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Laramie Movie Scope:

First season of Penn and Teller's Bullshit! on DVD

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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April 1, 2004 -- Penn and Teller's myth-busting TV show is now available on DVD (it is featured on the Showtime channel). In their typical comical, irreverent, R-rated fashion these comics/magicians attack everything from penis enlargement pills, bottled water, UFO nuts and chiropractors to those who say they can contact the dead. The series is brilliantly done and very well researched. It works both on the level of comedy and performance art, and on the level of sound documentary television. It is both funny and sad as the series exposes how charlatans take billions of dollars from sick and grieving people, and from well-meaning people who want nothing more than be good parents or pet owners. The series clearly demonstrates how people can fool themselves into believing just about anything.

As magicians, Penn and Teller are uniquely suited to bust the myths surrounding TV shows like “Crossing Over” and “Beyond,” hosted by John Edward and James Von Praagh, respectively. Both of these mediums purport to contact the dead on their shows. “Bullshit!” say Penn and Teller. What they are doing are “cold readings,” a carnival side-show trick that has been around for years. Penn and Teller take us inside the technique of cold reading and show how it is used, along with skillful editing, to make it look like popular TV mediums are communicating with the dead.

In one of the first season episodes, the duo takes on the hysteria over second-hand smoke. According to Penn and Teller, the main EPA study on second hand smoke has been discredited, and there is no scientific proof that second hand smoke causes cancer to adults in a workplace environment. The epidemiological evidence, they say, does not indicate a risk of lung cancer that is statistically significant. They say the EPA study is seriously flawed and has been discredited by a federal lawsuit. In one of their funnier episodes, the duo takes on a survivalist who has a bomb shelter made of buried school buses. The episode also features a wilderness survival training course that is truly hilarious. Penn and Teller sensibly ask the question: What is the advantage of knowing how to kill a rabbit by throwing a stick when everything is radioactive?

Penn and Teller use a lot of obscenities on their show. They explain that the obscenities are part of a strategy to reduce the likelyhood of lawsuits. They said, for instance, if you were to say that a certain medium is defrauding people, you might get sued. On the other hand, if you said what that medium is doing is bullshit, you might not get sued. I don't really buy that argument (I'm a skeptic too). I think you could get sued either way. The obscenities do give the show an edge and further sets it apart from ordinary broadcast TV, which doesn't allow this kind of language.

A good example of this use of language is found in the episode “Eat This!” about diets and other food fads, specifically those opposed to genetically-engineered foods. These kind, concerned citizens helped thousands of people starve to death by persuading certain leaders not to allow the import of genetically-modified food into certain African countries. Penn says, (f-word is obscured below), his face filling the screen at the end for emphasis:

“A very small percentage of the world's population is fortunate enough to have the luxury of turning down food. The rest of the world spends most of its time trying to get any food ... We need to spread all the technology all we can everywhere so all the people everywhere can deal with the problem of too much food. We can't start getting picky because we've got enough food. That's just self-centered and racist. Unless you and yours are starving, you need to shut the f**k up!”

Other topics in the first season (some carry over into the second season) are alternative medicine, alien abductions, baby care fads, sex (including lots of full male and female nudity, including highlights of the “Puppetry of the Penis” show). Also included for fun are, feng shui, bottled water, creationism, self-help wack jobs, ESP, ouija boards, near death experiences and environmental hysteria. The second season, which begins tonight, by the way, starts with the nut cases at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (P.E.T.A.). Penn and Teller say “PETA plays on our compassion for other living things while laying a trap to turn the tables on us: PETA is against all forms of medical testing involving animals -- regardless of the potential benefits to human beings. PETA supports banning the ownership of pets and advocates releasing them into the wild. It's enough to make a vegetarian eat meat!”

It is no surprise that Penn and Teller are fans of noted myth-buster James Randi (who goes by the stage name of “The Amazing Randi”). Randi, through his James Randi Educational Foundation, has offered a million dollar prize to “anyone can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event.” The prize has been offered for years, yet no one has passed this simple test with mutually-agreed-upon parameters. Randi is the guy who inspired Penn and Teller to do this show.

The DVD (region one) has several audio tracks, English Dolby (tm) Digital 5.1 surround and 2.0 Stereo and Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. There are no subtitles, but the DVD does include closed captions. The DVD includes all 13 episodes plus a bonus episode about a junkyard ghost and a funny ghost hunter who uses a blow-up sex doll attached to a fishing pole, deleted scenes and backstage outtakes, James Randi interview with Penn and Teller, a naked promo that did not air, behind the scenes stuff, wraparounds and a sneak peek at season two. This is a top-notch TV show. It reminds me a lot of Michael Moore's old “TV Nation” show. Television needs more of these kinds of shows to combat all the nonsense that goes unchallenged these days. This show, and the DVD rate an A. Kudos to Penn and Teller and Showtime for having the guts to air this show.

For more information on this DVD, including community (Penn and Teller answer questions), about the show, topics, schedule, purchase information, click on this link to the official home page of Bullshit! Click here for links to other places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2004 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)