Interview with magician Jamy Ian Swiss

Jamy Ian Swiss during a lecture

Michael Guerra: A phrase that comes to mind when I think of you is, “The Honest Liar.” In my mind, that has to be the most efficient way of describing the role of magician. Can you share the story behind that phrase and how it’s impacted the magic you do?

Jamy Ian Swiss holding a fanned deck of playing cards
Magic Bartender days—circa 1985

Jamy Ian Swiss: Well, that idea begins with my earliest interest in Houdini, spiritualism, and later, Amazing Randi. While my elementary school friends were reading Sherlock Holmes, I was reading Houdini biographies, and when they told me about the Holmes books, I wasn’t interested because I couldn’t understand how the author could have been such a dope. But I was fascinated by those stories about Houdini’s investigations into spiritualism, and I’ve always maintained that interest. I even collaborated with a friend on a theatrical séance in 1987, right after Eugene Burger released “Spirit Theater,” which was the inspiration for our production. I guess that’s also why I’ve always been interested in mentalism, which I’ve certainly performed a fair amount of, in some way or another, since that time.

Many years after that childhood interest, I of course became aware of Uri Geller, and also of Amazing Randi’s terrific book, which first appeared with the great title, “The Magic of Uri Geller.” Although I had fundamentally believed the ideas presented in that book probably since my childhood, it inspired me and perhaps, in a sense, radicalized me. I think these ideas of rationality and anti-superstition lie at the core of much of my interest in magic. The fantasy world I create as a magician is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there! Eventually I became more deeply involved in the so-called skeptical movement; I was a co-founder of the National Capital Area Skeptics (NCAS) in 1986, a group that is still going strong today. And I’ve come not only to work with Randi as a colleague, but as a friend, and that’s very important to me, he’s a tremendous inspiration.

Penn says that there would be no Penn & Teller if it weren’t for Randi, and Penn and I became friends, after knowing one another casually for a couple of years, once we found out we both had the skeptic thing, and Amazing Randi, in common. His ideas—what Penn has called “honest lying”—strongly informs their work, and mine as well. For many years I didn’t know how to incorporate those ideas into my performing work, so I kept the two rather separate. I would address critical thinking and rational inquiry in public talks and the like on one hand—albeit while also incorporating mentalism performance material at times—while on the other hand, I didn’t really know how to integrate those ideas in my pure performing material. But over the years the two have increasingly grown together and I have synthesized ways to incorporate these ideas seamlessly but importantly in my work. Along the way I began to use the tag line, “The Honest Liar,” in the 1980s, and it has become more and more fitting over time, to the point that it became the title of my theater show. And it was in fact my friend Chip Denman, with whom I began the National Capital Area Skeptics, who first suggested my adopting that label. I’ve had to grow into it, but today it feels like a perfect and comfortable fit.

Michael Guerra: I’ve read your bio and searched through your site, jamyianswiss.com, and I get the sense that you’ve accomplished a lot in the way of magic, not to mention, you’re a busy guy! With all that you’ve accomplished, what would you say has been the most significant and/or memorable to you personally?

Jamy Ian Swiss performing on The Today Show with Matt Lauer
The Today Show with Matt Lauer

Jamy Ian Swiss: That’s very, very difficult to answer. I just attended a small magic gathering in Toronto, hosted by my friends David Ben and Allan Slaight. There were 31 magicians there, many if not most of whom I count as friends, and many of them are among the finest magicians and magical minds in the world. During the conference I called my fiancé, Carol Krol, and told her what I’m about to tell you now, which is that I felt that having the chance to spend time with such great talents and minds really makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something in my life and work. To be able to spend time with men of the caliber of my dear friend, John Thompson, my old friends Stephen Minch and Max Maven, brilliant magicians like Tommy Wonder and John Carney and David Ben, well, in all honesty it’s a privilege as well as a pleasure. So to be able to call these people friends and colleagues, well, that’s really a satisfying achievement.

Then again, the fact that I have been able to call myself a professional magician for more than twenty years, that’s also something! The aspects of my work that have some small degree of fame attached to them—all the many national and international television appearances, things like the PBS “Art of Magic” documentary or multiple spots on “The Today Show,” the Discovery Channel special I created and produced, “Cracking the Con Games”—these are the kinds of things you put on your resume and it helps you get work, but they don’t really count for much in my personal sense of achievement.

I’m proud of my book, “Shattering Illusions”, and some of the great response it’s elicited from the magic community. I’m proud of my work with Penn & Teller, the most important stage magic act of our time. I’ve enjoyed the international travel—the notion that doing nice card tricks has brought me around the world to something like 13 countries, well, that’s just wacky, isn’t it? But it’s also delightful. I love having had the chance, because of magic, to meet talented and creative people in many other fields, not only other arts but also the sciences and academia—that’s a terrific benefit of being in show business. And then there are those great little oddities: I’m very pleased to have collaborated with Edward Tufte on a chapter in his book, “Visual Explanations;” it’s the only collaborative chapter in any of his three books on information design. Very often the best things I’ve managed to do are those that were the least expected—liking ending up as the book reviewer for “Genii.” I certainly never aspired to that, or foresaw myself ever holding any sort of visible standing in the magic community. Since I changed careers in mid-life, at about the age of 29, my goals were different than they might have been had I been younger. I had no thought at all about “fame and fortune.” I had already been successful in two careers. Now I just wanted to find out if I could make a living doing something I really cared about. Anything else beyond that—starting with the Magic Bartending job in D.C.—has been an unexpected bonus.

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