Justin Willman brings laughter and awe to Fresno State

Former ‘Cupcake Wars’ host and magician/comedian Justin Willman performs his magic/comedy show in the Satellite Student Union on March 1, 2018. (Benjamin Cruz/The Collegian)

Former “Cupcake Wars” host Justin Willman made his way to Fresno State on March 1 for a performance that intertwined magic and comedy.

Willman has made appearances on “Ellen,” “Conan” and “The Tonight Show.” His Netflix original series that will debut later this year also centers on magic and comedy. Willman showed the audience a preview of this series.

“Having an opportunity to have a little bit of entertainment where I don’t have to travel so far is always a plus,” said Gilbert Falcon, a campus involvement ambassador.

The event was organized by USU Productions. Alejandra Prado, a graduate assistant for campus events and programs, said Willman piqued her interest when she saw him perform at the National Association for Campus Activities conference.

“He blew my mind. So, I was like, we have to bring him to campus,” Prado said. “He always has you at the edge of your seat.”

Willman opened the show by comparing his appearance to that of an “out of work Jonas Brother,” then delved into his magic performances.

He invited audience members on stage to participate. For one, he placed an audience member’s cell phone into a manila envelope, then placed counterfeit cell phones into other manila envelopes and smashed the envelopes with a hammer. In the end, the original phone was unharmed.

Sometimes, Willman even explained the steps behind the illusion of his tricks. By incorporating comedy into magic, Willman aims to make the performance more lighthearted, he said.

“Magic can easily come across a little pompous,” Willman said. “I always felt a little uncomfortable doing magic without also kind of poking fun at it.”

Willman feels that magic and comedy complement and feed off of each other.

“The laughter is misdirection for the magic. The magic is set up for a punchline,” Willman said. “For me, they kind of always go hand in hand.”

One aspect of performing that Willman appreciates is that it can captivate an audience.

“These days, if you can go 90 minutes without me checking my phone [and] without the audience checking their phones, really being in the moment – it’s like we’re doing a show back in the day,” Willman said. “It’s a chance for the audience and me to zero in and experience something together.”

Willman said that, typically, attendees at college shows are more up to date with the latest happenings.

“College is always the most finger on the pulse, modern, current references,” Willman said. “If you’re doing something that is kind of lame or like, ‘Oh, that was maybe funny a couple years ago,’ you can feel it in the room.”

Willman also feels that at times, attendees at shows at colleges hold him to a higher standard.

“College students are there to have a good time, but also [are] easily turned off by something that feels inauthentic or disingenuous,” Willman said.

Throughout the show, Willman continued to invite audience members on stage to participate in his magic. Willman said that by doing so, he feels that his magic becomes more believable.

“Magic in a vacuum is maybe pretty to watch,” Willman said. “But you’re a little skeptical about like, ‘Well, what would it look like if I’m up there?’”

In addition, he thinks that being interactive can liven up a show.

“I don’t want to go up there and just do a magic monologue for an hour,” Willman said. “I want to riff off people, and by having people come on stage, I think it makes the magic more impressive.”

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