed for the "Recycling" episode, said that Bullshit! attempts to exclude certain information if it does not favor the show's position. Some of these claims do not go without rebuttal: the Recycling episode does mention information on beneficial recycling though, specifically that recycling aluminum cans and other metals is, in fact, beneficial.

In the episode "Family Values", Penn said, "... we're fair and we never take people out of context. We're biased as all fuck. But, we try to be honest." Still, some critics who sympathize with the duo's over-arching message have expressed regret that they can occasionally slip into the same sensationalism as their targets, including validating their points with pundits who possess dubious qualifications. This was summed up in a review by Slate which stated: "One of the unwritten rules for winning an argument against an inflammatory, irrational opponent is to calmly adhere to a loftier set of rhetorical standards. Penn and Teller showily throw this notion out the window."

While Penn and Teller are self-professed skeptics, critics have been quick to note that Bullshit! is not dedicated to fact-based debunking or inquiry. An otherwise favorable review by The Onion A.V. Club noted:

Bullshit! isn't journalism, exactly. The show is one-sided by design: P&T's field interviewers rarely confront their subjects with the evidence against them, preferring to let the crackpots ramble on so that Jillette's voiceover rejoinders can score points without inciting a real argument.

During an interview on the January 31, 2007 episode of The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, Teller claimed that the final episode of the show would be about "the bullshit of Bullshit!" and would detail all the criticisms that they themselves had at the show.

Proposed topics

Plans to make an episode focusing on Scientology were believed to have been rejected by Showtime executives to avoid provoking legal action by the Church of Scientology, though Penn later revealed on his radio show that this was not true. Matt Stone and Trey Parker, friends of Penn and Teller, were motivated by this incident to create their own long-planned, controversial South Park episode lampooning Scientology, "Trapped in the Closet". Another planned episode on airport security has been rejected from every season's topic list: "It turns out, to shoot [videotape] anything on airport security, you are violating federal law. You're not allowed to shoot anything there," said Penn Jillette. He has done radio, film and print regarding airport security, but has been unsuccessful adapting it for television.

During a Q&A session at the The Amazing Meeting of 2005, as Penn described the upcoming season, he said that the episode about conspiracy theories did not cover Holocaust denial, since it should have its own episode.

Controversial episodes

Recycling

The myth-busting website De-Fact-o.com has criticized Penn & Teller's source on paper recycling (Daniel K. Benjamin, "Eight Great Myths of Recycling"), saying that Benjamin relied on outdated studies to make some of his claims.

Secondhand smoke

Robert Todd Carroll, author of The Skeptic's Dictionary, originally sided with the show's conclusion that there was no link between secondhand smoke and cancer. Yet Carroll changed his conclusions after further investigation into the studies. Carroll concluded that the studies were biased, and consequently decided that secondhand smoke does have negative effects on people.

At The Amaz!ng Meeting 3 the duo was asked about the evidence for this episode being faulty. Penn Jillette, with Teller sitting at his side, said regarding this episode they were "very likely" wrong and the next season would add a notation. Penn went on to describe "a new study that came out of England, just recently, that seems to have more stuff about it" and "right now, as I sit here, there probably is danger in secondhand smoke." He went on to say that this was a small portion of the program, and their main point was their opposition to "outlawing" smoking in privately-owned businesses, which they still "stand behind 100%."

Awards and nominations

Awards won

Nominations

  • Writers Guild of America: Comedy/Variety (Including Talk) - Series (2005, 2006)
  • Directors Guild of America: Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Reality Programs (2006)
  • Emmy Awards
    • Outstanding Picture Editing for Nonfiction Programming (Single-Camera) (2006)
    • Outstanding Reality Program (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007)
    • Outstanding Writing for Nonfiction Programming (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007)
    • Outstanding Main Title Design (2003)
    • Outstanding Main Title Theme Music (2003)

References

External links

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