(Editor's Note: This article was first published in December 2019 with the release of Season 2. Season 3 is now on Netflix, and many of you will find the conversation with Justin Willman just as relevant.)
We live in a society with people who believe the Earth is a flat disc, the moon landing -- one of mankind's greatest achievements -- was filmed on a soundstage, and that chemtrails are turning amphibians gay. The rise of the internet was intended to be a pipeline of facts available at everyone's fingertips, but it's proving just as useful -- if not more so -- at spreading unwarranted skepticism. With minimal searching, anyone can find someone who believes in anything. Or, more accurately, find people who don't believe in something.
So it makes a lot of sense that the magic Justin Willman performs on his Netflix series Magic for Humans, which released its incredibly fun second season on Dec. 4, would be an easy target for skeptics. Willman -- part magician, part comedian, part social experimenter -- opens each episode by saying, "Real people. Real magic. No camera tricks," which makes a mob of skeptics *poof!* magically appear.
I recently scheduled an interview with Willman, and in doing a little research on the show, I came across plenty of year-old threads online, mostly on Reddit, with users claiming the first season used CGI, green screens, camera tricks, and actors to pull off his stunts instead of incorporating the same type of magic that has been practiced for centuries. (To be fair, there were also some Reddit users who defended Willman, but the most vocal and numerous are the haters.)
"Skeptics have been around for centuries, especially with magic," Willman told TV Guide. "Before TV magic was a thing, most people were in the audience live and obviously they know there's a trick happening. So when people are like, 'Oh it's not real,' no, it's not real. I don't have powers. But what you're seeing is not the result of camera trickery or people pretending to be amazed. I have an incredible team of magic minds and comedy minds who I work with to really put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into creating the stuff on screen and we're definitely not taking the easy way out."
Willman came to his own defense online, even coming close to explaining the tricks to prove there was no camera trickery, but that's the great paradox of being a magician. You can't prove you're legit without spilling the beans on age-old secrets or tricks you worked hard to create.
"I have to ride this line where I can't tell you how I do it, because I don't want to ruin the wonder, but I can at least tell you 100 percent how I don't do it," he said. "[Skeptics] thinking that there's CGI stuff is certainly how I don't do it."
One of the illusions from the first season that really set doubters off involved Willman pulling his wife out of a bag before a group of onlookers. Many figured it was done using green screen, with users freezing frames to try and expose amateur scammery.
"The wife-in-the-bag trick is literally based on one of the oldest stage magic illusions there is," Willman explained. "Going into it, I was thinking, 'Is this too old of a trick to be doing on TV?' It turned out to be exactly the opposite, people thought it was some fancy digital stuff."
(On Reddit, Willman said the trick was done using a modified "M" bench, which I believe is a magician's tool involving a bench using mirrors. You can piece the rest together from there.)
Magic for Humans, which is produced by Tim & Eric and the same production company that made Nathan for You and The Eric Andre Show, takes the idea of real vs. fake head on in the Season 2 episode "Fake" -- every episode of Magic for Humans is anchored by a theme -- with Willman pretending to be a hack and asking a group of onlookers to fake amazement at his tricks while promising the magic will be added in post-production (the entire scene is right below). It's a prime example of what makes Magic for Humans special; it's as much a comedy show as it is a street magic show, and in this instance, a meta comedy show.
As he runs the onlookers through scripted lines in a direct wink to the doubters he engaged with online, he climbs on the back of a man kneeling on all fours and dressed in a full green screen outfit (think It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's Green Man) to pretend that he's levitating, and then he pulls a green screen slowly up over his body to pretend it's disappearing in stages (again, in supposed post-production). Once the screen is above his head, it quickly drops, revealing only the man in the full green bodysuit on all fours on the ground. Willman has disappeared. The man pulls the hood off, and it's Willman. The onlookers no longer have to pretend to be amazed.
It's such a spectacular stunt -- we have to take Willman's word for it that there are no cuts -- that it's sure to be this season's version of the wife-in-the-bag trick for doubters. William explained it involved no camera tricks, no editing, and no CGI, just a lot of hard work and rehearsing to get it right.
"So that was a case of a bunch of rehearsing and obviously not cutting from when you see me drop the curtain to when you see me pull the hood off," Willman told me. "It's kind of a version of the old Harry Houdini Metamorphosis trick, the substitution trick he would do with his wife. He would lock her up in a box, put a bunch of padlocks on, stand on top, throw a curtain up, and the curtain falls, now she's on top and he's in the box. That's what it's based on, it's just a twist of the other guy is not in a box, he's nowhere. I don't know what I could say to assure [you it's real] other than tell you how it works."
"What I like about that one in particular," he continued, "is that it's literally about that skepticism, that disbelief, and people literally commenting on that one thing, if it's fake or CGI. That's one instance when it's full circle, it's like, 'annnnd you've proven my point.' Some people just like to be doubters, and I feel like both sides are important. If everyone was swept away, believes everything, and worships you, that's how cults start. It's always good to have healthy skeptics."
But healthy or not, those spending all their time trying to "solve" Willman's tricks are missing a lot of what makes Magic for Humans such an enjoyable watch. Willman's brand of magic, which is peppered with humor and inviting rather than exclusionary and hoisting the magician up to the clouds like a god, is designed to bring people together. Season 2 is an improvement over the first season because it's a more personal look at Willman, grounding him as just another one of us humans rather than a warlock to be burned at the stake. Willman became a father between seasons, and an episode is focused on him trying to be a good dad while also trying to continue his magic. And the season's last bit involves an emotional trick for his mother, who was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's.
"Growing up I never really saw tons of magic that was vulnerable, or about raw, real struggles," Willman said. "Usually magic involves some powerful, infallible magician character who has no struggle. I feel like that's not real life, and obviously people know that, I think these days people crave something real."
Before we part ways, I ask him one more time to guarantee that he isn't using actors or camera tricks.
"100 percent [it's real]," he promised. "We do shoot the show on the streets of Los Angeles, so a lot of people have a headshot. No one is hired or paid to act amazed or do or say a certain thing, everyone is just pulled off the street. Everyone's real, and nothing is accomplished with fancy CGI or anything of that. Obviously ethically, but mostly because we can't afford it."
Magic for Humans is currently streaming on Netflix.