Star Price — a.k.a., Starling Price — is the executive producer of the Showtime series, “Penn & Teller: Bullshit!” The show, now in its fifth season, chronicles the efforts of confirmed skeptics and pro-science atheists Penn Jillette and Teller to debunk, well, bullshit. Their mission is to expose the truth to an otherwise desperate and gullible public.
Most people have seen Penn & Teller somewhere, usually on a talk show performing incredible feats of magic. On this show, they use all the tricks of their trade, including good old-fashioned hidden cameras, to reveal rip-off artists, scammers, and hoaxsters.
Price is a writer, producer, director who has worked in television since 1978. In recent years, he’s made a career in reality television, including credits on programs such as “Real Stories of the Highway Patrol,” MTV’s “Celebrity Undercover,” TLC’s “How’d They Do That,” and “Confirmation: The Hard Evidence of Aliens Among Us” for NBC. He’s also recently co-executive-produced the reality series, “Exploring the Unknown” and “Scariest Places on Earth” for the Fox Family Channel, “Amazing Race II” for CBS, “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” the pilot for ABC, and “Hotel Hell” for Fox.
BOB ANDELMAN: Star, welcome to Mr. Media.
STAR PRICE: Thanks. It’s a pleasure to be here.
ANDELMAN: How did you get involved with Penn & Teller?
PRICE: Well, it’s a long story, actually. Mark Wolper, who’s another executive producer of the show, had sold Showtime the concept on doing a show debunking popular myths and beliefs of the day. He just had that kind of one-sentence idea, and he brought in Penn & Teller as a way to kind of comedically do it. But no one had really thought, “How would this work?” And I think as almost a surprise to him, he sold the show, and they ordered 13 episodes. He had never really done a documentary series, so he called me and said, “Can you figure out how to do this?” So I was thrown into it and went out to Las Vegas and met with Penn & Teller. We hit it off, and we kind of developed the show together on very short notice, and it became what it is. It is a fun show to do.
ANDELMAN: At different times, I’ve gotten the sense that Penn would really like to be on TV maybe more regularly than he is but maybe has not found quite the vehicle. This seems to really fit.
PRICE: This fits perfectly for him. This show is a dream come true for him. Both Penn & Teller are incredibly intelligent people and well read and well versed on every political issue and cultural issue of the day, and they are fascinating people. And to have a show where they could just kind of state what they believe about almost anything, I mean, that just doesn’t exist for anybody. For them, it’s just a dream come true, and they love doing it, and we love doing it with them.
ANDELMAN: So Wolper didn’t necessarily have them in mind when he came up with this thing, he just kind of fitted them to the concept.
PRICE: Yeah. His idea was that no one’s going to want to see a show where we just debunk something unless there’s another spin to it. He had the idea — I think he was on an airplane and was flipping through a magazine when he saw an interview with them. Penn, in the magazine interview, said that he was a big debunker, a big skeptic of a lot of things, and the light bulb went on over Mark’s head: call them. And I believe he called them and mentioned it on the phone; they were like, “We’re in!” It was an unusual marriage. They had never done a documentary series before. They are known for doing magic specials, but they are both avid skeptics, and it fit right up their alley.
The show became a combination of things; we knew that, because they were Penn & Teller, we had to let them do their shtick, too. We had to let them do magic, so if you’ve seen the show, you see that it’s kind of a weird combination of them doing magic and then debunking or looking into a cultural issue of the day. And it works.
I’m not even sure exactly how, but it works. It’s kind of this weird cross between Penn & Teller and my sensibility.
We have come up with this weird show, and we are about to premier our fifth season, and there is no end to it. We have found a way to keep doing stories for it for a long time.
ANDELMAN: What are they like to work with day in and day out?
