There’s always been an intersection—or at least a set of common interests—between comedians and magicians. Both groups are storytellers and performers, and both thrive in part because they require a little trickery behind the proverbial curtain. For magicians, it’s sleight of hand. For comedians, it’s taking an ordinary experience and presenting it in a way that’s so novel that it becomes hilarious.
Justin Willman is an expert on those intersections, being both a magician and a comedian himself. He’s appeared on Ellen, The Tonight Show, Conan, and Food Network, and his 2015 special, Sleight Of Mouth, ran on Comedy Central. His latest project, an as-yet-unnamed pilot, is in development right now at the network.
The A.V. Club talked to Willman backstage at Riot L.A. about the intersection of magic and comedy.
The A.V. Club: Why are magic and comedy such a natural fit?
Justin Willman: A joke and a trick are very similar, in that there’s a setup and a punchline. With a trick it’s got to be like, “Hey, here’s what’s going on. This would be impossible, boom—it’s possible.” For me, with a trick if you just go A to B with a joke where you say, “Here’s what I’m going to do” and then you do it, that’s boring and cliché. People get too ahead of you and that’s no fun. I like to do a trick, make it really look like I fucked up, and then redeem myself. Somehow I’m able to re-create that formula many times in the show without people catching on. That’s fun for me because I think just as much as people like seeing something work out, they like seeing a magician as human and see something go wrong that doesn’t happen every show, and maybe see me recover. That’s more interesting.
AVC: How did you develop your style on stage? How did you come to find the balance between your two acts?
JW: When I was a young kid, like 13, I would watch The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Loved him. I would see all these stand-up comedians, loved them. But when you’re 13 you don’t have a voice yet because you’re doing jokes about homework. So then I discovered magic, which was a way to be on stage and get that entertainer urge out, so magic became my love. And now, later in life—after college, in my 20s, when I started having something to say—I was able to work that into the magic so it felt like point-of-view driven magic. But it didn’t happen right away. It was almost like magic was the antidote in the meantime, but now I’m able to really do half and half.
AVC: So many comedians started off doing magic, from David Wain to Steve Martin. Why do you think that is?
JW: Steve Martin started as a magician. Johnny Carson. Arsenio Hall. David Wain loves magic. I feel like these people are probably just like me, where magic is an art form that you can dabble in as a kid that has jokes built in. As bad as some of the old magic books are, they have a trick and the patter that goes along with it. They’re cheesy jokes, but they work. Magicians are able to get away with doing bad comedy because the trick is good, and you can get laughs because there’s a payoff.
I just loved that in Steve Martin’s book, he talked about how magic was—like for me—just to be able to get those entertainment urges out, and then he discovered that people really laughed when he messed up a trick. When the trick doesn’t work, it’s really funny. I think that’s when he found his absurdist point of view.
Whenever I do The Meltdown, Kumail [Nanjiani] and I end up talking about magic for an hour afterwards. I think comics, because they approach their comedy a little differently than a magician approaches magic, they’re just fascinated because it’s so similar, yet so different, and there’s so many questions to ask about the process. Because there’s so much secrecy behind the trick part, versus comedy, where it’s all showing. It’s right there. But with magic there’s what’s happening below the surface and also the presentation. I like to think of it as though there are two layers of preparation in order to create a successful magic routine.
AVC: Well, comedy is also deceptively detail-oriented. They’re not just winging it out there with those jokes.
JW: Exactly. There’s all that preparation. Putting together a set list… There are some people who go out there and wing it, but very few. Or, rather, people who look like they’re going out there and winging it. Robin Williams probably meticulously practiced. There’s so much practice that you don’t see to make it look effortless, just like a magic trick. When you see a trick happen, the idea is to make all the hard work and the practice invisible so that it looks effortless. It’s the same with comedy. You don’t want to watch a comedian who looks like he’s really working hard up there. It’s really funny when it’s effortless—it just flows.
AVC: There’s a magician some of us at Onion Inc. like to go see, and we’re at this point now where, when we bring new people, we request tricks we’ve seen before. Is that annoying?
JW: Trust me, for magicians it’s so rare. You go to a rock concert and they’re like “Freebird!” and call out requests, or you go to a comedy show like Jim Gaffigan and he gets “Hot Pocket!” But a magician rarely gets people calling out bits, so that must be the best feeling. I’d love it if I walked onstage and someone was like, “That card trick!” Not that you can always do things on the fly.
AVC: Phew. Though one co-worker just requests things because he’s trying to figure the tricks out. He’s trying to pick them apart.
