I recently caught a show on DVD called Penn and Teller *bleep!*! and it wowed me out like no other show has in a long time - to the extent that I bawled through the first epsiode.
It's made by Showtime (the US network responsible for creating Weeds
, The L-Word
and Fat Actress
) and it features magicians, illusionisists and comedians Penn Jilette and Teller who rip apart various popular beliefs and practises and prove through their footage, commentaries and interview case studies why they're total *bleep!*.
The show is inspired by the work of legendary escape artist and illusionist Harry Houdini who argued that many of the facts that society accepts as being the truth are actually myths manipulated by illusionists for their own gain and Penn and Teller refer to him regularly to draw parallels and make their points.
In the premiere episode Penn does the introductions as to what they get up to and why. Here's what he says: (Teller doesn't mutter a word ever)
"I'm Penn and this my partner Teller and this is *bleep!*!. We're gonna hunt down as many pervayers of *bleep!* as we can. Sure we lie, cheat and swindle and have been known to deal in a bit of *bleep!* ourselves so some of you may ask: why pee on someone else's parade?
"One important difference: we TELL you that we're lying. You'll notice more obscenity than we usually use - that's not just because it's on Showtime and we wanna get some attention - it's also a legal matter. If one calls people liars and quacks, one can be sued and lose a lot of one's money but motherfuckers and arseholes is pretty safe.
"If we said it was all a scam, we could also be in trouble, but *bleep!*, oddly, is safe. So forgive all the *bleep!* language - we're trying to talk about the truth without spending the rest of our lives in court because of litigious motherfuckers."
Each of the episodes deals with a different topic and the first season focuses on debunking: alternative medicine, alien abduction, recycling, bottled water, war on drugs campaigns, society's obsession with sex, self-help books and workshops, diet products, creationism and psychics talking to the dead.
Psychics, and TV psychics in particular are dealt with in the first episode and watching it was almost too much to cope with because they dealt with every single suspicion I had when I wrote about shows like Crossing Over with John Edward and Belinda Silbert's Making Contact when they were on and confirmed exactly why they're such *bleep!*. (I've put links to the stories I wrote about them at this end of this. )
When Crossing Over With John Edward started I was very suspicious of it but just couldn't work out how he managed to be so convicing, then after watching and doing some snooping I spotted some of this tricks - like using the Cold Reading technique, which has been used by fortune telling gypsy's throughout the ages.
Then, when our own South African Making Contact with Belinda Silbert version started I was fuming. Before her I'd been confused about whether or not it was wrong because if someone's being helped through their grief and achieves closure as a resut of being on the show - does it really matter if it's true or not? But Silbert came along and all that changed.
For starters she was soo unebelievably bad at the *bleep!* it was a disgrace to any performance and secondly she went beserk telling people stuff about their loved ones that would change their memories of the person forever.
The specific incident that upset me big time was her telling a family she was "reading" for that she was communicating with their son who'd commited suicide and that he was saying he'd had issues with his sexuality. At the end of the session her overriding suggestion to the family was that he'd killed himself because he was gay and didn't want anyone to know.
The family was gobsmacked and said it it was the last thing they'd ever considered as being an issue he faced and they were then left with this huge extra question about his sadness that they would never be able to answer. If they believed her of course - which was the problem because the show was on TV selling itself as being the ultimate truth.
After that I was very frustrated that we allow such shows to be broadcast and that nobody seemed to care about the fact that we do - except Belinda Silbert who got in touch with me after the story was published. Needless to say she was wasn't impressed.
This is why it was so particularly excellent to see a show ripping into both these types of shows and the people responsible and revealing the very reason they're so nasty and such a problem. This is one of the best aspects of the *bleep!*! because not only does as it look something sceptically but it also reveals why it's not right to not burst the bubble surrounding such things.
The show started with footage of the different TV psychics at work and then, before it looked at their techniques they explained why they were thought it was important to. Here's what they said:
Penn: "Wow, these psychics sure have these folks convinced of their amazing talents. Before we bust up this party and, goddammit, we're gonna bust it up, we have to make it very clear where our hearts are.
"We have nothing but empathy for the people who are experiencing loss and grief at the death of a loved one. The guy we saw who lost his mom rips my heart out. I'm a mama's boy whose mom died a couple of years ago and I'll never get over it.
"My dad died at around the same time and I was very close to both of them. I loved them so much that there isn't a moment that goes by that I don't miss them. Houdini didn't really go nuts busting these mediums until he lost his mom. Once you've felt that pure grief, seeing it exploited can take away your sense of humour.
"Once a loved one has died all we have is our memories of them. There's nothing more precious to me than my memories of my mom and dad. We don't give a rats ass about the money these bastards are taking from the grief stricken but what we do care about deeply is the desacration of their memories.
"These performance artists are in very real sense motherfuckers. That poor guy we saw's memories of his mother are now all fucked up by somebody else's images. All he'll ever have left of his mom are memories and this Pig has pissed on those for a buck and a little unearned fame.
"I'm sure these lame fucks tell themselves that they're easing the grief but skits for money cannot replace loving memories. How low do you have to be to exploit someone's true grief to sell some *bleep!* book?"
I really wish we'd get to see it in SA but I just don't know if we will. Would it be seen as being too hectic and cause a controversial outcry? Of course we'll never know unless we actually catch it - so let's hope one of our channels are busy-busy doing da bizz with Showtime.
Alternatively we need one of our very own. The first Pigs I'd like to see on the shitlist are the TV evangelists who claim they can heal Aids if you send them cash who get broadcast by our country's broadcasters without them ever batting an eyelid.
Past stories:John Edward: Fake And FortuneHow John's Magic Works Making Contact: Clairvouyant ControversyThe Devil In Pastors Clothing