How does someone get a job going to Scottish castles, holding séances and doing magic tricks?
I used sneaky Jedi hypnosis, but I like to tell people that if you have an interesting enough idea and a unique take on it, someone someday will give you a shot at it.
You’re asked to describe Unbelievable to someone who’s never seen the show before. Using mime. You’re allowed to have three props, what would they be and why?
A long white sheet to put over myself with eyes cut out of it. A mirror to stand in front of to see whether I can tell it’s just me with a sheet over my head or a ghost before me. A Polaroid camera to objectively record the moment to make sure that what I am seeing is true and as fun as I imagine it to be.
I usually ask people what the strangest thing they’ve done in the name of television is. Considering you seem to have done rather a lot of bizarre things during your TV career, I thought I’d ask for your top three.
3) From Episode 6 of Unbelievable: The episode was called “The Experiment” and was very risky, both ethically and for its difficulty level. We only had one shot at it and one week to film it all in. The unknowing star of the episode was a very rational computer scientist who we filmed with hidden cameras (with the consent of his family) to create a bizarre Truman Show-styled experiment. Via various psychology principles I had discussed across the series and various elaborate set-ups of devious trickery, I wanted to give this unwitting chap the most “unbelievable” week of his life to test the limits of belief. The challenge was: could one turn a sceptic into a believer? It certainly didn’t go as planned as he seemed to rationalise every event as coincidence… until the very end. Full credit to the filmmaking team including props builders and magicians who were biting their nails for the whole week hoping all the pieces would fall into place for this very bizarre episode. The big thanks to our “lucky” sceptic Andy for being such a wonderful sport, for enjoying the experience and for not suing me.
2) From Episode 1 of Unbelievable: Sitting in car, trying to conduct an interview with a man who was driving BLINDFOLDED and speeding through the streets of Las Vegas. He had coins gaffer-taped over his eyes (it was our film crew’s tape!). The vehicle was a hire car, so there’s no fancy remote controls. He wasn’t from Las Vegas so didn’t memorise the route. He said he is not a psychic and has no supernatural powers… but never told me how he did it.
1) From Episode 4 of Choose Your Own Adventure: Jumping out of an aeroplane whilst solving the Rubik’s Cube in freefall. I had about 52 seconds to solve it before engaging the parachute. I did it in 49 seconds.
Both Unbelievable and Choose Your Own Adventure were inspired by your stand-up shows. What was the process of developing those jokes into episodes of TV?
Choose Your Own Adventure was based on a couple of my live shows and Unbelievable was based on a show I wrote in 2003 called Skeptic. They were quite successful stage shows which gave me the confidence of knowing that people might enjoy their themes in a televisual setting.
The problem is TV shows are very different from live performances. My stand up shows are told mostly in “past tense” about things that have happened to me, whereas the TV episodes flow in an immediate “present tense” which is about taking the audience on a journey with me, moment by moment. For this reason, it requires a lot of research and planning into what direction each mini-documentary could go and, goddamn it, they never go according to plan. Occasionally, a social experiment that looks like a brilliant idea on paper ends up on the cutting room floor after it is a bit underwhelming on the shoot. Fortunately, there are also those serendipitous instances where some minor thing might evolve on location to become the focus of an episode.
Each episode (for better or worse) has always been quite organic in the development process. Good comedy is sometimes found in mistakes.
Where did you find all those experts, enthusiasts and, for want of a better word, nut jobs?
I don’t consider any of my interviewees “nutjobs”. We are all “enthusiasts” about something. I guess the difference is that the occupations that I am interested are often on the fringes or about obscure topics that most people aren’t familiar with. It wasn’t difficult finding any of these people because I am familiar with most of their work from ghosthunting parapsychologist Richard Wiseman to arch-skeptic James Randi to lie detection expert Paul Ekman. Sometimes I feel like a curious butterfly collector that assembles this fascinating menagerie of characters. Perhaps l am the nutjob.
Were there any moments when you almost believed the unbelievable?
I’m still searching.
If you were abducted by aliens, how do you think you’d react?
I’d be pretty excited actually.
Can you show us a magic trick?
Think of any random number between one and ten. Now. Hold it. Don’t change your mind. Now, scroll to the bottom of the screen.
Would you like to share a random anecdote? Bonus points if it features a couch.
I was recently interviewing an eminent malaria researcher in the jungles of Vanuatu for an ad campaign that promoted science and knowledge. We sat on a big red IKEA couch in the middle of this beautiful traditional village surrounded by chickens. We donated the couch to the locals after the shoot.
Rubik cubes. Discuss.
Things you didn’t know about the Rubik’s Cube… the 3D puzzle has 43 quintillion possible configurations, has been responsible for divorces, crashing the economy of Hungry and had it’s own cheesy cartoon series. At the time of writing, the fastest speedcuber in the world is Melbourne schoolkid Feliks Zemdegs who holds the world record of 6.77 seconds.
Colour- I think it’s Prussian Blue because it was the shortest pencil from my 72 Derwent Watercolour pencil set.
Letter of the alphabet- Q
Accent- The Circumflex
Biscuit- Butternut snaps
Number between 7 and 45- 33
• You were thinking of the number 7.
• For a better piece of magic go to my Mindreader Test here.