Jon Armstrong: Taking
Charge in Life and On Set
by Chris Philpott (published in Magic Magazine February 2016).
“Restaurant gigs, a Disney theme park, a Las Vegas showroom,
The Magic Castle, television appearances, magic conventions, international
performances, and documentaries. That’s a lot for someone to achieve
before the age of 30. But his journey is just beginning. What does the future
hold for Jon Armstrong?”
–the conclusion of John Lovick’s cover story on Jon Armstrong, Genii, December, 2004.
In Marcie Hume’s wonderful upcoming documentary Magicians: Life in the Impossible, Jon Armstrong goes through a list of his youthful dreams: “I’ve accomplished every one of my goals.” He’s won the Academy of Magical Arts Close Up Magician of the Year and been elected Chairman of the Academy Board of Trustees; he’s even published a comic book. But he doesn’t look happy. He’s sitting on a bed in a Motel Six on a long lecture tour. His marriage has fallen apart, his health is worsening and he’s fat.
“I was drinking two liters of soda a day,” he tells me as we sit down together about a year after that scene was filmed. “There were days where I would never leave my house, stay in my place and have every meal delivered to me, pizzas upon pizzas. Just eating, playing video games and not doing anything. I was killing myself.”
As Jon turns forty (on January 2nd, 2016) his life story can fit fairly neatly into three acts: Act one – the young, ambitious card worker rising quickly through the magical ranks; Act two – the young king who achieves his dreams but loses his way; then Act three – the middle-aged magician who finds renewed creative energy (and maybe a bit of redemption) in some unlikely places: getting fit, directing other magicians and an undersized bathroom utility device.
When Jon was a boy growing up in Orlando, Florida, he had a long list of health problems. “Would you describe yourself as sickly?”
“I did describe myself as sickly.”
“And you had a really hard time looking people in the eye. You were a shy kid?”
“I wanted to be accepted. I was just awkward and it was less about being shy and more about I was just embarrassed of myself and looking down a lot because of that.”
“And you had bad dyslexia. Was it diagnosed early?”
“It wasn’t. I have a lot of issues with my mother, let’s just leave it at that.”
Jon pauses for a moment, then reconsiders.
“My parents were far older than the other kid’s parents. They were a completely different generation. I was dressed in hand-me-downs and Salvation Army clothes. Not that we were super-poor or anything.” Like a lot of people, Jon is conflicted about his parents’ choices: “I used to curse my mom because she was a thrifty shopper,” he says at one point, then at another: “I was actually excited about wearing cool-looking clothes. I like dressing up and wearing glasses. I'm still wearing a pocket watch chain.
“I complained to my mom for years about the fact that I wasn’t able to read and I had ADD but she wouldn’t have anything to do with that. She was trying to keep me normal but actually what she did was keep me away from being around people who would have understood what my issues were. My only real escape was theme parks, comic books and magic.”
“That’s where I’m heading with this,” I say. “Both magic and comic books are about transcending the normal limitations of your body. A magician can do things that a normal person can’t, and of course so do super heroes. It’s a kind of wish fulfillment, especially for a sickly kid. But the thing that strikes me is that you’re not just attracted to any old magic or any old superhero. You’re attracted to Batman and Batman is unusual in that he’s not bitten by a spider or come from another planet – he becomes a superhero by sheer force of will. He basically says, “I’m going to be a superhero,” and he becomes one. And the kind of magic that you’re most drawn to is sleight of hand card magic and the first two sleights you ever learned were dealing seconds and the gin pick [a sleight for picking two cards as one off a tabled deck.] Is that right?”
“Really difficult sleights. Batman and the sleight-of-hand artist both transcend their limitations by brute determination. That obviously appeals to you.”
“It does. It always has. It’s why I was determined to learn magic from books even though I really had a hard time reading.”
Jon first fell in love with Henry Hay’s Amateur Magician’s Handbook, a book that doesn’t coddle the newbie magician. He avoided magic videos. “I can’t watch and then just follow along. To me that seems too much like mimicking.” Then Card College came out and it struck the perfect balance: clearly written while not being too easy. Jon learned every effect in the first four volumes.
