- Liz Publika
The Unbelievable Life of The Amazing Johnathan: Before and after the expiration date
It is almost impossible to accurately capture everything that John Edward Szeles — better known as The Amazing Johnathan — actually is. And goodness knows, people have tried. The focus of two recently released documentaries is an enigma. The eccentric magician, standup comedian, and the longest running and most successful solo magician in U.S history, has definitely lived an unusual life, but whether it has been accurately captured on camera is still highly debated.
The thing is, The Amazing Johnathan is not supposed to be alive. Having been diagnosed with a serious heart condition that made it impossible for him to perform nearly a decade ago, the beloved entertainer said his goodbyes and took his last bows, before leaving the stage for good. But, as stated on his website, “the expiration date came and went,” and The Amazing Johnathan is still here. He considers being alive to be the “best trick” he’s ever pulled off, but that’s exactly what his critics cannot figure out: Was it an actual trick?
It’s hard to tell. The Amazing Johnathan has been interested in magic since he was a kid. He is the first person to tell you that he was not a popular child and that his academic achievements are best represented by the letter D, so he took up magic to set himself apart. But he also started taking drugs when he was sixteen years old, and — by all accounts — has been doing them ever since. This brings us back to the aforementioned documentaries, the filmmakers were shocked to see his habit in action.
While the documentaries examine the life, career, and condition of the magician as of late, they still can’t get to the heart of the problem — so to speak. The biggest question the filmmakers can’t answer is: Can you trust anything that a magician says? Ben Berman is one of them. The director and co-star of The Amazing Johnathan Documentary (2019), explains: “Such a big theme of the movie is trying to determine what’s truth and what’s illusion, and there are still some things I don’t know. So I’m going to stay cryptic on that.”
It’s true that The Amazing Johnathan has made a career out of shock and awe. He describes himself as the "Freddy Krueger of Comedy,” and frequently uses gore in his performances, like cutting his wrists, skewing his tongue, or sucking on his eyeball as it hangs loose from its socket. And he does all of this while wearing his ever-present headband. It’s also public knowledge that he is friends with Chris Angel, the Mindfreak magician who relies on his use of illusion. All in all, it is possible that his illness was a trick. But, it’s also very likely that it isn’t.
The Amazing Johnathan is not the first person in the entertainment industry to mystify his fans with a confusing life or death status. Andy Kaufman (1949 - 1984), another anti-comedian and cringe humor enthusiast died of lung cancer when he was 35, but because he often spoke about faking his own death as a grand hoax, his passing was not immediately accepted by the public. And when The Amazing Johnathan appeared in front of a live audience for ENT Speaks in 2014 and stated that he had a year to live, some in the audience assumed he was joking.
The entertainer somberly clarified that his condition was in fact real. But the once wheelchair bound magician has again begun to walk. And, he even did a string of appearances as recently as 2019. But Always Amazing: The True Story of the Life Death and Return of Amazing Johnathan, which was also released in 2019, tells a very different story. If Ben Berman met The Amazing Johnathan to document the entertainer for his first official documentary and then got caught up in the process, Always Amazing looks at one of Johnathan’s closest relationships.
The focus of the documentary is the three-decade friendship between The Amazing Johnathan and Australian Joel Ozborn, who was only 12 when he first saw the magician perform. “Young Joel immediately became the comedian’s number one fan/stalker, and eventually assumed roles of promoter, business partner, best friend and opening act.” But the film also sheds light on the entertainer’s other relationships, like the one between him and his wife, Anastasia Synn, who is shown “going through a big bag of medications Szeles must take to survive.”
People have and will continue to question the legitimacy of the entertainer’s illness, as that is what people do with enigmatic figures they love. But the fact of the matter is, a different version of a person exists in the minds of everyone they’ve ever met. For Berman, The Amazing Johnathan may continue to exist as the eccentric magician who straddles the line between reality and illusion. And for Joel Ozborn, the beloved entertainer will always be a friend, capable of all the things that make a friendship last, like trust, love, and mutual respect.
Objectively, there is one thing we know for certain: a good magician keeps the audience guessing. And The Amazing Johnathan is one of the best people at doing exactly that.
Note* Images taken from the Media Press Kit on the official website of Amazing Johnathan. We have reached out to The Amazing Johnathan for an interview, we have not heard back. Update: The Amazing Johnathan has passed away on 2.22.2022.