Penn & Teller: Bullshit

Published by marco on

Penn and Teller have had a TV show on ShowTime for a while now, but I’ve never seen any. Most of them are available on YouTube (see links below) but I have no idea how long those will last there due to copyright issues. As I watched, it was easy to sympathize with the new-agey folks—Penn is ruthless and relentless. Though he’s too self-satisfied at times, he tempers it with explanations for his anger—that he hates to see people preyed upon. Still, you think to yourself, these people seem to be happier, so what’s the big deal?

The big deal is the amount of money that flows to the peddler of happy feelings from the purchaser. And it generally costs a lot to avail oneself of these elite services. Whereas I’d have no problem with these feel-good sessions if they were very cheap or free—after all, what else are people going to do with their time?—the prices mean we’re talking about con games—about fraud—especially when the benefit they provide is more along the lines of rent-a-friend/prostitution, which would otherwise be illegal.

List of videos I watched

I wrote down observations and comments as I watched, included below. These are more impressions than an article with a topic and conclusion.

The interesting thing is that the fools—there really is no other word for it—that attend these seminars (the Self Helpless episode, in particular) are self-selecting. A skeptic can’t imagine being in any of these groups without blowing up and screaming “bullshit!” but, with everyone else in the group nodding away, they all reinforce each other’s belief that they’re being helped. If you’re in a session like this and have doubts, you need only look around to see that no one else has doubts and your own will melt away. As Penn puts it in one of the shows:

“One of the tragic things about this industry is that it attracts those people that are the most vulnerable and the most easily taken-in. You get this rush of adrenalin and this rush of endorphins and you just feel like your whole life is just different.”

But they just feel better without actually being better. Feeling better is important—it can often give you the confidence and courage to actually make things better. But, if your problem is debt or unemployment, your problem is not only still there in the morning, it’s likely been exacerbated by the financial drain of the self-help courses, psychics or life coaches that imparted the fleeting good feeling. A good example is the cost of a coffin from the Death Inc. episode: $24,000 for the top of the line. For a casket that will molder in the ground. Almost required reading for this episode is the ground-breaking The American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford (originally written in 1963 and updated several decades later).

The main problem isn’t that people believe these treatments—God knows that they’re suckered every day by allopathic cures, as well—it’s that there are so many of these people, all with too much disposable income and too little brains, willing to throw away their money to con men. A prime examples is the reflexology guy who berates his potential student to start using the “science” before she’s taken a single class—in order to pay for the classes he wants to give her. Or the fake “snail facial” in the Alternative Medicine episode: the psychosomatic effect and people’s ability to convince themselves does absolutely all of the work. That and the “tightening”, rejuvenating effect of snail slime drying on your cheeks and forehead.

The first part of Feng Shui/Bottled Water isn’t bad, but you definitely have to check out the bottled water by Penn & Teller (YouTube) part. As you can imagine, the suckers did all of the legwork in praising L’eau de robinet (tap water in French) and Agua de culo (ass water in Spanish) to the high heavens. And, again, this would be funny except that people are convinced to pay a 1000 times markup for tap water.

I thought that the P.E.T.A. episode was the weakest—not because P.E.T.A. is beyond reproach, far from it—but because Penn & Teller only interviewed morons in defense of animal rights. See how well you do against Peter Singer, Penn; your bombast will only take you so far. And then they yell that they discovered that P.E.T.A. believes that “sometimes the only kind option for some animals is to put them to sleep forever”. If you’re halfway enlightened rather than trying to make every last act perpetrated by an enemy organization look bad, you’d ask yourself why euthanasia couldn’t be considered ethical treatment?

It just seems like they went for the easier arguments here rather than digging in to the philosophy of it (and I’m aware that this is Penn & Teller, not a high-minded symposium on animal rights). Inviting Ted Nugent to play the voice of reason on your show? You lose all credibility immediately. And that jackass radio host Dennis Prager, who bloviates that the “stupidity […] and opinions” that he hears could only be the result of “higher education”. That is such a stupid thing to say; I guess that, according to his logic, he must be an educated man.

And then they have him put the final nail in the coffin of anyone who cares about animals: that they don’t have any bigger problems to be worried about. Well, yeah, that may be true but, if so, that fact should be celebrated. And what is the argument there? That people should be thankful for what they’ve got—that life in the 21st century is better than being a Jew in 1930s Germany—and shut their f$&king, whiny mouths? That seems like a typical argument coming from a right-wing radio-show host. So everybody should shut up but him, especially when he’s telling immoral, destitute sluts to stop getting abortions.

Penn & Teller should have chosen their interview subjects more wisely—although there’s a good chance that Penn is a weird mix of indignant liberal and wide-eyed/wild-eyed libertarian. The presence of Ted Nugent is serious warning sign.