A combination of hard work and voracious magical learning led Jon, at the age of 14, to impress Disney World’s master magician Terry Ward, who agreed to take Jon on as a student. Mentorship proved to be the final ingredient in his impending rapid rise. By the age of 20, Jon was resident magician at Disney World. By 25 he was headlining at Caesar's Magical Empire in Las Vegas and touring the world as both a performer and lecturer. But it was only when he moved to Los Angeles that he hit “the top”.
In LA, Jon fell in with a close group of friends including Derek Hughes, John Lovick and Dave Cox. They talked magic constantly, supporting and ripping apart each other’s acts. Here’s Dave Cox: “We bonded over our mutual belief that magic could be just as entertaining, theatrical, meaningful, funny and entertaining as any other art form. We dreamed and schemed of creating art. Our goal was to improve each other’s acts through critique and brainstorming, to create new magic in an artful and theatrical way, and to help each other avoid the sort of hacky thoughtless stuff we had seen on the Castle’s stages.
“We all wanted to be better. We thought that having an outside eye to look at our shows was going to be a very helpful thing. And it was. We started with our current acts - what was working, what wasn’t. Then, we started talking about dreams. How did we want to affect our audiences? How could we create a SHOW instead of just a series of tricks? We started to build stories and situations, dialogue and drama. We each wrote lengthy descriptions of each other’s characters. We dissected each other’s routines.”
Without realizing it, Jon was developing the skills that would serve him well as a director.
And while Jon found good friends in LA, he also found at least one enemy…
“[Name redacted] and I just fought,” says Jon.
“Do you want his name mentioned?”
“No, no, no! Don’t mention it!”
“I just want to clarify because you just said it. You’ve described him as your nemesis.”
“Yes. He was a person I was going to have to be better than.”
In true comic book fashion, Jon’s nemesis constantly challenged him. “He’d say things like ‘You can’t do this. You’re never going to make a living out of this.’ The spite is what drew me in. There was so much of it!”
As painful as the experience was, it also forced Jon to become better than he ever had been and this drove him into creating the act that won him Close Up Magician of the Year at age 30. Two years after that, Jon was elected to the Castle Board of Trustees. He was by far the youngest person on the board.
“Let’s talk about the social dynamic a bit. You showed up in LA and had a lot of success quickly. People might be a little jealous of that: ‘Who does this guy think he is?’ I’m sure you felt that. But on the other hand, sometimes success does change a person. Do you feel that at that point in your life that success changed you?”
Jon, who tends to speak quickly, took a long time to answer that.
“A little bit. Definitely. I started out being a pretty cocky kid. I thought I was a big deal at Disney. Then I went to Vegas and I instantly felt like trash because I was one of the gazillions of magicians. My ego was definitely in check then. And then I moved to Los Angeles and saw some success. I would say that some of those old tendencies came back and I was cockier than I should have been.
“I definitely said and did things that now I look back on and go, ‘That’s me being a stupid, cocky kid.’ I made mistakes. I made BIG mistakes where I said things I shouldn’t have and took friends who trusted me and made them very leery of me. I was now in the position of watching other people get above me the same way that I was getting above these other people when I moved to town. I could see it in myself and I had to stop myself from doing that but it was almost too late. Fortunately, most of that is cleared up and that’s not the way it is anymore. But there was a time where there were people who were not happy with me because of shit I did. And it was all my fault.”
Jon tried to make amends. He managed to bury the hatchet with his former nemesis.
And that’s when things started falling apart.
“I got super lazy. Learning from books is so hard, so there was no learning from books anymore.” Jon struggled with depression and put on a lot of weight. And along with many magicians, Jon suffered a precipitous drop in income after the economic crash of 2008.
That’s when I first met Jon: I interviewed him for a film project that would rekindle my own love of magic. Two things linger in my mind from that interview. One was Jon telling me, “When times get tough and companies want to show they’re being financially responsible, they don’t cut the Christmas party, they don’t cut the booze, they don’t cut the hotel – they cut the magician.” The other thing I remember was his enthusiasm when showing me the gin pick.
