Check out this in-depth interview with Amazing Johnathan by Dominick A. Miserandino from the Celebrity Cafe:
Almost everybody has seen the magician/comedian The Amazing Jonathan on HBO and dozens of other television specials which captivate the crowd. Not everybody was fortunate enough to see him when he was beginning his career, performing as a street performer.
DM) I remember the first time I saw you doing a special on HBO.
AJ) Yep, I think HBO and Alan Thicke's "Thicke of the Night" both really gave me my first big breaks. They happened at the same time.
DM) I remember watching your show and, at first, what I thought was a magic routine, and at one point I couldn't tell the difference between magic and comedy.
AJ) Yeah, that's the trick there.
DM) What do you call what you do, then?
AJ) I would call it more comedy than magic. When I was doing serious magic, it was so bad that people were laughing. I figured that I might as well just change the titles. I mean, I'm basically doing the same act that I was doing when I was doing serious magic.
DM) And now people are allowed to laugh at you! (laughs)
AJ) Right! (Laughing) The birds that I'm killing are fake now.
DM) I remember a couple of the things you did made the audience squirm, thinking, "This can't be serious."
AJ) At one time it really was. I think that the last serious magic show I did was at my high school talent show. That show was so horribly wrong that I swore I would never do magic again. It's funny, thirty-six years later last week, I walked into my drama department and all the kids recognized me. They all were asking for my autograph, saying, "I heard you bombed really bad on the stage." The legend has lived on, of my bombing there.
DM) So when you started, you really wanted to be a serious magician?
AJ) Oh yeah. I saw Doug Henning and I thought, that was it, and I was doing every kids' show that I could get my hands on. But it didn't quite work out that way; it took a tragic turn for the worse as far as magic goes.
DM) So who inspired you to switch over to comedy?
AJ) Probably that lousy show in high school motivated me to switch over. Harry Anderson had a lot to do with it. After that show, I took the summer off and went to San Francisco to perform with the street performers. I ran out of cash and decided to try my magic out on the street, and it was just as tragic there as it was back in Detroit. Harry Anderson ran into me, and he pretty much taught me how to add comedy to my show. At the time, he was the biggest street performer out there. He was telling me what I did wrong, and he also showed me a few twists. So because of him and his help, he's probably responsible for my being where I am now. He went on to do television's Night Court and all of this other stuff, but he still remembers his street days with me out there.
DM) I heard that Harry Anderson did perform on the street, and it always shocked me that he really started on the street.
AJ) He knew how to do it. He just would get hundreds and hundreds of people and stop them, as opposed to my getting only 13. I remember the first time I saw him, I took a break to get a sandwich real quick, and he took all of my equipment down. He packed everything away for me and then put his stuff up and started doing the show on the spot that I had all day. To teach me a lesson, I guess. When I got back, there was this guy with 200 people standing around him. When he was done, he was packing up his stuff and said, "That's how it should be done!"
DM) How did you react?
AJ) At first I wanted to kick his ass! (laughing) But then I realized that he was showing me how to do it.
DM) That's a hell of a sign of showmanship to be able to gather so many people so quickly.
AJ) Well, he was also a bit cocky back then... but he was good and he showed me a lot.
DM) When's the last time you did a street performance?
AJ) Probably twenty-five, maybe thirty years ago.
DM) Is it something that you miss at all?
AJ) No, it's something that you learn from and move on, hopefully. Actually, I went out there and there's a few guys still doing it from back when I was doing it. And that's thirty years later. If you're still out there thirty years later, you're considered sad.
DM) That's a pretty difficult crowd to play.
AJ) That's right. That's why it's great training. All of those acts that have that kind of training are now better indoor acts because of it. If you can do it there with street bums fighting you for your money, bag ladies knocking your equipment over, and just smart-ass kids... if you can deal with all that, you can deal with a rough indoor crowd that's paying to see your comedy.
DM) Did you have your worst crowd indoors or outdoors?
AJ) I've had bad crowds indoors, but I've probably had my worst crowd outdoors... well, actually I don't know, because they're totally different situations. One crowd is paying to see you, the other is just shopping, and you've got to get them to stop and take their mind off what you're doing. I've had rough crowds. I worked in Valdez, Alaska during the oil days when people were up there working on the pipeline. That was a rough crowd. It was a strip club and they weren't there to see you, they were there to see the women. I had introductions like, "You wanted to see some naked girls, but first here's a magician."
DM) Oh, that's horrible.
AJ) Yeah, that's the worst you can get. It was probably the worst introduction I ever had. There was even one audience who had two people in the audience, and the guy made me go on stage anyway. One guy in the audience had to be my volunteer, and that left one person in the audience, and that was the guy's wife who was yelling, "Sit down. Your food's getting cold!" I was dying up there. I wrote home to a friend of mine, asking him to get me every insult book he could find and send them all to me up there. I poured through those insult books and searched for any lines I could find, and I found about 50 of them. After that, nobody could say anything to me that I didn't have answer for--unless they had a better book than I did.Link