If you didn’t watch the Nov. 8th episode of “Inside Edition,” you missed an expose of “America’s favorite psychic” and star of the popular “Long Island Medium” television “reality” series, Theresa Caputo. A few weeks ago I was asked to take part in a “sting” on Caputo with several IE investigative reporters who had been singling out Caputo for a serious takedown for months. We worked hard to reveal her for what she is – a fast talker of the lowest order. There was no question she was doing old cold reading bits, but her other methods were less obvious to the untrained eye. I was put on the case in New York City for four days. It was a eye-opening experience and great fun watching Caputo going through her histrionics, but I quickly learned that mediums and psychics are getting more and more slippery and hard to catch red-handed than they were only a decade ago.
Like many of the latest crop of bullshit tossers making the rounds, Theresa and her savvy crew have learned from the mistakes of others like Sally Morgan, John Edward and Jimmy VanPraagh. Instead of taking chances with too much guessing, Theresa bumps-up her percentage of hits and avoids bad misses by front-loading her stage shows with a combination of techniques; some time tested like cold reading and planting previous clients they have already read for in specific seats in the audience, (ala Rosemary Altea on the Penn & teller “Bullshit!” episode I worked on) but also making use of the latest social media outlets.
In combination with selling seats through Ticketmaster and the use of credit cards, Facebook, Fousquare, Twitter and all the rest of the latest places people post private information, our own egocentric fascination with ourselves makes it easy for the techie-smart-agent or producer to make seeming miracles happen. Like the old days when the gypsy only needed to tell her sitters what they wanted to hear about themselves, we are now in an era when anyone can tell you more about yourself than you might ever want to know.
At the show we saw, at one point Theresa asked a woman, “…Why am I picking up baby clothes?” To which the woman replied, “On, that’s weird. I just put up a bunch of pictures of baby clothes on my Facebook page!”
Not weird at all really. With five or six gathered bits of information like that placed beforehand on a seating chart of the show it’s easy to be cued by her staff of roving microphone and camera people. All seats are numbered and the sections are far enough apart so even Theresa can’t screw up: a red shirt is a fireman, down in front under the lights is the missing child, on the left is the suicide’s mother, etc.
After watching this crew with their equipment move over to a person who was next called upon by Theresa, it became apparent that only one of two things could be happening. The only two logical reasons for the roving crew to move BEFORE Theresa points out the person in the audience they are standing near are:
1. Theresa has already planned with her crew what people she is going to be talking to before the show.
2. The crew is psychic and knows who Theresa is going to be calling on.
I leave it to the reader to decide which option is more likely.
On the heavily edited segments for Caputo’s so-called “reality” program, everyone who happens to apparently casually “bump into” Theresa on the street or in supermarkets or beauty parlors, each is a carefully choreographed set-up. In classic mentalist style, everyone must sign a pre-show waiver or agreement to have their image used on television. It’s only a standard form to those folks. Why would they suspect anything? They should. All the staff needs is a laptop, a name, an address and a willing victim.
The slippery part is this perfect storm of information availability seems to make no sense when you watch Theresa live doing nothing but asking a non-stop machine gun scatter shot of questions, one after the other. It would be so much easier for her to just stick to a list of sure-fire pre-show information. That’s what I would do… So why doesn’t she stick to that strategy?
I’ll tell you why: She’s not a professional mentalist for one, and also because if she did use all the information available all the time, she would be far too accurate and her audience of adoring believers would begin to smell a rat. She has to play that “odds” part down to a believable minimum. It’s the “less is more” angle mediums have been using for centuries.
It was amazing to see her act “surprised” by her hits, as if she had no idea how she did it. Maybe a few times she was genuinely surprised, it’s happened to me when a wild guess gets a connection from some poor soul in the audience. This happens more times than one might think. Logic again should tell us if she was a real seer, why act surprised by your powers? You are expected to know. As I wrote in “Psychic Blues,” a real medium (if such a thing existed) would most certainly make bold statements as fact and not ask a single question. But Theresa isn’t that good – yet.
And she’ not that smart – yet.
