Up Close and Personal with The Amazing Johnathan
Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to sit down for a very honest and open chat with The Amazing Johnathan (John Edward Szeles) about his life, career, and newest documentary that will be released in theaters this weekend. The Amazing Johnathan and I met at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles which just so happens to be the same location where he last performed before his initial retirement in 2014. After the interview, Johnathan was kind enough to give me a private tour of the Magic Castle, a place that I have never been to but have been wanting to visit for several years now.
Below is my full interview with Johnathan who spoke very candidly about everything we discussed. I fully believe in Freedom of Speech and found it refreshing to do an interview that felt very open and honest. While at the Magic Castle, I also spoke with director Benjamin Berman about the film and will be posting that interview later today.
Scott: Hey Jonathan, how are you?
Johnathan: I’m ok.
Scott: You look like you lost a ton of weight.
Johnathan: I did. 35 pounds. Just from being sick. Not even trying. Yeah, I can eat anything I want, and I don’t gain weight. Isn’t that cool? There’s some advantage to being sick.
Scott: I’m so sorry to hear that. I wanted to say congratulations on being part of not just one documentary, but two.
Johnathan: Yeah, I know. Did you see the other one?
Scott: I watched part of it. I was trying to prepare for this interview and since Ben hinted that it contained a lot of the same stuff but there is a totally different story there.
Johnathan: It’s a whole different story. The other one’s got heart, and it’s a little lighter, and this one is darker. You know? It’s like white and black.
Scott: No. I completely agree. I thought the other one from what I saw of it really did pull on the heartstrings.
Johnathan: Here’s what I wish that I could take parts of the first one and drop them into the second one. I wish I could edit it to be one documentary that I really love. I would take the George Carlin thing in the beginning; I’d put it in this one. To me, that’s the most important part of the documentary is the George Carlin audio message, which was actually about 15 minutes long, but they cut it. When I got that I knew everything was copasetic. I said after you get a message from George Carlin saying how much he loves your show you have nothing to prove to anybody anymore. Nobody can say you’re a hack.
Scott: Oh, I agree. He was a legend.
Johnathan: He was a legend. I had approval from the god of comedy and that’s all I needed to die a happy man.
Scott: Did you wind up going to Sundance for the premiere of this film?
Johnathan: Yeah, I did, but I got sick and had to leave early, but I did go. I went for two or three nights out of it, and then I got sick, and I had to go home. It was fun.
Scott: Being at a film festival like Sundance I feel is very like almost like a prestigious honor.
Johnathan: It is prestigious, of course, it is, but I mean they were going to parties at night and doing that, and I couldn’t do that. I would’ve loved to do it, but I couldn’t do it, so I went back home and laid in bed suffering from my legs. At least I got to see it. I saw what it was about. I got to meet Simon Chinn. I wanted the little things in the documentary, those little fern leaves, you know. I want little fern leaves, you rent movies you want to see those on the cover of the box. I’ve got those in spades now, and we went to like five festivals.
Scott: That’s awesome. How does it feel being back at the Magic Castle, because isn’t this where you did your final show before retiring the first time?
Johnathan: Yeah. I did my final shows here, and it was sad, but then after three years of sitting around waiting to die, and it never happened, I went back to work and did that tour that you saw in the film. That was short-lived. This was sad because I never performed here before in 30 years I’ve been coming here. I never did shows here, so it was fun, and the energy was great, and everybody was sad, and everybody showed up knowing it was my final shows. It was like how it should’ve been for my final shows, just a tight-knit group of friends, and people who will appreciate it, and having tickets to see it. I live here when I’m in LA. We stay next door. They have an apartment that we stay in. I had a house here up until last year. I came here all the time. Have you been here at the Magic Castle before?
Scott: Sadly, I’ve never been here.
Johnathan: You never had.
Scott: No, this is my first time.
Johnathan: Did you walk around and look at it a little bit.
Scott: Not yet.
Johnathan: You should do that while you’re here. I’ll walk you around.
Scott: That would be great. I would love to do that. So, what is it about this place that makes it so special and iconic?
Johnathan: Because it’s an exclusive club for magicians. You have to be a magician to get in, so everybody knows magic, and you walk around, and you show people what you’ve learned, and they show you stuff, and you get to watch the best of. The new kids coming up through the ranks are great. You can have a nice dinner here. It’s just a really fun place to bring somebody. Nobody’s ever brought somebody here, and went, aw, that was boring. You’ve got five different showrooms of things going on everywhere. There are pranks too. It looks nice and Jugglers don’t have their own club.
Scott: No, they don’t.
Johnathan: Mimes don’t have their own club either.
Scott: I’ve always wanted to come here, and I haven’t walked around because they didn’t do anything special attached to this press day. Usually, they let people in for the whole day and get to experience it all.
