As It Happens·Q&A

'Magicians do not lie about the universe,' says performer Penn Jillette of The Amazing Randi

James Randi, a successful magician, skeptic and master debunker of self-proclaimed spoon benders and mind readers has died at the age of 92. A man with a “playful quality attached to the strongest morality” is how Penn Jillette, part of the magic and performance duo Penn and Teller, describes his mentor and longtime friend.  

James Randi, who debunked magicians he considered charlatans, died Tuesday at the age of 92

James (The Amazing) Randi poses for the Tribeca Film Festival Getty Images Studio on April 21, 2014 in New York City. (Larry Busacca/Getty Images for the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival)

James Randi was not only a magician, but a renowned skeptic who considered it a moral issue to debunk charlatans, according to his longtime friend, Penn Jillette.

Jillette, part of the magic and performance duo Penn and Teller, described his mentor and friend as a man with a "playful quality attached to the strongest morality."

Randi, who was known as The Amazing Randi, died at the age of 92 on Tuesday.

Randi was born in Toronto and dropped out of school to join a carnival. As a magician, he performed impressive feats — like freeing himself from a strait jacket suspended over Niagara Falls. But throughout his life, he insisted that his tricks were just that — tricks. He started a one-man crusade to debunk those who would lie to their audience about the nature of their illusions.

Jillette told As It Happens host Carol Off that Randi viewed the attempt to confuse the audience as to the nature of reality as morally wrong. Here is part of their conversation.

I'm sorry for the loss of your friend. You have called Amazing Randi an inspiration. How did he inspire you?

Well, you know, I was kind of a lone atheist in a New England town in western Massachusetts. And I read [Randi's] book [Flim-Flam!: Psychics, ESP, Unicorns and other Delusions] and I'd never seen science as kind of a tough-guy thing. I kind of liked it. But I also wanted to be a little contentious.

I was mostly juggling at the time. I hadn't met Teller yet. And here was this guy, this grown-up, who was living his life obsessed with truth and outspoken and loud and with variety arts.

Penn Jillette says Randi’s desire to debunk magicians who claimed they truly wielded supernatural powers was a moral issue. (Michelle Siu/The Canadian Press)

The idea that there could be a guy that was at least close to a juggler or a ventriloquist or magician who had that same kind of search for truth, [rebellious], "I don't give a damn" quality was so powerful.

He was a person who questioned everything. He was a magician, at the same time he questioned ... anything to do with the supernatural. How did he see the difference between magic and deception?

Well, it's very, very simple: Magicians do not lie about the universe. They say they're going to fool you, and they do. There is a contract. And although some of the same tools are employed, they're not employed to someone against their will. 

I mean, some magicians still believe that the purpose of the magician is to deliberately mislead the audience about the world around them. And Randi taught me, and it's so deep in my heart, that it's the opposite.

You can never leave a Penn and Teller show believing something that I know not to be true. Now, I could be wrong about what I know to be true, that's always allowed. But we're talking about the honest exchange of information.

Randi peers out from the sealed coffin before attempting to break his own endurance record of staying 2 hours under water, at the West Ham Municipal Baths in London, on Oct. 14, 1958. (Ron Burton/Getty Images)

So the easy one is if we saw a human being in half, you clearly don't leave the theatre thinking that you witnessed a homicide. But that becomes a little more difficult when you're dealing with things like mind reading, or you have to be much better to have the people leave the audience thinking, "Oh, that was a trick."

The trick is really, if you'll forgive me, the magic word. Because saying you're doing tricks is beautiful and wonderful. And saying that this is a phenomena that we don't know about and we'd better study it more, is repulsive.

He debunked all sorts of things, the most famous being Uri Geller, who claimed to be able to bend spoons with his mind. How did he do that on TV?

One of the strongest skeptics we had was Johnny Carson. And Johnny and Randi were very good friends. And when Uri Geller was to appear on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Johnny called Randi and Randi told him what he needed to do to make it so that Uri Geller would get a fair shake — and the last thing Uri Geller wanted was a fair shake.

So they used Johnny Carson's props and the clearance on the studio (and that day was the hardest security they'd ever had) and Uri Geller did just a terrible, terrible, embarrassing performance, because without being given the leniency he needed to snow people to get his tricks done, he was able to do nothing. 

Was there one magic trick or illusion of Randi's that still impresses you?

The first time I met him, we were backstage and he was doing a lecture at a college. And he had done this thing where the dean had written something that Randi couldn't possibly know, and folded it up and put it in an envelope. And [the dean] was to carry it in his suit coat pocket until the show that night and not allow Randi to touch it. And Randi had to, of course, accomplish the trick, [which was to switch it with a different envelope so Randi could get the other one and get the information].

So we had to take the envelope from him and tell him to write his name on it. And I was backstage with Randi and he was talking to the dean, [who] had the envelope in his pocket, and Randi had the duplicate envelope in his hand...

Randi is shown in a demonstration on Nov. 3, 1987 on The Tonight Show with host Johnny Carson. (Wendy Perl/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal/Getty Images)

And out of the blue he just said to me, "Did you know that Harry Houdini had dyslexia?" And I said, "No, I didn't know that at all." And he said, "Yes, he used to switch letters." And on the word "switch," he did the switch. He did the sneaky move that he couldn't get caught doing. He did it on the word for the move he was doing.

Now you can talk about Randi's morality and Randi's philosophy, but also to someone who was 18 years old, that was just who I wanted to be, a guy who was that gutsy and strong and full of life. He would say the word "switch" on a switch, just to show off for a young guy.


Written by Alexandria Kazia. Produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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