Justin Willman Wants to Use Pranks for Good

Justin Willman Wants to Use Pranks for Good

Starting in 2018, Netflix’s Magic for Humans provided a showcase for the comedy and illusions of Justin Willman. Ordinary participants — some who believed they were being filmed for a documentary on a specific topic (such as self-control, the subject of the series premiere); some just randomly found on the streets of L.A. — got to witness Willman’s magic. The show ran for three legitimately amazing seasons, and has lain dormant since the last dropped in the spring of 2020. Willman has kept busy since we saw his last Humans episodes: performing Humans @ Home shows over Zoom; creating the Social Distancing Magician Starter Kit to raise funds for charity; getting back to live performance once it was safe to do so; and creating a new show for Netflix.

Premiering, appropriately, on April Fools’ Day, The Magic Prank Show (also on Netflix) is exactly what its title suggests: Participants who don’t have magic skills enlist Willman to help them prank someone in their lives, using a custom illusion. A man who wants to gets back at his wife for making him think his car had been repossessed; a daughter who wants to convince her mom to quit ghosting her dates; the man who wants to pull off a marriage proposal spectacular enough for his boyfriend, the most dramatic person he knows — all of these and more get access to Willman and his team of magic trick creators and prank experts.

I spoke to Willman last week about (among many other subjects) how his team came together, whether one prank actually went far enough for the offense it was addressing and how the next generation of magicians is learning the craft.

You just performed in Vancouver at what could be the last Just for Laughs Festival.

I killed it!

I know you performed at the Montreal JFL too. Whether or not this is really the end, what has the festival meant for your career?

Oh man. JFL put me on shows with my favorite comedians and treated me like a comedian, not a magician, before anybody else did, which was big for me. I’m sure, as most people know, magicians or anybody who uses a prop other than a microphone is often put into a subliminal separate category than just straight-up stand-up comedians. And JFL never saw it that way. Maybe that’s the Canadian way. They’re just so nice. That’s what they do. I think it’s been over a decade. We had a gala way back when and really fostered my career as kind of a comedian and magician and not just a magician who does comedy, so it’s sad if it’s true.

Did you see signs in Vancouver that anything was amiss?

It was totally normal. I saw no signs. The crowds were great. The people were great. It was awesome. A couple days later, I did have a couple people text me saying, “What did you do? What did you do to JFL?” It flew under my radar at least.

It’s such an institution, so this news was really shocking.

It was very shocking. And we’re in a comedy boom, everyone says, so it feels like business was booming and business was great, but who knows what goes on behind the scenes? Certainly not me.

Let’s get into what you do know about behind the scenes. You already had a relationship with Netflix after three seasons of Magic for Humans. How did this evolution of your concept come about?

Well, the third season of Magic for Humans kind of came out mid-COVID — I’d say even early COVID. The benefit of that was that it came out at a time when people were craving wholesome, funny escapism, so it was great to be that thing and connect with people and be in people’s homes even if I couldn’t be with them in person.

I was raring to do more right away, but of course there’s no touching strangers on the nose in the middle of 2020 or 2021, so it became a little bit of a back-to-the-drawing-board time for me. In between me doing shows on Zoom daily, I was trying to think, “What is the next thing? If I don’t do more magic with humans, what is that thing when we come back? I want to come back with some ideas.” 

I’d always loved prank shows. My very first TV appearance was in 2003. I did a prank show called THEM. It was an acronym, Totally Hidden Extreme Magic, and it was on NBC. We did two half-hours that became a one-hour special. And I always loved it. That was my first experience of doing magic for people who didn’t know they were watching a magician.

But I never really came back to that for years. All my touring, all Magic for Humans, it’s me doing magic for people who know I’m a magician. But there’s this subtle difference. When you’re watching a magician, whatever they do, you feel safe. If I whipped out a chainsaw and cut somebody in half onstage, the audience would applaud, right? But if I did that same thing in the middle of my shift at Home Depot and I’m just some dude, it’s a different experience. You don’t think it’s a trick right away. It feels so real, especially when people don’t know they’re being filmed. It’s a very visceral experience.

What I don’t like about prank shows is giving people who don’t deserve it a traumatic experience. It’s a little cringey, so I went to the idea of, “What if I did a magic prank show only for people who deserved it?” 

At the tail end of COVID, I posted on my Instagram, “Would anyone want my help pranking someone in their life for a good reason?” And I got a lot of replies. Some were very silly and mundane, but some were like — I could tell I was tapping into a visceral revenge that’s been bugging them for years or settling a score or sending a message or helping them say a thing that they haven’t been able to say to a roommate or a sister or a loved one. It felt like a bit of a karmic Robin Hood-type endeavor.

