Phenomenon: It’s just magic tricks (and not very good ones)

As promised, I watched Phenomenon, and I’ve got to say, I’m unimpressed. The premise of the show is there are 10 people with paranormal abilities vying for a 250,000 prize (they could make more if they tried Randi’s challenge – I wonder why don’t they?). The one that impresses the judges – fraud and huxster Uri Geller, and magician Criss Angel – as well as the studio audience who calls in and votes.

Not only are they obviously using simple tricks to pass themselves off as psychics, but they’re not even that good at it. Geller, of course, is such a pathetic creep, and acts as if each act is showing some psychic ability, all while maintaining this stupid expression on his face like he knows something we don’t. In his introduction, in what I’m sure is a preemptive strike against skeptics, they even show little bits of the failed Carson interview and say he “bounced back”, as if he’s some kind of underdog rather than a fraud. What almost redeems the show is that after each act Criss Angel says something along the lines of, “that’s an old trick, try harder”, or “I can do that – I used a real gun”. If only the producers made that the premise, that rather than convincing a cheesy fake psychic like Geller, they had to convince real magicians like Angel or Penn & Teller.

It starts off with Ehud Segev, doing a mentalist act in which he supposedly makes one person feel something when he touches another using the celebrity guests. What’s hysterical is how he keeps talking about the deep connection between his celebrity plants Carmen Electra and Ross (Leno’s eccentric street interviewer). He should have chosen a better pair to suggest a deep connection as Ross minced about the stage screeching like a 12-year-old girl making me think he had very little use for a woman like Carmen. I suspected it was all done by having the celebrities trained ahead of time, but Angel gives it away at the end when he mentions that it’s a technique known known as “PK touch” or psychokinetic touch.

Geller thinks it’s “brilliant thought transferrance” that made him believe he could “manipulate mind-energy” at will and shows real ability. Angel, and this is just awesome, says it’s pretty poor job doing “PK touch” and the guy who invented the gimmick Banachek did it better. Here’s Banachek’s bio (his real name is Steve Shaw), he’s awesome:

Steven Shaw (b. 1960) is an American mentalist who uses the stage name Banachek. Banachek has written numerous mentalism books and invented various magic and mentalism effects, including the Penn & Teller bullet catch and the original “buried alive.”

According to his Psi:Series of dvd’s Banachekk was born in England and raised in South Africa and Australia. He raised him and his brothers and soon found a love for things “psychic” after reading James Randi’s book on Uri Geller. banachek soon taught himself some basic magic techniques and became famous for fooling scientists during the Project Alpha scam on the scientists inwhich Banchek and others were tested for being psychic. As they passed the tests, they were to receive a million dollar grant for psychic research, this is when Banachek said that it was all a scam and that James Randi had sent them.

Ha! I’m starting to like Angel despite his haircut. I don’t know exactly how PK touch works, but it is a gimmick that uses suggestion and psychology, not real psychic powers (Banachek is a confirmed skeptic and debunker). I’ll have to watch it a few more times to see if I can figure out the trick.

The second act is Jim Karol, who, after the usual cheesy intro talking about their birth into psychic experiences, does a gimmick with an animal trap that snaps onto his hand. He claims he doesn’t feel pain. It’s again, pretty easy to figure out. He starts with a small fox trap, and uses it to break a pencil. Then, using a larger wolf trap which he pulls out and shows it’s real the second time only by activating the switch and asking Ross to confirm it’s real when it snaps closed (it obviously doesn’t snap as fast). He then sticks his fingers in it. The idea of course is that since it’s larger trap, it must be more powerful right? I’d love to see how the pencil does on the second trap. It was a funny act, a lot more Amazing Jonathan-esque, but really just a simple and obvious switch. The second trap is not forcefully snapping – you can even see it only catches one finger, and doesn’t deform his hand enough to squeeze any of the other fingers.

Uri found it “very convincing” again, but Criss Angel says, of course it wasn’t and explicitly says he only showed the first trap was dangerous and the second was not dangerous. I love it! Uri Geller is a sub-par magician who thinks he’s great, and consistent with being a silly crank, can’t recognize the presence or absence of real ability since he’s incompetent himself.

We break while Uri Geller shows us 5 symbols and promises to project one into our minds. I’m pretty sure the basis of the trick is that people are more likely to chose one of the five symbols more frequently, or they are subtly introducing the figure at some other time, and that’s the one he “projects” at us. As I write this the show ain’t over yet, but I’m guessing it will be the squiggles, they’ll reveal it at the end.

The 3rd act from Eran Raven is a pretty good roulette trick with nail guns in which the magician has a girl load one of six guns while he’s blindfolded. He then has to go back and figure out which was the loaded weapon. This is a pretty simple trick. He’s blindfolded, so why do they obstruct the view of the guns when the girl loads it? Because either one was loaded the whole time (he only tests one to show it isn’t loaded) or Carmen signals or is told ahead of time which to load (likely since they clearly had to train her to load the guns). It’s a good trick, very dramatic, and at the last second he of course switches two of the guns to shoot the nails he was about to put in his head into a board.

Geller thought it was mindblowing, Angel thought it was better when he used real guns to do the same trick but still liked it.

The fourth act is Gerry McCambridge, again we hear the stupid life story to suggest they have special powers, and he says he’s not just a mentalist but the mentalist.

He does a good job selecting a random three people to use to start the trick (by having Ross toss frisbees into the audience), but he also has six on stage he selected himself, so the question is, why didn’t he make them all random? He then has someone randomly choose a telephone book, one choose a page from that book, and then a number on that page. The celebrity then reads out that number, and it’s matched to envelopes he’s prepared ahead of time.

Of course, as she’s scanning down the page he helps her out by giving her a piece of paper, ostensibly to hold below the numbers to read them easier. Could it be the numbers in the envelopes were on that little slip of paper? Methinks yes. I was completely unimpressed, he gave that one away right up front. Uri thought the presentation was dull and flat, and Angel thought it was similarly junk.

The show ends with Geller’s gimmick of projecting the symbols to the audience with the audience voting which symbols were projected. The distribution was 7% square, 28% star, 27% circle, 22% cross, and 16% squiggles. I guess I was wrong, I was one of those weird 16% who likes the squiggles best. Either way, hardly an impressive feat. It’s just a combination of knowing what people tend to pick (like 7 out of 1-10, or 37 out of 1-40) and saying that is his symbol he’s “projecting” to the audience. Better than getting caught sticking a magnet on his thumb to manipulate a compass at least.

I actually ended up enjoying the show because Angel is being a hard on them and doesn’t let them off easy. If only it didn’t have Geller there acting like he’s some kind of psychic wonder, rather than a third rate magician hack, it might actually be fun to watch. It’s kind of like a “Last magician standing” reality show. I also wish they hadn’t insisted on having each of these guys pass themselves off as paranormal – while advertising for astrology services during breaks. I’m pretty confident I know the trick in at least 3 of the 4 acts, and that one I now know the name of the trick but not the mechanics. If these people are going to show truly phenomenal abilities they’ll have to move beyond these parlor tricks into something really impressive, or at least original.