Penn & Teller. Masters of disillusionment.

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April 1 2004 6:28 PM

Masters of Disillusionment

Penn & Teller's show explains why everything you know is wrong.

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Stright shooters with a sense of humor

Penn & Teller: Bullshit! (Showtime, Thursdays, 10 p.m. ET) is out to prove that skepticism doesn't have to be a dour, tweedy affair. The buttoned-down Skeptic Society, for example, wages a valiant fight against pseudoscience, mass delusion, and general human folly, but its Web site features nary a peep from aging rocker and sportsman Ted Nugent, nor does it contain salty phrases like "state-funded knucklehead" or "my achin' ass!" Professional skepticism says "please" and "thank you" and tucks in its shirt. It does not dress head to toe in leather or throw around words like "motherfucker."

Now entering its second season, Penn & Teller: Bullshit!avoids the niceties. Last year, the showtook on topics as varied as creationism, bottled water, secondhand smoke, and alien abductions, in each case setting out to set things straight. The approach alternates between straightforward TV journalism and vulgar showmanship. In tonight's season premiere, Penn and Teller use expert sources and detailed evidence to discredit the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, but they also dress like leather daddies, make a big show of feasting on chicken and ribs, indulge in more than a little name-calling, and bring in the Nuge to deliver lines such as "Meat. Is. Food. Case closed." In their live act, Penn and Teller have long practiced a kind of meta-magic that pulls back the curtain on the magician's craft while simultaneously exploiting all its tricks. Penn & Teller: Bullshit! carries on the same tradition—you won't find two illusionists more dedicated to exposing the truth.

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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. On tonight's episode, they compare PETA co-founder and president Ingrid Newkirk to Adolf Hitler, cutting from shots of Newkirk at an animal rights conference to stock footage of Hitler's youth. "Cheap shot?" says Penn in the narration. "Well, you bet it is. It's beneath us, but we're not the first to use the Nazi analogy." The show then takes PETA to task for its 2003 "Holocaust on Your Plate" action campaign, which juxtaposed images from concentration camps with images of industrial meat processing. I'm not sure which makes me more uncomfortable, PETA's manipulation of a genocide or Penn and Teller's breezy character assassination, but the moment made me pine for a less sensational approach. I'm more accustomed to professional doubting Thomases like Skeptic Society director Michael Shermer, whose wonderful book Why People Believe Weird Things manages to debunk all kinds of bad thinking—including that of Holocaust deniers—without resorting to calling anyone a Nazi.

But as P&T: B! wore on, I began to appreciate the show's street-fighting style. Measured rationality is a powerful tool, but sometimes a well-placed "you've got to be fucking kidding me!" works even better. When Newkirk compares animals in the Western world to slaves, Penn can barely contain his incredulity. After noting that there are still millions of human slaves in the world today and invoking the legacy of slavery in our country, he says, "Do you really want to equate that worldwide shame ... to chickens?"

If Penn & Teller: Bullshit! were all bluster, it wouldn't be as effective or as entertaining. Thankfully, the show is surprisingly good at balancing its histrionics with facts. Using PETA's public tax records, tonight's show links the organization to Rodney Coronado, who admitted to firebombing a Michigan State University lab that used animals in its research. Penn and Teller also do a nice number on a PETA vice president whose treatments for Type II diabetes were developed using research on dogs.

Even at their most convincing, though, Penn and Teller are careful not to belabor their points. And herein lies the show's charm. By refusing to take their opponents—or themselves—too seriously, the duo celebrates idiocy as much as it tries to set idiots straight. Shermer's book, after all, is fundamentally inquisitive and corrective. He wishes people didn't believe weird things. But Penn and Teller make themselves quite clear: They wouldn't have it any other way.

Dennis Cass writes about television for Slate.

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