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Saying Hello and Goodbye to The Amazing Johnathan

A man in the front row who has never seen The Amazing Johnathan perform just climbed on stage and handed the magician a twenty dollar bill. I assume the man has never seen The Amazing Johnathan perform before because (a) he was sitting in the front row, and (b) he just handed The Amazing Johnathan a twenty dollar bill.

Those of us familiar with The Amazing Johnathan’s act know what’s coming. Over the next 30-45 minutes, our friend from the audience will get run through the wringer by Johnathan’s quick wit and steady stream of one-liners. If he’s lucky, he’ll leave the stage with most of his twenty wrapped in Johnathan’s patented “easy carrying case” (a wad of masking tape); if he’s smart, he won’t hand the magician another bill when he invariably asks for it on stage.

I discovered The Amazing Johnathan in the mid-1980s, when stand-up comedy was making a resurgence both in clubs and on cable television. Johnathan’s frantic mixture of magical props, dark humor and fake blood struck a nerve with me and my friends, and earned him the nickname “the Freddy Kruger of Comedy.” The nickname fit — the Amazing Johnathan’s jokes and delivery were as fast, sharp, and lethal as the blades attached the Freddy’s glove.

With his volunteer from the audience still on stage, Johnathan removes a deck of cards from his pocket and fans them out. “Would you agree this is a normal deck of cards?” the magician asks. When the volunteer agrees, Johnathan asks him, “then how do you explain this?” With that, he swings the deck around and around overhead, showing that all the cards are connected with a single string. “You can’t do that with a normal deck of cards,” he says. It’s going to be a long night for the volunteer, and a laugh riot for the rest of us.

In 1998, Susan, my friend Andy, and I drove to Tunica, Mississippi to see The Amazing Johnathan perform live. He did not disappoint. After the show, I purchased a paperback copy of Johnathon’s Every Trick in the Book and met him after the show to have it signed. I told Johnathan we had come all the way from Oklahoma to see him perform and he told me he was going to be there the following week. When I asked him if he was serious, he said no, and laughed.

Three years ago, The Amazing Johnathan announced he was dying.

I didn’t believe it at first; after all, this is the same guy who sticks a drill bit into his eye, drinks Drain-o, and pulls his eyeball out on stage every night. Sadly, the news was true. The Amazing Johnathan was diagnosed both with cardiomyopathy (a weakening of the heart muscle) and type 2 diabetes, neither of which were helped by years of abusing cocaine and speed. News reports and interviews painted a grim picture. His doctor gave him a year to live. Johnathan did a few final interviews and podcast appearances before giving away most of his possessions, climbing into bed, and preparing to die.

Except, he didn’t.

It’s been three years since The Amazing Johnathan was told he had a year to live. Tired of waiting around to die and after regaining some of his strength (and feeling in his extremities) back, the amazing one booked a few comedy clubs across the country and decided to give it one last hurrah. When I heard the news and learned that he would be performing in Dallas, I asked Susan for a pair of tickets for my birthday. The VIP tickets Susan purchased put us at a table ten feet away from the stage — close enough for eye contact, far enough not to get dragged on stage. (I brought a twenty dollar bill, just in case.)

The Amazing Johnathan moves more slowly than he used to, and the crowds aren’t as big as they were when he was selling out shows in Las Vegas. “Must be because of the hurricane,” said Johnathan, addressing the lack of elephants in the room. “That’s what they told me last week in Columbus, too.” The magician was also quick to address his health issues. When the grim reaper attempted to climb on stage, Johnathan picked up a baby doll with a straw stuck in its head and begin slurping loudly. “Stem cells, man!” he said.

While Johnathan’s physical pace has slowed down (he performs much of the show while sitting or leaning against a stool), the jokes, comedy, laughter, and magic — both his tricks and in the air — were all still present. The first half of the show consisted of classic Amazing Johnathan schtick, while the second half of the show was mostly new material. His new paintings (like the Inception-esque “Picture of a pitcher holding a picture of a pitcher”) along with the introduction of a new art form known as “foam magic” (“I don’t think that’s a cat at all…”) had the audience roaring with laughter. And we were all surprised to learn that Johnathan now has an artificial arm. (“The hand is real; just the arm is artificial.”) If you don’t think The Amazing Johnathan leaves everything he has in him on stage, the sight of his wife helping him down the steps as the guy literally collapses will convince you.

After the show, I purchased a DVD of Johnathan’s and asked him sign it. He asked me if I wanted to take a picture and I quickly handed Susan my phone as Johnathan’s wife leaned in. I put my arm around Johnathan and wanted to tell him a million things, but I began to tear up and my throat swelled. I wanted to tell him how much joy my friends and I have got from watching him perform over the past thirty years, and how many times we’ve quoted things from his act. Instead, all I squeaked out was, “Thank you for everything. I’m glad you’re still with us.”

Then he touched my hand, looked up at me, and said, “barely.”

That’s where he’s wrong. The Amazing Johnathan is going to be with us forever. He was one of the best.

He is one of the best.

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7 comments to Saying Hello and Goodbye to The Amazing Johnathan

  • Ken Autry

    choked me up too Rob. Thanks for sharing such a good heart ! Uncle Kenny

  • Kevin Moon

    I’d never even heard of the amazing Johnathan until I read your post this morning, and then I was so intrigued that I watched a video (from 1995) of him on youtube and fell in love with the guy. I wish I’d heard of him sooner, I would love to see him in person now. I am always late to the party; for example, I’d never heard of Mitch Hedberg until several years after he passed away, and now I am a huge fan. Thank you, Rob, for your heartfelt and poignant article; I got a little choked up as well.

  • john

    I had seen him several time on television, then I got a chance to see him do his stage show at the Jackson Rancheria casino in California. I never laughed so hard. This was just a short time before he made his heath issue known. I saw him at the dealer room at Magic Live just a few weeks ago. Got to talk to him a bit. What a nice guy.

  • I met and interviewed him right before His retirement announcement. Actually, my partner in crime did the interview and I ran the camera. It was at his house right before the car auction. The man was hilarious just by nature and had an amazing knack for the wicked and the funny. Not to mention a story for every car he owned.

    The man has a heart of gold and a sense of humor that will not end. Glad to see he is still with us.

  • richard gary

    Also a big fan. My wife and I were right on the stage with me wearing his yellow tour shirt from 20 years ago.

  • He did manage to make it to Magic Live! this year, so I got to see him in the dealer’s room one last time. He was so sick. He was the funniest magician I’d ever seen. My magician buds took me to see his show in Las Vegas one year while we were out at Magic Live! Thanks Richard Adler for talking me in to that. Funniest money I ever spent! I’ve never laughed so hard in my life! So damn funny! A comic genius! I’m gonna miss him…..

  • Larry Copcar

    Love Johnathan. My heart is still slamming from the gig we did at Rooster T Feathers in 1986.

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