Even Though the Scenes Were Eventually Cut, Penn Jillette Tried to Get Atheist Donors on All-Star Celebrity Apprentice

After the All-Star Celebrity Apprentice finale aired last week, the conversation on this site was about how eventual winner Trace Adkins called runner-up Penn Jillette the “most ethical atheist I’ve ever met” and how that wasn’t really a compliment.

In fact, that wasn’t the only mention of atheism on the show. The week before the finale, Penn actually said that American Atheists was contributing money to his team (at 58:43 in the episode below):

It turns out Penn tried really hard to get positive atheism on the air — multiple times — only to have his efforts squashed by the editing crew. It’s not that he’s mad or upset about that — most of what happens on any “reality” show gets cut, and speaking about atheism positively might stir up a different type of controversy than the kind the producers want to see — and Penn hasn’t spoken out about his behind-the-scenes efforts.

Philanthropist Todd Stiefel was one of the atheists involved in the taping. Now that the show is over, he wanted to share what he experienced:

The reality is that Penn did a lot behind-the-scenes to try to show atheists in a positive light on the show. Not only was he very open about his own atheism, he tried to get atheist altruism on the air. Sure, getting atheists to donate helped his team raise more money to win, but bringing up atheism very publicly on the show was also a major risk of conflict that could have cost him with a cast composed of several evangelicals.

When they were filming the first episode of this season back in the fall, Penn contacted me. This was a bit of a surprise given that I didn’t know him well. We had only spoken before when I had been a guest on his podcast to talk about the Foundation Beyond Belief campaign to raise money for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Penn asked if I was willing to take a chance at getting atheist altruism on TV. He was very honest that he could get “atheist giving” filmed, but that it could easily be cut out by editors given the vast amounts of footage they take. I decided to take the gamble and flew up to New York City to help him out, fully recognizing it may amount to nothing for breaking down false stereotypes — but, on the positive side, at least all donations would help good charities.

Trace Adkins, the team captain that week, was the first person he introduced me to. Sure enough, Penn promptly gathered the cameras and explained that I was an atheist who had come to donate $10,000 to their charity drive. So I can confirm that Penn is not the only atheist Trace has met. While we spoke only briefly, Trace was very appreciative and friendly. He treated me well regardless of our differences in belief. For example, comedian Gilbert Gottfried was also there to donate. He requested a picture with the cast and I stepped out of the way assuming Gilbert would not want some random guy in the picture. Trace, a hulk of a man, gently grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled me into the picture. It was a gesture of kindness and inclusiveness.

(left to right) Todd Stiefel, Trace Adkins, Dee Snider, Marilu Henner, Gilbert Gottfried, Stephen Baldwin, Penn Jillette, Lisa Rinna, Gary Busey

I say this because I think Trace Adkins may not have chosen the words carefully when he called Penn “the most ethical atheist I’ve ever met.” But I don’t think he is prejudiced against us. I think he has had positive experiences with very “out” atheists. If anything, I would guess that he would be a Christian ally for equality for freethinkers.

A few weeks later, Penn and his manager reached out again. He had made it through a few rounds and asked if I would come up again for their new challenge: selling styrofoam art created by the apprentices. This time, I decided not to go, but instead gave a special donation of $10k from my foundation to American Atheists. Dave Silverman went and was filmed giving a check to their charity on behalf of AA. In exchange, Penn gave them art he had created inspired by the AA atom logo.

At this point, none of the shows had aired and we had signed confidentiality documents to not reveal what had happened. So I had no idea if my gambles were going to pay off. Later, I received a third call, this time to learn that Penn had made the finals. Penn and his amazing, hard-working manager, Glenn Alai, wanted me to come to NYC to support their final push and get another chance to continue the theme of atheist giving. I flew up with my wife to take one last attempt. Penn got the cameras to film us making a $30,000 donation to Opportunity Village (his charity of choice) and was sure to once again point out that I was an atheist to the cast and cameras. I then got to stay for a very entertaining party.

Unfortunately, not a single one of these clips made it on the air despite Penn’s best efforts. But we he did succeed in three key areas.

First, the charities benefitted a great deal. Second, Penn talking about American Atheists supporting him in the finale did make it on air (albeit for just a moment). Apparently, there was a great deal of debate behind-the-scenes if that should be included in the edit, but it eventually made it. Finally, and most importantly, Penn did a great job representing atheists in a positive, public way, week after week, on national TV. He was open about his beliefs and those of the people supporting him. He changed minds and broke down negative stereotypes of freethinkers. For that, Penn has my thanks for his amazing activism.

American Atheists’ President Dave Silverman confirmed his role in this story for me and added that he had a great experience on the set. He was treated very well, all the celebrities were wonderful, and Gary Busey even taped a “Happy Birthday, American Atheists” message on the spot:

Even though the producers may not have wanted atheism to become part of the show’s storyline, Penn’s openness about his beliefs practically forced them to at least mention it on occasion and that’s a huge bit of positive publicity.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • DougI

    Not the first time an Atheist has gotten screwed over on a “reality” (in reality the shows are all scripted) show. Reginald Finley was on one and they really worked him over in the editing room and the directors wanted the fundies to attack him relentlessly.

    Penn has a podcast and talks about the show. Since he’s under contract not to provide spoilers, now that the season is over maybe he’ll talk some more about the issue.

  • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

    More often than not, people get screwed by appearing on these shows. You sign away all right in order to appear in a so-called “reality” show. They can take the footage and do anything they want. If I follow just about anyone around for a few days and edit that footage down to a few minutes, I can make you look like a saint or like a monster at my whim. Moreover, I can cross edit to make it look like you reacted positively or negatively to a something you never saw or heard. That’s what goes on with these shows. Agreeing to that is insane, and yet we live in a culture where people crave celebrity status on any terms so they are willing to take that risk. None of this is surprising. In fact he’s lucky they didn’t use some editing to make him look worse.

  • TheG

    Not that anyone taping Gary Busey is concerned with great cinematography (did anyone sit down and watch Point Break and expect a great work of art?), can people please realize that there phone works just as well horizontally as vertically when using the camera function?

  • Todd Stiefel

    For the record, I am not upset about the footage not making the cut, and I do not think it was a conspiracy. They take an amazing amount of footage. They have several cameras running simultaneously for hours at a time. I would guess that less than 2% of their shots make the cut. It makes sense that they would rather put famous non-apprentice donors on the show rather than unknown atheist donors.

    • Bad_homonym

      That’s good to note Todd. Thanks though, for your endless support of meaningful causes. As a side note, do you do any speaking engagements? (I’m hoping western Canada if you do!) Thanks again and keep up the good work!

      • Todd Stiefel

        I am available to speak at national conventions. I have young kids so prefer to be with them rather than travel for local/regional events. I will be speaking in Tacoma, WA in October of the CFI convention.

    • Artor

      Thanks for your work Todd. I’m sorry your clips didn’t make the cut, but it still sounds like good work to me. BTW, there’s a guy named James Kujawa trying to contact you in the thread above. He sounds really credible. (not)

    • ashleyfmiller

      I was a reality tv editor and you’re actually being quite generous on the footage. Film often operates on a ratio of 25:1, but reality tv is more like 1000:1.

      • http://www.facebook.com/todd.stiefel Todd Stiefel

        That’s great data! Thanks for posting it. Wow, 1000:1.

  • Willy Occam

    Not sure that atheists (or any other group, for that matter) have anything to gain by being associated with reality TV trash, least of all anything involving that ass-clown Donald Trump.

    • geru

      Penn did have a quite good point on why he decided to go on the show. It might be trash, but it’s also by far the most public thing he’s ever done in his life, and all press is good press, as they say. Or as a man once said ^^

      • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

        Penn is an exception. he was already famous going into the show and can tell his own side of any story. This is not always true of people on reality shows. It probably brought him to a different audience which is why he did it. We’re all talking about him now. that’s kind of the point.

      • DougI

        Penn initially did the show for publicity, not for charity or Atheism. I don’t know if he gets paid to be on the show but you’d have to pay me a whole lot to have to associate with that douchebag Trump.

        • Yoav

          You couldn’t pay me enough. If you ever see me involved with that bag of marsh gas with a dead raccoon on its head then its one of 3 options.
          1. I’m being held at gun point.
          2. I’m being controlled by an alien pod attached to my spine.
          3. I’ve completely lost it and it’s time to take me to the vet and put me down.

  • geru

    Penn has said in his podcast that he feels the show has always been edited quite fairly, but then again it is entertainment so of course there will be some editing done to make up drama.

    Btw, I always get a bit upset when people rag on Penn for being a Libertarian kook, and for the inaccuracies in Bullshit. You should really try listening to his podcast, Penn’s Sunday School, to get a better impression of his views. At the risk of sounding like a fan boy, he has some pretty smart things to say on just about everything :)

    • Pawel Samson

      Does he also also call women he’s never met “cunts” on the podcast as well?

      I don’t like him for the same reason I don’t like PZ Myers… He’s a grown man who dehumanizes and insults people he disagrees with.

  • http://www.facebook.com/james.kujawa1 James Kujawa

    Mr. Mehta / ( Mr. Stiefel) , I hope your health is good. I am an RN in South Carolina. I have been saving lives for 23+ years. I have very radical, outrageous ideas about how to promote and further the cause of atheism. I am not delusional, I can make millions and are talking to you because you are established persons who have money. I have been notified by Mr. Silverman, among others, who just want to hear what I’ve got. I don’t know who I would be talking to or weather my ideas would be stolen (I wrote a comment on you tube once and it ended up in the American Atheist magazine as an article). P.S.I have been an atheist for 54 years. Have a great day.

    • unclemike

      I’m totally turning this comment into an article.

    • Artor

      Mr. Kujawa, have you considered that maybe trying to contact someone by posting a plea for money in the comment thread of a blog post isn’t quite the most professional way to do business? I suggest you polish your pitch a little and, I don’t know, maybe try to contact the people you want to talk to directly?

  • SkepticalBright

    ‘Trace Adkins called runner-up Penn Jillette the “most ethical atheist I’ve ever met”’ Obviously Adkins is wallowing through life ignorant of what’s going on around him. I haven’t met many atheists who were not ethical and I know of few prominent atheists that are “unethical”.

    • http://twitter.com/MjrMissConduct MjrMissConduct

      Wish one could say the same for the prominent christians.