TSJ Interviews Magician Justin Willman

DID YOU CATCH THE MAGIC on Nerdist.com, this morning? Check it out here (below) if you haven’t already, to watch genial Justin Willman show off his flare for sleights of hand on his new show, Justin Willman’s Magic Meltdown.

Dude’s mug look familiar? You might have caught his other gig as host of The Cupcake Wars (don’t act like you don’t know what that is), or seen him woo the crowds with his tricks on Ellen, and/or a bevy of other morning shows.

TSJ caught up with him this week to talk about shaking up a little awe in an unfazed world.

The Smoking Jacket: What’s this Nerdist gig you have going on?

Justin Willman: I just finished this web series, which is kind of like street magic meets sketch comedy. Justin Willman’s Magic Meltdown is trying to make street magic fun again. Every Friday is a new episode, and every episode is themed. So this Friday’s our technology episode — all the magic is somehow related to technology. And the following week will be the love episode. The week after that is the sex episode… So it’s been a good challenge to not just have a bunch of tricks [without any] through line. I’m trying to get people thinking about whatever the theme is.

TSJ: How did you get hooked up with the folks at Nerdist?

JW: I do a monthly show with comics, in kind of like Nerd headquarters in LA, and we’ve got a little theater in the back, which is kind of like the Nerd theater. Chris Hardwick came to the first show I gave, and I guess he dug my brand of magic — it’s less look at me being amazing, it’s more self-deprecating. So he put me at the helm of creating the magic wing of Nerdist.

TSJ: When did you get into magic?

JW: I’ve been a magician since I was 12. I got my start doing kids’ birthday parties. Which, as odd as it sounds, is good preparation. Doing shows for kids when I was in high school gave me that showmanship ability to basically force people who don’t give a shit about what you’re doing to give a shit. And little kids are brutally honest, so if you’re boring they’ll just walk away. So that gave me good training to at least know how to hold a crowd.

TSJ: From what I’ve seen on the Internet, your magic tricks are more in the vaudeville vein than in the locking yourself up in an ice cube and hanging over New York City vein. Want to tell me a bit about your magical aesthetic?

JW: I’m definitely inspired by the old school thing. I love old magic and circus posters. Just reading old vaudeville stories, you know. [In the old days], entertainment was the kind of thing where you didn’t have TV, you had to get up and get dressed up and go see something in person. There was a great showmanship pride to it. I feel like I bring that to my live shows, just making the whole thing an experience as opposed to a freak show.

TSJ: What’s the difference between doing a show for the web and doing a live show?

JW: For the web show, since it’s a lot of intimate, smaller groups of people, the challenge is towning down. A lot of magicians have trouble turning it off and not being this look-at-me magician. I like to try to be a little more relateable. Someone someone might want to have a beer with who can also do some crazy magic stuff.

TSJ: What do you think it is about card tricks, or sleight of hand tricks that can still amaze people? Is it the sublte precision involved? Or the novelty of old things being new again? The element of surprise?

JW: We’re in an age that’s so high tech and we’re so jaded to amazing stuff. We’ve got apps on our phones like Shazam that tell us what music we’re listening to. I don’t know how that works — that is truly magic. But I think we take all that for granted. We expect [technology] to do these magic things.

Sleight of hand is so amazing because there’s no electronics. It’s really just your hands doing these things. And in the high tech world that we have right now, seeing things that are so disarmingly simple and astounding might be even more powerful now than it was twenty years ago because it’s such a contrast to our everyday lives.

I feel like no matter how amazing and high tech things get we’ll never lose that craving to be filled with wonder. It’s the simple things that take it back to that, that take you back to being a kid again.

TSJ: It must be amazing to watch people’s faces as they react to your tricks. Do you get addicted to surprising people?

JW: I totally get addicted to it. That’s where the real high is. Watching someone freak out and watching people laugh, I mean, that’s what makes it entertaining for me. That’s the best part.

TSJ: Can you do other old-timey tricks? Like a warbly whistle? Or ventriloquate?

JW: I’m not a warbly whistler. I can’t do bird calls, although that would be great. I’m a lousy ventrioloquist. I can juggle okay. So maybe I’m not that all around vaudeville Renaissance man. I’m more of one a one-trick pony… that does a lot of tricks. But I’ve got a lot of friends who do those weird things.

“I feel like no matter how amazing and high tech things get we’ll never lose that craving to be filled with wonder.”

TSJ: Do you? Is there like a whole vaudeville subculture going on in LA?

JW: You know for me, being a magician is completely ordinary. But to a lot of people, the idea of being a magician is completely strange. The best thing is I’ve got all these crazy friends: I’ve got contortionist friends, I’ve got juggler friends — I’ve got a buddy who juggles pancakes — you know, no big deal! When I put the show together, it’s great to put these people together and share the stage with them. And the show that we do live at the comic book store is really like an old school variety show built for 2012. And it’s the throwback stuff that people love the most.

 Check out his show here, and tune in to Nerdist.com for more.


Related on The Smoking Jacket:
Interview with Comedian Jon Dore 
TSJ Interviews Tank Girl Illustrator, Rufus Dayglo