Justin Willman, Alternative Magician, Mixes the Dark Arts With Irony
It's Tuesday night in the loftlike performance area semi-hidden behind Meltdown Comics' retail floor, and a crowd of more than 60 in neatly arranged chairs intently watches the show's youthful host, Justin Willman. He disappears behind a large black cloth, then asks an audience member to name a fruit. When a woman blurts out "banana," Willman instantly drops the cloth to reveal himself in a comically outsized banana costume.
He then tosses out a beach ball to determine the next audience participant. It happens to be a young child named Winter, who helps Willman create a random tweet: "Playing Marco Polo with Antonio Banderas in Florida." The illusionist then reaches to a secured metal box overhead, pulling from it a piece of paper. Written on it: the very same tweet.
Willman, 32, clearly has the nuts and bolts of magic down. But he might also be described as an "alt-magician." At his live monthly variety show at Meltdown Comics, he brings in other equally adept magicians, as well as top comedians and music acts, mixing in a spirit of whimsical fun and a disarming goofiness with the sleight of hand.
The vibe is as much Pee-wee's Playhouse as it is David Copperfield.
"If there's anything that's 'alternative' in what I do," Willman says offstage, "it's a healthy sense of irony and self-awareness. It spoofs the magic that doesn't know it's being silly. You know, the animals, the fog machines." He's all magician, but he's also part comedian.
Magic is a competitive field, but Willman still speaks of a "brotherhood" of professionals whose work he respects. Onstage, he eagerly introduces the night's first guest illusionist, Ben Seidman, a youngish blond fellow fresh from Vegas' Mandalay Bay Casino.
Seidman starts with some banter: "If a homeless person approaches you on the street, just out-crazy him." He contorts his face into a grotesquely funny expression, then goes into his first round of disappearing-object tricks.
Next, a young duo called David & Lehman takes the floor. The act involves guessing the exact number an audience member is thinking.
Participants in this year's Hollywood Fringe Festival, the two trade in a somewhat dry, preppy-collegiate shtick, their interplay reminiscent of the Smothers Brothers. But it's their successful mind-reading trick that delivers the biggest punch.
Later, in a coffee shop near the Hollywood Hills, Willman dissects the way that his cadre of irony-drenched young performers is shaking up the protocol and formality of the magic world.
"Rob Zabrecky, who just won the Magic Castle's 'Stage Magician' award," Willman says, "he's like a Tim Burton, Addams Family character. The true pros -- a great bar of excellence -- is that the most memorable thing isn't gonna be the 'trick,' it's the personality. It's an art form where people unfortunately think that you could buy the trick, the talent, in a magic store."
Willman has been careful to craft a personality every bit as indispensable as his bag of tricks. A St. Louis native, he was doing a hybrid bicycling/rollerblading stunt at age 13 when he flew over the handlebars and wound up in a cast for six months. He spent much of that time in the hospital.
In keeping with similar such "tragedy-leads-to-triumph" stories, Willman was visited in the hospital by a wandering magician who did tricks for the bedridden kids.
Quickly obsessed, the wide-eyed youth asked his mother to help him acquire some store-bought tricks.
"In St. Louis, there was a half magic shop, half adult-novelty store," Willman recalls. "And my mom picked me up a magic instruction book. After I got out of the hospital, I took magic classes at the half-magic, half-dildo store. It was the first thing I was really good at -- better than average at. And it was a good conduit for my personality. I didn't know how to have conversations with girls and so forth."
After graduating from Boston's Emerson College -- and, in his last year, participating in the school's unique internship program in Los Angeles -- Willman moved here to give professional magic a shot.
As Justin Kredible, he soon made a living doing private shows -- birthdays, bar mitzvahs, parties -- sometimes as many as eight gigs in a weekend.
The lucrative college market followed, leading to 150 campus shows a year. That made him one of the busiest magicians in the country.
"I was able to do the show I wanted to do," he says of the college-gig years. "More risque, with adult themes and such. Crowd work was a really important element there."
Even now he could pass for an undergraduate; his college fans could be forgiven for assuming he was younger than they were.
These days, in a return to his roots, Willman himself regularly visits Children's Hospital. He also hosts two shows on the Food Network -- Cupcake Wars and Last Cake Standing -- which have nothing to do with magic but utilize the performer's skills at easygoing-yet-snappy improvisation.
The television shows guarantee bigger audiences at his live appearances -- he recently played a busy week at Hollywood's prestigious Magic Castle and now is entrenched in the super-lucrative corporate market.
They also give him the freedom to pursue his live-magic dream goals: a large touring show leading to an extended residency in Vegas.
"For the average person, when it comes to magic, there's one guy," he says. "They'll think of Criss Angel or David Blaine. They don't realize the variety, the level of depth out there."
He points out that a magician is the one performer who can literally visually transcend reality. He shares as proof a classic anecdote of Lance Burton getting mugged in Vegas, using sleight of hand to pull out seemingly "empty" pockets.
"Here in Starbucks, if I reached into one of their CDs and pulled out a $20 bill and paid them with that, it'd be a great gift," he says.
And then Willman shares his all-time favorite postshow compliment: "I hate magic, but I love your show."
Justin will be performing at Club Nokia on September 29 with a new show called Justin Willman: Tricked Out. Tickets go on sale July 27 and are available at ticketmaster.com.Follow us on Twitter at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.