I whipped that up into a verbal pitch that I thought could make sense, and Netflix was excited about it, so as soon as we finally emerged back into the real world, that’s what we pivoted into. And it became about casting a net for real people who have real great stories. I picked my favorite dozen and put together my usual magic team, and it was a different vibe. Instead of just doing magic for fun entertainment facilities, it felt like we were actually, in some small way, helping people provide a service that they couldn’t find an outlet for on their own.

It’s everything from a woman getting a sister to stop stealing her clothes or sending a message to a boyfriend who won’t stop texting and driving or helping with a revenge that’s 20 years in the making. It all felt justified. And it also let us feel like we could go all in and not hold back, because it feels like this person deserves it. I hope the viewers enjoy the ruthlessness for good.

Tell us a little bit about Stu MacLeod, Kyle Marlett and Austin Janik, who are the magic experts that we meet on this show?

Stu MacLeod is a magician who I was a fan of first. He was part of a magic duo called Barry and Stuart in the U.K. I would fanboy over their videos for years, and we finally met and became friends. Then he moved to L.A. and we quickly became collaborators on Magic for Humans. He’s this quiet, very thoughtful magic mastermind who can always figure out a way to make a trick better and remind me never to settle on good enough: “If we can put in another six hours overnight to make this thing better, it’s worth it in the end.” You always need somebody like that on your team.

Kyle is a magician. Fifteen years ago, this kid hit me up on Myspace — he might've been 15 or 16 at the time — and he would send me videos of tricks that he’d come up with and say, “I love your stuff. If you ever need any help making magic tricks, hit me up.” There was a sweet boyish innocence to this kid. Now he’s a grown-up kid, but we’ve been buddies forever and I’ve watched his magic skills evolve and his ability to push himself and come up with crazy ways to pull off a prop. We have a fun shorthand, but he also thrives when someone is pushing him to make something better. So the ripping and the frustration that you see between me, him and Kyle in the show is very real, but also very brotherly and loving.

Austin’s this new magician who I had heard about doing shows at the Magic Castle. Some people had said, “He reminds me of you back in the day.” Simultaneously, I’m like, “Oh, I want to meet this guy, and also, who the hell is this guy?” But we hit it off. He’s, like, 24, so he’s a whippersnapper, but he’s very smart, and you need fresh eyes, especially in a group where you have been working together for years. Stu and I often will read each other’s minds and think of the same things, which is great, but also you need someone who is going to come at you with something completely different or question what you already think is a great plan. So Austin is this up-and-coming boy genius who was a great addition.

Kim Congdon wrote on the show. I’d seen her in the clubs. We had a great vibe, and she’d pitch me jokes. She’s not a magician, but she loves magic, and she used to write on Impractical Jokers. So she loves pranks and messing with people. She helped me with the initial pitch and idea of the show, so when we were like, “We’re going to do it. Do you want to literally come see how the sausage is made?,” she was totally down.

Speaking of Austin, it seems like magic, more so than other creative pursuits, requires a lot of mentorship. Is that true — it’s how people learn the craft?

It’s very true. There’s only so much in magic that you can learn in books. When I came up, it was all about VHS tapes. I’d order these tapes, and I'd learn things. But if you didn’t have a real-life magician who was doing the thing that you aspire to do, it was really, really hard to get all the dirt, all the insights on it and to see how DIY next-level arts-and-crafts magic is.

I grew up in St. Louis, so I worked my way through. I was lucky to have many local mentors, and then, once I started as a teenager doing magic contests and competitions around the country, I’d fall into the circle of whatever mentor I needed next. It’s as if I manifested my way through the right people and got all this great guidance along the way, and ended up returning that favor — just like Kyle sort of stalked me on Myspace from the beginning, and Austin was very, very cool and honest about wanting to do the things that I’m up to and wanting to learn the ropes. 

In magic, just like comedy, there’s a lot of competitiveness, pettiness and jealousy, but there’s also a lot of great sharing of ideas and mentoring. That’s a big part of magic, for sure.

The magic guys have to defer to you on the show, but they also have their own interests in maintaining secrecy as members of the magic community. What debates did you have about what would and wouldn’t make it on camera?

I’d say all of us magicians are very opinionated, so there were lots. I’d say Kyle has grown to be very confident standing up for his ideas and what he thinks is the way to go. And we all have different ethics in magic about how you pull things off and how far it’s okay to go, and of course, there’s also the ethics of whatever we do, trying to do it in a way that’s honest and true to life for the viewers.

