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It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad Day on the Set

by Brian Dunning, Jun 04 2009

OK, this is weird.

Today I was invited to host an episode of a new series for a major cable network in which I was to interview and administer a test to three professional psychics. This was the first episode they’d shot, and the producers and director were really nice and cool and it had all the makings of a fun and productive day. They had located three psychics who were all game, and were fully willing to undergo the tests under controlled conditions. Moreover, the show had even secured a $50,000 prize that any psychics who passed today’s tests would be qualified to try for. I arrived fully prepared, with some detailed protocols, and a raft of properly controlled materials.

Here’s the rub. The entire day was a setup. It was a gag, with Michael Shermer and myself as the unwitting victims.

The psychics and I began each interview with a discussion of each psychic’s personal history, what they knew about their abilities, and what they were able to tell us about them. Two of them, a pair of very friendly and positive ladies named Sylvie and Austyn, gave very fair descriptions of what they believed they could do, and sportingly undertook the tests. You can probably guess the results. But those tests were certainly not what the day ended up being about…

The third psychic was, unfortunately, not a psychic at all, but a young comedian who used to have a show on the BBC, and now appears to be trying to make a name for himself with a new character who is a wannabe nemesis of skeptics. He’s going to find this an uphill battle, as he’s neither clever, funny, particularly talented in any apparent way, nor does he seem to know much about psychics or criticism of psychics.

He goes by the moniker “Shirley”, and looks like a televangelist in a gaudy white suit with colored piping, and either the world’s worst hair or a gauche orange wig, I couldn’t quite tell which. When it was his turn to come out, Shirley came up to me, took his seat, refused to return my friendly greeting, and launched into what he seemed to think was a clever attempt to “get into my head” – insulting my parents, my wife, and “revealing” to all my terrible guilt at how I’ve treated people. Essentially, his routine was to ignore the reason [that I believed] he was supposed to be there, and try to establish himself as – well, I can’t even think what. He refused to participate in the arranged tests, instead throwing tantrums about each, constantly demanding that he be paid his $50,000.

At one point, Shirley inexplicably stopped the production, and fiddled with his iPhone for a few minutes. He then announced that his spirit guide, Sheba, informed him that my background was as an Irish flute player (perhaps not so coincidentally, this is just what a quick Google search of my name reveals. There’s also a third Brian Dunning who is an Elvis impersonator, and doubtless many more.) He then demanded his $50,000 again for “correctly” reading my background. When I then informed him that he was duped by careless Googling, he begged for that segment to be edited out. It was just one more thing that was weird: Was this part of his gag? Shirley, hire a new writer.

For one test, I’d drawn something and sealed it in an envelope. Each psychic was supposed to duplicate my drawing. When I finally persuaded Shirley to open his envelope to reveal what he’d drawn, he pulled out a poster sized sheet with at least 100 small doodles — anything and everything he could think of that I might possibly had drawn (he still missed it). He demanded his $50,000 again.

And then he went into his channeling act. A mysterious power overwhelmed him, and he began channeling Lee Majors, of The Six Million Dollar Man fame. Lee Majors began telling us what heaven is like. By now I’d given up, as we were clearly wasting everyone’s time, and wasn’t even standing on the set any more. Some of the crew informed Shirley that Lee Majors is not dead, and something in his brain seemed to snap. He became belligerent, had to be restrained by some of the crew, and strangely the director asked me to play along for three minutes — why, I have no idea. Shirley then set his phone down on speakerphone, ran to the opposite side of the room, and took out a second cell phone and called his first one, saying “This is Lee Majors’ agent, and he died today.”

If this was a comedy routine, it left something to be desired.

Eventually Shirley was muscled out of the studio, and we proceeded with a test of one of the other psychics, which brought back some semblance of normalcy. For the final segment, Michael Shermer came on and he and I discussed the results of what had happened with my tests. But we didn’t get very far.

For that was when the real weirdness happened.

