Penn Jillette calls Trump on his sexism as James Lipton celebrates and classes up the Celebrity Apprentice

Although it featured Dee Snyder in drag and Teresa Giudice flipping a table, last night’s episode of The Celebrity Apprentice belonged to two people: James Lipton and Penn Jillette. Both managed to participate and celebrate the show while transcending it–and Donald Trump–at the same time. And as a bonus, we had Clay Aiken throwing down (“I’m saying Victoria’s prettier than Aubrey”) and Donald Trump slipping up and saying, “The Incredible Hunk,” a “Freudian slip” that, impressively, Don. Jr. called him on.

If it was possible to love Penn Jillette even more, he earned more love by calling Trump a sexist ass and playing by the rules without ever seeming petty. His team also easily won the task, a simple (product placement) challenge that was a perfect example of what this show does well. Each team had to put on a 15-minute show at Medieval Times–or Mid-Evil Times, if you’re Victoria Gotti, who can’t spell or copy something down that’s written in front of her.

Penn had the men just humorously use their celebrity in a series of bits, and the audience liked that the best. The women took a more narrative approach with a play on The Real Housewives, complete with a table flip by Teresa Giudice, who was impressed with how amazing an actor she is (she isn’t). Surprisingly, project manager Lisa Lampanelli managed to avoid taking the fall because she had an awful team member in Victoria Gotti, who sealed her own fate by threatening to quit the team mid-task, because she’d been relegated to the booth to run the lights–which Lisa justified in what I thought was some pretty good retroactive justification for getting rid of an annoying teammate.

Once they got to the boardroom, James Lipton did two amazing things: First, he sat and made the most awesome faces ever, faces that suggested he had never imagined human beings could behave this way. But second, he actually complimented and praised the contestants and their effort on the task: “There was nothing casual about it. What impressed me most was the consciousnesses, sincertiy, and the fervor of all of you–I didn’t expect that, it was a total surprise, and I must say it made me respect this show and made me respect all of you. Hats off to all of you.”

Later, as Trump was deciding who to fire, James Lipton offered his advice by spelling out the word “passion,” slowly, letter by letter, to explain why he thought Lisa Lampanelli should stay. Hilariously, after he finished spelling it out, Trump turned to him and, under his breath, said, “So what did you just say?”–an excellent example of how the show openly mocks Trump. He needs to be a permanent addition to the show.

One of the ways The Apprentice has gotten more mileage/time out of the boardroom segment in its recent seasons is by having Trump ask questions to both teams before the results are revealed. This gets everyone riled up, including the winning team, and is a pretty obvious–and effective–way of encouraging drama.

Trump asked Penn Jillette, the project manager, who he’d bring back into the boardroom if they lost. Penn, being a team player and avoiding Trump’s predictable attack if he’d avoided the question, identified Lou Ferrigno and George Takei, saying they were less versatile team members. George handled that with grace and class; Lou freaked the freak out.

But the most amazing part was how Penn handled Lou’s freak-out. “I feel it’s an insult,” Lou whined, and Penn replied, “It is, and I’m sorry about that.” It felt to me like Penn was saying that it was both an insult to identify Lou and for Trump to even put him on the spot like that. He called it “an impossible choice to make” but later said, “I was playing by the rules.”

Meanwhile, Aubrey O’Day, of Making the Band and Danity Kane fame, continued to be the cast member who surprises us the most with her out-of-left-field behavior and stupidity, such as when she called The Real Housewives of New Jersey “the biggest show on TV” with “almost five million viewers.”

As she was answering a question in the boardroom, Trump interrupted her to highlight her physical appearance–basically indicating that he didn’t care what she was saying (can’t really blame him there) but only saw her as an object to admire sexually. “You look very good, Aubrey, I have to say,” Trump said. “Do you mind if I say? Is that sexist? Penn, is that sexist?”

Without missing a beat, Penn said, “I think by definition, yes. But not necessarily wrong.” And that is how you simultaneously play the game and rise above it.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.