As we’d approach Magic for Humans, our litmus test was always: We want to make sure that what we end up putting on-screen is how the people who were there would describe the experience. The person present in the segment, when they watch it back, is not going to say, “Oh man, that’s totally different and re-edited than how I saw it.” Everyone who was there would say that’s what happened to them, because we want to make the experience for the viewers as strong and as powerful as it is for the people who were watching it live.

Also, when you’re making a TV show, obviously you’re trying to truncate things to a reasonable number of minutes, and there’s just a lot of creative differences. Every magician has a healthy ego, so they really want the idea that we go with to be an idea that they pitched, as opposed to having to build an idea that was somebody else’s. There’s a lot of compromise and healthy arguing, sometimes in lengthier ways than necessary to really make it clear that this is why we’re going in this direction.

Sometimes I’m wrong. Sometimes I’m like, “Kyle, Stu, you were right.” I’d say Stu is a very thoughtful, calculated, meticulous thinker who is very willing to support an idea from somebody other than himself if he knows it’s a better way. He’s often a reliable person for me to pick his brain if I’m torn and I could go either direction. He can be a sounding board for sure.

When we get to a phantom shopping cart gag that you test on Kim, her reaction made it seem like that might not have been the first time she was a mark for an illusion. How did she integrate with the magic experts on the team?

What’s cool is that Kim has no interest in being a magician. She writes roasts. She writes for all the roast battles. She can be a pretty savage comedian and take pretty harsh hits. She loves and respects magic, but could simultaneously make fun of the great lengths we go to for a stupid trick, while also respecting it and wanting to learn the details.

She was never suspicious, like, “What are you guys going to try out on me?” She was very happy being our fresh eyes, and that was a big part of her role in things. When we were trying the shopping-cart thing out on her, you could tell that she was already like, “All right, something’s about to happen. I don’t know what it is, but let me try to behave like a normal person and see if this is any good.” That is very much what her outlook was every day when she would come into the office.

You’ve talked before about people thinking they want to know how an illusion is done when they actually don’t. Was the idea here to demystify some of what you do to scratch that itch for your fans?

That’s a good way to put it, because if I’m going to let you in, I don’t want to constantly be trying to shield you from things. But I also know that you don’t want to be let in on everything.

So what we would do is shoot fly-on-the-wall, and we wouldn’t censor ourselves in conversation; we wouldn’t hide certain things from the camera. We made those decisions in the edit about how much we thought the viewer would be satisfied to be let in on, and how much would be best left as a surprise.

Some tricks, how they’re done or the work that goes into them, bolsters the interesting nature of our craft. For example, in the ghoster prank, I was okay letting viewers really see how some of those little convincers along the way are done — the hand over the candle. And also, the R&D and the discussions about how the heck I’m going to vanish in the middle of this restaurant.

And we’re not censoring ourselves. If you want to Google what a De Kolta chair is and what an Asrah form is, people can find those things out and probably figure out exactly how we did what we did in the end. But for the viewing experience, I still wanted the viewers to have an experience akin to what the mark is experiencing in the moment. Even if the viewers know more than the mark does, I still want them to be surprised at the final outcome.

You already talked about finding participants through your Instagram, and we see that in the show. Is that the only place they came from?

I would say 80 percent of them were. I knew a couple where one person in a relationship has a problem with how much the other person texts and drives. I knew that would be a very common theme. I knew that there are people who are ghosters, who have people in their life who are upset that they’re chronic ghosters and want them to find happiness.

For the texting while driving prank, Sam came from my Instagram. She’s actually a fan. What’s so funny is that she brought her boyfriend, Ryan, the mark, to one of my shows in L.A. a year before we filmed that stunt. So I was very hesitant: “How is he not going to know that I’m that guy?” And she’s like, “He doesn’t remember anything. He’s a space cadet. If you wear a wig and he only sees you from behind, he won’t know.” And she was right. I think, in retrospect, my voice sounded somewhat familiar to him, but luckily he didn’t put two and two together because he does indeed have space-cadet qualities.

The ghosting thing, we did have a problem with a couple of the people who reached out via my Instagram being willing to be on TV. It’s one thing to DM me when I ask, “Hey, do you need help pranking someone?” But then when I connect them with a producer who’s like, “Yeah, we’re actually going to do this,” a lot of people get cold feet: “Oh my God, no, they’ll kill me.” So a few people who had somebody who they wanted to put on an international stage and call them out for their wrongdoing came from Craigslist.

Then, occasionally, with the Instagram people, it became clear that they would probably recognize me because they either followed me too, or they had heard their roommate or something talk about me. We put so much time and effort in, it would be a real bummer if right at the start someone’s like, “Oh, you’re that Justin guy,” and I’m like, “Hi, I work at a cryo place now.”

