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‘Magic for Humans’: Justin Willman on His Viral ‘Invisible Man’ Trick and the Dangers of Fooling Kids With It

If there's anyone who knows the effect that a trick can have — especially this one — it's the host of the new Netflix comedy magic series.

Magic for Humans Justin Willman Invisible

“Magic for Humans”

Netflix

A funny thing started happening on the internet last week: People started convincing their family members that they were invisible.

Like an infinite number of primates eventually stumbling on Shakespeare, the 2018-era meme-iverse might have eventually stumbled on this new viral trend on its own. But it’s impossible not to trace this growing crop of living room videos to an episode of the Netflix show “Magic for Humans.”

In Episode 4, host Justin Willman leads a group of people in a Los Angeles park to help persuade a random passerby that no one can see him. There’s magic involved — Willman effectively disappears another guy who’s in on the experiment — but the trick only works because dozens of people play along.

Following the show’s lead, this segment has morphed into a video challenge where families use their combined powers and some careful prepwork to focus on making one of their own believe that no one can see them.

“I wish I could say that I knew this would be an Internet challenge, but I really had no idea,” Willman told IndieWire.

The “Invisible Man” trick is something that Willman’s honed as part of his live show. What once began as a half-hour stage piece was slowly winnowed down, as he learned how exactly to equip his audiences to play along and what pieces of “evidence” prove most effective. The fact that the simple exposition and execution in these far-flung prank videos (Willman’s responded to many of them on Twitter) can all happen in the span of a few minutes is its own form of vindication.

“For the show, we worked for a year to distill that whole routine down into a five-minute segment, where all the necessary material is right there in a succinct spot. It’s kind of rewarding that we distilled it to a clarity so refined that people could wrap their head around it and do this themselves. Normally you think of things that go viral as being very bite-sized. So it is nice to know the people have the appetite for longer-form, more elaborate stuff like that,” Willman said. “I’ve seen videos from all over the world. The fact that it’s become kind of an international sensation, it just blows my mind and kind of makes me warm and fuzzy.”

Willman is aware that same feeling of warmth is not entirely true for some of the family members that find themselves as unwitting subjects. The original “Invisible Man” was designed with adult participants in mind. As Willman points out, even the other half of the “Magic for Humans” segment, “That second guy, Brandon, really didn’t take it well in the moment.” For those looking to pull off their own version, Willman wants them to consider who ends up going through the process.

“There are a lot of videos with parents convincing their kids they’re invisible. It could potentially be traumatizing, where the person you trust more than anyone in the world is lying to you to freak you out by telling you they can’t see you. So I hope that people use care and make sure that they aren’t causing any psychological damage. But I think it’s all been done in good fun,” Willman said.

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That word of warning comes in part from another lesson in working with kids that “Magic for Humans” brings up. In the first episode, Willman leads a variation on the classic marshmallow experiment, where children are given one marshmallow and told that if they hold off on eating it, they’ll be rewarded with another one at the end of the experiment. In the show, one kid follows the rule exactly, but through a designed trick, his marshmallow disappears. It’s clear that this leaves him visibly shaken.

“My heart broke, I ran in there and I was like, ‘Oh God, let me make this right.’ And at first I thought, ‘Well we can’t show a kid cry. That’s just not cool.’ And then once we were cutting it together and I watched that, I was like, ‘Man, it really is real, it is real. And I feel like, you know, by leaving that kind of thing out, it almost makes it not real,” Willman said. “I like to be very careful when I am doing a bit involving kids. When that kid cried, that was not what I was going for. But that is something that happened. I just think you have to be delicate with it.”

Although some TV viewers may recognize him as the host of “Cupcake Wars,” it was another of his former series that helped hone what makes “Magic for Humans” a success. In 2015, Willman filmed a pilot called “Sleight of Mouth,” which brought a “Chappelle’s Show” format to his live standup/magic hybrid act. The show aired as a special, but Willman took away one key lesson when he finally had the chance to make a full series.

“I think the big takeaway from ‘Sleight of Mouth’ was the strength of the field pieces, the strength of the clips that I would toss to as being the most in the real world. Not in some prefabricated studio,” Willman said. “When it comes to magic, unless it’s like ‘Penn and Teller: Fool Us,’ this whole studio thing could be rigged in your favor and not trusted. But when you’re out in the world, I’m on their turf and there’s kind of an inherent authenticity to that. So in putting together ‘Magic for Humans,’ as opposed to really being onstage at all, I made the world the stage and kind of went to the people.”

In bringing the show out of the studio, the “Invisible Man” segment wasn’t the only part of “Magic for Humans” that required a lengthy development time. One sequence, where he brings in people off the streets into a van and convinces them they’ve been planted with a secret NSA spying chip, went through a number of iterations before it could stand under “full 4K, high def” scrutiny.

But even though this distinct twist on street magic occasionally returns to the baffled reactions of people young and old, Willman said that he worked hard to make sure that those taking part never became objects of ridicule.

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“Those little times where I’m the butt of the joke, you maybe don’t often associate with some magicians because magicians tend to be all-powerful and flawless and any flaws don’t make the cut. I like including those because it makes it real and it makes me a real person. If I’m trying to tell a story about real life stuff, it just only makes sense to show that I’m fallible as well,” Willman said.

Now that this challenge has brought a little more attention to the six-episode first season of “Magic for Humans,” there’s a chance it may fuel an appetite for more. Whether or not the show continues for a Season 2, Willman said that it was a gratifying experience to be able to offer a respite from the current news cycle.

“I’m sure we’ll find out in the next few weeks if there will be more. I’d really love to do it and I definitely feel like I’ve learned from the response the type of bits that really have resonated,” Willman said. “The biggest feedback I get is just from people saying, ‘Man, it just made me feel good.’ That’s what the show did for me in the process of making it. I tend to be this kind of guy who is very dialed in and always on the CNN updates and finding myself getting very anxious and upset and riled up by the goings-on of our very fast paced world. But I had to turn all those things off and, for a year, really live in the moment of creating the show and focusing on the magic. Creating a show is escapism for me. So it is nice that the final product is escapism for people.”

“Magic for Humans” is now available to stream on Netflix. 

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