Smoke, Mirrors, and Meth: The Insane Story Behind ‘The Amazing Johnathan Documentary’
Five years after he was told he had one year to live, The Amazing Johnathan is still pulling off some impressive tricks—including on his documentarian Ben Berman.
HOLLYWOOD, California—On stage, The Amazing Johnathan was known for his manic energy and larger-than-life presence. In person, the 60-year-old comic magician is soft-spoken, subdued and even more frail than he appears in The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, which premieres in theaters and on Hulu this Friday.
We’re sitting in an empty theater at The Magic Castle, an old haunt for Johnathan during his glory days and the site of his big farewell performances in 2014. Born in Detroit as John Edward Szeles, Johnathan lives in Las Vegas with his wife Anastasia but when he’s in Los Angeles he always stays at the hotel on the property.
“I’ve had to sit through it probably about 10 times,” Johnathan says of the new film, which was directed by first-time documentarian Ben Berman. “I still like watching it though, because it’s about your life. It’s strange to see a room full of people watching your life story. Usually you’ve got to be dead for a documentary to come out about yourself.”
Of course, both Johnathan and the filmmaker thought he would be dead by the time the documentary hit screens. It’s been nearly five years since Johnathan announced to the world that he had been diagnosed with cardiomyopathy—and given one year to live by doctors. That’s what piqued Berman’s interest in making a documentary about him in the first place.
Berman, who before this directed mostly absurdist TV projects like Tim & Eric and Comedy Bang! Bang!, remembers watching the magician on TV as a 12- or 13-year-old growing up in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Back then, Johnathan was known for performing gross-out tricks like slicing open his wrist or skewering his own tongue on Late Night with David Letterman and other talk shows. In one famous bit, he used an oversized straw to snort an entire pitcher of white powder up his nose. He was headlining shows in Las Vegas all the way up until 2014 when he revealed his apparently fatal diagnosis.
The director conceived of the project as a vérité documentary about “this magician confronted with mortality.” He did not imagine it would evolve into a meta-commentary about truth and illusion once Johnathan brought on a second documentary crew to compete with him.
When I mention that this isn’t the only documentary about his life, Johnathan perks up. “There’s one big one out there on YouTube, have you seen that one?” he asks. He’s referring to Always Amazing, a more straightforward and uplifting film about him that premiered at the Just for Laughs festival in Vancouver more than a year ago. “It’s good, it’s really good. It has more of a positive vibe to it, whereas Ben wanted to go a darker route,” he says. “In fact, I like it as much as I like this one.”
“Well, that’s bullshit,” Berman says with a smile and a shake of his head when I relay those sentiments. “I think Johnathan’s using this press day to promote the other movie.”
Often during press junkets like this one, documentarians and their subjects will conduct their interviews together. Johnathan and Berman, however, have opted to speak to reporters separately, and frequently contradict each other throughout our conversations.
Johnathan is not thrilled that Berman’s documentary shows him struggling through the early stages of his farewell tour—dropping the microphone, refusing to come on stage when he’s introduced—as opposed to the stronger performances he says he had later on. “It didn’t show the standing ovations and people lining up a hundred deep to get a shirt signed,” he says. “He didn’t show the bright side of it. The other one does.”
Berman had already been working on his film for over a year when Johnathan was approached by his friend, the comedian Steve Byrne, who said he also wanted to make a documentary about the magician. Without consulting Berman, Johnathan welcomed the second crew aboard. Byrne touted a connection to the producers of the Oscar-winning documentaries Searching for Sugarman and Man on Wire, which Johnathan couldn’t resist repeating in interviews during that time.
Once he realized there was another crew following Johnathan around, Berman had some choices to make. “Should I give up? Because I can’t compete with Academy Award-winning doc crews,” he says. “These people are way better than me. I’m an amateur.” At that point he was self-funding the project, making solo trips back and forth between L.A. and Vegas. “Or do I keep going?”
If he was going to “seek the truth” in his film, then Berman thought it would “almost be unethical” to leave the other crew out of his frame. He says he would have been a “doc punk” if he chose to ignore the drama unfolding in front of him. Part of that drama involves the pedigree of those competing filmmakers, whom Berman started to doubt had any connection to those Oscar-winning films—despite what they apparently told Johnathan.
“There are things that I still don’t know,” Berman says. “What’s truth, what’s illusion, what’s real, what’s not, that’s a huge theme of the movie. Who said what to who? They might have lied or deceived Johnathan. Or maybe, as you already experienced with Johnathan, he hears what he wants to hear at times.”
“He’s an illusionist,” Berman says of his subject. “Sometimes he creates illusions without even knowing it.”
About midway through the Hulu doc, we see Berman travel to Vancouver to see the competing film at its premiere, wearing a hoodie as he slouches in his seat in the near-empty theater so as to not be spotted by the filmmakers on stage during a Q&A. For reasons that have seemingly more to do with aesthetics than legality, he blurs the faces of the competing crew and even the title of their film. “I know, it’s so fucking dumb,” Berman admits, explaining that he did so at their request. “It’s so silly.”