Johnathan: Yeah, I’ll show you around.
Scott: Thank you, I think this documentary is fascinating because it works almost like comedy in some ways and a mystery in others.
Johnathan: A lot of people think that it was all set up which a compliment to think that people actually believe we planned this all out. It is a real compliment, you know because we didn’t. That makes it all the more special when people think that it’s fake.
Scott: What was the thought process for you to allow four people at one point to tell your story?
Johnathan: The first girl that did it dropped out.
Johnathan: So, she gave that footage to Ben. And then, Mad Chad has been doing it for years. He always comes and goes whenever he wants, hey, I’m going to be in Vegas, can I just drop by the house? He’s been doing that for years. And so, I never thought that would be finished, and then Ben came along, and I got sick, and was going to die, and I wanted a real documentary. I knew that he had a background in comedy and so I let Ben do it.
Then the other guys approached me with the other angle, and they were friends of mine. Joel was one of my best friends, and Steve Byrne was a comic, and they wanted to do the other angle. They said they had Academy Award-nominated producers attached to their names, and I knew I couldn’t turn that down. I figured there was room for both of them. When they bumped into each other, and they were kind of like having two girlfriends meet, you know, oops.
It all worked out though because Ben was floundering before that. He really didn’t know which way to go with it. He’d come and interview me for a documentary. He’d do parties and different stuff, but never formulated anything, or knew which way to go with it. When he met the other documentary team, I would rub it in his face going “Hey, Ben. They were here and, where were you?” And then watch him laugh.
It got to him too. He had a lot of money tied up in this, so it was either quit or step up to the plate, and he stepped up to the plate. Because I was teasing the shit out of him. We always had that cat and mouse relationship together. I think I made him work hard.
Scott: Harder than they expected, that’s for sure.
Johnathan: Especially, when I didn’t die in his timeframe.
Scott: You know that was interesting. That was the moment that really hit me hard in the movie when you sit there, and he’s trying to interview, and he is asking you if all of this bullshit. And then, all of a sudden you mention, “Oh, did you not get the ending that he wanted?” And he couldn’t even answer you.
Johnathan: Yeah, because he was just trying to push my buttons. I knew he knew that I was dying. For god’s sake he’d been to the hospital, he talked to the doctors, so he knew. He’s just trying to find an ending, and he wanted to try and make me mad on camera. He wanted me to throw him out of the house.
That would’ve been his ending which would’ve totally looked stupid and forced because it wasn’t the way I felt. I felt like what I said “You’re wasting my time. I don’t know what the fuck you’re doing. You’re wasting my time. I’m going to leave now, and when you figure out what the fuck you’re doing, call me.” I didn’t call him after I walked off that day. I didn’t call him back for days and weeks after that.
And then, a month went by and then he called me and said: “Hey, look, can I come to Detroit and meet you there?” I’m like “Whatever. If you’ve got it wrapped up come to Detroit.” And he did. He had it wrapped up.
Scott: So, when you watch the film now does it feel like it’s a linear story as to the way that things actually happened, or were things moved around a lot?
Johnathan: No. It was linear. It happened in the timeframe he showed things in. There are only a few things that were in that movie that I didn’t think portrayed it accurately. One of them was he made the comeback tour look sloppy. He showed me dropping the mic. He showed me not coming out when they introduced me, which didn’t happen. He didn’t show the standing ovation. He didn’t show the positive side of the shows.
He wanted to make the tour look like it was hard for me to do, because I was sick, and it was, but the audience certainly didn’t know about it. They didn’t know. They saw the same show. I wouldn’t do the show if I couldn’t do it like the way it should be done. As soon as I started sitting down in a chair halfway through I told myself that’s it, you got to stop doing the show. It’s not about the money anymore or touring anymore, it’s about the fact that you’re just not able to do it. Chances are I probably would’ve died on stage if I didn’t stop.
Scott: Are you still doing drugs?
Johnathan: Yeah, sure man. Why stop now?
Scott: Yeah. I totally understand that perspective at this point.
Johnathan: I told myself if I found out I was dying I would do heroin and go out that way, but it scares the shit out of me. That’s the only drug I do, and I’ve been doing it every day for 20 years. Nobody’s ever known me not on that drug. That goes for the TV days back in the old days too. I’ve always had it. I do it every day like a vitamin. It keeps me awake, and it keeps me focused, and the only time I stopped doing it, I felt like I wasn’t the same person. I was a couch potato. I didn’t have the same interests anymore. I didn’t try to create like I love to draw and paint, but off drugs, I put all that away.
It just really affected me. It made me a different person. People always say to me. I always test them, and I go, “I quit doing it for the year,” and people go “I knew it. I knew it. You seem so different now. I knew you stopped.” I’m like you are a fucking liar.