Then Jon went through a short-lived marriage (which is covered poignantly in The Magicians). I tell him, “I don’t really want to go into the breakdown of your marriage, but in the film it seems like you had a dream of how you wanted to live your life and it didn’t seem like the dreams that your wife wanted to live. Is that fair?”
“Yes, it’s fair.”
If Jon’s life was a superhero movie, this would be the dark moment: Jon was depressed, fat, alone and unmotivated. The one bright spot – that the boards that Jon was a part of had dramatically improved the financial fortunes of the Magic Castle, would be undercut by the fire of 2012.
I can imagine the Hollywood version of the scene: Jon gazing mournfully at the blazing building, then running inside to save Vernon’s ashes (which doesn’t make a lot of sense I realize, but oh the irony!) Then standing in the Castle hall, amid the flames, floors collapsing and sparks swirling around him, Jon stares down at that sacred box cradled in his arms and finally finds the strength to say, enough is enough! He vows to get his health back! He’s going to give back to magic by directing other magicians! And by sheer force of will he’s going to pull his creative mojo back up from the sewer of despair with nothing but a tiny plunger!
“Let’s talk about your direction of other magicians. I don't think there are many people who do that.”
“No, probably not. Joanie Spina comes to mind, but she wasn't herself a magician. Another person is Bob Fitch. He was a Broadway performer and an actor, a dance man. But to basically reaffirm what you were saying, yeah, I think I'm probably the only guy that I know who performs magic on a regular basis but then also works with magicians as a director. There are guys who work as magic consultants, guys like Danny Garcia and Rico de la Vega. But I'm not concerned about coming up with tricks. I'm interested in making magicians have better shows.”
“Why do you think so few magicians seek out directors?”
“One of the major reasons is they can't take criticism.”
“In screenwriting, most young writers can't take criticism either, but you get used to it or you don’t have a career. In magic it's like they never really learn that process.”
“No. There's SO much coddling! They don't understand that if someone says, ‘You know, you might want to think about doing this,’ the best answer to that is, ‘Okay, I'll think about that.’”
“I can’t stand when people argue with notes.”
“It's so awful! That was the thing that made me say, ‘Okay, I think I can work with them,’ when I came to David and Leeman.”
David and Leeman approached Jon after their first Fringe show in 2012. “When I agreed to give notes to David and Leeman I had just gotten burned by a performer. All he wanted to do was argue. I am giving basic standard theatrical notes [Jon studied theater at university] and I'm being debated the whole time.
“Then David and Leeman asked me to watch their video. I waited a while because I was just not in the mood, then I finally watched it.” Though the show had been a Fringe hit and won a comedy award, Jon was harsh. “I have a yellow paper that I write my reactions on and I had that thing full. ‘What the hell is this? This is ridiculous!’ And we meet up at a Bob's Big Boy (I was still very fat then). I bring out the note pad and I'm going through all this stuff. But there was a big difference: they just sat there, stone-faced and they were writing things down!”
I spoke to Leeman about the experience.
“I remember at the end of a two-hour meeting at Bob's Big Boy, Jon said he thought we were funny but we were doing a parody magic act. He was right. Our magic wasn't nearly as strong as it could be. We cared more about the jokes. But we really liked Jon and his work and the way in which he doesn't sugar-coat his thoughts. So we decided to trust him to help us make the magic stronger.”
Back to Jon: “I'm like, ‘What?! What's going on here? Don't you understand guys? I think this is shit!’ And they're like, ‘Okay.’ And I'm like, ‘Who are you people?!’ And that's when I started working with them. It was refreshing to say the very, very least.”
