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The comedy team of Penn & Teller appeared at Comic-Con International in San Diego on Thursday to preview their new show, Penn & Teller Tell a Lie. Spinoff Online sat in as the duo discussed the new show, the demise of their previous Showtime series Bullshit, and the search for truth that keeps them going.
After a warm welcome from the crowd, moderator Glen Ally asked an important question: “Will Teller be speaking?”
The generally silent performer cleared his throat and responded, “Fuck yes,” to the delight of the audience.
“For over 35 years they have defied labels, physics and often good taste,” Ally continued. “We’re here for a very specific purpose. After eight years of Penn & Teller: Bullshit, you are launching a new show on Discovery.”
“We kind of forced Showtime into doing a show about science and reality,” admitted Penn Jillette, the more outspoken half of the duo. “We did get to have naked people and we did get to say profanity. I am one of the only people who does not own a motorcycle who has said ‘motherfucker’ enough.”
After referring to their new home as “The Disco Channel,” Jillette mentioned that the cable network was “more interested in science.” Unlike Bullshit, the performer hopes Tell a Lie will take a more pointed view of both science and objective reality. He then outlined the format: “We’re doing six packages, most of them [featuring] us. One of those stories will be a fake, a complete lie. [After each episode], the audience can go to discovery.com and vote on which is a lie.”
Teller clarified that segments within each episode will make certain claims. “We will claim that a single head of human hair can lift a Mustang,” he began. “We will claim that a wrecking ball can be stopped by special wallpaper. We’ll claim that you can put a person into a tank of live piranha and they will not kill him.”
“The person will be Teller,” Jillette interjected.
“We shot that already,” Teller continued. “We’ll tell you about what they like to eat later.”
Following that tease, the group showed the package about human hair. A Ford Mustang is loaded with Teller, a couple of guests, and objects of various weights, including a copy of Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell album. The car is attached to a metal frame connected to cables that terminate at a ring tied to a ponytail that once belonged to one of the passengers. The hair is tied to an industrial crane, which raises the car five feet, with the hair appearing to carry the weight – although there is the odd sound of material stretching and lurching from the stress. “How sure am I that this is going to hold?” Jillette asks, moving under the car as the screen fades to black.
As the lights came back up, Jillette said to expect at least one stunt like that each episode.
Teller quickly added, “With all the cuts in that footage, we couldn’t have faked that.”
He then followed through on his promise to talk about the piranhas. “We wanted to see if they really kill people, so we plunged me into a tank of them,” he said matter-of-factly. “Not to give it away, but we know what the outcome was.
“It was a beautiful tank,” he continued. “I dangled my feet in and one of the fish decided to nibble on me. I’m sitting there thinking, ‘That’s pretty funny — ahh!’ So I called my doctor at 10:30 at night out of a sound sleep and asked him if I need a tetanus shot.” The doctor told him to soak his foot in Betadine.
“The whole crew went in to help him, and I started to laugh,” Jillette said.
Ally asked where the ideas for the segments come from. “The idea [is] that there is a reality that we all share,” Jillette replied. “The idea that your faith does not change the world outside you is an obsession that informs all of our shows. The big difference between the believers and the skeptical is whether we share a reality.
“We’ve been doing it for 35 years,” he continued. “In the Vegas show, we do it with stage magic. You can’t do that on TV because people think you’re using camera tricks … and they’re right. When you do that on TV, you have to do it a different way and Bullshit did it a tad more politically and philosophically. This show does it more concrete. We also do stuff that’s a little more out of the field, a little more abstract that allows us to do stuff that isn’t just on a set.”
“In one of the earlier [episodes of Tell a Lie], we decided to do a little tribute to Bullshit,” Teller added. This led to another clip about a study that they claim states obscenity reduces pain. The team restages the experiment with ice and a nurse that Penn keeps claiming is a dominatrix. The test subjects submerge their hands into a bucket of ice; the control group is instructed not to swear. Without that option, the average time members of the control group can keep their hands in the water is 1 minute, 43 second. The group allowed to use obscenities lasted in the water for 2 minutes, 7 seconds. Keep in mind, this could all be a lie.
“One of the cool components of the show is that this will have a lot of interactive elements,” Teller explained.
“Yeah, since we’re telling the audience to tell us which one is the lie … there will be a tally of how many stories we fool [people with],” added Jillette. “We did some focus groups in Vegas and found out that they are way, way wrong. We’re feeling a little smug.”
The pair did a quick round-up of other projects, including a British show called Fool Us in which they invite British magicians to perform magic tricks. If Penn & Teller cannot figure out how the trick is done, the magician gets the opportunity to open for the duo in Las Vegas. “It is a great pleasure,” Teller said. “I’m 63, and it’s very rare to get that amazing rush of ‘it’s just impossible!’ When we fail [to figure out the trick], there’s just this explosion of joy on our faces.”
Even the performers who can’t fool the team benefit from the experience. Jillette told the crowd about a magician named Piff the Magic Dragon who appeared on the show. “He’s got a following and a Hollywood agent and now he’s pitching his own ‘Piff the Magic Dragon’ sitcom.”
Other projects include Teller’s play Play Dead, set to open in Mexico in October and in London and Los Angeles later in the year. Jillette also has a new book coming out called God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales. “Starting Aug. 16, I’ll be entertaining death threats,” he joked.
At that point, Teller felt compelled to add, “The claim that I got bit by a piranha does not necessarily have to be true.”
A fan asked whether their special Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends would ever be available on DVD. Jillette offered that the best bet is just to watch the clips on YouTube, as all video is headed there anyway.
Another fan wondered whether their stance on an issue had been changed while producing an episode of Bullshit or Tell a Lie. “You start out with some little piece of information and following up and making your phone calls and as you go through, the idea changes,” Jillette replied. “It’s not just binary. The secondhand smoke show, there seemed to be evidence, and we did a bit of a cheat on whether or not the government should be regulating it. We skirted a lot of issues. You’ll find a lot of unsatisfying, wish-washy sentences on Bullshit.”
“The only regret I have about Bullshit is that when we knew it was the last season, I wanted to do a ‘Bullshit of Bullshit‘ episode where we looked back at our little flaws,” added Teller.
When a fan pointed out the sound of the hair creaking in the first clip, Jillette looked to his producer and shouted, “This is the sort of people we’re doing the show for!” He told the fan that it was a rough track for the panel, but to remember that “Everyone on TV is lying to you.”
Jillette was asked if he felt like a figurehead for the emerging skepticism movement. After a moment of thought, he replied, “There is this feeling that there is a skeptics political movement and people keep asking me how we get more people involved and I believe that question is morally wrong. If skepticism is a movement that involved manipulation to get people to come to your side, then I am anti-skeptic. It has to be a love of the truth, even when you’re wrong.”
Penn & Teller Tell a Lie premieres this fall on the Discovery Channel.