Audiences could be forgiven for dismissing Magic for Humans as yet another roving-illusionist reality series when it premiered on Netflix in 2018. But Justin Willman, who performs magic for humans, isn’t cut from the same cheesecloth as magicians past. His relatable and subversive tricks are irreverent. In one illusion that went viral, Willman convinced passersby in a park that they had become invisible (see the clip below), then watched to see what a person with this newfound ability might do. (Grabbing wine from a picnic basket, apparently.)
“There’s a bunch of great magic out there,” Willman tells Mental Floss of his approach to performing. “What else can I bring to the table? Psychology, philosophy, comedy. You kind of pop your own balloon and take a more disarming approach. That’s what feels organic to me. We have more of a BS detector as a culture now. We can figure out who’s a pompous dingus and who’s a relatable guy.”
Willman, who is demonstrably not a dingus, has shot three seasons of Magic for Humans and is currently back to live touring after a successful stint doing live Zoom shows for families and businesses during the pandemic lockdown. You can check his website to see if his show is coming to a city near you. In the meantime, take a look at a few facts about Willman and his work that are guaranteed to amaze and astonish.
1. Justin Willman got into magic after breaking both his arms.
Willman, who was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, hadn’t given much consideration to magic before one fateful event at a formative age. “I was biking and rollerblading, which is even stupider than just doing one of those things,” Willman says. "I was 13 years old and trying to impress my friends by going downhill. I broke both my arms at the same time and was in casts for months.”
While recovering, Willman crossed paths with an influential figure. “At the hospital, a magician was there coming through once a week. I got captivated by magic. I started fiddling around with tricks in my downtime. Then my surgeon told me to start learning magic, like card tricks. He was suggesting an alternative to physical therapy to help get my dexterity back. And so magic became my thing. That my doctor was endorsing it was all my parents needed to hear."
2. Justin Willman had a positive encounter with an old-school magician.
After he started practicing magic, Willman’s parents took him to Las Vegas to see a performance by Lance Burton, one of Sin City's premier illusionists (who is now retired). After performing, Burton greeted audience members, including Willman. “After the show, he was in the lobby taking pictures. I told him, ‘I have a dove because of you!’ He was really kind and encouraging and he’s always been a positive figure. We’re kind of friends now. He’s retired. He’s a fan of mine and I’m a fan of his. Magic is a weird little subculture. It’s unlike other art forms in that you can have proximity to your heroes if you choose to seek it out. I don’t think you have that in music or acting.”
It was Burton’s kindness, Willman says, that may have cemented his career choice. “I try to remember that when kids come up to me and ask me to show them a trick. I never forget that moment. If Lance Burton was a dick to me, I may have ditched magic. Who knows?”
3. Justin Willman once had a more appropriate stage name.
David Kotkin is better known as David Copperfield. Eric Weisz was billed as Harry Houdini. Magic is littered with names as garish as sequined suits, but Willman opts to go by his real name. That wasn’t always the case, however. “I had a stage name for a good 15 years. I was doing magic for kids’ birthday parties and my parents were driving me around to gigs. My mom said, ‘You need a stage name.’ She pitched me Justin Kredible. With a K.”
Surprisingly, the name stuck. “As a teenager, I got away with it. I went by it in high school and it stuck through college, professionally and personally. My friends called me Kred. It was like shorthand until I turned 30.”
4. Justin Willman once hosted Cupcake Wars.
New viewers of Magic for Humans might think Willman looks familiar. That’s because he was host of Cupcake Wars on the Food Network from 2009 to 2013, among other reality competition series. While adjudicating the merits of frosting and dismissing aberrant cupcakes seems unrelated to magic, this is not so. “Magic and hosting are lateral professions. A magician has to be a good host. You’re guiding audiences through bits and vignettes. Cupcake Wars came along and I ended up working on the pilot. I don’t think anyone thought it would have longevity, but what do I know? I was still doing magic non-stop, touring, and attempting to do it successfully. I was shooting the cupcake show two months out of the year.”
