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Q&A: Justin Willman and the never-ending How Did You Do That?
Justin Willman on how his comedic ‘Magic for Humans’ on Netflix is really an infomercial for what really counts: Doing magic on stage. He’s in downtown Lafayette Saturday
I don’t know, just like you don’t know, how Justin Willman just did that last trick. And he wasn’t telling. Pretty much like every episode of “Magic for Humans,” Willman’s Neflix series of signature sidewalk magic and family-friendly comedy, now three seasons deep. (If you haven’t seen it, do.)
But there wasn’t much magic in the first question this week, when Willman called ahead of a Saturday show at the Long Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Lafayette.
So indulge me this bit of transplanted St. Louis Hoosier creeping into the introduction with a guy who built his first card tricks and up-close magic acts in suburban STL. (Don’t worry, it’s not all toasted ravioli and Busch Stadium after that.)
Question: So, here's the obligatory St. Louis question.
Justin Willman: I know what it is.
Question: Everyone in St. Louis knows what it is, so you know I have to ask. What high school did you go to?
Justin Willman: I went to Ladue High School.
Question: OK, I grew up in Florissant, in North County, and went to McCluer North.
Justin Willman: I used to wrestle against you guys.
Question: Yeah? Were you good?
Justin Willman: I was OK, for my weight class. I won more than I lost. Never went to state or anything like that.
Question: How was it, a magician being a wrestler? You could get out of every hold, right?
Justin Willman: You’d think that. Houdini was a master of escape. But I'm telling you some of those wrestlers are a little tricky. It did teach me the power of fighting like hell. I have a tinge of claustrophobia, and I really didn't like being all curled up and pinned. So I would kind of channel a little bit of a panic part of me in a good way and just figure out how the heck to get out of it.
Question: How many times in a given day or given week do you hear, “How did you do that?” It’s practically the signature line in “Magic for Humans.”
Justin Willman: It’s been a while since I’ve been out in the world – all of us, obviously. Lately that I mostly hear it in comments on video, typed in. I can't wait to hear it live again. I miss it. I miss coming up with different clever ways to weasel out of answering that question. That's half of my job.
Question: Was that left to your family during the shutdown of COVID times?
Justin Willman: My son is 2½, so he doesn't ask. He just knows Daddy’s magic and moves on with his day. I pick and choose when I show my wife tricks. I have to wait till I've got them down, when they're bulletproof. Because if I show her a trick early on, that's not polished yet, and she sees how it works, she will now forever know how that trick works. You can't unknow it. So, pretty much it was a lot of doing magic over Zoom over the course of the pandemic. And there's nothing better than doing it in person and hearing those gasps after the show hearing people ask that question. And I know that they ask the question, but they don't really want the answer. They ask it because they don't know what else to say. But if I just flat out told them, right when they asked me, I think they'd be pretty disappointed.
Question: It seems, from watching your show, so much of your act depends on people being affable – being willing participants. Is that really the case? How do you get people to be affable these days?
Justin Willman: It's a lot of body language reading. It's different when I'm onstage versus out in the world shooting the TV show. With the TV show thing, it's tricky because someone might seem affable, might seem like the kind of person I'd call up from the audience. They seem like a good sport in a good mood. They are not going to be resistant and not trust what we’re going for. But on TV, just that added element of a video camera. And then like being in their head like thinking, “Oh God, how do I look? Do I look stupid? Don't look stupid. Don't do anything stupid.” We all act different in front of a camera. So, you really need to find someone who you think, hopefully, is going to forget about the camera and behave like a normal human being. Again, just like wrestling, I think I have more wins than losses.
Question: How has COVID affected the kind of magic you're doing, which really is close-up material, not necessarily built for the rules of social distancing?
Justin Willman: A big part of magic is having your audience in kind of point blank range, very close proximity. That's the thing with magic is you want to get up close and scrutinize. I had to pivot and retool how I do what I do over the course of the pandemic and convert my show to Zoom and figure out ways to maximize and lean into the things that are great about Zoom and lean away from the things that are not. But I really miss being in front of an audience, getting that instant gratification. Hearing where the laughs are, hearing where the gasps are is really, really important.