PRICE: They’re great, they’re great. They’re both fascinating people and so smart, and often times we can get into a conversation where we forget that we are actually making a TV show. We’ll just get into talking about an issue. They are fascinating conversationalists, because they are so well versed on everything, and they come to each topic idea that we do with a very strong point of view. If you bump into them on the street and ask them about anything, they usually have a strong opinion. They are both very Libertarian in their beliefs, so politically, we kind of fall in, I guess you would say, the conservative side when it comes to fiscal things, size of government, and fall on the liberal side when it comes to social issues. But they have a strong opinion on everything, and as a producer, it’s a pleasure to work with, because you know exactly where they stand, and so you know exactly where you need to go.
ANDELMAN: Any time I’ve ever seen them, and of course, you are familiar with what Penn has to say, because Teller doesn’t really say much. Just by coincidence this afternoon, Howard Stern, on Sirius, ran a “Master Tape Theater” repeat from June 1993, on which he had Penn as a guest. Howard was saying something about how Penn & Teller do a show similar to David Copperfield. Penn got very upset with that and was tried to debunk Copperfield’s work — and this was something that was 14 years old! So he has been consistent in that.
PRICE: Their whole act is kind of a debunking of magic as much as it is a celebration of magic. If you’ve seen their show, they’ll do magic, but part of the fun of it is that they will show you how it’s done and show you how easily you can be fooled. Then they’ll take you a little bit kind of behind the scenes of it all. It’s been their whole approach to it for 30 years, and that’s why we brought that sensibility to the show in that we’ll look at a topic, such as psychics or people who believe in ghosts or whatever, and they’ll walk you through why it’s BS. They’ll do it with their stand-up act to kind of inventively show that there is another reality that you are not seeing, kind of like what they do in their magic tricks. It actually is a natural fit.
ANDELMAN: Star, most of the shows that you’ve worked on have been either reality or documentary oriented, not really star vehicles. Was it difficult to get used to working with bigger than life personalities?
PRICE: Well, they are larger than life. They are larger than life in the room.
ANDELMAN: Are they really?
PRICE: Yeah. Penn’s a big man and booming voice and a strong opinion, and
Teller, even though he doesn’t talk in the act, is very talkative when the camera is not on and is very much a part of the whole process as much as Penn is.
To be honest, it was a little bit of an eye-opener for me because, as I said, they do have such a strong point of view. But it’s also a blessing, becauseI know exactly where they stand, and we get along great.
It’s a hard show to make, although it doesn’t look like it. It looks like a breezy show, but we have a huge staff of researchers and writers and producers putting together what is in fact 10 individual documentaries a season, and each one has to make a strong argument and be convincing in terms of what Penn & Teller believe. So if we go after something like the death penalty, we can’t just make jokes about it and do magic tricks, we have to back it up with serious facts and interviews. That’s hard enough, but to go in knowing exactly where the hosts stand, it makes it easier, actually.
ANDELMAN: Before you got involved in this and since, I guess, would you have described yourself as skeptical about some of the issues that you have tackled, or are you more skeptical now?
PRICE: That’s a good question. Well, I think I am much more skeptical now. I think I was a pretty open-minded person when I started the show. I didn’t believe in UFOs and aliens or ghosts, but I think I was more on the fence about things like the death penalty or whether prostitution should be legalized or things like that. Working with them and making the episodes on those topics, I kind of saw these topics in the same light as they do, so I think I’ve become more skeptical.
ANDELMAN: Would it matter to them if you were not skeptical, if you were diametrically opposite of the way they felt about these things, you and Mark, for that matter?
PRICE: You know, to their credit, they have never asked me. It’s never been like a litmus test. When I first met them, they never said, “It’s important to us that you believe A,B, and C like we do or we don’t want to work with you.” My job was to present their point of view, even if it disagreed with my own, and consistently I think we have done that. I think it’s kind of become a moot issue through and through.
ANDELMAN: Do you have a favorite topic and/or episode from the four previous seasons, or, of course, I know you’ll probably want to tell me about something that’s coming up in this season, but either way….