At one point, Theresa said in the show I saw (and I liked the line – trust me, I”ll be using it…) “Lotto numbers would be so much easier…” So true Theresa, so true. So why don’t you go away and do that? The money there and at race tracks has to be easier than traipsing around the country working two three hour shows a day. Why bother if you are real? Oh wait. I know. You want to help people, …right.
It’s my opinion she’s still a tad green for the on-the-road market and her handlers and agents are sending her out into the spotlight to toughen her up and get her trained to be even more confident and get her used to asking less questions. Only time will tell, but I predict a much smoother delivery and more direct hits in her future - if she doesn’t get lazy and opt for an even more laid back approach. Either way – she wins.
Her popularity and a huge part of why people seem to love her shtick so much is her personality; a raw mix of Long Island cynical strut and folksy Italian/Catholic swagger. Like so many other psychics who exude charisma, she would do better as a comedienne. Unfortunately we are destined to be not so lucky – she knows where the money is. Instead of a new Phyllis Diller, we are trending toward new pink-sweatered versions of Sylvia Browne. She’s on the rise and I predict there will be more who are even now making their own plans. What will it be next? A Quaker medium from Pennsylvania or the Native American maiden from next door in Albuquerque who reads auras? And don’t even get me started with the guy who just sits on stage and stares at people…
It’s hard to argue with a ratted up bleached blond bee-hive hairdo and $1,000 rhinestone high heels. Caputo projects the image of someone who could easily get in a nasty cat-fight with you if you got on her wrong side. She can be just as rude as Sylvia, as when she gets no response from a luke-warm cold reading and turns on her heel away from that person with the quip, “…I’m gonna pass on that one.” Really Theresa? Why? I saw that move several times.
Like her mean-spirited -croaking competition Sylvia Browne who often spouts prayers and religious mumbo-jumbo at the outset of her shows, Caputo invokes her Catholicism from time to time as a shield for her travesty of feigned compassion and tired self-help jargon. One wonders if she is going to ask forgiveness at Mass the next day? In this way, she is setting the stage for a future Sylvia Browne style image that will be hard to stop once it’s out of the gate – and it’s on it’s way to your neighborhood.
Theresa showcased several other neat tricks you can bet I will be incorporating into my own act. However in my own version of this charade, I’ll be explaining how and why these ploys worked at the end. This is something Caputo, Browne and John Edward will never do.
As in the Belgian PSA posted a few weeks back – the information gathering search and destroy technique is a goldmine for the entrepreneur showman and underscores the need for caution in placing anything on the internet – especially if you plan to visit a high-end medium or buy tickets to one of their shows. I know I’m preaching to the choir once again here and it’s not likely if you are reading this you would do such a thing, but you might know someone who would – and they should be warned.
At it’s core, we have a few undeniable truths to show in our favor: No one, even Theresa Caputo, saw hurricane Sandy coming to New York City, or told us how Obama would win in near landslide fashion, or that the man standing next to her in the photograph I took with her was out to pull the rug from beneath her even as he stood smiling next to her. She even refereed to the photograph seen pinned to my lapel as “…he was a warm soul.” This was a high school picture of my son Miles, who remains quite alive and well. Some psychic huh?
All this being said, and even after exhausting research and carefully planning the “reveal” portion of my “psychic readings” for the live audience I worked with on IE, many of them still remained believers. Same in The Jeff Probst Show audience. If you saw that show, even after we explained how easy it is to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes and I made my position clear as a non-psychic, a woman in the audience still wanted a reading from me!
As I mentioned to the IE staff, it’s the “just because” factor that makes this all so frustrating and ultimately why we don’t see more critical thinking about the paranormal on network tv:
“…Just because you use tricks doesn’t mean my psychic isn’t real.”
How can we ever hope to beat that thinking?
And don’t tell me to give up. I just have to keep going. I can’t stop to think about the almost hopeless situation we as rational thinkers find ourselves in. If I turn around to look back, I will be turned to stone. I’m officially in denial.
Caputo apparently sent a message to Inside Edition saying that she doesn’t care what they say. Her clients like her and that’s good enough for her.
Is that good enough for you?