Michael Twittered a description of this afterwards, which included a very apt reference to Andy Kaufman (except Kaufman truly was a comic genius), and promised to write it up on his own upcoming blog. So I will allow him to pick up the story from that point. You won’t want to miss it. It includes bodybags, and made me wish to hell I’d brought my camera.

So, I’m sorry to report that there is no new TV show on critical thinking. From a deeper study of Shirley Ghostman’s web site, it looks like he hasn’t had a BBC show for some years, but maybe we’ll get to see some of this action on YouTube. Kudos to the set crew who played along for so many hours, let’s hope it was worth someone’s while.

51 Responses to “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad Day on the Set”

  1. OH YES SHIRLEY GHOSTMAN IS GREAT!!! :D That is a fantastic show, how cool! :) Did you see the ep with Dr Chris French? It’s absolutely hilarious! Oh, nifty, looking forward to seeing the final product on YouTube. :)

  2. Ben says:

    It will definitely be interesting to see the results of your time there. I sure hope it wasn’t a complicated sham!

  3. Oh, if it’s Shirley Ghostman, it’s a comedy show alright – evidence of previous performances, the series and accounts by UK Skeptics as to what happened to them:

  4. John Paradox says:

    Not the first time:

    About as funny as a root canal….


  5. Tekken says:

    Shirley Ghostman is a spoof and has done some funny skits on British TV

    The joke is on the psychics though ,not the sceptics although you are the stooges or straight men for him.
    The humour is very satirical and often pushes the boundries of double and triple bluff jokes.
    Do not worry Mr Dunning the joke is on the Woo merchants and you will probaly be shown in a sympathetic way (on past history of Mr Wootons parodies.)
    Relax and look forward to psychics being ridiculed

    The “My new best friend ” is my favourite of this actor /comedian and when I first watched it without knowing its slant I was taken aback but then grew to love the whole set up.
    Do look up Mr Ghostman on You Tube and enjoy.

  6. Gib says:

    Yes, I have that series on DVD. I got it after being shown the segments of him vs two prominent UK skeptics – Professor Chris French, and Nick Pullar, both of whom are leaders in the London “SKeptics in the Pub”.

    Their segments with Shirley were shown proudly by them, at one of the Skeptics meetings.

    So, don’t fear Mr Dunning, I think you’ll probably get a kick out of the edited result. May I also suggest you don’t advertise too widely what happened to you before production ? Shirley will find it harder to get realistic performances out of any other American skeptics he had his eye on using in his show….

  7. Brian says:

    If this was a comedy routine, it left something to be desired.

    Gonna have to take your word for it, Mr. Dunning, as it sounds pretty funny from your description of it. (Or at least that it has a lot of potential, depending on the editing.)

  8. Gib says:

    What I meant in my last sentence was don’t go giving the game away to anyone else until Shirley’s production finishes…

    • GL says:

      The production didn’t even bother to clue Dunning into what the “game” was. There’s no reason to help them out by not discussing this experience. Nothing is as fun as having people waste your time.

  9. Rob says:

    Wow — that guy is awful. I’m not quite sure what he is trying to achieve either… either way he is an idiot and nobody worth worrying about, nobody whose opinion I value would care about what an unfunny buffoon would have to say, especially since he clearly stole his whole concept from Sacha Baron Cohen (and is much less effective mind you).

  10. Yeah – from your description it sounded like a Borat type deal. And it does sound like he is making more fun of psychics than anyone else.

    Whether or not he pulls it off comedically is another question. I guess we’ll see.

  11. BillDarryl says:

    Actually, the hundred doodles on the poster bit and the “Lee Majors is Dead” call sound very funny. BUT we’re reading summaries of the punch lines – I’m sure sitting through it was excruciating.

    I wonder if the other “psychics” were real, even? Lying to Shermer and Brian to moderate is one thing, but offering a $50,000 prize to takers, and then awarding it to no one saying it was all a joke? That’s lawsuit material.

  12. LovleAnjel says:

    I agree, that’s ‘Borat’-style comedy, and no doubt you guys will look sympathetic. It’s the psychics they will make look like a-holes.

