Nearly childlike delight and genuine surprise register on the face of the magic fan as a novel trick plays out before him, involving the disappearance and reappearance of his own signature, which he had been asked to affix to a playing card.
“That’s really something!” he exclaims to both the pleased young illusionists in front of him, and to the man next to him, who silently arches an eyebrow in agreement.
The magic fan is Penn Jillette. The approving eyebrow belongs to Teller. And the prestidigitation they applauded was just out of the chute, concocted by magician-contestants on the sly, and on the fly, on a new show on Syfy.
“Usually magicians work for years and years before they put an illusion on the stage. These magicians are doing it in a super-short period of time,” says Las Vegan Rick Lax, creator and consultant of Wizard Wars, which requires its legerdemain practitioners to make magic out of an oddball array of provided props—and even peeks in on them as they nurture tricks from ideas to illusions.
Catch the spontaneous wizardry—with Penn & Teller among the judges thumbing-up and thumbing-down the $10,000 prize-chasing competitors—at 10 p.m. Tuesdays on Syfy beginning August 19 for six weeks.
And—if the ratings gods prove beneficent—perhaps longer.
“Wizard Wars is very modern in that it shows that the people watching are not considered idiots and dupes, but people who know these are talented, skilled people trying to create what just look like miracles,” says Jillette, praising the concept of a show that glimpses the creative process, treating magicians as artists, rather than supernatural beings.
“There are still some performers who have this quality of, ‘Maybe I have real powers. Maybe I can hold my breath forever. Maybe I really can know what you’re thinking. Maybe I really can hypnotize you and make you forget anything happened.’ All of that is so old-fashioned.”
Appreciating the notion of “process” is doubly intriguing for Wizard Wars, the development of which followed its own quirky path.
Back in TV’s Paleozoic era—circa early 2000s—new series were born of a laborious process that began in pitch meetings between industry-hardened producers and imperial executives in pricey suits, negotiating deals inside wood-paneled network suites.
In the Internet age, the process of getting a green light for a series can be more democratic, beginning on the cheap … really cheap.
“Not counting the camera and the editing equipment I had, we went to the Dollar Tree Store with 15 bucks,” recalls fellow Vegas magician and Lax pal Justin Flom. Two years ago, Flom signed onto Lax’s idea to shoot a homemade video—in Lax’s apartment off the Strip—in which magic-maker friends would be asked to create new tricks on the spot, using randomly selected objects.
“We picked up what we called ingredients,” Flom says—specifically, beach balls, placemats, colored erasers and fake oranges—“and it really was like Iron Magicians. Actually, that was the working title. Because I have a presence on YouTube and do a lot of videos on magic, we put it on my YouTube channel. It went to 50,000 to 100,000 people. The production company said, ‘This is a TV show.’”
Enter A. Smith & Co., the company behind shows such as American Ninja Warrior, which saw its potential. Now with professional backing, Lax and Flom shopped their pet project around, hoping to hook a big TV fish, and Syfy—the channel that brought us two Sharknados—bit.
“Being on Syfy was my dream,” says Lax, a fan of the channel’s reality series Face Off, which Wizard Wars can claim as a reality-show father figure.
“It’s this show about special effects and monster movie makeup. This was a topic I knew nothing about, cared nothing about, but I got hooked. I saw that this reality-show format can get people interested in an art form with which they had no prior knowledge. That gave me the idea for Wizard Wars.”
After ordering a pilot, Syfy screened it for focus groups. When it scored well, Wizard Wars earned a series commitment of a half-dozen episodes.
“Most magicians are cover bands—there are good cover bands and bad cover bands, but what’s rare is the magician who creates and performs original routines,” says Lax, who invents illusion for magicians including David Copperfield, and works for the Penguin Magic website.
“If you go to a magic convention, they look the same—150 white dudes playing around with playing cards. It begins to feel very incestuous. But if you give somebody a fish and a bouquet of flowers and an electrical cord and a bowling pin, you pretty much have to create something original. Then the odds of it being entertaining go way up.”
Upgraded (to say the least) from Lax’s apartment, Wizard Wars was taped at L.A.’s Herald-Examiner Building, on a lushly constructed set of Greek-style columns and wall sculptures, gold-accented drapes and a winding staircase. Audience members are arranged like a showroom crowd, seated at tables.
“The live studio audience is very important to the show,” Lax says. “I don’t want to name names, but there have been other magicians who have had shows that have used a lot of camera tricks.” However, another obstacle for Wizard Wars warriors to clear remains vague. When asked precisely how much time is allotted for competing magicians to develop an illusion—i.e., “on the spot”—Lax demurred, reiterating: “a very short amount of time.”
Facing four judges—Penn & Teller, plus World Champion of Magic Jason Latimer and magic critic Christen Gerhart—a pair of two-magician teams square off. Contestants are culled from in-person and Skype casting, those drawn from Lax and Flom’s extended network of professional acquaintances, and word of mouth.
Ideally, they’re young turks of the new school of magic. “Some people can’t get out of the mindset of the magician with the mullet and the sexy girl,” says Flom, who is a favorite guest on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. “That was big in the ’80s and ’90s, but we’re in a new era of magic where it’s a lot more organic and natural.”
The winning twosome advance to a second round in which they must take on two of the four resident “wizards”—Flom, mentalist Angela Funovits, “con man” Gregory Wilson and Wynn Las Vegas resident magician Shimshi—in pursuit of a 10-grand payout. Which the challengers might, or might not, vanish with, depending on whether they can out-pro the pros.
Their challenge in each round: Create a routine that, among other items, must include certain mandatory knickknacks. Sometimes … more than knickknacks. “In one, they gave us a swing set,” Flom says. “Holy hell, what are we supposed to do with a swing set? I’m a sleight-of-hand guy, I do magic up close. It was a big step to do magic with swing sets and armoires and toddlers’ toy cars. That makes for good TV, to see us struggle.”
In the opener’s first round, they were smaller-scale: playing cards, a Super Soaker and Spam (the food, not the email); in the second round: eyeglasses, a mannequin, a chalkboard and a fencing foil. Kyle Marlett of Las Vegas and Dalton Wayne of Columbus, Ohio, combined to take on a pair of Canadian illusionists, Chris Funk of Winnipeg and Ekatarina of Montreal.
The winners? Sorry. You’ll have to saw us in half to make us turn informant.
“Though we do show you a tiny snippet of what it looks like behind the curtain, you’re going to walk away from each episode fooled,” Lax says. And in fact, we’re only shown brief segments inside the “magic workshop” of tools, with its “magic pantry” of props. Mostly, the magicians cook up concepts and vaguely mull over a trick’s mechanics, without ever really spilling.
“The greatest gift you can receive watching magic is wonder in a day where we can Google anything and the world is at our fingertips on our iPhones,” Flom says. “Wonder to me is priceless. I know that sounds cheesy, but I really believe that.”
Only once—when Penn & Teller perform a small trick mid-show involving the switcheroo of breath-mint tins—is a method clearly revealed. And just a dab of demystification, a la Wizard Wars, is fine with Jillette. “It’s nice to have magic treated as a grown-up art form,” he says.
“Eric Clapton never came out and said, ‘I can play this because I’m real magic.’ He didn’t mind people thinking he practiced a little. And I think it’s OK for magicians to say, ‘Yes, I can do this because I practiced a little.’ The surprise is that it’s taken this long for us to deal with magic that way.”
10 p.m. Tues beginning Aug. 19 for six weeks, on Syfy, Syfy.com/wizardwars.