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Penn and Teller's Libertarian Humor

Magicians Penn & Teller weren’t satisfied making millions howl over their nutty illusions and card tricks. No, they had a libertarian message to spread, and thus their Showtime series Penn & Teller: Bullshit! was born.

The half-hour series dissects a variety of sobering topics made palatable by Penn Jillette’s pugnacious humor. And, naturally, the ever silent Teller is along for the ride, mugging away by his partner’s side.

The fifth season of Bullshit! arrives on DVD May 20, and with it the show’s trademark raunchy humor, stage sets straight out of a Lars von Trier film, and an occasional bare breast. It is a cable show, after all.

But the best reason to check out the 2-disk set is to see some sacred cows get tipped.

Penn and Teller: Bullshit! The Complete Fifth Season takes on Wal-Mart, obesity, illegal immigration and de-toxing among its litany of semi to very hot button subjects. So it’s a shame that some segments involve as much sleight of hand as the duo’s Vegas act.

Take immigration for example. They set up the debate like any honest high school teacher might, and then calmly let the anti-illegal immigration side have their say. The people chosen for this task aren’t exactly the best proponents for their side. Either that or their arguments have been reduced to rubbish in the editing room. Even CNN’s Lou Dobbs might rethink his position on illegal immigration listening to these porous defenses.

The pro illegal immigrant argument goes primarily to Nick Gillespie of Reason magazine fame. The noted libertarian begins with a calm dissection of the issue before resorting to … wait for it … calling anyone who disagrees with his immigration view racist. Actually, Jillette does that for him while Gillespie squirms at the description. But only for so long.

The deck has been stacked, and it’s a shame because the show’s format is ideal for exploding issues beyond the sound bites preferred by the 24-hour news channels and morning shows.

The frequently profane Jillette is a bully here, unwilling to listen to both sides of the issue. He actually complains when the Minutemen, who are depicted as a bunch of bored old timers, aren’t the ‘nuts’ he expected. He’s far more appealing dropping F-bombs at deserving targets. And to be fair, few hosts take as much pleasure in doing just that as Jillette does.

The comedy team stands on firmer ground when attacking the Americans with Disabilities Act, mainly for the sheer novelty of their target. Who could complain about handicap parking spaces and wider bathroom stalls? Why, Jillette, of course. This episode rails against the ADA for enforcing compassion – and creating a raft of unnecessary new laws in the process.

It’s a prime example of how libertarians can seem cruel to people on both the right and the left. Do you mean stores shouldn’t offer wheelchair accessible ramps and entrance ways? Jillette does trot out some ripe abuses of the act, although one mega-lawsuit the show spends plenty of time trumpeting is so cursorily described its hard to know what to believe. Even if you stomp your feet in disagreement, the segment offers a fresh critique on a subject most shows wouldn’t touch.

Bullshit’s Wal-Mart episode is even more complex – and satisfying. The duo dig deeper than we expect into the complicated issues surrounding the biggest big box store of them all, even if they come down hard on Wal-Mart’s side right from the start.

Jillette lets the store’s biggest enemies have their say, including left-wing filmmaker Robert Greenwald (Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price) and even does some post-interview fact checking to keep his guests honest.

The episode acknowledges the chain has suffered its share of PR black eyes, but ultimately we’re told its success is inexorably linked to capitalism. Heck, it’s good for Joe and Jane Sixpack, too. Best of all is a wraparound segment of a couple who make anti-Wal-Mart T-shirts. The pair paint an unflattering portrait of their views without Jillette saying a word.

Season Five really hits its stride while eviscerating the detoxification business. The potty humor gets pretty obvious, pretty fast, but Jillette finds such juvenile glee with every gag the laughter is infectious. We’re also invited into a colonic session with a volunteer who looks like he’d rather be dropped down an active volcano than submit to the treatment. And on what other show will you get a guided tour of an oversized colon?

Viewers who understand Penn & Teller’s biases before popping in either of the two disks of Penn and Teller: Bullshit! The Complete Fifth Season should have a rollicking time. Just know it’s not so chock full of the truth as its creators would have you think.

Christian Toto is a freelance writer and film critic for The Washington Times. His work has appeared in People magazine, MovieMaker Magazine, The Denver Post, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Scripps Howard News Service. He also contributes movie radio commentary to three stations as well as the nationally syndicated “Dennis Miller Show” and runs the blog What Would Toto Watch?