Penn & Teller: Bullshit!

"We're going to hunt down as many purveyors of bull**** as we can." (Penn Jillette)


Penn & Teller: Bull****! is an American, ½-hour television series which debunks nonsense, hosted by comedian-magicians Penn Fraser Jillette and Raymond Joseph Teller.

The show began in January 2003. It criticises and debunks:

•    Pseudoscience (e.g. ESP; alternative medicine; alien abductions)
•    Supernatural beliefs (e.g. ghosts; ouija boards; exorcisms)
•    Religion (e.g. Creationism; Mother Theresa; the Bible)
•    Fads (e.g. bottled water; diets; self-empowerment)
•    Social issues (e.g. gun control; waste recycling; conspiracy theories)
•    Charlatans (e.g. Hypno-charlatans)

Penn & Teller presentations are blunt, mocking and aggressive with expletives such as bull****, ass**** and f*** regularly repeated. In the show on anger management we're told, "The casual ass****, or just plain dickhead, might do well in an anger management program…" Nevertheless, Penn concludes that the "venting" technique for anger management is actually "bull****" because venting increases aggressiveness. Sometimes the show attributes ulterior motives (e.g. easy money) to promoters of misconceptions.

Some of the shows include nudity. In one a group of naked people move around in the background; another includes a waxing scene. Program 6 "Sex, Sex, Sex" examines enlargement products for breasts and penises, concludes they don't work, and declares them "bull****!"

Penn & Teller Bull****! achieved worldwide success in democratic countries including five seasons in the USA. In Australia it aired around midnight.

Penn explains their choice of the term "bull****" in the opening episode:

If they called people frauds or liars they could be sued for slander even if they have overwhelming evidence of chicanery. But vulgar abuse is not legally slanderous — calling people "ass****" or "motherf*****" expresses an opinion, not a fact, and is legally safer.



PROGRAM FORMAT

Penn does all the talking and Teller mimes and acts.

Most programs guest-star famous advocates of various beliefs. We saw Hal Lindsey, author of The Late Great Planet Earth (Program 4, End of the World), and Duane Gish, anti-evolutionist (Program 8 Creationism). Skeptics and critics also guest-star regularly including Michael Shermer of Skeptic magazine (Program 19, The Bible: Fact or Fiction), and Christopher Hitchens author of God Is Not Great (Program 31, Holier Than Thou).

Proponents of topics often end up looking silly or deluded. They apparently agree to be on TV, knowing they could be introduced as "Then there's this ass****". Penn has confirmed that interviewees know what program they'll be on. But whether they really "know" may sometimes depend on how observant they are. In one episode the crew enters a building with one member wearing a cap labelled Penn & Teller: Bullshit! And that, apparently, is how the interviewees "knew"!

Penn & Teller sometimes include brief scientific explanations of how quacks deceive their subjects. In Episode 1 "Talking to the Dead" they, for example, explain "cold reading" — which is the technique of extracting information by asking questions, restating answers by using other words, guessing, and making general statements.

Penn and Teller often conduct informal experiments. In the episode "Bottled Water" diners in a restaurant sample various "bottled water brands" and pick a favourite. Afterwards they find out that all the bottles were filled from the garden hose outside the restaurant.

In "Conspiracy Theories" Teller fires a rifle at a melon wrapped in fibreglass tape to demonstrate that a human head will, when shot, jerk in the opposite direction to the bullet trajectory. This demonstration aimed to discredit the conspiracy theory of a second gunman in the President Kennedy killing which argues, from the way Kennedy fell, that he was shot from in front. Penn concludes, "Second gunman, my aching ass."


CRITICISM

Many critics accuse Penn and Teller of bias in debunking opponents' arguments and of ignoring information unfavourable to the show's position. In the episode "Family Values" Penn counters with, "We're fair and we never take people out of context. We're biased as all f***. But, we try to be honest."

Penn and Teller are skeptics. The show is neither inquiry journalism nor fact-based debunking but one-sided by design. Subjects are rarely confronted with counter-evidence. "Crackpots" are allowed to ramble on while Penn's voiceover rejoinders win without debate.

In Program 5 Penn and Teller reject any connection between second-hand smoke and cancer but have since admitted they were "very likely" wrong.


EPISODE LIST

Season 1—2003
1 Talking to the Dead
2 Alternative Medicine
3 Alien Abductions
4 End of the World
5 Second Hand Smoke / Baby Bull****
6 Sex, Sex, Sex
7 Feng Shui / Bottled Water
8 Creationism
9 Self-Helpless
10 ESP
11 Eat This!
12 Ouija Boards / Near Death Experiences
13 Environmental Hysteria

Season 2—2004
 14 P.E.T.A.
 15 Safety Hysteria
 16 The Business of Love
 17 War on Drugs
 18 Recycling
 19 The Bible: Fact or Fiction?
 20 Yoga / Tantric Sex
 21 Fountain of Youth
 22 Death Inc
 23 Profanity
 24 12-Stepping
 25 Exercise vs. Genetics
 26 Hypnosis

Season 3—2005
 27 Circumcision
 28 Family Values
 29 Conspiracy Theories
 30 Life Coaching
 31 Holier Than Thou
 32 College
 33 Big Brother
 34 Hair
 35 Gun Control
 36 Ghost Busters
 37 Endangered Species
 38 Signs From Heaven
 39 The Best

Season 4—2006
 40 Boy Scouts
 41 Prostitution
 42 The Death Penalty
 43 Cryptozoology
 44 Ground Zero
 45 Pet Love
 46 Reparations
 47 Manners
 48 Numbers
 49 Abstinence

Season 5—2007
 50 Obesity
 51 Wal-Mart
 52 Breast Hysteria
 53 Detoxing
 54 Exorcism
 55 Immigration
 56 Handicap Parking
 57 Mount Rushmore
 58 Nukes, Hybrids, & Lesbians
 59 Anger Management
(BS)


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