Question: Are you still going to be able on this tour to bring people up on stage and work close up?
Justin Willman: Yeah. The show I'm doing with the Long Center, it's a big venue, a big theater. So we have big 4K video cameras, projecting a lot of it onto the screen so that everybody can have that great view. But the show is super interactive. I use maybe more than a dozen people from the audience on stage in the show. Luckily, the show didn't involve too much hugging or breathing in each other's faces. So I don't have to change too much. It'll feel normal.
Question: But you can’t do the “Close Up Magic” bits from your show, right?
Justin Willman: I can’t. People might flinch if I get close enough to boop them on the nose. I guess I probably should have developed a far away magic from the end of a football field and you’ve got to figure out what the heck he did.
In the live show, we're going to have “Magic for Susans,” we're going to do the bit where we convince somebody they're invisible, we're going to have our minds read and minds blown and really lean into a lot of comedy. I've got so much new stuff that I've come up with over the past year-and-a-half that I'm so excited to share with people.
Question: Magic kind of comes and goes. Do you see this as something that is perpetual – something that can sustain forever if you can keep coming up with new ways of presenting it?
Justin Willman: I like to model it after the Bruce Springsteen career model. He's a guy who has this incredibly long career and a body of work, album after album after album, and creating lifelong fans who grow with him. He goes out on stage, he does a 3½ hour show. He gives it all out there. He might go to the studio and make an album to give the fans something new, but it's the live shows that I think give him the most joy and give the fans the most joy. I kind of like the idea of continuing to make television and put new stuff out there and create new fans, in order to tour. I think that's what it's all about. It's like the TV show is really the infomercial for the tour, to get on stage and do that thing that you do.
Question: A lot of your TV show is wrapped around psychological themes, the power of being influenced, those kinds of things. Is that a component that if you didn’t have it, your magic wouldn’t work?
Justin Willman: Magic is always involved psychology and kind of coercion and misdirection in a way. But magicians for years always kind of hid that. Like they didn't want the audience to know anything behind the curtain. I feel like, these days, people are so savvy and cynical, but also, in our podcast era, people love to nerd out and learn new things. So I find that by pulling the curtain back a little bit and I let them know all the elaborate layers that go into pulling off the successful trick, I feel like they not only respect it more, but I feel like it kind of makes them enjoy it a little bit more, because they feel like they're a part of it, if that makes any sense.
Question: Along those lines, do you think you could go out to a clinic and – we have, what, 40% of the population without COVID shots – could you move some percentage of those to get vaccinated?
Justin Willman: Man. Maybe I’m not using my powers to their maximum potential. The thing is subliminal messaging, coercion and reverse psychology is so effective in magic. I feel like, if I could successfully do it, honestly, that's what I would be doing. I feel like there are certain issues that some people are just a little too ingrained in their ways that even a magician can’t fix it.
Question: If you could fix that, it would really open up the entertainment business and get more tours on the road.
Justin Willman: It would put more butts in seats. It would get us back to normal much quicker.
Question: What else should people know before Saturday’s show?
Justin Willman: Listen, if there's anything of mine that people have seen me do, whether it's on TV, “Magic for Humans” or on a late night talk show, I'm going to deliver on that thing. I'm going to quench that thirst. I’m going to deliver on that day you came for. But I think people will be excited to see how much more there is in the live experience and how much more amazing it is when you're there in the audience. And you know that nobody's in on it. There's no camera tricks posits. Wow, this really is legit. It's kind of a you-had-to-be-there kind of evening. I'm going to channel my inner-Bruce Springsteen and try to leave it all out there on the stage for the people of Lafayette.
IF YOU GO: Magician and comedian Justin Willman will be at the Long Center for the Performing Arts, 111 N. Sixth St., Lafayette, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 25. Tickets start at $25. Tickets are available at the Long Center box office or online at: https://longpac.org/events/justin-willman
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