PRICE: You know, it’s funny. We were just sitting around the other day, and we were all talking about our favorite episodes. My favorite is not necessarily one that I think turned out so well but because I had so much fun making it. It did turn out well, but it was an episode that we did in the first season called “The End of the World,” which was about all the people that think the world is about to end, people who believe in Nostradamus, his writings, people who read all the Left Behind books, which are a big publishing sensation. There is a whole subculture of people that believe in the coming apocalypse. They usually all have a book to sell, it’s a lot of that, and the episode was difficult to shoot. It came together at the very end, and we had like two days to edit it. Usually, we spend a month editing each segment. We were very disorganized our first season, and we had only two or three days to edit this one, and it was 72 hours straight, a bunch of writers and me in a room with an editor. We laughed our butts off and came up with this episode that I think holds up really well. It was a real intense but rewarding experience doing that one episode, so I always look back fondly on that. I’m also really proud of the episode we did on PETA, which got a lot of attention. And I’m proud of the episode we did on the Boy Scouts.
ANDELMAN: The Boy Scouts. Now, I didn’t see that. What did you guys do with the Boy Scouts?
PRICE: Well, we didn’t do what some people think we did. We didn’t blast the Boy Scouts as a group. We kind of criticized what they’ve become and how they’ve kind of been taken over by….
PRICE: No, not aliens. It’s largely run by the Mormon Church now.
PRICE: Yep, and it’s become, not directly, but it’s big on involvement by the Mormon Church, and it’s become very homophobic, anti-gay, and very anti-atheist.
ANDELMAN: But the Boy Scouts are encouraged to date two or three girls at a time.
PRICE: No. Our whole contention was that the Boy Scouts started as a much different group and with very noble and wonderful intentions. But it’s become kind of a group that is not as diverse as we think it should be like the rest of America, and of all things, with children. It seems like it’s not fair to stigmatize some kids for what they believe in and who they are. So we did that episode, and I was very proud of it.
ANDELMAN: How hard is it to promote a show, “Bullshit!” where — and personally, I just like being able to say it — no newspaper in the country will publish the program’s name?
PRICE: Well, that’s our biggest frustration, but it’s also what makes it rewarding.
We get no publicity. I mean, Showtime, as much as they would like to, they can’t promote it. We can’t get an ad in the newspaper, we can’t get a magazine ad or billboard ad, commercials on other CBS, Viacom platforms because of the title. For a while, they thought that they would just push the show as being called “BS!” but even that rubs people the wrong way, so what sounded like a great idea at the beginning, — “Hey, let’s call our show ‘Bullshit!’ it will get attention.
And it did the first season, but it has prevented us from being pushed as much as we would like. But the title is what the show is, it sums up in one word what we do, and I think it has kind of ensured that it has become kind of a cult show, which I am very happy to be. We do very well for the network. They don’t have to advertise us probably because they can’t, so it doesn’t cost them much money, and so they’re happy, and we do very well in the ratings for them, and it’s been good.
ANDELMAN: Could the show ever be edited for more basic cable channels the way “The Sopranos,” “Sex in the City,” and “The Wire” have?
PRICE: Yeah. It is impossible. Part of our duty for the network is to deliver them two versions of every episode, one that they air, and one for what they call free television. It’s just kind of a thing you just do on every show that you do. I don’t know where those episodes ever play. I don’t think they play anywhere, but it’s too comical, because there is literally a bleep every ten seconds or a blurred shot every minute, so it’s really unwatchable that way. But that’s fine. You know, in today’s media world, there are so many ways to watch things, and so a show like ours doesn’t have to exist on another free thing. I think, like with iTunes downloads — and we’re going to be on that soon, with all of our episodes.
ANDELMAN: Oh, good.
PRICE: Yeah. So I think our audience will grow.
ANDELMAN: Now, part of the reason I was looking forward to talking to you today was your background in so many other types of reality shows and documentary programs. Can we run through some of the titles, and maybe you can give me a little behind-the-scenes or something anecdotal?
