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Justin Willman Is One Magical Lion

Before Justin Willman ’02 starred in his own Netflix show, Magic for Humans, he practiced his craft on students outside of the Little Building. He makes regular guest appearances on the variety and talk show circuit, including The Ellen Degeneres Show, The Tonight Show, Good Morning America, and more. He also hosted Cupcake Wars, Halloween Wars and King of Cones on the Food Network and Win, Lose or Draw on Disney Channel.

Now he’s got a hit TV show, a national tour, and he’s not going to tell you how his wife levitated him at their wedding. But he will tell us about what got him into magic, what it takes to perfect a trick, and what’s looking forward to performing.

Q: What made you want to get into magic?

Willman: It started as a just a fascination of the artform. I’ve been doing it since I was 12. My origin story, if you will, was I broke both of my arms while riding my bike because I was using rollerblades. The doctor recommended I learn magic as physical therapy. I already liked magic, but that was kind of the push to dive head first. There’s something about the art form of magic that is empowering when you’re a kid. As a 12-year-old learning a trick and performing it for my parents and blowing their minds… and they didn’t know how you did it… it’s a role reversal. That was a big shift. It was empowering at first.

I always wanted to be a performer, but didn’t know the means for it. I always idolized and loved comedians. You don’t have the life experience at 12 to write comedy about your life and what you know. Magic gave me a vehicle to entertain. Then I became an entrepreneur… I paid for college with my magic shows. For me it was a no brainer at first — it was the first thing I was better than average.

A man flips playing cards in the air with a baby on his back
Justin Willman’s son, Jackson, has a firsthand look at his father’s magic. (Photo courtesy Netflix)

Q: Did you perform magic at Emerson College?

Willman: I did it for my friends. I workshopped new tricks outside of the Little Building for the smokers. Me, Dan Levy, and Eric Hutchinson would do shows in the Cabaret (in the basement of the Little Building). I would do magic all over the place, at bar and bat mitzvahs, libraries, schools all over New England on the weekend. Luckily, … I could spend my weekends gigging it up and still keep my grades up and have spending cash.

Q: Why did you want to major in broadcast journalism?

Willman: Freshman year I was a TV & Video major, and then shifted. I always knew I wanted to be at Emerson. You can’t major in magic at Emerson. Maybe soon. You can major in comedy now. Maybe we’re not too far off…

Magic on television is a kind of way to broadcast to the masses, so I knew I should learn how to write the words that would be coming out my mouth, learn how to read from a teleprompter so it looks like you’re not reading from a teleprompter, and write a package. I was interested in TV journalism and those skills turned out to be very useful as I ended up hosting random shows through the years.

Q: What other magicians have influenced you?

Willman: Many magicians over the years. I went through phases at first with liking David Copperfield, Harry Blackstone Jr, because they would be on TV and do big shows. That’s what got me hooked on the art form. In high school, Penn and Teller… Harry Anderson – Night Court was my favorite sitcom ever. He was a magician and was an original comedy performer. I really loved him, and really idolized him for the way he could create a character, whatever trick he did became fresh and new from how he did it. David Blaine came out when I was in high school and that was a big paradigm shift that it wasn’t about being on stage. It was about being on the streets. It made it attainable. I knew I could do a deck of cards. It showcased how important magic is with strangers. Unlike making magic on television, it made it closer to reality and less than a pipe dream.

Q: What kind of magic tricks do you like to see?

Willman: I love to see great comedy magic. I love to see people who can take an old trick something that’s forgotten or thought of as hacky and old fashioned and make it relevant and make it fresh and funny. There are only so many tricks and so many methods to pull something off, and if you can put a new spin on it to pull it off and make it original. Penn and Teller do it every year, and always have new material in their show. I love to watch great sleight of hand. The Magic Castle is a members-only club where the best sleight of hand magicians perform every week. I’ve been doing it for 25 years and it’s great that you can still be fooled. You can’t turn off your magic brain. It’s great to see someone fool you. It’s gratifying and makes you feel like a kid seeing David Copperfield at 6 years old again, and that’s a beautiful thing.

Q: How do you come up with your tricks? Have you seen them done by other magicians? Do you come up with them while you’re eating breakfast?

Willman: It’s always a little different. For Netflix, I assembled a team of brilliant magician minds, people I’ve known for years, and think differently about magic than me. I put together comedy types so not to limit it to magic. And we’re just coming up with great ideas, and get together in a room and flush out what themes this episode should be about. We’ll do an episode about fatherhood… just ideas that are interesting and haven’t heard of it, that inspire curiosity about what tricks can we do to explore than idea.

For my live show I’m in my office warehouse right now with 20 years of magic gadgets around me. I’m looking at an old trick and how to make it fresh or change a prop so it makes so instead of doing it with a dollar bill I’ll do it with an iPhone.

Watching TV shows, movies, listening to music, is when ideas come. For example, the idea of Russian roulette, where you’ve got to beat the odds and you can do that in a lethal way — what if you put five phones in an envelope and have to smash them? I like to seek inspiration from non-magic places and take magic places and high concepts from other sides and find ways to connect the dots that haven’t been done before. It can be tricky watching other magicians because you could easily copy them.

