Penn & Teller: Bullshit! – Martial Arts

martial arts
Angela George [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

At the end of Penn & Teller’s 2010 episode of Bullshit! exploring the world of martial arts, Marc MacYoung, a personal security instructor, says that a lot of martial arts training today is “fear management not danger management.” While the show merely brought him on to legitimize their bashing of martial arts, his sentiments do serve as a rational counterpart to everything Penn and Teller say.

While the episode aims to show martial arts via three specific examples, the show also manages to choose three people who are framed in a way that embodies everything wrong with the public perception of martial artists.

Of course the show was never about giving martial arts a fair shake. The opening sequence tells us to save our time and wait to be robbed rather than exert ourselves training. But viewing the show as a lens through which the non-practicing public might see ‘martial arts’ is an interesting exercise.

Master Mike Karate Dojo

martial arts

A large chunk of the show goes inside the karate dojo of “Master Mike” (Mike Reeves), a world record holder in board breaking. Here white suburban children practice drills and we see another student stand motionless while Master Mike strikes his body. From the way it’s framed even a legit Karate practitioner would doubt the validity of such a teaching method.

But it’s when we hear from some of students that suspicions are raised. They say they teach classes when Master Mike is absent or clean and paint the dojo for him when needed, all without any compensation. Coupled with comments like, “I do five hundred knuckle push-ups before breakfast” there’s not much to endear Master Mike to the audience.

We’re also treated to an outdoor exhibition of the student’s skills where, before family and friends, they break boards with their hands. An impressive sight. But all is not what it seems.

Over to Marc MacYoung’s wife, herself a black belt in an unspecified martial art, who demonstrates that breaking boards is little more than a parlour trick, a simple matter of physics and selection of materials.

It’s clear that we are to be wary of these McDojo’s and perhaps rightly so.

Is QiGong “Mystical Magical” or Just Great Exercise?

mindfulness taiji wushu martial arts

Another part of the show looks at the QiGong practices of Dena Saxer. This is the “mystical magical” kind of martial art that looks like “French mime.” Perhaps in 2017 with so many mindfulness and meditation apps appearing the world is ready for Dena but in 2010 that is not the case.

The show films Dena in an extravagant mansion that is not hers, which Penn mentions repeatedly so we are under no illusions these practices might benefit your life in any material sense. Dena wants us to communicate with our ‘chi’ but the volunteer brought in doesn’t know how that will benefit her ‘struggles with life in L.A.’

The show also makes reference to Dena’s health claims, such as alleviation of her osteoarthritis. And the show asks why she isn’t presenting her information to the American Medical Board. Back to Mr. MacYoung who says there’s nothing mystical about it but simply the exercising and breathing are the cause. Despite the benefits this martial art is bullshit.

Martial Arts are Good for Discipline and Health

martial arts

And finally there’s the security expert, Damian Ross. While the Karate seemed like a scam and QiGong was ineffective nonsense the show wants us to know that this is so outrageously effective it is too good.

See target, destroy target,” The maxim of Mr. Ross as he teaches eye gouging, testicle twisting, among other techniques to police officers, prison guards and, quite notably, a pregnant woman. There is no chi here. That the public would see martial arts as dangerous is not a big leap but this system is undoubtedly lethal. Mr. Ross even states towards the end of his segment that if someone were to kill another person using his system he’d feel “pretty good about it.

Penn closes by saying that martial arts are good for discipline and good health. But this comes after a half hour where those who may have been interested are now utterly dissuaded. Martial arts are too esoteric or a scam or dangerous. These do seem to be common perceptions about martial arts and with the examples it’s not hard to see why. After the episode the audience would probably focus on Penn’s earlier advice to simply buy a gun. Because that would be a greater danger management, right?

What do you think?

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