ANDELMAN: Let’s start with “Real Stories of the Highway Patrol.” It’s a classic.
PRICE: Oh, you remember it?
ANDELMAN: Of course.
PRICE: Oh, wow. Well, you’re probably the only one! I would be surprised if too many people do, but that was a great experience. I traveled the country shooting these re-enactments with state police of different states. I went to a lot of the southern states, such as Arkansas and Tennessee. I would go down and shoot these elaborate re-enactments of true crimes, but the show was very low budget. It was just me getting off a plane, and I would have to corral “actors” from the town to play some of these people. Often, I would be in my motel and saying to the guy who worked behind the front desk “Do you wanna play a cop?” So it was a real seat-of-the-pants, Andy Hardy movie type thing on the road.
ANDELMAN: How many episodes were made?
PRICE: Oh, they made a ton.
ANDELMAN: That’s what I thought, yeah.
PRICE: Hundreds, and it went forever, but I worked on it I think for two years, and it was a great learning experience as a director, because I had to just pull it all together and shoot fast and think fast and pull something together in a day. And it was rewarding.
ANDELMAN: And what about “Celebrity Undercover” for MTV?
PRICE: That was a great show. That was a hidden camera show for MTV where we took celebrities and had them “accidentally” bump into a fan that was their biggest fan. It was all hidden camera, and this biggest fan would bump into their dream person and have this kind of adventure that we would kind of manipulate, and it was a very sweet show. These people were overwhelmed to be able to spend an afternoon with their favorite celebrity and not know that it was all on camera. It was a fun show.
ANDELMAN: Do Penn & Teller know that you worked on a program called “Confirmation: The Hard Evidence of Aliens Among Us”?
PRICE: That did come up.
ANDELMAN: Tell me about that. That must have been a good conversation.
PRICE: Actually, I think they got a kick out of that. It was a job for hire. NBC was going to make this show regardless, and I had the opportunity to get on and write and direct and show-run the whole thing, and I was open-minded. I never really think much about UFOs or aliens. I didn’t know whether I believed in them or not. So NBC said, “We want this to be the definitive two-hour look at the whole UFO-alien thing. Find out exactly what’s happening.”
ANDELMAN: Sure. Oh, sure. It’s easy. The information is right out there.
PRICE: Yeah! So as we got into it, I started to see in that project as I was making it what bullshit there was in all the “classic” stories of abductions and UFO sightings, things that you or your listeners have probably seen or heard about for years, whether it’s Roswell or anything else. We looked into this stuff for months, and they’re all garbage. However, as I started to say that to the network, they didn’t want to hear that. It was like, “Can’t you just kind of make it look like it happened?” And then they put that awful title on it, so it really ended up becoming kind of a two-hour bugga-bugga production of all alien and UFO stories, when I had discovered while making it that they were all pretty much garbage. So going into “Bullshit!” after that was kind of my redemption to make up for my experience on that.
ANDELMAN: So “Bullshit!” was actually the shower you took after working on “Confirmation”? And what about “Scariest Places on Earth”? And was my high school among them?
PRICE: That was a fun show. It’s still running. I think they are doing more of them. It’s on the ABC Family, I think. We would take people and put them through a place that had a legendary ghost legend behind it, some castle in Scotland, whatever, and we would make them go through it all night and kind of have fun with them with some special effects and stuff, scare the bejesus out them. That’s what the show really was, just scare people to death, but it was fun to do that.
ANDELMAN: Now, you worked, I think, on the second season of “Amazing Race”?
ANDELMAN: That’s an interesting show to me. It’s been on for years, it’s won awards, it’s considered very highly in the genre, but I swear, and I watch these shows, I swear I have never had a single person say a word to me about having watched it or looking forward to watching it or discussing the winners. Tell me something about that show. Why is it so highly regarded but maybe not watched in the same way as “Survivor”?
