What Amazes The Amazing Randi?

James Randi is the founder of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). Randi began his career as a magician, but when he retired at age 60, he switched to investigating paranormal, occult, and supernatural claims, which he collectively calls "woo-woo." Although often referred to as a "debunker," Randi rejects that title owing to its perceived bias, instead describing himself as an "investigator". He has written about the paranormal, skepticism, and the history of magic. He was a frequent guest on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and is occasionally featured on the television program Penn & Teller: Bullshit!.
  • Transcript


Question: Have you ever personally been tricked or duped?

James Randi: Well, there’s this one girl, and I don’t want to get into the details.  No, you know, the interesting thing is, that since I started this about the age of 12 to 14, I’ve got to know more and more about how people are fooled and how they fool themselves—the two things that magicians must know—I don’t think I’ve ever been fooled by an illusion... although sometimes when I first see it on stage, I’ll say, “Whoa, how about that.”  Oh yeah... and I’ll think about it and I’ll say, okay, yes, right.  There you go.  I will come up with the solution eventually.  As a matter of fact, when sitting at a Copperfield show, for example, and he always puts me in the fourth row or so, and I always move a little bit further back if I don’t want to be looking straight up his nose, you see.  And what happens is, I’ll sit with a magician friend and we’ll nudge one another at a certain point and say, "Oh wow, how about that!"  And people around me will say, how about what?  They didn’t see anything happen, see.  But we saw the moment of truth you know, when he might have done something like this, or it looks innocuous, but that’s when the thing happened.  You see?  And we recognize that.  That moment of truth is something we spot and the people around don’t.  And then when the girl jumps out of the box, they’re all surprised and we knew it all along.

What makes you feel wonder or awe?

James Randi: Well, magic performances in many cases, and particularly some of the young folks that are sort of coming along these days are... particularly in Asia.  Oh my goodness.  Asia has pretty well taken over the magic business as far as numbers of people.  Very, very competent people who are in the business, male and female.  They really do a wonderful job. 

But I am an old fashioned fuddy-duddy, you see. I stand outside my home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and I could watch a sunset, and my eyes will fill up with tears.  They can because that’s nature.  And I see... oh, I see a raccoon cross the lawn and stop and look at me and I say hello.  And he doesn’t know what I am saying, but he goes on his way and he does his thing.  That’s wonderful.  These are little things that I still take great joy... and I like seeing the world and how it works.  That’s why... one reason why these people who try to sell us a false bill of goods about how the world really works, and how really wonderful it is.  Oh my, I can’t stand that.  I just find myself repelled by that idea and I want to drag kids out into the sunset and say, take a look at that, or a sunrise even better.  At my age, you appreciate sunrises more than sunsets.  You see? 

But I’ve had... I have a very good quality of telescope, for example, at my home in Plantation, Florida.  And I’ll get out the tripod to show some guest, oh if Jupiter is up there, or whatever, or the Moon, or Andromeda if it happens to be in a good aspect.  I’ll show them that.  And kids come back on bicycles and stop and say, “Whatcha doin?” And they look in there and they... "What’s that."  "That’s the planet Jupiter.  And you know how far away it is?"  And they’ll say, "Oh yeah, really?"  And then I’ll show them Andromeda and I’ll say, "Now that’s not the way it looks now.  No?  No, that’s the way it looked quite a few million years ago.  The light is just reaching us now."  And when you see them go, "Oh," you know you’ve made a hit.  That’s important.  And if that kid comes by with a girlfriend the next day on another bike, "Can we see your telescope?"  I’ve won a battle right there.  That’s important.  You’ve got to get the kids, you’ve got to get to them and say, “Take a look at this.  This may surprise you.”  And if you can do that and be successful at it, oh that makes my day, if not a week.

Recorded April 16, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen