Lawrence Leung is a writer, comedian, director and actor from Melbourne, Australia. Having studied psychology at university his work often takes a skeptical, or nerdy, direction. He is known for his TV series ‘Lawrence Leung’s Choose Your Own Adventure’ and ‘Lawrence Leung’s Unbelieavable’ as well as his award winning live shows that have toured both Australia and the UK such as ’Skeptic’ and ‘Lawrence Leung Wants a Jetpack’. He has also made guest appearances in a wide variety of shows from ‘Offspring’ to ‘The Chaser’s War on Everything’. Lawrence’s first feature film, ‘Sucker’, is currently in production and explores the pyschology of con men with a cast including Timothy Spall, Kat Stewart and Shaun Micallef.
They come along to be entertained but I like to inform people as well.
On first memories of science
I think my first step into science was as a kid when I was watching The Curiosity Show, this was an Australian children’s TV science show hosted by these eccentric old guys, there was Rob and Dean, one had a moustache, one had a beard, and they used to do all sorts of science tricks on their show and it suddenly occurred to me that the world was quite fascinating and fun, it didn't have to be about magic and mystery and fantasy, it’s like, all those wonderful things are actually in the real world itself including making tiny little bread clips race on the surface of water by just putting detergent in them and having races with my brother. It was so much fun and that was my first glimpse into the world of science.
On moving on to study psychology
I found science in school a little bit boring, I guess because it was just seen as, you know, something to study, to do tests for, exams, I wasn't really into it, the science that I enjoyed was more like just private study which involved going to the books in the library or speaking to my dad about why there are so many stars in the universe and things like that. And then it occurred to me that I was starting to get interested in psychology because, for me, the works of Carl Sagan or James Randi are people who see the world how it really is, but at the same time there’s a lot of wonder in it.
So I started getting involved in magic tricks, trying to pretend that I was like Uri Geller, so bending spoons and things like that, and I found that to me, because a lot of people I was showing it to at the time at school, they believed in ouija boards and spoon bending.
So it was very much about trying to figure out how the world worked and while I was studying psychology I started moonlighting in theatre and stand-up comedy and then the two things mashed together and I found myself doing stand-up comedy on stage, in many ways trying to manipulate the audience’s…how they would relate to me in terms of using pure communication and understanding how crowd dynamics work, and then later on in my career I found myself actually talking about psychology on stage. So I did stand-up comedy shows in theatre here, in festivals, in comedy festivals around the world, in Edinburgh, about con artists and how they fool people, card sharks, I’ve done shows about skepticism and ghost hunting, I’ve stayed in haunted castles and done a bit of ghost investigation myself, trying to work out whether things are really what they seem or if there’s something else going on. Basically, the question is, is the truth out there or is the truth just in our minds?
On the Australian public’s response to skeptic comedy
I think for the most part people enjoy the shows about psychology and science because they're comedies. So they come along to be entertained but I like to inform people as well. But I think people generally enjoy it; I’ve had psychics turn up to my shows despite the fact that…I wouldn't say I was debunking them but I was providing an alternative explanation to what was going on. I did a television show called Unbelievable in Australia which was a six part TV series that investigated the paranormal, but also a lot of things to do with psychology in terms of deception and how magicians fool each other and the public. So what I did was a show which I hoped was both fascinating and funny, the parts that weren't fascinating would be funny and then the parts that weren't funny were fascinating, and I think the audience quite like that because in many ways they didn't know it was a science education TV show, it was just a comedy show about some really fascinating stuff.
On making ‘Unbelievable’
Its hard to say whether I had a favourite moment in the Unbelievable programme because I was doing all the things that I dreamt of doing as a young…when I was a teenager I wanted to be a paranormal investigator and there I was being a parapsychologist of sorts, but through the lens of psychology. So I was going to haunted castles and trying to find ghosts with a bunch of ghost hunters, and the most disturbing thing I found I guess was the pseudo-science that these ghost hunters were using to detect ghosts. I was faking UFOs and letting them up in the sky above the Hunter Valley region in New South Wales and having people report on the internet and YouTube that they'd seen a genuine UFO, an alien space craft.
