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Penn & Teller’s Showtime series broadens scope

It’s nothing too drastic — don’t go looking for Penn Jillette to find religion, or for his partner, Teller, to suddenly become chatty — but the duo are shaking things up.

After seven years of using their explicitly titled Showtime series (10 p.m. Thursday) to debunk everything from creationism to the war on drugs, with a heavy emphasis on mocking the paranormal along the way, Penn & Teller are training their withering critical gaze on cheerleading.

Wait, cheerleading?

“You can only do so much on talking to the dead, Ouija boards and astrology,” Jillette says, adding that it felt like it was time for the series to broaden its focus.

But what sounds on the surface like a segment from Adam Carolla’s old “What Can’t Adam Complain About?” radio bit, this week’s season premiere turns out to be a newsmagazine-style piece looking into the alarming number of cheerleading injuries and why more isn’t being done to stop them.

It’s the sort of thing you’d see on “60 Minutes,” only with more cursing. A lot more cursing.

“There’s no doubt that going into it, (the subject of cheerleading) is jarring and seems to violate the premise” of the show, Jillette says. “But that’s OK with me. … It’s OK for (fans) to worry, provided you deliver in the end.”

And deliver they do. In less than 30 minutes, viewers will become convinced that every little girl who picks up pompoms is a catastrophic injury waiting to happen.

The episode follows the 19-member Basic High School cheer squad, 16 of whom have been injured while cheering. It travels to Michigan to meet Laura Jackson, who has been paralyzed and hooked to a ventilator since she fell during cheer tryouts because the judges didn’t allow spotters during her tumbling run. And it throws out mind-boggling statistics, such as the 30,000 emergency room visits a year blamed on cheerleading injuries, which is more than the 10 sanctioned women’s sports combined.

And yet cheerleading — which has evolved to the point that young girls are flipping, spinning, tumbling and flying every which way — still isn’t classified as a sport, a designation that would lead to stricter safety measures.

Apparently, the only current requirement to become a certified cheer coach is three hours of safety training and passing an open-book test. As Jillette puts it during the episode, “That’s less hands-on training than Starbucks requires to make a (expletive) latte!”

Throw in a couple of illusions, a little gratuitous nudity and Jillette’s narration that weaves a tapestry of profanities, and you’ve got yourself an episode that just might be the best thing to happen to cheerleaders since football players.

And it meets what Jillette calls the four requirements of all good episodes of the series: “a point of view that not everyone in the audience agrees with” and “real hard facts that haven’t been covered somewhere else,” as well as “jokes and a moral position.”

The episode even takes an abrupt detour — to the delight of grammar nerds everywhere — for a fun lesson on the difference between acronyms and initialisms that would make Aaron Sorkin proud.

But while improper word usage no doubt gets under his skin, Jillette saves most of his venom for people who believe vaccines are actually bad for children, a curious phenomenon he and Teller cover in the finale of the 10-episode season.

“You’ve got this weird movement coming out of Beverly Hills that is actually killing people,” Jillette says. “And all of their positions can be shot down with, really, a freshman high school knowledge of biology.”

Yet he says journalists are lining up to report the so-called dangers of vaccinations, just so they can talk to Playmate-turned-advocate Jenny McCarthy.

“I can’t understand why,” Jillette continues. “There are tits of her quality everywhere. … Go into any of the strip clubs (in Vegas), and you can tie or beat Jenny McCarthy within 60 dollars.”

But despite the bluster and the occasional tirade, Jillette insists that the show, already the longest-running series in the history of Showtime, isn’t overly negative.

“We’re doing a very Pollyanna-ish show,” he says. “Our essential position is pro-science, pro-humanity, pro-freedom. It’s such a positive show, that if you didn’t call it ‘Bullshit!’ the saccharine of it would choke you.”

Just don’t expect the duo to follow the lead of “Lost’s” executive producers and set an end-date for their series. Jillette seems happy to keep churning out episodes as long as Showtime will have them.

“I have no desire to leave with everybody thinking I’m at the top of my game,” he says. “I’m perfectly willing to fade out into incompetence.”

Christopher Lawrence’s Life on the Couch column appears on Sundays. E-mail him at clawrence@ reviewjournal.com.

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