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DVD Review: Penn & Teller: Bullshit!

A giant ampersand is a better symbol than a giant pile of poo.
by Ryan Arthur

Illusionists Penn Jillette and his mute partner Teller don't seem like the types to host a documentary-style series that would expose various questionable enterprises, do they? Well, actually, yeah, they do. Part of the Penn and Teller routine is that they'll expose what they're doing. They'll let you see behind the curtain of their tricks and illusions, so it was really very natural for them to move into the realm of calling foul on hoaxes, myths, tall tales and just plain old whack-jobs. They'll call it like they see it; well, Penn will. Crap. Hooey. Bushwah. Posh. Piffle. Bullshit!

Penn & Teller: Bullshit! is kind of a cousin of Michael Moore's TV Nation. It's a documentary anthology in which our personable hosts take a theme and break it down to the point that Penn invariably calls "bullshit!" Tried and true, and usually pretty funny. There are thirteen episodes spread out over three discs. All of the extras are on disc three.

Talking To The Dead exposes the frequently hokey practice of "seers" speaking with dead relatives. John Edward is the most prominent name mentioned. For legal reasons, "We can't call them liars and quacks," Penn says, but they can call 'em "fucking assholes!".

Alternative Medicine: in the spotlight are reflexology (the foot contains pathways to every organ in the body), magnet therapy ("negative fields have healing powers") and chiropractive medicine, which basically is reflexology, only replace the foot with the spine. There's footage of a chiropractor "adjusting" a girl no older than four, to which Penn says "That baby twistin' motherfucker just makes me angry, scared and depressed. We shoulda just called 9-1-1."

Alien Abduction focuses almost exclusively on the Bay Area UFO Expo and hypnotic regression therapy.

End Of The World looks at the allegedly impending Armageddon. There's mention (and debunking) of Nostradamus, as well as the popular Left Behind books, and the survivalist fad. I especially like the young couple that says "Our legal residence is in Indiana, but we belong here." The backwoods of New Jersey?

Second Hand Smoke/Baby Bullshit: Two pretty much unrelated concepts. The first portion examines the banning of smoking in public places (and the lack of scientific evidence to support such a ban, since not one study proves the second hand smoke theory that it causes cancer), and the anti-smoking lobby. The second half of the episode deals with how new parents are seemingly being taken by people pushing their unproven theories about raising their kids. In the spotlight is "the Mozart effect," which argues that kids will have higher IQ's if the parents listen to classical music (or put headphones on the mom's belly) while the child is in the womb.

Sex Sex Sex: A look at the size issue (for guys), with the pumps, pills and "exercise" methods of enlargement a focus. A look at the size issue (for girls) with breast enlargement via hypnosis (no shit!) also examined. There's also a spotlight on pheromones and aphrodisiacs. Plus the obligatory Ron Jeremy appearance and the founder and CEO of the Girls Gone Wild franchise, but all he really adds is that guys like boobs. Thanks, Joe. I mean, uh, hooray for boobies.

Feng Shui/Bottled Water: Again, two basically unrelated concepts. Three feng shui "experts" all rearrange a house to fix the "chi." All offer differing opinions. All seem to be interested in selling something, and all they're really doing is moving a stranger's furniture at random for money. But it's pitched as a "science;" not religion, art or taste. Right. There's even mention of feng shui lifestyle in Florida, where you can get a feng shui haircut (!) or even a feng shui beauty treatment...for just $150. The second segment deals with the bottled water fad, which includes taste tests (New York tap water picked over bottled?) and the revelation that of the over 1,000 brands of bottled water, a third of them violated their own industry standards. There's also a water steward with a hose. Yep.

Creationism visits the Georgia school board debate over separation of church and state. Basically, some say if we're going to teach evolution, we'd better teach creation. Right.

Self-Helpless examines the ongoing self-help craze. Dr. Phil McGraw is mentioned ("psychological advice in simplistic, bite-sized bits," not to mention the folksy anecdotes and colloquialisms), as is Tony Robbins. There's also a visit to the "Universal Rememberence University," (which appears to be someone's basement rec room) where we meet a certified firewalk instructor. Firewalking and walking on broken glass is debunked.