  13. SeanJJordan says:

    Sounds like he’s trying to be Sacha Baron Cohen, but without the comedic ability. It’s the same sort of setup — get some prominent people in the room and try to rattle them with a crazy character. But the difference is that Ali G, Borat and Bruno are actually funny, and they’re able to coax things out of people that wouldn’t ordinarily be said.

  14. Tim Farley says:

    At last year’s The Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas, Chris French played a clip of his encounter with Shirley Ghostman during the Sunday “paper presentations”. It is indeed funny stuff, and Chris’s cool manner with this guy (and willingness to show the clip) made it all the more fun.

    Perhaps there is a lesson here: folks, pay CLOSE attention to ALL the presentations when you are at TAM. This year’s event is coming up soon, July 9 through 12 in Las Vegas.

    Brian, I must point out that you also presented on Sunday last year, after Chris French. What’s worse, that you got pranked as a major skeptic, or that we now know you weren’t paying attention to the other presentations at TAM?


    • Ryan Johnson says:

      AHH, Yes! That’s where I saw that YouTube clip before, at TAM! Brian, you must’ve been busy signing autographs at that point! haha!

  15. Tekken says:

    Rob, if timelines are anythig to go by Sacha Barn Cohen stole Mr Wootons concept.
    Maybe you have to view it from a British perspective or culture.
    I personally think Mr Cohens stuff has not been funny since people knew it was a joke when being interviewed by Ali G i.e when he was on a small slot on a late evening show11 0 clock show

  16. The Borat/Shirley concept is by no means original with either of them. Go back to Andy Kaufman in the 1970’s for some groundbreaking stuff that will really blow your mind.

  17. Talal says:

    Omg, he pulled out a whole list of doodles and still got it wrong. Okay, that is hilarious!

  18. Robert says:

    Sounds like this was a pull a prank on the skeptics, so they hired a “comedian” to be crazy when you thought you were in for a real test of physic powers. Sort of like Punk’d but without the reveal at the end…at least to the participants.

  19. Phronk says:

    Sounds pretty hilarious. It’s a shame you couldn’t be in on it, or at least warned that you’re to play the straight man, but still, hilarious.

    And does it matter who did it first? We don’t criticize comedians because they stole the routine of getting up on stage and saying funny things to a live audience. This live, prank comedy is just another method of delivering jokes. Mocking psychics is a pretty good one, I think.

  20. Tim Farley says:

    For anyone interested, here’s the Chris French encounter with “Shirley Ghostman” which was run on the big screen on Sunday at The Amazing Meeting last June in Las Vegas:

    Shirley Versus The Skeptics – Christopher French

    This year’s TAM is coming up soon, join us in Las Vegas July 9 – 12:

    TAM Information & Registration.

    See you there.

  21. Derek says:

    Ambush comedy takes little effort to pull off. And with some editing, you can make it awkwardly-funny enough for some people to like it. I’m not a big fan of ambush comedy, I think it’s just lazy performance art.

  22. I never get to meet ambush comics.

  23. Dave R says:

    I saw the Chris French piece at the link Tim Farley provided, both at TAM and again via the link just now. If this is an example of the comedy being evident after editing, then I am apparently humor-impaired. And it’s strange, because I usually really enjoy the dry British humor.

    Chris French is not funny. Sacha Cohen is not funny. The general idea of acting like a silly prat in order to capture people’s reactions observing them isn’t a new idea, nor a very good one. Cohen has simply revived Alan Funt’s original ‘Candid Camera’, where the object is see how rude and annoying you can be to someone before they stop being nice to you in return. That wasn’t funny either (other than the bits using Buster Keaton).

    And Brian and Michael: Andy Kaufman was kind of funny in the early days when he was doing his fake standup comedy act. Later he was just strange and disturbing. Watching people who are mentally ill is not funny. Watching people pretend to be mentally ill is not only not funny, it’s in pretty bad taste.

  24. It doesn’t really make any difference whose expense he’s trying to laugh at, skeptics reacting to him as if he’s real, psychics that actaully do things like this, or some combination of both. He still isn’t funny. (And, evidently, doesn’t ever change the routine.)

