Culture

Magician Justin Willman On Performing In A Pandemic And Creating A Connection Over Zoom

To spend any time watching magician Justin Willman is to be charmed by him. He’s so affable, so genuine and present that you just sort of fall under his spell of likability. It’s a smart #brand for a performer in 2021 — when we all need a respite from life’s multitude of hostilities — but might not have seemed quite so brilliant when Willman was cutting his teeth in the early 2000s and the hottest magicians alive were focused on breaking down the illusions of their genre, like Penn and Teller, or whittling the performance element down to bare bones, like David Blaine.

Still, Willman found his audience (touring with mega-chill Jason Mraz in the early days of both their careers), and the world gradually caught on to his charisma. After hosting Cupcake Wars and a smattering of other game shows, he began combining magic and comedy (something he’d been doing all along on the college circuit) at Meltdown Comics in Los Angeles. I went to almost all of those shows and they remain some of the best live performances I’ve ever seen. One week you’d get Jerrod Carmichael, the most laidback comedian alive, riffing while leaning against the theater wall; the next you’d have Thomas Middleditch riding in on a razor scooter for a jittery-veering-toward-intentionally-awkward set.

It was a wild little scene and Willman was the ringmaster — pulling everyone together and bookending the comedy with a curse-laden magic act. Those performances became the basis of Sleight of Mouth, his first feature special for Comedy Central, which led to Magic for Humans, a man-on-the-street show airing on Netflix. Along the way, Willman got married, told the story in a Drunk History-inspired viral video, had a baby, and kept touring almost nonstop.

Then the pandemic hit. And during the May 2020 press run for season three of Magic for Humans, Willman lost his mom. In July, his dog died on his 40th birthday. The performer found himself spinning out and in need of the connection he usually got from touring, so (with encouragement from his wife) he decided to attempt a new trick and a pretty damn tough one: unlocking the secret to Zoom performances.

Magic for Humans at Home was born.

Attending a show last week, I was thrilled to see how naturally Willman’s positivity and warmth translate to what is still basically a glorified conference call. In his weekly shows, which now feature roughly 1000 guests at a time, he involves the audience, uses multimedia, and improvises (seemingly) effortlessly. It’s tight, energetic, and tons of fun — words I don’t think have been uttered about Zoom interactions very often.

After the show, I spoke to Willman about Magic For Humans At Home, the great Harry Anderson of Night Court fame, and reaching audiences across the internet in a pandemic. Check out the Uproxx-exclusive mini-doc above, our conversation below, and Willman’s next round of Zoom shows every weekend from now until April.

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You started to build your career at a time where the idea in magic was to kind of underperform and be very droll about it like David Blaine or deconstruct it like Penn and Teller. And then you’re like a real full showman — you could have made a great life as a comic, without magic. Was that always the philosophy for you, “I actually do want to have fun and be a showman and not only be a stone-cold card sharp”?

I started when I was 12 and because you don’t really know any better, you kind of imitate. You go through these phases where you’re like, like at first it was Lance Burton. I saw him live and I was like, “This guy’s the greatest! He’s in his tux, he’s doing magic to Vivaldi, he’s making the doves appear!”

So I did that, but I did it to Mozart. To be original.

Then I discovered Harry Anderson when I was like 14, 15-years-old because I loved the show Night Court and then realized that he was also one of the greatest comedy magicians. I’d seen Amazing Johnathan, super funny, made me laugh so hard, but his joke was that the magic most often didn’t work. It didn’t matter because he was so funny, but Harry Anderson was also really, really funny and he did great tricks.

He kind of under-promised and over-delivered, in terms of the magic.

I can’t believe I’ve never thought of that connection with your career and his. That’s actually so spot on that I want to see you in the eventual Night Court reboot.

It was like him, Steve Martin, Johnny Carson, all these guys I’d naturally was huge fans for their comedy, but then realized that they’d started as magicians. Harry Anderson always incorporated magic. But the fact that Johnny Carson — like my childhood hero, I would go to sleep watching the Tonight Show — that he was also a magician blew my mind. Steve Martin, like those people kind of planted a seed of, “Hey, magic is a great foot in the door or it’s just a great door — like you can pursue that forever.”

