Justin Willman is one of the greatest stage magicians working today, but because of the strange nature of fame in this country, most probably know him as a host of Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars.” Don’t get me wrong, he does a great job there, and I’m always impressed with a guy who could at any moment order a passerby to whip us up a “red velvet,” but I’d also admire a guy who could just make the cupcake appear from thin air.
I had a chance to see Willman (sans cupcakes) at Hollywood’s famous Magic Castle and it was one of the best shows (magic or otherwise) I have ever seen. It was funny, innovative (more on that later), and he magically flew around the stage as well as made things appear which were too big to be hidden in his pockets. It was great. Even more great was getting to sit down with him a few days later and do an interview (still sans cupcakes, darnet) and learn what advice the master of magic had for comedians.
Justin seen here drinking. Because he's cool that that.
I sort of obscured an important element of the story here, as Willman has actually gained a lot of his most recent fame from his “Magic Meltdown” show on Youtube.com’s Nerdist channel. This started as a live show at the Nerdist Theater (at Meltdown Comics) in Los Angeles, and has really made his mark on the comedy world. The internet’s is a tricky audience to crack, and crack them he has. Still the St. Louis native credits the troubled waters of children’s parties as his real proving ground:
“When anyone starts magic the first venue that they get is kid’s birthday parties. It’s the easiest venue and there’s a need for it. So I would try to come up with a routine that entertained kids. This is really good because you get the brutally honest instant reaction and if it sucks or if it’s boring they would get up and walk away. For me the birthday parties were a chance to really know what worked and what didn’t work.”
Like many magicians as Willman learned magic (in a deep and supportive St. Louis magic scene) he also learned patter, or canned jokes that came with each trick. He had this to say on breaking out of patter into his own comedic style:
“I embraced it as first. They had these old-school tattered books and they had old one-liners that I didn’t even get, but I would do them and get an uncomfortable laugh. I feel like it’s a natural process, if someone’s learning the guitar they’ll learn the chords and they’ll play cover songs until you get so proficient you can take these notes and rearrange them into their own songs. So with magic you learn the moves, you learn the tricks, you learn the lines that come with the instructions and you’re basically a cover magician for several years.”
While this sounds foreign to comedians, it’s true that most of us start at least aping the style of our comedic idols. The jokes are largely our own, but we hit stage with an unspoken (or perhaps un-admitted) attempt to be the next whoever. For me it was Dennis Miller, and I still feel little bits of his influence in my style today. As I grew older as a comedian I gravitated toward what was clearly my own voice, and so too did Willman.
“Finally you discover, ‘oh wow I just did something no one else does. I said that in a way that’s unique; I’m finding my voice’ Then I think that’s when the real development starts. For me that didn’t start until I was in the middle of doing the college market pretty voraciously, and then I discovered that I had a unique comedic sensibility and then I was able to write stuff to my own personality that were lines that nobody else did.”
This, too, is a stop on the way for comedians. As you start to find your own voice on stage your writing changes to play into that voice. It stops being about what’s funny, and it starts being about how funny serves the greater stage persona. In many ways comedy’s “young turks” are that level of comedian that has a whole routine (or more) that are a seemly personal and unique voice. From there it’s building that into album level comedy.Willman talked about how important it was to be yourself on stage, as any falseness can put the audience on edge, which is bad for comedy, but horrible for magic:
“[It took] a long time. Just like the amount of time it took me to shed those hacky jokes. I finally [said] I’m good enough I can just be myself. That works. I feel lucky that I figured out a way to make my natural personality work well on stage. Other guys create a separate persona and when its done WELL it can be a marvelous thing. I think the trap that a lot of people get into is that as you’re fighting an uphill battle anyway, some people know its a trick and they know you are going to try to fool them. So they’re on their guard anyway and if you come to the table with a fabricated personality it creates this barrier between you and the audience and I want them to feel like I’m just an ordinary guy.”
We’ve said here at CraveOnline.com how important it is to be yourself on stage. The greatest comedians, the legends, are the ones who rocked their own style in a way nobody had ever seen and each joke was even more funny because it came from an honest and natural place. If working to find your own comedy is the lesson you take from this interview, we consider it a good one.
If you could do magic, you'd be this smug too.
Lastly we talked to Willman about misdirection, a useful skill in magic and comedy. For the layperson the easiest way to describe misdirection is doing something loud and overt with one hand (waving) and secretly doing something else with the other hand (giving the finger). In comedy this means getting the audience to follow you into thinking you’ll say one thing, then going in a different direction. Here is a perfect example of comedic misdirection by the legend Steve Martin:
Willman had this to say about the magic of misdirection:
“I find the best misdirection is laughter, and I think thats what I use most. People can’t simultaneously be laughing at what just happened and be burning you with their eyes. If I need to cover up a move or transition from one secret moment to another the best time to do that is when their laughing. Its an emotional response, they can’t help but let their guard down. The best time to do something sneaky is right after you’ve done something amazing. They don’t expect you to do something sneaky right after they’ve had their minds blown.”
As the misdirection often seems like the punchline, it can be hard to conceive of using laughter as a bridge to an even bigger punch, but it’s a very good technique. Tim Farrell a comedy virtuoso and teacher (who taught yours truly) once said laughter was the best transition, but that’s just the start of it. When you get a big laugh from an audience there is no better time to hit them with more. Change directions, add tags, or reveal more information right after a laugh and your comedy becomes MAGICAL. See what I did there? Now somebody give me a cupcake.
We ended our conversation talking about other comedians, magicians, and entertainers that Willman enjoyed or recommended. Some of the heavy hitters were there, Louis CK, Penn and Teller (which we both gushed about for a long time, but there not much more to say than “…Is the BEST!”) Johnny Carson, David Copperfield, Harry Blackstone Jr. and more:
“Rob Zabrecky, a great magician who has created a character and who uses magic as a tool in the art of theater he creates which is great. [He’s part of] The Unholy Three which is him, Dave Lovering (from the Pixies) and Fitzgerald. Its a great show. Also guys like Derrick Hughes who is a buddy of mine and I hired him to be the main consultant on my web-series”.
Speaking of the web-series, Magic Meltdown is not to be missed. Here’s a clip here, but check out a “best of” article here on CraveOnline for more fun stuff.
I spent over 45 minutes talking with Willman and there is not nearly enough space to deal with all of it. I will paraphrase one last message that I think was quite powerful coming out of this interview. Willman spent 10 years on stage finding the right voice and perfecting his skill set. He credits this with affording himself a very important skill and that’s the ability to fill a stage, any stage, regardless of audience and exposure. As his career has taken off, and he’s been seen by a broader audience he is asked to do more, and has it all in reserve. He did the time, and now he’s ready for whatever fame has for him. Stage time, and practice, and deep self examination has created an act (and a man) that won’t dilute as it hits a wider and wider audience. He’s home grown and honest, and that’s what it takes to make it.
So, for the comedians and magicians reading this… the first step has always been the same. Get on stage and try and try and try until you have something so personal that it can be expanded to any level and not lose its inherent uniqueness. Then you can go as far as your brand can take you.
Speaking of going far: Willman has a show at Club Nokia (here in Los Angeles) with this description: JUSTIN WILLMAN’s TRICKED OUT show, a one-man comedy & magic event described as ‘an intimate evening of prestidigitation, make-believe and excessive sleight of mouth’ on Saturday, September 29 at 8:30PM. You can find out more information here.
I’ll be in the audience, and I think if you’re local you should be, too. I’m glad I got a chance to sit down with this master of performance, though I’m still a little sore he didn’t bring the cupcakes.