JW: That’s the thing. We want our material to be popular, but we also know that the more you watch it, the more you might pick up on it. You can listen to a comedy album—like I listen to Dave Attell’s Skanks For The Memories over and over again, and I know all the jokes but it’s still somehow pleasing to me. But with magic, if it’s just tricks, it doesn’t hold up to repetition. With a trick, like a joke, the element of surprise is important. There’s nothing like the first time.
AVC: You can get sick of a joke too, though.
JW: Yeah. You go see a music show, you want to hear your hits from the band. You don’t want to hear all the new stuff, but with a comedy show you want to hear new stuff. Unless you’re bringing people, and the guy doesn’t do that joke you love, then it’s kind of a bummer. You have to find that mix.
AVC: It depends on the person. Some people want to go see Patton Oswalt do all the jokes they know from his old records, period.
JW: You can’t win, I guess.
AVC: What do you have coming up?
JW: We’re doing a new pilot, a whole new show, using magic to solve America’s problems—racism, income inequality, police brutality—using magic. So it’s idealistic, optimistic, and also slightly deranged.
AVC: Why is that how you decided to organize stuff? Why is that the way in?
JW: I don’t want to do a trick just to do a trick. I don’t want to just have you look at this can, and boom, it disappears. It’s awesome, but it doesn’t mean anything. Versus if you can use magic as a metaphor for something without it being too heavy handed, or use magic as a chance to express your narrative point of view about something, anything, I feel like then the trick has so much more depth. Just like comedy, there are people who just do fun, absurdist stuff, which is great, but when you can do comedy about something that simultaneously makes you laugh hard and also makes you think hard, I feel like it has more of a lasting effect. These days, [David] Copperfield, [Criss] Angel, [David] Blaine, they do awesome stuff, but I think there’s an opening to use magic as a chance to express a unique point of view.
AVC: Some of those guys might have messages, but it’s not really clear what they are. I’m sure David Blaine was trying to convey something by sitting in that glass box for however many days, but it’s hard to know what it was.
JW: Right. It’s almost like an art installation where you just let the people figure it out. Some people would attach meaning to it: “Wow, he’s really pushing the boundaries of what a human is truly capable of doing. Maybe I can do more in my life.” In the early 1900s Houdini was a cultural hero because he was an immigrant who could escape any bounds. Handcuffs, chains, thrown into the river—and that became a metaphor to inspire other people to escape whatever binds them in their life. Without even having to say it.
I think magic is just an amazing art form that I haven’t even come close to figuring out the full potential of, but it deserves to be seen and heard more.
AVC: Are there waves of magic? Does it come and go in the public eye?
JW: There was the golden age, late 1800s, early 1900s. Before movies were a thing, magic was how people would escape. To basically witness the special effects that we watch in movies now live on stage was probably just amazing, and [there was] nothing like it, but then movies come along, and you can reproduce a film reel much cheaper than you can put a magician in a theater, so the magician became the opening acts to those movies, and then kind of fell to the wayside, because of the ability cinema had to really create an illusion to teleport you somewhere else.
Now we have such a high-tech era, and the shareability of these clips and the ability for kids who don’t even live near a magic shop or a magic library to be able to learn these things quickly? Man. I mean, I had to read library books. I would have to actually get excited about reading. I would have to steal my mom’s credit card to buy DVDs and stuff, and teach myself alone in my basement. And now kids can do that for free on their phone—which is a good thing and a bad thing because there’s a boom for magic interest, but there’s also a lot more shitty magic out there floating around.
AVC: Does the bar change? Was it easier to impress people in the 1880s than it is now?
JW: In L.A. we have the Magic Castle. There’s nothing else like it in the world. It’s seven showrooms, and the place is packed every night with smart adults of all different areas of occupation having their minds blown. There’s new magic being created, but most of the magic you see, even in my show, is stuff that’s 100 years old. It’s just reinventing that premise and dressing it up in different props and different ideas and a different point of view and a different story that makes it feel different. The actual tricks are so old, and it impresses people just as much now as it did then, and it’ll probably keep impressing people.
AVC: You could say it’s the same with movies. It’s all the same basic stories—love stories, Westerns, comedies, whatever.
JW: Yeah. We’ve seen these formats before. Something like Being John Malkovich, or someone will come along where you’re like, “Whoa, there’s nothing like that,” but really it’s recycling these same things. With magic I feel like the more high-tech our society is, the more low-tech and tangible the magic can be.