Justin Willman (Michael Maples Photography )
Justin Willman is a new breed of magician, a sort of young, hip Ed Sullivan who's making magic cool again for grown-ups.
His comedy and magic show, "Justin Willman's Magic Meltdown," is held in the back room of Meltdown Comics in Hollywood, the newest night-life addition to Chris Hardwick's Nerdist Theater series.
The monthly live show, which debuted in September, is an interactive, tongue-in-cheek, old-school magic event that breathes new life into old tricks. And it's rounded out with classic variety show and neo-vaudeville accents — think musical acts followed by an aerial contortionist and then a pancake juggler. Although there's plenty of impressive, straight-up magic on the bill – head-scratchers such as audience mind-reading and floating tables — the highlight is Willman's comic take on the magic itself. He often reveals the sleight of hand, showing the audience how tricks are done with a pointed, ironic nod. And his act is shot through with stand-up-style joke-telling. It's all fittingly self-referential for the savvy, if a bit media-jaded, crowd of comedy nerds, hipsters and magic geeks that the show draws.
"People have seen so much magic — David Blaine had his heyday, Chris Angel — so at this point, if you're gonna do magic, you kind of have to respect the intelligence of the audience," Willman says. "We all know there's a trick going on. Dangle a carrot as to 'here's a little of what I'm doing,' then still fool them after that."
As a 13-year-old Steve Martin-wannabe in St. Louis, Willman honed his craft at the local novelty shop. Starting in 2005, during his Tricked Out Tour on college campuses, he played 200 solo shows a year, for five years straight — all great training for what would become his other career as a TV host. Willman is now best known as host of Food Network's "Cupcake Wars" and he also hosts "Last Cake Standing," among other TV gigs. For all that, he credits magic.
"Just the ability to think on your feet, the gift for gab, keep the show moving and interact with people on the fly [on TV], all of that came from my experience as a magician," he says.
Willman's show Tuesday will feature the pop-acoustic mash-up duo Owl & the Pussycat, along with comedian Pete Holmes and card shark magician, Jon Armstrong. But don't expect the polish of the Magic Castle.
"When you go to the Magic Castle, everyone's in a suit, it's very polite and they're applauding — lots of 'ooh, aah,'" Willman says. "But at the Meltdown, it's this casual environment, a kind of secret basement vibe. You just hear people shouting obscenities in disbelief."
Justin Willman's Magic Meltdown
Where: The Nerdist Theater at Meltdown Comics, 7522 Sunset Blvd., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tues.
Price: $10 at door