The Vancouver Just for Laughs Film Festival is on this week, and showcased the world premiere of Always Amazing, the story of the famous magician-comedian, Johnathan Szeles, better known as The Amazing Johnathan. The documentary film follows his storied career as a comedian/magician, his rise to fame, an unlikely friendship with 12yr fan who ultimately grows up with Johnathan as a mentor; and ultimately the unfortunate terminal diagnosis that Johnathan receives. Lesley Coffin spoke with Johnathan about the new doc which will close the Vancouver Just for Laughs Film Festival on Saturday March 10th. For details go to http://www.jflnorthwest.com/2018-film-festival-lineup/,
For almost 30 years, John Szeles has been the reigning king of stand-up/magic as Amazing Johnathan. The “Freddy Krueger of Comedy” his sometimes bloody and often chaotic comedy shows were in direct contrast with the composed and elegant shows of other magic performers. Although his shows’ popularity has rivaled Penn and Teller and David Copperfield, the styles couldn’t have been more different. He was always just a funny magician who never wanted to be labeled.
The personality he has cultivated on stage (“that was more or less who I was then…not as annoying, but still annoying” he says in a phone interview) was reminiscent of talents like Sam Kinison and Chris Farley, and took time to bring to the stage. But what took even longer was the control he developed behind the scenes, building tricks and routines which looked out of control but were really finely tuned and well-rehearsed explaining, “The trick is to make it look chaotic and crazy, but really be in control. There was a time when I was crazy, and that’s when people would get hurt. I’d get hurt or my assistant would get hurt or I’d do something really stupid and a volunteer in the audience would get hurt. But once I had a bank account and was afraid of being sued, I learned to make it look chaotic, without it actually being chaotic. I look back at the early stuff and I’m moving a mile a minute and people loved that manic energy. But as I got older, I slowed down, and I kind of like it better this way because I can stop and think of new things or a new line on stage.”
Today, things have slowed down, since he announced in 2007 that he’d been diagnosed with cardiomyopathy. He continued performing in Vegas until 2012 (after a 13 year residency) and took 3 years off after being told he had a year to live. Still alive and doing better, he returned to the stage for a farewell tour with his former road manager/comedian Joel Ozborn, now his opening act. The tour was limited to just few dates in the northeast, but since getting back on stage, he’s continued the occasional performance… although he says “it’s a battle to get through shows” due to the exhaustion he experiences. The show has taken on a different approach since his illness. Half-way through the show he now has to sit down and addresses his diagnosis with the audience. He’s written new material to address his “death sentence” and even added a death figure that tries to take him off stage. He makes light as much as possible, but also doesn’t shy away from it. And he’s candid when he claims the public’s awareness makes his show a new kind of must see, claiming “they know I’m sick, that’s probably why they came out…it might be their last opportunity to see me live.” The show has also become a bit of legacy to pass down, for former kids to see the act again, now with their kids, saying “they want to show their kids the comedy they used to like when they were their age.”
The nostalgia for his work (much of which he’s glad to see has made it to Youtube) motivated the production of the new documentary, Always Amazing. And at the heart of the documentary is the story of Johnathan’s relationship with Joel, himself once a teenage fan who became his road manager.
Like many kids who happened to see The Amazing Johnathan at that time, Joel was blown away by his wild comedy and outrageous magic tricks. But Joel’s passion for the comic eventually found him a place within the inner-circle. Says Johnathan “To tell you the truth, he had a computer, and I needed to borrow his computer. And after that, his dad got me a commercial, so I felt like I had to hang out with him. But then I found out he was a pretty fun kid to hang around with, even though he was 14 years old. So I’d teach him magic tricks and he was just a persistent, nice kid. And he’s turned out to be one of my best friends.”
The conclusion of the documentary features footage of the two on a mini-tour in the north-east, Joel performing stand-up as the opening act. Although Joel worked as an opening act only a few times (“I only let him open a few times for me, to see if he was any good. And he turned out to be really good”) before becoming a working stand-up back in Australia, their onstage relationship is similar to what it’s always been.
Joel and friend/fellow comic Steve Byrne were the driving force of the documentary, inspired by Johnathan’s book which Joel wanted to translate into a one man show. Byrne suggested the story would make a better documentary and they approached Johnathan about making it. There was just one problem. Another documentary was already two years in the making (a documentary which will come out in a year which Johnathan is also very proud of). Fortunately, the comedians Johnathan describes as “two of the nicest guys,” Johnathan says “I just couldn’t say no to them because they’re my friends.” Fortunately, his trust paid off and he says of Always Amazing “I like it, they classed-up an otherwise un-classy life.”
Once can only hope the documentary will reignite interest in Johnathan’s career. Not that he lacks a loyal fan base, which has included comics like Robin Williams and non-comics like Prince, who once called Johnathan as a show of appreciation (“it’s always great when you admire appreciate your work”). But the general public who got and appreciated his comedy are those he clearly hold dearest today. “I was lucky because I have a weird sense of humor and there’s a bunch of people who share that sense of humor…and a whole bunch of people who don’t. I’m just lucky to have found the people that like me.”
One of the benefits of performing now, with the cloud of mortality hoovering, are the stories he hears from lifelong fans. Some who’ve faced their own health crisis (“I’ve had fans come up to me to tell me they had cancer and I was the only person that could make them laugh”) or faced death (“one fan told me when their dad was dying and they watched my special together”). Today, the after show leads to an outpouring of love from fans Johnathan cherishes, saying “It’s like being at your own funeral and getting to hear what people would say. That’s what it feels like.”
“Always Amazing” will close the Vancouver Just for Laughs Film Festival on Saturday March 10th. For details go to http://www.jflnorthwest.com/2018-film-festival-lineup/,