Jon directed David and Leeman’s next Fringe show (see “Magic at the Fringe”, Magic, August, 2013). I got a chance to see Jon direct them during their 2014 America’s Got Talent bid (they performed my 100th Monkey and I came on as an advisor). One of the things that stood out for me was that while Jon’s was making them better magicians, it seemed that their push-backs were making Jon a better director. Some of the techniques that have served Jon well, such as practicing a routine repeatedly before putting it in front of an audience, just weren’t working for David and Leeman. They came from an improv background and needed to get a trick up in front of an audience as soon as possible, even if that means risking disaster. I remember seeing them try new material in the Museum (an open stage in the basement of the Castle) one night. Every trick failed as Jon watched in horror. Later, in the Hat and Hare pub, Jon sat for ages with his head in his hands.
Though Jon grew to tolerate those early mistakes, he kept pushing them. During their Fringe run Jon got so fed up with the screw ups he threatened to dock their pay for every mistake. They got better fast.
I ask Jon if he thinks part of the reason David and Leeman accepted his notes was because they were already used to taking notes from each other.
“I think that was definitely part of it. But then I worked with Simon [Cornell] and Simon was able to just sit there and go, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ He came from a corporate background. He was an IT guy, so he was used to bosses telling you how to do things.”
Here’s Simon on the experience: “I chose to work with Jon because A) I badly wanted to work with ‘someone’, B) he offered, and C) he's good. He doesn't waste time being ‘diplomatic’. The biggest thing he helped with was cutting things out: unnecessary lines, words, gestures, even entire elements of the show. Nobody can objectively analyze their own show. Hence having a pair of outside, intelligent eyes is incredibly valuable.”
Soon Jon worked with Jen Kramer on her one-woman show at Wyndham's Grand Desert Resort in Las Vegas. She tells me, “At Yale, I was a Theater major so had worked with directors, but this is the first time I’ve worked with a director who’s also a magician and Jon knows how to bring out the best in a performer and genuinely connect with the audience. The first thing Jon asked me to do was to watch a video of the full show, writing down everything exactly as I said it on video. I had scripted the routines before, but using the video to script the show helped me see how much tighter the scripting could be. It can be challenging to look at your own show objectively, but a great director like Jon can see how to make it better.”
Jon has also directed walk-around magicians, “I want them to think of what they’re doing as theater” [note to editors: if you want to use the walk-around doc I’ve attached as a sidebar or an audio clip, you might refer to it here]. Jon also became the go-to guy to consult with pros coming to the Magic Castle for the first time. “I would watch guys that I know were good magicians, but would come to the Magic Castle and just die.”
“Because they had never done a formal close up show before. Most of the time walk-around guys are very, very pocket heavy. They’d constantly go to pockets, whether for a load, or the next bit, or a ditch. Because in a walk around setting all the focus is up here…”
Jon air-draws a frame out from the top of his head, down, then in toward the center of his torso.
“In this framing, their hands naturally fall by their side – coins drop in a pocket, they’re able to sleeve with a natural gesture. But the frame is completely different in the close up room, because the table's crotch-height when the performer stands and their pockets are in frame. Then they wonder, ‘Why am I not getting the same reaction I get from the cups and balls that I used to?’"
It was this context that brought Jon full circle, directing his former mentor (and namesake of the lead character in Jon’s comic book Smoke and Mirrors), Terry Ward. Though Terry has done thousands of shows at Disney World, he’d never worked the Castle until last year, so he decided to consult his one-time mentee…
“We focused on blocking,” says Terry. “The changes Jon made really heightened the audience reaction. I have worked with many directors over the years at Disney but none with a wealth of knowledge in magic. Our roles were reversed and it was nice to see how much knowledge Jon has gained.”
“Do you think Jon’s own performances have changed because of his work as a director?”
“If you want to learn anything about yourself as a performer, start to teach or direct. It greatly changes the way you look at your magic.”
Many of the magicians Jon has directed talk about him making them watch video of themselves, so I ask Jon if he watches his own performances.
“I do. It's excruciating, but you do it. But because there are all those notes that I've given other people, now when I watch myself I go, ‘Fuck! I'm doing the same thing that I just told other people not to do!’"
“Can you give me some examples?”