Did you have a contingency plan in case you finished the prank and then the mark wouldn’t sign the release?

We didn’t. The accomplice, whoever was setting them up, would sign a release that I think would legally get us around being able to film the two of them with one of them not knowing. Maybe I should look into that. But for the most part, I trusted that by the end of most of these bits, the sense of relief that would come over them that this was all not real and that this was set up by someone they love for a real reason would trump any sense of embarrassment. Luckily, it did.

There were other bits that we did where we could hide the release form in a stack of papers they had to sign for something else, like if they’re coming to a cryotherapy place, they need to release liability for that. And when you’re signing a stack of papers and you’re ready to get a massage, you don’t read the fine print on everything. When you’re coming to a sleep study, you have to sign a bunch of stuff. You slip in a little “You’re being filmed. Do you release your likeness rights?,” and they sign that as well. 

So we were able to be a little slick in that sense. The magician techniques were used even behind the scenes.

Since you brought up Ryan, the texting driver, what do you say to someone like me, for example, who thinks a prank is not a proportional lesson for someone who does that, and maybe it wasn’t bad enough?

I’m glad to hear you say that. My biggest concern on that day was, I kept trying to put myself in his shoes. If I really thought I was in the backseat of a truly crazy person who I happened to get in their car, I’d jump out of the car and try to do a barrel roll on the ground, or I’d strangle the driver to try to stop them in their tracks. Somehow, we were able to gauge his personality and realize that he probably wouldn’t try to kill me. But he did indeed try to get out of the car, and luckily, we thought ahead of that and broke his door knob.

I will say that Sam and Ryan have since gotten engaged. So I’m excited to hear how his texting problem has proceeded, because obviously she sent us a couple clips of him behind the wheel driving a car very much on his phone. It’s one of those dirty little habits that more people do than we all like to admit, so hopefully, when people watch it, they identify with her and the culprits see themselves in Ryan and kind of get it. I’d be curious what we could have done to scare him more. Our cops were pretty rough on him, but hey, if we get another season, I’m willing to go harder.

How many prank pitches were abandoned for being too mean-spirited?

There were times where it seems very easy, when you’re trying to pitch a prank, to get to some sort of gory, gruesome, apparent death of your loved one — like the first pitch for the frozen head thing, seeing the head fly off — and some of those felt like they were too much. That’s why we had the frozen head be a clear block of glass of ice, but it was different than you’d think a frozen human head would look, just to temper it down a bit.

When you’re trying to make a point and you do go a thousand percent too far, now they’re going to hold a grudge about the prank that you did to make the point, as opposed to receiving the message you were making the point about. So it was about trying to always go a little harder than we need to in order to make the point, but not so hard and so far that we were creating a grudge that requires its own retribution down the line.

To that point, the show mostly keeps it light, but the first episode features a dark situation with Kendrick and Kendale — that Kendale outed his brother to their family. Was there any prep behind the scenes to make sure this wasn’t going to turn into a serious blowout?

A little extra detail is that Kendrick said that that happened when they were kids, like 10 and 12 years old. And Kendrick went on to tell me that when Kendale said that to their family, that Kendrick himself wasn’t even completely sure that he was gay, but Kendale as his younger brother just knew something about his brother before he even fully knew it about himself. 

And I’d say they love each other. They work together; they have different businesses together. I knew that they weren’t on the outs as brothers so that this would just make it worse. It felt like this was this little imperfection in their relationship that was so long ago, it’s like, “There’s never a good time to bring it up, but it does bother me.” We all have those kinds of things — these little conversations that aren’t pressing. There’s never a good time to bring that thing up, but it would suck to live out our lives never having cleared the air on it. They seemed to be healthy and strong enough as a unit that I didn’t think it would create a problem or a rift between them.

I imagine you shot more pranks than we see in this first season. Have you already shot enough for a whole second season?

We haven’t shot enough for a whole second season. There were a couple that didn’t make it, but for the most part, all the big swings that we took, you get to see on camera. We do have a lot of ideas and a lot of requests that we didn’t have the bandwidth or the budget to tackle, or a couple big crazy ideas that we didn’t have the production time for. So we have enough ideas, and I’m sure once the show comes out, my inbox will start getting flooded with a bunch of crazy new requests and more ideas that I didn’t think of. 

Creatively speaking, hopefully it’s a show that at least the initial kernel of an idea writes itself in that it’s real and it comes from a real story. Then it’s just about getting the team together and figuring out what the hell to do about it.

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