Being at the Intersection of Comedy and Magic with Justin Willman

When I was first asked to interview Justin Willman about his comedy special, Sleight of Mouth I was like, “Okay, cool!” Then I found out he was a magician and I was, like, “Oh. A magician?” Maybe I’m in the minority here, but magic isn’t really my jam. I’m not too proud to admit, however, that I was wrong. Very wrong. I had a chance to preview Willman’s special, which premiers on Comedy Central tonight at 12:30am, and I am now truly excited to tell my friends about it. Justin isn’t just an outstanding magician, he does magic in a way that’s fresh and new, and dare I say… cool? To top it off, he’s charming and funny as hell. So I did something I never thought I’d do, and dug deeper into the world of magic. In the end, Justin Willman actually turned me into a fan of magic. Which might just be this guy’s best trick yet.

I apologize if I sound like an asshole. I know there’s a huge magic fan base, but I also know there are quite a few who are not so into it. What are some of the things that people have said to you about being a magician where you’re like, “What is wrong with you? Why would you say that to me?”

It’s funny, I don’t know where this odd connotation came from, but it’s so universally accepted that magicians pull rabbits out of hats and are kind of creepy, and use magic to pick up chicks. I guess it had to come from somewhere. I’m constantly going up against that. “Do you have a bunny on you?” That kind of thing. It’s like I’m almost a politician campaigning to make magic tolerable again. Not that there hasn’t been a lot of great magic out there, but for some reason, people aren’t seeing it. Magic can be really cool when done well. Sometimes people get to see one magic show in their lifetime and that show defines what the art form for them forever. In the comedy world people can be a fan of a ton of different comics or have different genres in music, but it seems like with magic for some reason, there’s room for one in people’s brains. That kind of labels what magic is. So, I get a lot of those cheesy, cliché, snarky things from people.

How has the standup community accepted you?

It’s taken a little while to be accepted into the comedy community, because you know how comedians roll their eyes at the idea of prop comics or musical comedians. I think it just took a little while for people to see that what I’m doing and what a lot of great people are doing which is really putting in the same hours you do developing a character and a point of view, and then simultaneously using magic as a metaphor to illustrate those points. There are a lot of comedians who are super, super into magic. And then there are others who are a little more curmudgeonly about it. Like Marc Maron, I did the Meltdown. I introduced myself a couple of times, but I think he only referred to me as “the magic guy” throughout the evening. “I don’t want to follow magic guy.” “Where’s magic guy in the performance?” “Put me before magic guy.”

Well, that’s also his persona. That’s his thing.

Honestly, it was an honor to be called “Magic Guy” by Marc Maron. It was so funny and I got such a kick out of it. Comedy purists sure, magic will never necessarily quench their desire for true art, but I think it’s really fun when you figure out where magic and comedy can come together for a lovely little marriage, but not overly power one another. I’m finding my niche. I’m gradually getting accepted. It’s fun.

Do you ever do straight standup or is it always connected to magic?

All good comedy comes from true life and comedians get up there and talk about their life and me as a magician, that’s my life. I end up doing standup comedy chunks about magicians, which is a unique point of view for people, since they’re not used to hearing that. It’s an odd little world I live in. I think my comedian buddies really get a kick out of it when they come over. Half the crap in my living room is a gimmick in some way. It’s not like I’m doing tricks, but you know, I like to have my stuff around me so I can be creative. My life is unusual and magicians hang out with a lot of other odd, unusual entertainers, so I’ll have a sword swallowing buddy and a juggler. Comedians always get a kick out of the weird people I get to hang out with.

I assume you started doing magic as a kid?

I remember I saw David Copperfield when I was five. That was the first time I saw magic and I think I got a magic set for my birthday, but I totally didn’t have the attention span for it. I have a picture of me opening it and I think that was all I ever played with it. Then I came back to magic when I was twelve or thirteen. I was an idiot. I broke both of my arms at the same time, because I was riding my bike with roller blades on, trying to impress some girls. My doctor randomly recommended card tricks. He prescribed me slight of hand as physical therapy and that’s when I really got into magic, because I had nothing better to do.

Has your family always been pretty supportive?

Super supportive. A lot of people have this idea of, “Oh you’re a magician. That means your father and grandfather and great-great grandfather were warlocks,” but no my grandfather is a retired airline pilot. My dad’s an airline pilot, so I’m no one in my family has done anything performance based. They love it. As long as I went to college and got a degree in something practical in their eyes they were super cool to support the magic all the way.

What was that practical thing you got your degree in?

I majored in Broadcast Journalism at Emerson College in Boston.

That helps you when it comes to writing and in other areas, I’m sure.

Totally. Writing and communication, and I’ve dabbling in hosting gigs over the years, so that comes in handy. I think maybe at the time I was like, “Well if I can’t be a magician, maybe I’ll be the magic weather guy.”

I do think we need a magic weather guy in the world. That needs to happen.

“We have a cold front coming in” and I make ice cubes appear, “But then the heat wave” and flames burst from my hand.

Do you do mind reading stuff as well?

Yeah, more and more these days I’ve worked on mind reading, psychology and coincidence into my show, because I feel like people are able to wrap their heads around and connect with it, because it’s within the realm of possibility. If you’re going to cut a woman in half and show that there’s now two boxes, people can’t help but look at it like a puzzle, because they know you can’t actually cut a woman in half and put her back together again. For years I did this trick where I’d predict a tweet. I’d have a piece of paper hanging above the audience and I’d have the audience crowd source all these facts that would be compiled into a tweet and then I’d open up the paper and it reads exactly what we predicted. That stuff I think really messes with people, because it’s technically possible. Am I psychologically influencing you? Is everyone in on it, except you? It really gets under people’s skin, in a good way.

How do you get stage time? What’s the version of a magician open mic?

When you’re a kid it’s like, “I’m practicing in my bedroom and messing up a trick over and over until I get it right,” then your parents, and then you’re friends. A comedian can go in with new jokes that aren’t fully fleshed out yet and do it at an open mic. Some will work, some won’t, but it all good. It’s a growing experience. A magician can’t keep a trick that’s a work in progress and do it, because if the method is exposed or you mess it up, it’s a total buzz kill. It’s so much worse than a joke bombing. That means before any trick can get to the open mic level, stuff’s gotta be really dialed in. You have to have it worked out. Then you take it to the open mic to figure out how you present it.

I think this would be a great series. Is there any chance of that happening?

Comedy Central’s never had a magic series on its network. I think the only magic stuff they’ve had were a couple of Amazing Johnathan standup specials over the years. I think the idea of blending comedy and magic on, you know, the best comedy network, is a little bit of a stretch. Hopefully people really dig it and people want to see more of it. If they do hopefully they’ll tweet about it and write their Congressman. I’d love to get a chance to make more of them, because, it was a lot of fun to do. Even having a special, no matter what, is a win. Legit, not even as a cliché, it’s a dream since I was a kid. I’m happy they threw me a bone.

At the risk of sounding like a Hollywood executive, if this were to become a regular show, how do you sustain it? I’m sure you have a whole top hat full of material, but how do you constantly come up with new stuff?

Yes, a whole top hat. You know, the idea for the special is that we tackled the theme of technology. I like using magic to be specific to themes or topics, because then you can get specific and reinvent tricks and make them feel custom and unique to what you’re talking about. As a series, we could do an episode about religion; recreate Bible miracles and probably offend some people, which would be super fun. We could do an episode about college. We could do an episode about food. All these little worlds open up so much magic potential when you get specific like that. We could do an episode about weed, you know and expand that pot store segment [from the special] out fully and actually do a social experiment about it. Is it easier to do magic on drunk people or high people or people on mushrooms?

I think it would be an amazing challenge. I think we could definitely tackle it and the chance to be able to collaborate like I did with Doug [Benson] and Paul [Scheer] and with other people and spread out a real repertoire of magic, but over a season would be totally doable. There’s a lot of tricks in the special, but I feel like each theme would open up a whole new world of possibility.

Do the jokes inspire the tricks or visa versa? Also, do you have a writer’s room or is it all you?

It’s a pretty cool writer’s room, because I was able to get three or four writers who are just great comedy writers, who like magic, but aren’t magicians. And then I was able to get two or three of my magic minds and put us all together. It kind of became a super cool brain trust, where everybody got a crash course in the other side’s world and thought process. In thinking about how we’re going to tackle technology like we did in the special, we said, “Okay, what are things that we could do magic with?” Someone said, “There’s the idea that we get a new phone every year and we keep getting new laptops and all this technology is so precious, but in a year it’s disposable.” That idea became the closing bit in the show where we’re smashing old technology.

Did you already have a trick that worked for it or did you go, “Whelp, I have to invent this illusion now”?

The idea or the plot of what we want to do comes first and then we backtrack into, “Okay what would the magic trick be? What’s the desired effect here?” For that last bit, the plot is the classic idea of Russian Roulette. There’s a bit where a magician would have a spike under one of four cups and he would gradually one at a time crash his hand down on the cups, leaving the one remaining that has the spike in it. That’s a classic premise of magic, the Roulette. The audience thinks, “How on earth did he not end up hurting himself?” So, I took that idea and adapted it to smashing old pieces of technology with instead of a spike, what the viewers end up seeing the precious thing that didn’t get destroyed. It’s just a classic way I love doing of reinventing an old trick and making it seem like a brand-new trick.

Okay, so back to the writer’s room.

As we’re writing the show, the situation comes first. The idea of going to a pot dispensary with Doug Benson was always at the top of the list. The tricks that we ended up doing didn’t come til later, but the idea was, “Let’s figure out a place to do magic and why we’re doing it there, and what’s funny doing it there. Then let’s figure what magic would serve that purpose.” I don’t want it to be about the trick. I want it to be about the idea and the place and the situation.

I want to know more about the people who were in the dispensary, because that was my favorite part. It was hilarious.  

We put out an ad on Craigslist for medical marijuana users who would like to be a part of a video. We were super vague about it, because I didn’t want people to know they were coming to watch magic, because sometimes when they know their guard is up. They just knew they were coming to a shoot catering to medical marijuana users. Man, you put an ad on Craigslist specifying stoners and you get quite a response. We had some unique characters, as you saw. We just kind of got them all in there and had maybe two or three cycles of people who came through and we just hung out. It was really loosey goosey, and then Doug and I would bust out some tricks here and there. Everyone got super high when they got in the room. Honestly, growing up as a rebellious teenager and being used to having to hide the weed and cover up the smoke and stuff like that, being able to do all that and get paid for it and have it be a part of the special is so weird. That’s the world Doug Benson gets to live in, which is nice. But yeah, that bit just kind of wrote itself. Once you got all these people in there who are under the influence, you can’t fake that kind of thing, which is great. You really can’t make people fake reactions, which is the hard part. If the reaction‘s not interesting it’s such a bummer. It takes the fun out of it.

Were there any tricks or bits that you talked about doing that you just couldn’t figure out how to make it work?

We had this crazy idea of a trick that would take place between LA and Vegas on a series of billboards. So, it was a road trick trip trick, kind of a social experience, where people driving from LA to Vegas would gather all these little steps for a magic trick that they do to themselves and by the time they get to Vegas, the final billboard has the big payoff on it. And obviously the thing that kept us from doing that trick was just a couple hundred thousand dollars.

This seems like it was a dream to do. What is one of your least favorite gigs you’ve done?

Okay, so not that this was my least favorite, but was one of the toughest. When I first moved to LA I’d go to a swanky Hollywood party and the host would hire me to schmooze during cocktail hour and go table to table, add a little magic to the event. I got hired to do a strolling walk around magic at The Playboy Mansion for a corporate event. The problem is, I would start a trick for a table of guys, and I’d be getting ready to do the payoff, the big finish and you know, a waitress who’s naked and body painted walks by and I lose everyone’s attention instantly. This happened over and over again throughout the evening. I kept trying to get a trick out and nobody gave a shit. That made it really hard. Plus, I don’t want that to be my first Playboy Mansion experience. In retrospect it sound better than it really is, but you want to be able to enjoy yourself. You don’t want to be on the clock.

Right. I mean, even I want to go to The Playboy Mansion and I would do nothing but be self-conscious the whole time, but of course.

It’s a bucket list thing. But yeah, it’s hard to compete with the other entertainment at The Playboy Mansion and I had to do that for a whole night.

Beyond this special, what’s next for you?

Well, I’m kind of always touring. Right now the tour is called “Fake Believe.” It’s a lot of new stuff and I want people to know that they can come out and see things they haven’t seen before. I’m focusing a lot on comedy clubs these days. I’m finding that I have a lot more fun and the show really grows and as a performer I can feel myself getting more into a rhythm by doing these clubs. I’m there to deliver a high laugh quotient and also a magic show, so it urges me to up my game. It was super fun to do the special, but we shot it in October. I have such a craving for instant gratification. When you come up with a trick you want to do it and you want to get the reaction right away. The live touring is what quenches that for me. Really the special is to be a little infomercial calling card to get more butts in the seats when you tour, so hopefully it’ll do that.

Sleight of Mouth airs tonight at 12:30am on Comedy Central, and Justin will be on @midnight right beforehand at 12am.

Being at the Intersection of Comedy and Magic with […]