5. Justin Willman had a Comedy Central special before Magic for Humans.
While doing “the cupcake show,” Willman was plotting to translate his magic for a television audience. In 2015, viewers finally got to see it with Sleight of Mouth, a Comedy Central special. “I pitched Sleight of Mouth with Chris [Hardwick] for Comedy Central. They didn’t pick it up but aired the pilot as a special. Then we pitched a different pilot and filmed it, but it wasn’t picked up. We used the premise of what worked and added a new layer to it. That became the Magic for Humans pitch.”
6. No, Justin Willman did not make Ted Sarandos disappear.
Willman was ultimately able to secure a home for Magic for Humans with Netflix. Contrary to what you might believe, he didn’t do it by impressing executives with magic in a boardroom. “That can be a fun meeting, but it doesn’t necessarily set you up to be taken 100 percent seriously. I steered away from the dog and pony show and made it more about the series, painting a picture of what a season would look like. I would still try to get a laugh or maybe do a little something, but I felt it was a little sign of mistakes I made early on with failed pitches. I had leaned on doing the show as part of the pitch as opposed to pitching the show.”
It worked. Magic for Humans was an immediate hit, and Willman is hoping a fourth season is imminent. “COVID threw a wrench in our ability to do close-up magic in strangers’ faces,” he says. “I recently pitched Netflix a fresh take on the show. Hopefully we’ll get to film it later this year. It’s the same show in a different wrapper.”
7. Justin Willman knows when a person is magic-friendly.
Willman often works with people on the street or plucked from the audience and invited on stage. “It’s gotten to the point where I can predict if someone is going to be good or give gold 80 percent of the time. I’ve sized them up before getting on stage, or I’m on stage watching people.”
The best person, Willman says, is eager—but not too eager—to become a participant. “Sometimes people who have classic body language, arms crossed, stuff like that. At theaters and comedy clubs, you get people who kind of want to be in the show. The frat boy type. I avoid people seeking attention. I kind of like someone in the middle. They didn’t come to the show wanting to be in it, but they’re not opposed to it. Like, ‘All right, I’m game.’”
8. Justin Willman sometimes gets the wrong kind of reaction.
While someone might be open to magic, it doesn’t mean their reaction will be precisely what Willman is looking for. “On stage or on camera, people can clam up, be self-conscious, and may not react visibly. They don’t want to look dumb. So when I do something on the street, I can tell I blew their minds but they’re not reacting in an over-the-top way. When the cameras stop, it comes out. ‘How did you do that?’ They held back in the moment. The same thing happens on stage, too.”
9. The magic on Magic for Humans can be a surprise for the crew, too.
Shooting Magic for Humans requires all the trappings of television, from a camera crew to a director. But relatively few people are in on how a given trick is actually done. “When we’re prepping for a shoot, the whole magic team will get together with the camera crew. We’ll show them the bits we’re going to do and show them what’s going to happen so they don’t miss it. If you miss a trick but get a reaction, you can’t really do the trick again as a pick-up shot. It’s not authentic. You get one go with each trick.”
But that rarely involves cluing them in on how it’s done. “A few tricks I’ll have to spoil for the crew, but most of them will walk away still not knowing how it works. I want them to have a moment watching it as a human, not a person with a camera on their shoulder. I want them to be amazed and excited about what they’re about to shoot. It’s about the need to know, and most people don’t need to know.”
10. Justin Willman will not always indulge requests to perform.
Thanks to the success of Magic for Humans on Netflix, Willman is often asked to show off his skills. He may, but it’s not guaranteed. “As a magician, unlike other professions, you can be asked to do what you do at any given moment. When you hop into an Uber and the driver asks what you do and you say you’re a magician, they say, ‘No way! Do a trick!’” he says. “You don’t do that with other occupations. ‘I’m a chef.’ ‘No way! Whip something up!’ If the opportunity is right, I’ll do something. Often it’s polite misdirection. Driving a car is not a good time to show someone a trick.”