  25. Maria says:

    Maybe the Brits have a different sense of humor than we do?

    Sounds like you both got your time wasted yesterday. Unfortunate that TV networks/producers don’t take skepticism seriously enough to do a real show.

  26. Skepdude says:

    Brian, sorry to hear you got punked, but you know what: everybody can get punked like that. You have no way to avoid it or prepare against it, especially if it’s big production, which it sounds like this one was. On the plus side though, this gets your name and face out there to the public, so it may end up increasing your, and the movement’s, visibility to the public at large. It sucks to be the “victim” of the prank, but something good may still come out of it. Thanks for sharing.

  27. GL says:

    Without the reveal to the gag victim, the whole thing is a waste. Especially when, as in the Chris French clip posted above, the victim never really seems to get flustered or overly annoyed. French just looked bored.

  28. Mark Edward says:

    Shirley jest?
    Brian: Is this the show you asked me about participating in a few weeks back? On one hand I’m sorta glad I missed out on if it was, but on the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with mixing humor and skepticism. Anything that brings attention to the whacked out bullshit psychics do is fine with me. I would hope if “The Skeptologists” ever get off the ground(?)we would employ just such humor in our work as well. Having worked in a spiritulaist church as an infiltrated “professional psychic” for many years, I can vouch for the reality of seeing dozens of psychics like Shirley doing equally as ridiculous things in front of huge groups of assembled believers who not only stood for it with straight faces, but then waited patiently in line afterward to sign up for private readings and to buy the books on sale by the “performer.” Truth be told, – I was one of them… In my book “Psychic Blues,” I chronicle how mage Doc Shiels and I plotted a successful international hoax in which during the annnual California whale migration, aliens would break the interspecies communication code and finally make themselves known with the help of the whales and whale researchers. Not only did we get the cover of FATE MAGAZINE with that one, but I did a series of well-attended lectures on the subject. All was taken as dead serious by all who paid for tickets and with a few bits of mentalism thrown in for good measure, it all left quite an impression. We should be doing more of this! AMBUSH SKEPTICISM! I’m sure Michael Shermere remembers the phony store front psychic stand we set up at Sherman Oaks Mall for “Exploring the Unknown?” It was the same idea. Brit humor rules! Thanks to Susan G for turning me on to “The League of Gentlemen.” Now THAT’S funny stuff.

    • Yeah, same show. I have no problem with being the butt of the joke. They paid me well, in advance, so in spite of the red flags I did my best to give them what they paid me for. The only part that sucks is that I spent a considerable amount of time doing preparation for the tests, all of which was UNpaid, including purchasing materials, consulting with a number of people, and writing out detailed protocols. From what I saw of their “set” and their “script”, I clearly put more work into it than they did!!

  29. Mr Stu dislikes WOO! says:

    Ahh, Shirley Ghostman! I have to admit, I do like the Shirley Ghostman skits (At least the ones I have seen). It is very “Borat” in style. That style of comedy is not loved by everyone, which is understandable because it can be quite annoying at times. At any rate, I think the actor that does this “Shirley Ghostman” is actually helping the skeptics cause in regards to the psychic thing. The shows I have seen certainly do make psychics, and the psychic community, look pretty foolish.

  30. Brian M says:

    I am torn. If he was well known (such as if it was Sacha Baron Cohen), then you should have played along more. Apparently this Shirley has been shunned off of BBC thanks to racist remarks.

    It sounds like you guys held your own though.

    To me, this actually sounds like it could be funny. Him playing the failing psychic who gets petty when he gets dominated. It could be good publicity for you guys.

  31. Tuffgong says:

    The key to this type of humor is being in on the joke. I thought for the longest time that Stephen Colbert was a douchebag whenever he did his “interviews”. After learning that it was a fake comedy persona, I totally understood where he was coming from and very much enjoy his character.

    The fact that it was a cold slice and never a hilarious reveal at the end is what kept the knife in and as a result, killed the humor, which is understandable.

