Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson alum appears on late-night talk show for magic and comedy

Photo credit: Courtesy

Alum Justin Willman ’02 already had the idea of combining his passion for comedy with his showmanship as a magician before he graduated from Emerson. Willman is appearing on late-night talk shows 18 years later, starring in his original Netflix series Magic for Humans, and performing stand-up in venues and theaters across the country.

“Magic is escapism. It gives you a little wonder and reminds you of that feeling of joy that we all remember feeling as kids,” Willman said in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “Magic inherently appeals to old people, young people, and everyone in the middle, and that’s what really draws me to it.”

Willman recently appeared on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon on Jan. 16, 2020 following the release of the second season of his Netflix series Magic for Humans, released Dec. 6, 2019. Willman is now on his “Magic in Real Life” tour, traveling all over the country from Feb. 8 to May 16, 2020.

Willman said he began practicing magic professionally in high school, where he often performed card tricks and sleight-of-hand illusions at birthday parties. He arrived at Emerson in 1998 and began studying broadcast journalism while visiting colleges across Boston and practicing his stand-up comedy. Both experiences eventually assisted him as a performer, as his studies in broadcast journalism prepared him for appearing on television and his tours allowed him to hone his craft, he said.

In his sophomore year, Willman met Dan Leavy ’03, an Emerson student who also practiced comedy. The two participated in open-mic nights together around venues in Boston and eventually moved to Emerson’s Los Angeles campus together in 2001. In LA, they co-hosted a comedy night once a week.

After graduating, Willman decided to stay in LA and began brainstorming and pitching ideas for a comedy and magic-infused TV show.

“I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what my TV magic show was going to be,” Willman said.

In August 2017, after many failed pitches, Willman released Magic for Humans on Netflix. He said the release allowed his career to pick up steam.

“It’s a show that uses magic to explore the human condition,” Willman said. “I use magic to explore all the facets of life that I don’t know how to do: love, fatherhood, technology, all these things that I struggle with and that I’m curious about. I use this disarming art form of magic to hopefully chip away at the truth.”

Willman described Magic for Humans as a fresh take on the magic genre, and a show designed to inspire kindness and friendliness between people. He said that the series stands out from others because of its use of comedy and unique twist on the traditionally mysterious and all-knowing magician figure.

“Here the magician is not the superhero, superhuman magic archetype with no flaws that we’re used to,” Willman said. “I’m just a dude, a normal human like everyone else.”

Willman said season one of Magic for Humans is the main reason for his increased success outside of television. He said that he has started to perform stand-up in theaters and auditoriums, moving away from venues and restaurants. He performs comedy shows at The Wilbur, a theatre across from Emerson, at least once a year.

Maxx Carr, an Emerson Freshman with an interest in comedic writing, has been following Willman since the first season of Magic for Humans. In an in-person interview, Carr said how much she enjoys the show and what it means to her as a student pursuing comedy.

Magic for Humans is like a really nice feel-good show with a lot of fun tricks,” Carr said in an interview. “[Willman] has a really strong and exciting personality that makes him an engaging comedian, and I feel like I’ve even learned a little from that.”

Along with his stand-up tours, he said the second season release of Magic for Humans gave Willman the opportunity to appear on many late-night talk shows. So far, Willman has appeared on Conan, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and most recently on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Willman said his appearances on these shows are a dream come true, as he would often watch them when he was younger and study the performative personalities of the show hosts.

“Justin’s ability to bridge the gap between comedy and magic is what separates him from other magicians,” said Alex Murray, Willman’s manager since 2010. “His attention to detail and overall great attitude is another secret to his success.”

Willman said he is excited and about his future career opportunities, potential upcoming seasons for Magic for Humans, and a possible stand-up special. He also said he dreams of establishing a talk-show and perform with his own distinct and engaging talk show personality.

“I always identified with the goal of hosting,” Willman said. “I would want to keep being a guest on those talk shows, and maybe host a show like that myself.”

When reflecting on his growing success, Willman said that he owes a lot of his experiences and achievements to his time at Emerson. He said studying at Emerson opened him up to different opportunities in Boston and Los Angeles that ultimately landed him in his current position.

“I really lucked out with Emerson,” Willman said. “I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to gig around town as much as I did, and befriend people who were like-minded to bring me out of my comfort zone and get me to where I am today.”

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