Scott: It was so funny how there’s that stupid loophole where you can literally say that I’m going to do this drug and then they just put the box over as they film it, and then it’s like no one has a problem.
Johnathan: I know. It’s stupid. I used to do it during my show. I would say to the audience “Time for some magic dust.” I would snort a line of coke off my table. They couldn’t see it, but I was really doing it. The guy onstage could see it, and he was like fucking horrified. I never really tried to hide my drug use. I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. I used to freebase coke. I had a routine during my show that I took a volunteer from the audience and I put a tape on, so they would follow the instructions on the tape, and I’d go back and do a hit off my pipe while they were following the instructions on the tape. People were laughing, and that’s all I wanted to hear, you know? After that, I’d come back out and finish the show. Drugs have been a big part of my life, you know? I’m like Keith Richards. I’m the Keith Richards of magic.
Scott: Well, you are in good company. Were you excited to see some of your colleagues in the movie? This is going to sound funny, but I know you from that episode of The Weird Al Show.
Johnathan: The Weird Al Show. Where I played his uncle?
Johnathan: A lot of people have said that for a while now. Yeah. It’s good to see your peers come out and support you, and say that they’ve been fans. The first documentary, the one that’s out now on YouTube, all the comics came out of the woodwork, because Bill Burr put that out on through his company, and I’m a huge Bill Burr fan. I love Bill Burr.
Scott: Yeah, he’s huge in the comedy world.
Johnathan: I love Louis C.K.too. They’re heroes of mine. When they come out and say “He’s been our hero since we started comedy. We always watched him.” That to me, I loved to get adulation from my peers. That means more to me than anything, the fact that I have their respect. It doesn’t go that way with prop comics, like Carrot Top. He gets no love.
Scott: No, not at all but he’s really good.
Jonathan: He’s great. and he does really well. Anyone who goes to see his show comes away from it as huge fan, but he’s got to take the shit for it from people who haven’t seen the show. I don’t have to go through that. For some reason, I’ve got one guy saying you’re a parody of a prop comic. Whatever. You call it what you want as long as you’re not ragging on me. I do like the fact that people come out of the woodwork saying that they like my work like Mike Birbiglia.
Scott: Oh, Mike Birbiglia.
Johnathan: Yeah. They asked him who he was influenced by when he was young, and I was one of the guys. You get stuff like that. You find out are your fans, like Prince. Out of the blue Prince says on his website you got to check out the Amazing Jonathan. You never know who’s a fan of yours.
Scott: That’s awesome. I’m curious to hear your thoughts about the current state of this fucked up world that we live in right now.
Johnathan: I don’t take it to heart. It’s like water off a duck’s back. I don’t give a fuck about it. When you’re dying, ‘m not going to worry about who’s in office.
Scott: So, when you were doing your comeback you didn’t feel like you had to alter or change some of your stuff?
Johnathan: The politically correct part?
Scott: Yeah, that stuff.
Johnathan: Oh, no. I go the opposite way. I love to piss those people off. I wish more people would just do what they want to do to piss those people off. People come up to me with that attitude, and I fucking hate it.
You know what’s funny is when Michael Richards did that thing at the Laugh Factory with the black guy heckling him. I told the press I said, “I’m all for Michael Richards.” I said, “If it was a black comic, and a white guy was heckling, him you wouldn’t have heard anything about it even if he called him a honky or something.” You wouldn’t have heard anything about it. Now, Michael Richards, didn’t do it very cleverly but he had every right to be mad at the guy, you know?
And they came after him. The Sierra Hotel where I was playing wanted me to print a retraction, and they wanted a quote from me, and they wanted me to take it back, and this is what I said. I said, “I’ll take it back when black people stop talking in movie theaters, when Jewish people aren’t so cheap, and when Chinese people learn to drive.” That’s what my quote was, and they never asked me for another quote ever. Ever. They left me alone. I can say what I want. I’m a comedian. It doesn’t fucking matter what I think.
Scott: I remember when comedians used to really push the envelope with their material but now, there’s all this stuff now with comedians being more sensitive and not being able to say something even if it’s a joke.
Johnathan: I do. I still have it. And I’ll always have it. I wish I was up there still doing it.
Scott: If someone approached you today, and gave you an opportunity to make another documentary with you in charge of it what would that look like?
Johnathan: I would take parts from the first documentary and parts from the second. Because there are parts in each that I wish were interchangeable. I really wish this part was there, and this part was there. That and I’d cut Ben out of it.
Scott: You didn’t like when he turned the camera onto him?
Johnathan: He took up a lot of my time when he could’ve been showing my material. I liked it. It was fine.
Scott: Awesome. Well, thank you very much. This was a very open and honest interview.
Johnathan: All right, thank you for talking. Let’s head out so I can show you around a bit.