    As per Mark Edward’s example, the issue with what Brian experienced was that there was NOTHING to tell him it wasn’t serious and that’s a problem with ambush and shock post comedians (ie. insane internet rants that are seem completely serious but aren’t).

    The characters that Sasha Cohen play for example make sense when you look at them because there is a subtle (or not so subtle) hint that it’s not completely serious.

  32. Ticktock says:

    You sound like the girl who got laughed at when she was pushed in the pool. Your a grown man, Brian. Take the hit and learn to laugh at yourself a bit.

  33. Susan Gerbic says:

    Brian I think this is WONDERFUL! Think of this way, you and Shermer were asked to be the skeptics for this comedian, awesome, that means someone is paying attention to the Skeptologists site or possibly you both are making some headway in the skeptic universe as “go-to” people for the testing of psychics. This is all good!

    Publicity of this kind can only help get your show on the air, don’t you think they might plug the show?

    Great news!

    Tim is right, TAM7 is the place to be this July, I will be there with my posse.


  34. flowbot says:

    yeah, come on man – no need to attack him professionally just because you feel put out that you were pranked. those youtube clips might not be andy kaufmann, but they *are* pretty funny. I can’t believe you didn’t grok immediately what the game was and just go along with it, rather than getting all puffed-up.

  35. BillDarryl says:

    I just checked out Shirley Ghostman on youtube. Yeah. Not funny. At all.

  36. Gwilym says:

    It’s a one-joke gag, and it’s not the world’s best, but honestly – I thought it was pretty funny. I’ve decided not to read Michael’s account, at least for the moment. I’d rather see this in action.

  37. Well, it looks like you had a little prank pulled on you. At least Shirley has made several psychics look stupid, so you can at least be thankful for that.

  38. Michael Kingsford Gray says:

    I must* say that I find ambush “comedy” to be both remarkably unfunny, and a dimwit’s pabulum**.

    Vis Homœpathic wit: diluted to 300C, but instead of water as the main attenuant, diluted in pure in waste-of-time, until nary an atom of the original jocularity remains.

    And will you stop calling me Shirley.

    * This is a lie. (That I must, not that I hold the opinion outlined.)
    ** In more ways than the literal.

  39. John says:

    Sounds dumb. This toolbag needs some lessons in comedy, it sounds.

  40. I find that pretty hilarious. Problem is that what is funny to some might seem unfunny to others. Sense of humour is not universal: not everybody has one and we don’t all have the same.
    Saying that something is not funny is a risky exercise, because it implies it won’t be funny to anyone, which applies to almost nothing. And when you’ve been tricked, you tend to be on the defensive and dismiss the tricker’s humor.
    I’m wondering if the whole piece here isn’t itself the author pretending to be offended, as a joke…

  41. MadScientist says:

    I wonder if this will be a ‘guest segment’ on another show or if there is a revival (‘special’) being produced. From what I can tell using my meager internet skills, the show seems to have, as the Australians like to say, “died in the arse”.

  42. Henk van der Gaast says:

    I’m usually the weirdo Brian… this time i just don’t get it. Ive asked the dolphins… they dont get it either and they do have a porpoise in life.


  43. I viewed the youtube vid offered in post #4, “Shirley Ghostman VS The Skeptics”.

    The premise is great, ripe for some great comedy. Ghostman hit a few spots, but was largely off the mark. With a little tighter writing and a professional comedic actor, this type of bit could be hilarious. I’d love to see Eric Idle or maybe Bill Murray play the psychic.

  44. UPDATE –

    Message from Michael Shermer on Twitter:

    Ah, Brian Dunning just got a note from the producer of the Marc Wootton show saying that the point is to make psychics look like idiots……and that in fact the producers are skeptics in support of our work. Shirley Ghostman is punking psychics, not skeptics. Good to know……but now I’m mad at myself for not realizing who was punking whom. Alas, I think I need to apply my own philosophy of using humor here.So, Wootton/Little Duke Productions, if you’re all skeptics making fun of TV psychics…GO FOR IT because if anyone needs punking it’s them!