“Well, scripting dialogue was a big thing with me. One of the notes I kept giving Simon was, ‘Dude, you just have verbal diarrhea. You say in two sentences what should be said in two words!’ So now I'm going through my scripts, getting rid of a lot of unnecessary lines. No ums, no stammering. Then there are times where I've added ums...”
“You've added ums?”
“Yeah. So it'd seem like I was coming up with a line off the top of my head even though I know exactly what I'm going to say. You want that illusion of spontaneity.”
Jon described to me how studying his videos led to him fixing the climax of his paper bag card stab (based on a Don Allen idea). At the end of the effect, he produces a shot glass from the bag which he gives to the spectator. Then he produces a second shot glass for himself. The first production got a great response, but the second one died.
“I'm like, ‘how is this not playing?’ Then I made myself watch it. I just basically stepped on my own amazement. This is something magicians need to understand: don't step on your laughs, don't step on your applause, and don't step on your amazement. Reverence is important. This is something that I talk about in my lectures: reverence, conviction and intent. It was also about needing there to be a reason for me to produce the second glass.”
“Because even though it’s nice you gave them a drink, you’ve also put them in an awkward situation: everyone’s staring at them and they have to drink. It creates a new need: you want them to feel at ease. Now by producing the second glass you make them comfortable.”
“Exactly. I make them feel comfortable. I wish there was a way for us to have virtual realities where we would be able to be our own spectators. I think if you actually put yourself in their shoes, you can make them feel comfortable as opposed to alienated.
One of the things I most admire about Jon’s recent magic is that he manages to put in little human moments, touches of warmth and hints of character, which grow naturally and efficiently out of the tricks. One of my favorite examples of this is in Jon’s version of Mike Close’s “Big Surprise”. Jon begins by handing out a locked box, asking them not to try open it, mentioning he has “trust issues”. He then snaps a Polaroid of the spectator holding the box and has them sign it. He takes the photo and asks them to put the cap back on the sharpie – and this is when the spectator realizes they don’t have the cap.
"This is why I have the trust issues, folks." Jon takes the pen and lays it in a prominent place. The next time he needs the marker he says ‘Hopefully the ink hasn’t dried out,” then gives a pointed look at the person who “lost” it. Sometimes he says to the person next to them, "You didn't see a pen cap down there by any chance?" Every call back to the pen cap gets another laugh. In the end, when the box is finally opened, it contains the photo of the spectator holding that very box (!) It also contains the missing pen cap.
Apart from it just being a great effect, it’s a great example of how to create revealing human moments out of the dull mechanical process necessary to do magic. This is the kind of incident screenwriters search for: a moment that grows naturally out of the plot, elucidates character, gets a laugh, and has a payoff. The humor grows out of Jon’s character – slightly obsessive, with trust issues – and the irony of his ability to accomplish mind-numbing miracles yet fail to escape day-to-day annoyances.
I personally think Jon’s work of the past few years is the best he’s ever done. A lot of close-up magic is just about the props; there's no sense of human beings actually interacting. But in Jon’s recent work he does a wonderful job of finding these small, revealing moments.
And I think Jon comes off differently on stage these days. Part of it is the weight loss. A year ago, he decided that when he turned 40 he was going to have a superhero-themed birthday party and he was going to be Batman. “And Batman can’t look like I did.” So he joined a super-hero gym and lost 80 pounds of fat. “Though I gained a good amount of muscle.”
“So you’re saying you look good naked now.”
Jon laughs. “I look better naked, I’m not saying I look good.”
As Jon’s body hardened, he seemed more comfortable letting a softer side of his personality show. He seems warmer, more humble. I asked him if he agrees.
“Yeah, I think that's true. I think I could've gone the other way. When I got in shape, I could've been a bigger jerk about things. But that’s not where I went with it. I've learned so much in just the last two years. I'm constantly listening now to other people's acts and I'm trying to figure out how what they're saying impacts the people who are listening. I now can hear that tone in myself. ‘Ooh, I’m saying that a little too mean here.’ And I can pull it back so that it goes right to the edge of being funny, sarcastic Jungle Cruise skipper, and not sarcastic asshole.”
