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Host, comedian and magician Justin Willman

Q&A: TV

Food Network host Justin Willman hits Chicago with his 'Tricked Out' magic-comedy show

  • Justin Willman
Justin Willman
October 15, 2013|By Julia Borcherts, @JuliaBorcherts | For RedEye

He's a TV show host by day who turns tricks at night. But no, this isn't Justin Willman's dark secret. He started performing magic as a kid under the stage name his mother bestowed, Justin Kredible. He's kept it—but ditched the nickname—as an adult and, along with his gigs as the host of Food Network's "Cupcake Wars," "Halloween Wars" and "Last Cake Standing," has continued to make magic with the likes of actor Hugh Jackman and filmmaker Kevin Smith on such programs "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and his own monthly sold-out shows in the back of an L.A. comics shop. He's also performed at the White House, where he earned a standing ovation led by Barack Obama. Now, he brings his magic and comedy tour "Tricked Out" to Chicago for one night.

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Justin Willman in "Tricked Out"
Go: 8 p.m. Friday at the Abbey Pub, 3420 W. Grace St.
Tickets: $20. 773-478-4408; abbeypub.com

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About his show: "There will be a roller coaster of emotions with laughter and tears. And that's just me backstage putting make-up on. The show will be fun. Expect a lot of crazy tricks: funny ones, stupid ones, scary ones, uber-mind-blowing ones. There's tons of crowd participation, too, where audience members get to do the magic. Also, I may or may not strip at one point ... I'll let you see for yourself.

Is there a theme? "It's just about living in the moment—in 2013, going to see a live show and experiencing live entertainment with other people is kind of rare. Normally we get entertained by our smart phones in the palm of our hand. I go back to that a lot throughout the show and it has a nice magical payoff in the end. But it's a 21-plus show, so I get to do the show that I'd want to see myself; we don't have to water it down for a family audience. And it's such an intimate venue that it's really like a comedy club show, but a bunch of impossible stuff happens."

Why you should bring your pals or a date: "Overall, it's an occasionally snarky take on magic and pop culture and social networking and about how people can't go 30 minutes without their phones. But there's a couple moments that are just really sincere. I do a little poem with a heart balloon on a string; it's just getting real for a second. Of all the things in the show that I work really hard to blow people's minds with, this is one moment that people talk about. It's really not a trick, but it touches people."

How a childhood bicycle accident led to a career: "I was really a little kid, riding my bike and wearing Rollerblades at the same time to impress some girls. Long story short, they ended up having to call an ambulance 'cause there were bones sticking out of my arms. This magician came through Children's Hospital in St. Louis. I was a captive audience, obviously. So I got enthusiastic about magic. And my doctor just offhand mentioned, 'You know, I never thought about this but card tricks would be good physical therapy. You should give that a go.' That was all the nudge I needed and I got hooked."

How he stayed hooked: "Of all the hobbies and sports that I encountered as a kid, this was the first thing I was actually any good at. When you're 12 and you're able to do a skill that amazes adults, it's a crazy kind of role reversal in your mind; it's a very empowering thing. And then to realize that people will actually pay you to put on a show, you feel like you're somehow cheating the system by getting paid to do something that you would do for free anyway."

On performing at the White House for the Obamas: "You know, it was alarmingly casual. Obviously, I had to go through crazy security to get in. They X-rayed every playing card, every cupcake I brought as a gift. But once I was in, it was just so casual. When I was in high school, I used to do shows at people's houses for private parties and it reminded me of that. The President's sitting three tables away and I'm just doing my show in his living room."

The best trick he can think of to make Congress reappear at their jobs: "I'd tell Congress to pick a card, put it back in the deck, shuffle it—then pass a goddamn budget!"

When tricks go wrong: "Hopefully, it rarely happens 'cause I try to get all the kinks out beforehand, but the goal is to not let the audience know that anything goes wrong. But sometimes there's happy accidents. You realize a weak link that you weren't aware of and you can strengthen it or you'll encounter a way to recover from it that it becomes a part of the show forever."

How he ended up as a Food Network host: "I was in the right place at the wrong time. I can't cook; I've never baked a cupcake. But I was on 'The Rachael Ray Show' for years and obviously, she's a chef. I was doing magic occasionally, but then often her correspondent. So I think by having that in my past work, that was able to serve as enough food credibility to get hitched up as the 'Cupcake Wars' guy."

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