I liked the Harry Anderson, Mac King, Penn and Teller style — where the tricks were really, really great. The tricks didn’t need jokes, but the fact that you could dress them up with these stories and these metaphors and tell a tale and develop your personality seemed to make it all so much richer. And if something screws up, “Hey, it’s a joke!” It makes it human and approachable and it makes the most out of the imperfections, which naturally happen.

If you watch my stuff, I have a pattern of sometimes making it look like something didn’t go right and then it succeeds. And I feel like that’s kind of a little roller coaster ride that people never get sick of, especially when watching magic. “Oh, I figured it out!”

“Oh, no… I didn’t.”

That’s particularly funny when you do it with kids — you kind of have that Jim from The Office or like Bert from “Bert and Ernie” thing, where you’re like looking at the camera or looking at the audience like, “How did I get stuck in this situation?” And then, of course, there’s this turn that’s always so thrilling and exciting.

That rhythm feels like it’s part of how you’ve unlocked this Zoom performance door that so many people have struggled with. You’ve made it into an event — but a casual, loose, funny one. Can you talk about Magic for Humans? I know it all came together in a very personal way for you.

I did my last live show on March 8th, 2020. It was like a Laugh Fest comedy festival in Grand Rapids and then I was supposed to go back on the road that next weekend. And that was that week where everything was shutting down. And I’d been traveling so much that at first shows are canceling and it’s out of my control — it was kind of like a little bit of a silver lining to be able to take a breath and be home with my wife and our son. He had just turned one a couple months earlier, so it was like all this exciting stuff happening every day and I didn’t want to miss it.

Then, maybe two months in, I started to get stir-crazy. Because I’m like a workaholic. I kind of always need to be, I need stuff, I need to be busy. And I kind of was realizing how much being on stage was vital to my emotional wellbeing. Not necessarily as kind of like a “needy performer” who needs laughs and applause — though I’m sure that’s part of it — but I think just like constantly being “in my purpose.” Entertaining people’s what I’m here to do and I can’t do it. You can kind of like write and come up with new stuff, but I’m not much of like a “write a show and then do it” guy. I’m kind of like, “think of a bit, do it that night, see if it works, rewrite it, do it the next night” kind of guy.

Then my mom passed away in May.

Sorry for your loss.

Thank you. Yeah. Then our dog died. Like it was like a series of unfortunate events. And the day my dog died, I turned 40. So it was like unfortunate events and also an exciting milestone. Which would be really exciting if you had the party surrounded by all the people you love, but it’s really sad when it’s spent at a vet’s office and it’s kind of like… you know. So my wife was like, “Maybe you should…” because I had been resisting doing Zoom shows, people had started doing them here and there and I just kind of thought it was like the magic purist in me, which I’m not much of a magic purist, but something felt like “Nah, you got to be there with people. Watching magic on TV only works because there’s a human being there, they’re living vicariously through this person whose mind is being blown.”

I kind of resisted for a little while, but I was doing press for the new season of Magic for Humans — doing like the Kelly Clarkson Show and the Corden Show via Zoom and the Today Show… I couldn’t believe how strong it was. Kind of because very rarely are you this close to somebody doing magic. So it was surprisingly intimate. Everyone’s like in their comfort zone, and no one’s in a theater, out in the street and they see a bunch of cameras, everyone is kind of like open to it.

Also my wife was like, you need a healthy distraction. Let’s try this out.

She saw you going stir crazy and needing the connection.

So we started doing a brand new Zoom show and I started with, “Let me put 50 tickets up, let me see how it goes.” And those went really quick. People were excited and I was like, “Okay 100.” Then, “Okay, do like 250 this weekend.”

It kind of kept snowballing and Zoom’s max is like a thousand people a show, which actually still felt intimate, but it then became like an event, like that’s when it became people in Omaha logging in and seeing their family at nighttime in London. And you’re seeing a family who is up in the middle of the night in Australia and everyone is the same — all these families huddled around the computer.

It was like this great equalizer, where it’s just reminding us that we’re all in this crazy time together and we’re all looking for an escape. We’re all seeking some joy, something to put in our calendar to look forward to. So it did become these events, which reminded me of the days back at the comic book shop, where I would write a brand new show every month to do “Sleight of Mouth.” It was nerve-wracking and exciting and new — so it gave me that creative fulfillment, but it also gave me a real, cathartic, kind of therapeutic dose of humanity.

And it kind of became that, I think, for other people too.