ESP! looks at psychokinesis (mind over matter), complete with spoon bending parties. There's also the examination of the practice of psychics being involved in police investigations (frauds, so sayeth the hosts), plus remote viewing, telepathy, and my personal favorite, pet telepathy. Noted skeptic James Randi makes an appearance.

Eat This! is all about diets and weight loss, with mentions of Atkins, diet pills (ephedrine-based products, now pretty much banned) and the Hollywood Celebrity Diet, which basically amounts to fasting while drinking no calories. There's also a spotlight on Norman Borlock (called "the greatest person in the world" by Penn), one of the proponents of genetically engineered crops, and some other nutjob who's all about the "raw food" craze. He's creepy.

Ouija Boards/Near Death Experiences looks at Ouija/spirit boards. We meet three folks who swear by the powers of the board, but who, for some reason, can't use their all-powerful board blindfolded. It's all beyond crap. I can draw reasonably well with my eyes closed while playing Cranium, but the powers from beyond the grave can't guide you when you're blindfolded? Please. Then there's near death experiences, which most seem to think are caused by brain function (or lack thereof), or could be just another form of dreams, a "mind trip courtesy of mother nature." But not Raymond Moody ("M.D., PhD. and seeker of the truth!"), described as being kind of the grand poohbah of near death experiences...despite the fact that he's never had one himself. I love so-called experts.

Environmental Hysteria is all about the green movement, which in more recent years has become more about politics and less about science or ecology. There's an amusing segment involving a P&T assistant who gets a gaggle of environmentalists to sign a petition calling for the ban of dihydrogen monoxide (that would be H2O, or water), proving that they're all for the cause, even if they don't know what the cause is. "Is passion supposed to replace common sense?" Penn asks.

Bonus Features
"Naked" promo: a Bullshit! promo featuring the naked models from the Sex Sex Sex episode. Runs 17 seconds.

Junkyard Ghost is for all intents and purposes a bonus episode. It follows a "ghost hunter" to Oklahoma as he investigates a ghost sighting at a junkyard. About 14 minutes, but there's no Penn voiceover, though.

James Randi Interview With Penn & Teller: not so much an interview as it is a discussion between the noted skeptic and Penn (Teller is his usual silent self) about how Randi was the inspiration for the series. Randi talks about his million dollar prize for anyone who can prove anything "unexplainable" in a controlled environment (and how no one has collected yet), and the difference between skepticism (deals with fact) and cynicism (deals with motives). Interesting stuff, and a shade over 18 minutes.

More Bullshit!. Deleted scenes from a number of episodes. Runs 27:30.

Bullshitting Around: Ten minutes and ten seconds of outtakes, most of them Penn & Teller screwups from the in-studio segments.

Behind The Scenes: footage from the Sex Sex Sex studio shoot, as well as BTS from the Environmental Hysteria and Feng Shui/Bottled Water episodes. A little less than seven minutes.

Wraparounds: Those are the standups from the studio. About 6:43.

Penn & Teller Bio: Five static pages.

Trailers: for two Showtime films, The Boys Of 2nd Street Park and A Woman's A Helluva Thing, as well as a short promo for Rio, the Las Vegas hotel and casino where Penn & Teller perform.

Weblinks to Showtime and the Rio All-Suite Hotel And Casino.

There's also a coupon for $10 off tickets to a Penn & Teller performance at the Rio.

Penn & Teller: Bullshit! is presented in 4:3 full screen with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. It's a gatefold digipack packaged in a paperboard slipcover. Sound quality is good, and it's mostly center-channel, anyway. It's a television show that's only about a year old, so the picture quality is pretty spectacular, actually probably better than it appeared on its first run on Showtime.

I guess how you feel about Bullshit! will depend on just what you believe in. People who swear up and down by the work their chiropractor does probably won't be swayed into believing that the whole practice is a little shaky (though the four-year-old's adjustment freaked me out) or if you're kooky enough to have your own personal survival shelter, you may not even have time to watch the program, what with the impending Armageddon and all. But there's no denying the personality of Penn, and he's adamant about exposing the bullshit they've come across. The presentation is very straightforward, and it's all done with conviction and a lot of humor; there's a certain amount of pity for some of the people introduced through the series, but more often than not, you'll hopefully feel some of Penn's indignation.

* * * * * out of * * * * *
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originally posted: 06/01/04 13:12:59
last updated: 09/23/05 14:54:55
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