Johnathan is conspicuously absent from that scene in Vancouver. He tells me he wanted to be there but couldn’t make it due to his health at the time. “I can’t travel very well because of my condition,” he says.
That heart condition becomes a controversial plot point in the new film when Berman starts to suspect that Johnathan might be faking his illness to gain sympathy and attention. He decides to confront the magician on screen about it in a dramatic sequence that ends with Johnathan storming out of the room in disgust.
“He knew it was real,” Johnathan says of his illness when I bring up the scene. “He was trying to push the buttons, trying to get an ending. He was floundering at that point. I know why he did it. He wanted me to throw him out of the house. He told me that.”
When I present this version of the events to Berman, the director is taken aback. “Of course, I never knew if Johnathan was really dying or not,” he says. “A lot of people posed that question to me. And as a bullshit, make-believe journalist, I’m going to ask the questions that need to be asked. I was very uncomfortable doing that, but I needed to service those questions.”
“We talked about being honest all the way through,” Johnathan says. “That would not be honest. That’s your idea for an ending? Fuck you.”
In the film, we see Johnathan become visibly upset at the suggestion that he is pretending to be sick. But now, he insists he wasn’t personally offended. “I was never mad at him,” he says, explaining that he didn’t want Berman to waste his time. “I just wanted him to wrap it up,” he says. “He was stuck on the death angle.”
Berman says he no longer questions the “validity” of Johnathan’s illness despite the magician’s apparent refusal to allow him to attend doctor visits or see medical records. “In that interview, the intensity that he’s firing back at me, leaning in, not blinking—he was pissed. That was enough for me,” he says. “I don’t think he’s that good of an actor.”
Following yet another eleventh hour twist that I won’t reveal here, Berman ultimately manufactures what Johnathan now calls the “perfect” ending. And after the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Hulu bought it for around $2 million. That means Berman no longer gets to claim underdog status. “The David and Goliath dynamic keeps on shifting,” he says. “I was the underdog, but I made a good enough movie to be acquired by the big dogs.”
After spending the last few years in a wheelchair, Johnathan is now able to walk again. But he still gets tired easily. “I’m holding on,” he says. “I don’t feel like I’m going to be going anytime soon.”
Inexplicably, Johnathan attributes his unlikely survival to his regular habit of smoking methamphetamines. Doctors told him if he kept doing it, he would die even faster, but he believes the opposite it true. “I actually believe that in some weird way it’s keeping me going,” he says.
For what it’s worth, Berman says that Johnathan has made that claim to him and then said “the exact opposite” 10 minutes later. “That’s part of what you get with Johnathan,” he says. “He says whatever he wants to say in the moment and can very much contradict himself.”
Johnathan explains that he wears his meth use “like a badge,” adding, “I don’t think I’d be doing this if it wasn’t for the drugs. I’d probably be working at Ford Motor Company like the rest of my friends in Detroit.” He believes drugs “expanded his mind” and gave him the “courage” to become a world famous comic magician. “There’s always going to be negative effects with being a junkie, but to me, they don’t outweigh the positive effects.”
“I don’t care about people knowing I do meth,” Johnathan adds. “I’ve never kept that a secret from anybody. All my friends know I’m a drug addict.” That said, he was still uncomfortable with Berman including footage of him actually smoking meth in the film.
Johnathan said the only way he would be OK with that footage was if the director smoked some as well. “I said to him, well if I do it, I want you to do it,” he tells me. “I figured that would be the end of it, he wouldn’t do it and he would stop bugging me about it. But he did it.”
“It was risky,” Johnathan says. “He could have become an addict. I have friends that have taken one hit and become an addict. I didn’t want him to do it.”
On this point, Berman takes issue as well. In the film, we see the director put the pipe up to his mouth but he cuts away just before he supposedly takes a hit. Despite what Johnathan says, Berman will neither confirm nor deny that he went through with it, on the advice of his lawyers. He ended up putting a black box over the footage of Johnathan smoking meth, a “creative workaround” that he says got him a thumbs up from the magician when he saw the film for the first time.
“I don’t want to die,” Johnathan says. “I want to live, but I’m not willing to give up meth to do it.”
He feels satisfied with the life he’s lived. Looking back on a career that included performances for President Ronald Reagan and on David Letterman’s late-night shows, Johnathan says, “If I died tomorrow, I’d be perfectly happy. There wouldn’t be any bitterness to my death, because I feel like I’ve lived six different lifetimes.”
Asked what he hopes people who see the documentary take away about him, Johnathan pauses for a moment before answering, “That I was a funny motherfucker on stage. That I had that energy that nobody else had. Whether it was bought or not, it doesn’t matter.”