Cry of the angry magicians

Times Staff Writer

"Penn & Teller Get Killed" was the title of the magic-and-comedy duo's 1989 movie. For their new Showtime series, an appropriate title might be "Penn & Teller Get Angry."

The actual title can't be printed here, because it includes an expletive that, as Penn Jillette suggested, in days past would have meant "Humbug!" -- a sentiment that sums up this weekly half-hour devoted to debunking everything from alternative medicines to feng shui to secondhand smoke and aspects of the environmental movement.

Along the way, Jillette unleashes a stream of invectives (this is Showtime, after all) at what he bluntly maintains -- within legal parameters that he outlines during the show -- are charlatans duping people. The most provocative broadside may be launched in tonight's premiere against psychics, or spiritual mediums, including John Edward and James Van Praagh.

Penn & Teller are best known as magicians, in an act that frequently involves the very boisterous Jillette subjecting the silent Teller to increasingly dangerous stunts. Their merciless tone, on stage and off, is also aimed at exposing what they see as fakery, in magic and elsewhere, and they have wanted to do such a television program for years.

"It's about time that somebody came out and screamed at the top of their lungs that this is bad stuff," said Teller, who is as mute onstage (and on camera) as he is talkative during an interview. He contends that by exposing tricks such as "cold readings" (a way to approximate a psychic reading without prior knowledge of the subject), "We want to make people just as angry as us."

So the pair demonstrate tonight how Edward and others can create the illusion of talking to deceased loved ones, and they interview scientists who punch holes in chiropractic medicine or the purity of bottled water.

Edward's program is a modest success, while Van Praagh's series, "Beyond," has ceased production but continues to air in many cities. The host has posted a message to fans saying even those responsible for the show misunderstood him, making it "painfully obvious to me that this type of daytime forum was not the right place to display the 'sensitivity' and 'healing' aspects of my work." (The series is distributed by Tribune Entertainment, a unit of the company that owns the Los Angeles Times.)

Regarding Penn & Teller, a spokesman for Edward said the host's philosophy is that people either believe in him or don't and he doesn't bother answering naysayers. Van Praagh's representative didn't respond, but during a "Larry King Live" appearance in 2001 he stated that psychics "are here to heal people" whereas skeptics "are here to destroy people."

Jillette would argue to the contrary, saying that after his mother's death a few years ago "all my tolerance went away" for those who profess to be able to contact "the other side." And while many firmly believe in psychics and other subjects debunked in the show, Teller noted that the hope is to reach people "who are not in one camp or the other."

Determined to show how easily people can be manipulated (somewhat tellingly, in light of the so-called reality TV craze), the program includes staged hidden-camera stunts -- in one case persuading mall patrons to test the benefits of a "mucous mask," which amounts to nothing more than letting snails crawl on their faces.

"It just shows you that when you put a TV camera on, people are so eager to please," Jillette said. "It's never the fault of the person being lied to.... I don't think naivete is the sin we want to attack."

"Attack," however, is the operative word. In fact, the producers made a point of completing the initial 13 episodes before the series premiered, fearing that some practitioners might be less inclined to participate after the program made its debut.

Showtime President Jerry Offsay acknowledged that the program had to be vetted carefully due to legal concerns and said it was the concept, as opposed to the talent, that sold him. "This was a home-run idea," he said, calling it "interesting and provocative television" that fulfills the pay-TV service's "no limits" slogan.

James Randi, another noted debunker of the paranormal, sees merit in the program but cites potential difficulty balancing entertainment values with the need to convey legitimate science.

"If they just insult the psychics, that's not going to do it," Randi said, adding that although some people can be won over, for the most devout believers, "Once they're committed, they're committed, and no amount of evidence is going to shake them."

What sort of effect the show will have remains to be seen. Showtime is received in about one-eighth of U.S. homes, with roughly 13 million subscribers -- about half as many as principal rival HBO.

Given the passion they bring to the project, Penn & Teller say they aren't worried about ratings. Indeed, only one other network expressed interest in the project, making them thrilled it's seeing the light of day at all.

"We could be in 12 million homes, or we could be in zero," Jillette said regarding Showtime. "They were the only offer on the table."


'Penn & Teller'

When: Premieres tonight at 11

Where: Showtime

Rating: The network has rated it TV-14-L (may be unsuitable for children under 14, with an advisory for coarse language).

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