PRICE: Well, it actually does really well for CBS. It doesn’t do “Survivor” numbers, but it consistently does very well, and it is very popular amongst some people.
ANDELMAN: Was it a fun show to make?
PRICE: It was a hard show to make, but I think that the reason it is popular is because a lot of these reality shows, supposed reality shows, you get the sense that the people that are on it are kind of wannabe actors or they’re playing a type of person that they want to be. It all feels kind of phony, but with “Amazing Race,” the people that get chosen to be in it think, “I’m going to be the such and such person. I’m going to be the funny one,” or “I’m going to be the clever one,” and they go in thinking that they are going to be somebody that maybe they’re not. What happens within 10 minutes of the start of that race, that’s gone, because it’s so frantic that their true selves are exposed.
I think that what’s so brilliant about that show is that they put these people through such a wringer — and I saw it first-hand — that their core personalities are revealed, oftentimes not so flattering. And I think the viewer can see that. They can see that boy, there’s a lot of reality shows that are a lot of “BS,” but this one, this one’s real.
ANDELMAN: My wife and I have been hooked on “Big Brother” every summer since it began, and the thing about that has been that to us, anyway, the first couple of weeks are always, “Oh, they’re still being a character,” but after they’ve been in that house for week after week after week and the cameras are on them 24/7, you start seeing who they really are, and sometimes it’s time to change the channel, because a character might have been better.
ANDELMAN: What is the mark of a really good reality series?
PRICE: Wow. Well, there are different types of reality series. I think that what makes “Amazing Race” competitive is that we have come up with a concept that cuts through all the “BS” and reveals real people under strenuous situations. You get to see what they do under pressure and so forth. I think people are very compelled by that. They like to relate with that. They like to think, :What would I do if I had to eat rats? What would I do if I had to cross that rickety bridge on ‘Amazing Race’ or bungee jump or whatever.” Shows that do are very compelling and always make great television.
But reality… I hate that term, first of all. “Reality” is such a dumb term for the genre and what it has become. It encompasses so many different types of programming. I mean, “Bullshit!” gets nominated every year for Best Reality Show for an Emmy. We are not a reality show, we’re a comedy documentary series, but there is no other show like ours, so they kind of lump us into reality, so for better or for worse, we are a reality show. But there are different types. Our show is a totally different type of show than “Amazing Race,” but I think if they have anything in common, this genre called reality, is that it’s something that maybe strikes at the core of the viewer as to what it’s like to — and this may sound kind of cheesy — but to be alive. If you’re in “Amazing Race,” that’s a very intense situation for these people, and you like to watch it and relate and think, “What would I do?” If you’re watching “Bullshit!” we tackle a topic that you might relate to, such as the death penalty, Boy Scouts, prostitution, and it targets what it’s like to live in our day and age. A lot of the sitcoms or one-hour episodic pop shows have started to feel a little bit stale, that they’ve been around so long, and they do the same tricks.
ANDELMAN: Well, we’ve pretty much seen every possible medical, lawyer, science fiction sit-com that you could really imagine.
ANDELMAN: So what’s ahead for you? Obviously, I’m assuming that it doesn’t take you twelve months of the year to do ten episodes of “Bullshit!”
PRICE: No. It takes about six months.
ANDELMAN: And what do you do the rest of the year? What will you be doing coming up?
ANDELMAN: Sleep. All right.
PRICE: Recover. No, I’m doing a few things. I’m about to do a pilot with Penn Jillette actually, for a late-night talk show.
ANDELMAN: Oh, I heard about that. You’re involved in that.
PRICE: Yeah, for Showtime. It’s a really funny idea, which I cannot tell you anything about, I’m sworn to secrecy, but it’s a very smart show. I’m excited about that.
ANDELMAN: Does it involve horny manatees? No, sorry.
PRICE: Probably. And I’m pitching a lot of other stuff and developing a lot of other stuff and staying busy.
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Copyright 2007 by Bob Andelman