Penn & Teller: Bullshit! (2003-) is a Showtime Channel TV program shown in the United States, hosted by professional magicians/comedians Penn Jillette and Teller. The aim of the show is to expose ideas they believe to be unscientific or pseudoscientific through critical thinking and scientific skepticism, and to expose promotors of such things — especially those with ulterior motives. It is influenced by performers such as James Randi and Harry Houdini, who are similarly known for debunking claims of supernatural powers [1] (http://www.riverdeep.net/current/2000/11/112900_magic.jhtml). The show is similar in style to Penn and Teller's established brand of magical act, which involves revealing the mechanisms behind their illusions and debunking professional magicians who claim to employ supernatural abilities.

The show openly reflects the atheist libertarian stance of the presenters, and inherits their characteristically blunt, often aggressive style. Since their act is not normally associated with gratuitous profanity, Jilette explains in the opening episode that if they referred to people as frauds or liars, they could be sued for libel even in the face of overwhelming evidence of chicanery, but referring to them as assholes or motherfuckers (which express an opinion rather than a statement of fact) is legally safer for them. The show's name, Bullshit! reflects this approach. Some see this as a gratuitously confrontational attitude and others see it as an ironic comment on the overly-litigious nature of the US.


Show format

Each episode, Penn & Teller choose a number of subjects under a common theme and proceed to systematically undermine them, using a variety of methods:

  • Proponents of the topic at hand try to make their case in edited interviews conducted by the show's producers. However, they often end up looking stupid or providing evidence to defeat their own arguments. 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". He also says his background is in advertising, not medical science or engineering. The unspoken (and thus legally safe) implication is that he knows his product is useless, but uses marketing techniques to rip off an uninformed public. Penn Jillette has insisted in at least one episode that they do not take people's comments out of context in the interviews. He has also stated that the people being interviewed know that the interviewer and camera crew are from the show Bullshit!; 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.
  • Penn & Teller conduct informal experiments, freely admitting that they are often unscientific and geared toward comedy and satire. For example, in "Bottled Water" diners in an upscale restaurant are presented with varieties of what appear to be fancy bottled water. After the diners have praised the water and picked their favorites, it is revealed that every single brand of bottled water is fictitious, and all were filled from the same garden hose behind the restaurant. In one of their more serious experiments during the "Conspiracy Theories" episode, Teller shoots a rifle at a melon to demonstrate that when a human head is shot, it is very likely to be forced in the opposite direction that the bullet was travelling (this to discredit a John F. Kennedy conspiracy theory which points out that the fatal gunshot rocked JFK's head toward — not away from — Oswald's location).
  • The subject matter is generally ridiculed by Penn and Teller through skits and stunts performed on-set or through stock footage. The approach here seems to complement reasoned argument with straightforward ridicule for entertainment value. The "Sex, Sex, Sex" episode satirizes society's obsession with sex appeal by having the hosts constantly surrounded by naked actors and actresses. The criticism is often blunt and aggressive, such as in the "PETA" episode, where they satirize a PETA campaign comparing the slaughter of animals with the Holocaust by cutting between shots of PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk and Hitler.
  • Penn & Teller often close with an impassioned ethical plea against the subject matter near the end of the show as to why this particular belief is harmful and should be resisted. The presenters distinguish between believers (often saying that they would like to believe also) and direct their anger at those they see as charlatans while showing compassion towards the victims of what Penn and Teller see as manipulation and deception.

Criticism of the show

Though the show is generally well received, some viewers of the show complain that Penn and Teller's political and personal beliefs get in the way of making an objective case. They feel that the duo should be seriously considering the arguments of their targets. Instead, Penn and Teller are believed by some to simply assume the claims are wrong from the start and then spend the show making them appear foolish.

Those who feel this way may also feel that the approach tends to weaken the force of the show's argument, since the audience may not be getting the whole story, but instead a biased view of the topic. Particularly criticized is the episode on second hand smoke, which features radio talk show host Larry Elder and includes experts from politically-active organizations like the Cato Institute. The use of such sources, regardless of the truth of their factual claims, could contribute to the perception of the show as biased in the minds of some.

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 Bullshit (educational products for babies)
  6. Sex, Sex, Sex (dealing with Penis enlargement, Breast enlargement, Aphrodisiacs)
  7. Feng Shui / Bottled Water
  8. Creationism
  9. Self-Helpless
  10. ESP
  11. Eat This! (Dieting / Genetically modified food hysteria)
  12. Ouija Boards / Near-death Experiences
  13. Environmental Hysteria

Season 2 (2004)

  1. P.E.T.A.
  2. Safety Hysteria
  3. The Business Of Love
  4. War On Drugs
  5. Recycling
  6. The Bible
  7. Yoga, Tantric Sex, Etc.
  8. Fountain of Youth (Life extension / Cosmetic surgery)
  9. Death, Inc.
  10. Profanity
  11. 12-Stepping
  12. Exercise vs. Genetics
  13. Hypnosis

Season 3 (2005)

The third season of the series began on April 25, 2005.

  1. Circumcision
  2. Family values
  3. Conspiracy theories
  4. Life coaching
  5. Holier than thou (a critical view of Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama)
  6. College
  7. Big Brother
  8. Hair
  9. Gun control
  10. Signs From Heaven
  11. Ghost Buster
  12. Endangered species
  13. The Best

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