I love that. And having seen the show, people are paying money so they’re invested. They want to have fun. They’re focused, so there’s an energy to it.

But obviously, there are limitations, too. I’m thinking of that famous trick that you did on Ellen and you did at the comic store, where you had a box early on in the show and it would come into play at the finale. In this case, that would need to be on screen every second — because you only have your frame to exist in and the audience has their frame and you’re trying to kind of cross the void. What were some of the challenges there? How did you go about constructing the show?

The biggest challenge was… as a magician, part of me has always worried about like, “I need to maintain the magic credibility.” Like the box you’re talking about. If it leaves your view, you’re going to think something fishy happened. So how do I keep it visually exciting, but also not make you suspect? Because I still want to drop in little video clips and segments and different camera angles and stuff like that. So I just shortened the length of time on bits. As opposed to a box hanging from the beginning of a show and then I show you what’s inside at the end, it’s kind of like, “Here’s this thing, this is going to be important in 30 seconds!” and it doesn’t leave your sight.

Also, I have a short attention span, especially when it comes to staring at a screen. I think everybody has as well. And I learned in editing the Netflix show for the past couple of years — if you lose their attention, you’re competing with every other piece of content that’s ever been made ever at the touch of a thumb. You can’t have a lull, you can’t let them come up for air. So I had to write like that. In my live show, a bit might be eight to 10 minutes long, because you’re milking it and it’s live and you’re looking at — it’s laughs and ad-libs. But on Zoom, it really has to cook and be tight.

I think all my experience editing the show gave me just like this barometer for pace and I know that if I would start to get a little squirmy, they definitely are, so I tried to keep it fast. Sort of like a mentalism trick where I’m picturing somebody from the audience and they say a thing and it’s like —

[Willman holds up a glass jar of M&Ms.]

I’ll show you. I know how many are in here, Steve. Okay? I’m going to try to send the quantity to you. I don’t know how your estimation skills here, but just to be open to receiving a number and just give me your gut, like exactly how many M&M’s do you think are in the jar?

747. I know that’s a plane. I shouldn’t have said that, it’s a plane, but yeah 747. That’s what I’m saying.

That’s exactly right. How did you know? You’ve never seen me do this before. I don’t know how much time you have for the interview, but I’m going to count them so you can see, watch. So it’s one… two… here, I’ll count them into the lid.

Oh no, I wrote it on the lid. There we go. 747!

[Willman holds up the lid, which reads “747” — it hasn’t been out of his or my sight.]

I love it. I’m so glad we decided on a Zoom, by the way. I never really Zoom people from my garage here, but this is great.

I will picture in picture people here, hold on, let me get you in here.

[He puts me on his picture-in-picture screen.]

And boom, there we go. And all of a sudden, basically people just think they’re watching the show, everyone camera’s on, all of a sudden two clicks of the mouse and I’ve got somebody in here, initially they kind of freak out. But basically, it’s just I’m kind of like live directing the show. Like a live TV show and just pulling people in — which they love because the kids freak out and you see people snap to attention because they forget that it’s not just watching Netflix where it’s a one-way thing. You go both ways and I try to use as many people as possible and music. And I just try to add everything I can that doesn’t make it feel overproduced.

The unspoken story of this is the fact that it’s not totally unusual for all of us to be watching a show together on Zoom in 2020 or 2021. You can’t not think about how weird it is — which I don’t even have to overtly say, because we’re all in this thing together, which gives the show like an extra layer of “a moment in time; a moment in culture” that we’re all living through together.

I’ve seen you live so many times and seen how you … you do a great job of that very rare trick of holding the whole audience in your hand at once. If anyone can reach through Zoom and make it feel like genuine connection, it feels like it would be you. That’s the ultimate magic trick.

The thing that always bothered me is when people, almost everybody, I would see perform on Zoom or on a Zoom was never looking at the camera, because they’re looking at the screen. So I got a teleprompter set up here with a monitor, so I’m looking right at you right now. And just that little thing changed everything. It makes it feel like everybody is being spoken to, like the show is just for them, like they’re in the front row.

Now the show kind of took off, so I’ve got all these people who came and then want to come again. And I want them to come again. I don’t want them to think that that’s all I got. So I have the self-pressure of writing another hour and then another hour and driving my wife crazy. But remember, she’s the one who asked for it.

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