I want to finish with Jon’s best-known effect: The Tiny Plunger (co-created with Mathieu Bich and Garrett Thomas). It’s a lovely trick: fresh, funny, amazing and charming. It also shows off Jon’s new humility. There’s a line Jon wrote about 15 years ago in which he chastises his audience for not applauding loudly enough, saying, “There are only five people in the world who can do that and I’m pretty sure none of them are in this audience.” It’s not a bad line, but it makes a stark contrast to his presentation of the Tiny Plunger. The entire audience knows he must be doing sleight-of-hand and yet he gives all the credit to the plunger.
Jon tells me that back in drama school he was always cast as the best friend character. Being a magician generally means playing the lead. And yet Jon found his biggest success by stepping a few inches out of the spotlight and once again playing the sidekick.
“It was funny,” Jon tells me, “because that’s where I think the beginning of the transformation starts: just when I decided to really work on things and turn my life around, I found the little plunger at Wonder Con.”
In many ways, Tiny Plunger is a silly little effect. Jon, like many of the “street magic” generation, has spent his career scrupulously avoiding props that can’t be found in the average home. But now his signature effect is something no one has ever seen before. He even introduces it with a parody of the magician’s standard proof that his props are ordinary: “Please make sure this is an ordinary tiny plunger like you’d find in any Barbie Dream Home.”
Jon is justly recognized as a superb craftsman with an ability to hone other people’s creations (his “Out of this blah, blah, blah” is to me hands-down the best handling of Paul Curry’s “Out of this World”). So it’s no surprise he developed the routine for Tiny Plunger far beyond its original state. Less well known is the fact that Jon is also a deft craftsman of language. I’ll let him describe his development of the routine’s script:
“When I first performed this, the show would go along great then there was this dead stop when I did it. The trick did not fit with the show, with me. But I really wanted it to be me. So I went back to the rhythm. And I thought, ‘I'm going to sell this.’
“There were these pitchmen who did carnival pitches for whatever item, a set of knives or a juicer. That’s when I finally found the right rhythm for that trick. I'll never forget this. My whole rhythm is a pitch-type thing. ‘Tiny plunger! It's adorable! It's the most impressive thing you've ever seen in your entire lives! When I do this for kids, I feel bad!’ That rhythm. It began to fill me.
“Because I'm directing others now, I listen to my own video – I don't watch, just listen. If I can feel a break in the rhythm, I know that that's the part where I'm not focused on my script.
“Then there are the ad-libs. Really, the ad-libs are things that I do all the time. I start doing the spiel, and then I'm breaking out and ‘ad-libbing’. I say, ‘We're in America. What do you care about? Bulk.’ Now, that was obviously script. Then I go, ‘I did this in Europe recently, and I said, ‘I'm from America. You know what we care about?’ And the guy goes, ‘War!’ The whole routine goes back and forth between asides and what's obviously something I've said a gajillion times.”
The counterpoint between pitch and asides is a really clever solution to presenting this effect. There is a subtle expression of character here: the pitchman is always in character, but when Jon leans forward and breaks character to give his asides, it’s like he’s saying, ‘You know I’ve got to sell this crap, and yet I like you too much to stay on script.’”
I’ll give the last word on the trick to Penn Jillette when Jon did it on Fool Us.
“I do not know how to say this with enough intensity, but that may be the only original card trick I’ve ever seen. There’s something so fair, and so wonderful and just so whimsical about the whole thing. I love this act! What a great routine!”
Jon has been invited back on the show for season three.
I am at a party in a warehouse in Chatsworth: music, flashing lights, drinks, dancing. I’m surrounded by superheroes and villains. Two-Face, Harley Quinn, Ice Man, Bird Person, She-Hulk, Kim Possible, the Penguin... A muscular and imposing looking Batman strides toward me. He gives me a hug.
“You enjoying the party?”
“It’s great, Jon. Happy 40th birthday.”
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