Penn & Teller, the sweaty-faced ham and silent schmuck Vegas vagabond act, have been succeeding at their peculiar brand of sideshow annoyance for some 30 years now. But they popped heavily into the pop culture radar as soft-shoes in Run-DMC's classic video, "My Adidas," and carried on through the standard array of cameo appearances and magic-baiting stage shows that led right up to a top corner on "Hollywood Squares." (They will appear this month, actually.)
So what makes them so appealing all of the sudden? And why are they winning Writer's Guild Awards and charming the elusive smart set in the critical circles?
"Penn & Teller: Bullshit," the hit late-night Showtime series of issue-based commentary, kicks off its second season on April 1 -- no irony lost on the date there. The smartness cuts with a blade just a millimeter sharper than Comedy Central's "Daily Show," even without the benefit of John Stewart's knowing -- and clearly more attractive -- gaze. (Incidentally, the first-season DVD was released March 30.) With each episode built around one particular sociological falsehood -- the kind typically perpetuated by the national media -- the dynamic (or defective) duo immerse themselves and a series of willing (we assume, anyway) pundits, interviewed and juxtaposed around the given subject. Then, they call them out for -- you guessed it -- bullshit. It works because Penn & Teller themselves are far enough outside of the realm of credibility that you almost have to believe them. And it also works because it's funny as hell in that truth-over-fiction kind of way. "Bullshit," in short, is amazing.
The new season begins with a well-deserved jab at the worrywarts of PETA and sundry other animal-rights activist groups peppering the nation with grainy videos of animal exploitation. Penn & Teller don leather biker gear, contrasting against a consistent white backdrop, where Penn brands Teller's ass with the name "Dave" while a bull named Dave watches.
Each interview subject throughout is deemed either a meat-eater or vegetarian by their weight, and standard potshots ensue. Consulted and picked at like a pot roast are: a Center for Consumer Freedom rep (meat-eater), a couple of flakes from the Animal Defense League of Los Angeles (vegetarians), Jerry Greenwalt (meat-eater) from the Los Angeles Department of Animal Services and PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk (bitch). All the while, Penn narrates a cohesive argument for why it's all bullshit, and he and Teller swap their leather wardrobes for fur coats. Offensive? Maybe. But considering the PETA party line that animals are the new slaves, and that meat-eating is "Holocaust on a plate," it's all remarkably appropriate.
"How can three-quarters of a million people be crazy?" begs Penn, referring to the membership of PETA. "Well, if you watch this show, then you know."
Episode two attacks the post-Sept. 11 culture of fear -- and that color code provided by the Bush administration that reads a little like a pregnancy test. The hosts visit a paranoid clockmaker who has wrapped his entire house in plastic, the headquarters of Safer America ("the Wal-Mart of the apocalypse," quips Penn) and a Harvard specialist on terrorism. While the garbage-bag-house bit is a matter of obvious hilarity, the Safer America rep -- a nervous man of very little skill -- makes the business of fear seem even scarier than fear itself. One top-of-the-line high-rise parachute ($1,100) won't function properly, and the cheaper option ($720) will save your life but might break your legs. "The truth is, in 2004, crime, disease and violence are down," offers Penn. But then he also wonders, "The question isn't why somebody would wrap their house in plastic, but why shouldn't every house be wrapped in a garbage bag?" Bullshit again.
By episode three, the last provided by Showtime for our perusal, the focus has shifted to true love. Teller shoots a cow heart with a crossbow, and the rest takes care of itself. Michelle, a teacher from New York, speed-dates; Trish McDermott (Match.com's Vice President of Romance, blech) rolls her eyes a lot; and a disturbing discussion of the size of animal testicles and their relevance to monogamy ensues. A horse's tail is lifted to see if she is "winking and dripping" (in heat), and a sheep's nuts are analyzed. "If you look at his nuts," says a freaky professor, "he's well hung," adding then that gorillas actually have small balls.
But "Penn & Teller: Bullshit" has big ones. And for reasons unbeknownst to anyone who has followed the duo's wretched career, that makes them somehow appealing. No bullshit.