I guess one of my favourite ones was testing how magicians fooled people, so I looked at the science behind misdirection and attention with the task of seeing if I could learn how to fool a world class magician with their own tricks. So I managed to invite a master magician from Australia called Tim Ellis, he’s a world champion magician, and I interviewed him and showed him a magic trick and asked him to comment on this card trick I was doing for him in this Thai restaurant. So I did my card trick for Tim Ellis, this magician, and he didn't notice that all around him my trick was to transform the Thai restaurant into a Mexican restaurant. So we had changed the decor, there were cactuses everywhere, it was changing from tea…he was actually holding a tequila in his hand and the waiters had changed to a mariachi band and he was fooled, he didn't see it change before his eyes until after the trick had happened that I was performing for him. And at first I thought he’d be insulted that he was fooled, but he wasn’t, he was delighted because that’s what magicians love, the idea of deception and the joy and delight of being fooled and having their minds played with.
And he said to me the reason why he was fooled was because he knew the magic trick that I was doing with the cards so well, he was in his mind thinking, oh no, I know how this is done, how can I give him feedback, he’s not fooling me but I have to be polite. And so in his mind he was thinking about al the things to say to me and he wasn't paying attention to the world around him and he said that’s exactly what magicians do; I chose what my audience was, in this case, a magician: using his tricks against him.
And likewise, because people were criticising the show as a bit too skeptical…maybe there are wonderful things out there like ghosts and psychics, maybe the skeptics are quite closed minded. So for the last episode of our show we tried to see whether we could actually make a skeptic turn into a believer using some of the same psychology; if you disconfirm people’s beliefs, then you actually change people’s beliefs. So we found a scientist, a computer science engineer here at Melbourne University, actually, and his friends told us he was extremely skeptical, so we thought, lets see if we can change his beliefs.
So we set up a mock psychology experiment that he went along to and signed up for and we told him that he was going to test a psychic. A psychic gave him a reading about some of the things that…it was like a fortune telling script, some of the amazing things that were going to happen to him in the future. And then we followed him around with hidden cameras and made those things actually happen.
So it was kind of like a Truman Show experiment on this poor guy where we made all of the things that the psychic predicted happen to him across a week. And then we came back to him in the psychology experiment and asked him whether he experienced any of these things, and its really amazing to see that, much like someone who is a believer, who won’t shift from their beliefs despite disconfirming evidence, someone who was quite rational, he would also quite stick to his way of thinking despite amazing things happening like him winning a prize to go to Queensland because he had managed to guess the amount of jelly beans in a jar that we had set up, this incredible kind of Derren Browneqsue escapade where he turned up to this pub and he managed to miraculously choose the exact number of beans in a jar, he still thought, nah, that’s just me using maths.
We did manage to make him think he had psychic powers in the end! We had to use a magician and do an ESP test where the odds were so high that he would predict I think 60 cards correctly - you know those ESP Zener cards that they have in Ghostbusters - so he managed to predict 60 of those, almost 100% and the odds were astronomical. And then from a scientific, mathematical point of view he could see there was something going on here, I just actually feel that these were the right cards. He was running around off camera saying, I’m more psychic than my sister who also did this test - who we got to collude for him to be part of the test - and it was just one of those things that the maths got him.
On next projects
I’ve got a television show but it’s not a science show, this one’s like an action comedy series, but one that does springboard out of my interests in the past was based on my very first solo stand up show called Sucker, and it was all about cons and scams and psychology of how people deceive each other and that’s being turned into feature film, so I’ve adapted that into a full feature starring a guy called John Luke who’s playing a younger version of myself, Lilly Sullivan and Timothy Spall, the wonderful British actor from the Mike Leigh films, I think he won best actor at the Cannes film festival in 2014 for Mr Turner, and his next role is in our film called Sucker where he plays a cool, aging con man card shark and he’s fantastic in this movie and its coming out in 2015.