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!.
Question: Why do audiences fall for—and want to fall for—magic
James Randi: Well, I don’t know that we fall for them. We accept
them. But let’s not put it quite that way. People like fantasy, they
like to believe that there is a supernatural world out there, and devils
and angels, and all kinds of things like that. They like to believe in
that kind of mythology. And if they can be part of it, if they can be
part of the action, or witness something to that effect, they like to do
it. A legitimate magician, as myself, a conjurer that is, will always
tell his audience is that what you’re seeing is simple tricks. They are
illusions. They don’t really happen. Or at least you try to get that
idea across to them. After all, I think very few people thing that
David Copperfield actually uses a buzz saw to cut a girl in two pieces
because that would be a waste of beautiful girls for one thing, and the
costumes would be all torn up and everything. That would be a terrible
waste. So, it’s actually a trick. It’s an illusion. These are very
good illusions in most cases, or they don’t work at all. So, you’ve
either got to be good at the thing, or you’re not in the business any
But people do enjoy seeing this kind of fantasy happen. Now, mind you,
in the days of computerized movies now where you can perform miracles on
the screen, on the silver screen, as they say—and in 3D, remember
that—the magician is sort of challenged to do something just a bit
bigger than what he or she did the last time. And it’s getting more and
more challenging for the conjuring profession. But you’ve got Penn and
Teller, you’ve got Lance Burton, you’ve got Matt King, you’ve got
people in Las Vegas like that who carry on every day.
Now, Matt King has been doing the same act for like 16 or 18 years now.
And why? Because he’s pretty damn good at it; highly entertaining. He
doesn’t have to be a mystical character. He’s a magician and he’s funny
and he’s entertaining, he’s quick. He’s got great wit and such, as
does Penn and Teller and Lance Burton, of course. But they’re pros.
They’re dyed in the wool pros, and they are great examples of the
On the other hand, we have the so-called psychics out there who say they
can bend spoons with their minds. Duh. You know, do ESP and various
things like that. And these are people who are lying to the public.
They’re not playing fair with them at all and they are leading them
astray and are taking away, in my estimation, their emotional security,
as well as their money.
Recorded April 16, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen