By the time I encountered comedian-magician the Amazing Johnathan (born John Edward Szeles) as a curious preteen watching Comedy Central reruns in the early 2000s, he was already a showbiz veteran. He entertained the masses as a street performer and at the legendary Holy City Zoo in the late 1970s, on countless club tours through the ’80s, and on cable seemingly 24 hours a day in the ’90s. Jonathan’s act took elements of prop comedy, Don Rickles–esque crowd work, and sleight-of-hand magic, put them all in a blender, and then stuck his arm in too. He remained a Las Vegas mainstay until 2012 and retired shortly after as the health problems he accumulated over a lifetime of hard living worsened. Johnathan died on February 22 at age 63, but his manic, assaultive performance of a magic show gone to hell made a lasting impression on many of us who stumbled across his work during our formative years.
Both stand-up comedy and magic rely on the performer anticipating the audience’s expectations and choosing to uphold or subvert them at strategic moments. Club comics of the ’80s did this by framing relatable experiences in off-kilter but fundamentally recognizable ways — think Jerry Seinfeld probing at the strangeness of everyday activities like watching a cooking show (“I can’t smell it, I can’t taste it. At the end of the show, they hold it up to the camera and say, ‘Well, here it is. You can’t have any. Thanks for watching.’”). The alt comics of the ’90s did it by stripping away the expected artifice of the performance itself — think Janeane Garofalo talking in gory detail about her ruptured ovarian cysts (“I have a very ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy with my vagina.”). Johnathan did it through failure. The conceit of many Amazing Johnathan bits is that you are watching a man who can’t really do magic attempt to do magic. His stage persona is one of a hustler and a fraud, which creates an exciting dissonance between what you came to see and what you fear you may actually get. As his tricks fail, he takes it out on everyone, especially his audience volunteers, whom he constantly berates for failing to follow his frantically delivered instructions. He often does the opposite of what someone purporting to practice magic would do: After appearing to saw his own arm off in his 1995 Just for Laughs appearance, complete with screams of agony and fake blood (itself a riff on the bloodless “sawing a woman in half” classic), Johnathan condescendingly deadpans to the audience, “That was an illusion.” In the end, he does deliver on the promise of a traditional magic show; sometimes he really does make a dove appear from behind a piece of silk. But you’re just as likely to see him pull the cloth away to reveal he’s flipping you the bird.
Johnathan was not the first person to approach his act the way he did. Penn and Teller practiced a similarly deconstructed form of magic to greater renown, and alt-comedy forbears like Andy Kaufman likewise had metatextual and sometimes antagonistic relationships to their audiences. But there’s a reason the Amazing Johnathan’s influence in particular seems apparent now, even more than it did when he was actually at the peak of his career: His TV appearances and specials aired throughout the late ’90s and early 2000s, when budding comedy nerds of my generation were too young to see comedy live, but old enough to watch lots of cable. Johnathan’s Comedy Central Presents (2001) and hour special Wrong on Every Level (2006) re-aired constantly, as did his older appearances on Evening at the Improv, on which he appeared five times. Many of the remembrances of Johnathan I saw on social media after his death were not from people of Johnathan’s generation, but from those of us who encountered his work as children.
A lot of people who end up interested in comedy go through a magic phase first. Steve Martin famously worked at a magic shop as a teenager and allegedly still breaks out the old act at parties. Arsenio Hall performed as a child magician before becoming a comedian, materializing doves from thin air. Some comics never leave it behind: Nathan Fielder and David Wain have both incorporated magic tricks into their work. Magic plays with a lot of the same ideas as comedy does, but it expresses those ideas through physical signifiers rather than through words. A magician takes a familiar object and makes it appear somewhere strange; a comedian takes a familiar experience and describes it in a way that makes its strangeness apparent. It makes sense that both art forms light up the same brain at different stages of its development. Encountered at the right age, Johnathan’s work can be a bridge from one form to the other. When I discovered him in middle school, I was probably not yet intellectually sophisticated enough for the writing-heavy stand-up of Mitch Hedberg and George Carlin that I’d fall in love with a few years later, or for the absurdist sketch comedy like Stella I’d discover after that, but Johnathan’s chaotic, highly visual material laid the groundwork for both.
In that 1995 Just for Laughs performance, after Johnathan saws his arm off then assures us it’s a trick, the next thing he does is wind his arm back into an overhand pitch position, aiming his knife directly at the audience. “This,” he says, “is real.” The audience gasps — and then laughs. This is the essence of a Johnathan bit: the playful attitude toward the artifice or performance, the cartoonish gore, the threat of violence that keeps the audience on their toes. The idea that a performer could be so uninterested in the audience’s comfort, or even safety, was thrilling to encounter as a child, after a lifetime of children’s media primarily interested in ensuring the viewer feels safe. I saw Johnathan’s specials at the perfect time for them to act as a primer for stranger and more transgressive humor, and as a demonstration of the wild possibilities of a medium I’m still working in decades later. Rewatching as an adult, though the jokes themselves are dated, I still find the unpredictable energy Johnathan created onstage to be riveting and original. Few could do what he did, but I’m so glad so many of us got to see him do it.