Justin Willman magically has three hands
Three hands? How does he do it?? (Photo credit Jillian Sipkins)

Q: What’s your process on making sure a trick is ready for public viewing?

Willman: I have to obviously rehearse the mechanics not in front of an audience so I know the beats and know what works. I have the script in my mind, and try to get it in front of crowd right away. I do lots of shows in LA at different comedy rooms, variety rooms, and not tell anyone I’m performing. I don’t want too many people to see it in the workshop phase, but I can’t rehearse in a bubble. I need to get it out of front of people and see where the laughs are and learn where the trick part is landing. It’s interesting to see how people would describe it. Sometimes what you’re going for is totally missed. How they would do it with a TV show is different than how I’m doing it front of an audience.

Q: How much research goes into magic tricks?

Willman: Some tricks take lots of research and lots of R&D. There’s a trick in Magic for Humans where we convince people we were removing NSA chips from them. I tinkered with it on Comedy Central three years prior, but knew there was something missing in the idea. Three or four years later, I came back to it and really put time into the method and stumbled upon something that looks great. It took years. Sometimes it’s lightning in a bottle and it all comes together at once. But there are ideas that take a long time that are the best because there’s powerful stuff behind it. Next-level, original stuff. That’s the goal.

Also, a trick is never done. There are bits in my live show that I’m trying to come up with, new twists or new lines or an additional note on a way to make it work smoother. It’s always evolving.

Q: What would it take to give up your secrets of your magic tricks are performed?

Willman: A lot of alcohol.

Q: That’s all it would take?

Willman: I joke. I feel like obviously you watch something and you don’t know how it works and the impulse is, “I got to know.” You think you want to know, but once you know the way you learn it as not as good as when you see the trick. Then you can’t undo it, and I’m doing you a favor by not quenching the urge to have answers right away. Being fooled is a beautiful thing. Because I love how much it feels to be fooled, then I know what they feel like to be fooled. Beautiful escapism that we don’t get a lot these days. It’s more beneficial for everyone to let a mystery leave as a mystery.

Q: Does anyone else know how you do your magic tricks? For example, your wedding levitation – your wife must know how that was done.

Willman: She does know how that was done. There are certain exceptions to the not knowing rule. She knows how a lot of things are done because she’s often my guinea pig in the incubation when it’s not good. She’ll say, “I see what you did.” I’m a little careful when I show her something. She likes being fooled. But for the wedding dance, it was a collaboration we rehearsed for a couple of months to come up with that moment that was on purpose for our family and friends… that was a surreal couple of weeks when that went viral.

You think magicians hide their secrets, but it’s a very open source community. Magicians really like to share the best magic with magicians. When the art form is presented well in large scale it does all magic and magicians a favor, because it presents magic in a good light and makes people want more magic and opens up for more performers.

Q: Do you use editing on your Netflix show so it looks like magic to the viewers?

Willman: That’s a big challenge. To do magic, we make every effort to present trick parts uncut so it rules that out. But at the same point, creating a comedic show that is a breeze to watch — you want to use editing as a comedic tool, but not using magic as an editing tool. We don’t use editing or CGI to create tricks. It’s more rewarding to do it the real way. When we’re watching a Marvel movie and it looks so real, people know its special effects that can be used to do anything. There’ a B.S. meter that goes off in every person’s mind, but I want people to know magic is legit and lots of hard work. Sometimes it’s sleight of hand or ingenuity tricking people live. I make the show with the production company that makes The Eric Andre Show and editing is a big part of their comedic brand, trying to get best of both worlds.

Q: What is an underappreciated part of being a magician? Something people don’t think about that is very important.

Willman: With magic, a good magic trick and a magic performance goal is to make it look effortless. As you’re watching magic you don’t want it to seem very hard for the magician. The perfect illusion should look like it’s really happening, unlike music, when you see a great guitarist you can see their hands doing incredible string work, and watching a great athlete you’re watching them do whatever they need to perform masterfully.

Magic is very hard, there’s lots of trial and error to create that thing that looks effortless. People don’t often realize the time and R&D and technical obsessions that comes into creating a perfect trick and creating a show. It’s not just me and cameras and we go out and lots of crazy stuff comes out in the open.

Q: What else would you like people to know?

Willman: I think the writing that goes into the show is a skill that came from my broadcast journalism days at Emerson, trying to hone into the point I’m saying eloquently, to say as few words as possible, to set it up and get out of the way. I spend a lot of time finding out the right way to say what I need to say without babbling on to watch what you’re going to see with the right content. Sometimes I nail it and sometimes I miss the mark. But that’s a tricky part of it. People always ask what’s harder magic in person or magic on TV? Magic on TV because people can stop and rewind.

If I’m doing a show on Good Morning America, the people who run the cameras aren’t experts at magic, so certain things the audience needs to see to understand the plot aren’t shown. When we shoot a bit in the field we don’t always get a perfect performance of the trick, or the person didn’t react or is self-conscious about being on camera and don’t react in a real way. You need reaction, so you as a viewer see what it’s like in person. It’s tricky, and when it all comes together it’s all satisfying. People are craving wholesome escapism, people like relatable topics like fatherhood, life, guilt, love. All those things people are struggling with on a daily basis. It’s nice making a show that gives escapism, but make them think about their life.

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