Jonathan Burns is a professional magician and contortionist. When I found that out, I formed a picture in my mind. Something mysterious and exotic.
Perhaps he’d journeyed to some remote spot in Nepal, where he’d spent years in a cave learning esoteric meditation and yogic techniques from some wizened guru before traveling back to the West so he could stun audiences with his otherworldly powers.
When I spoke to him after his performance at the Magicians Alliance of Eastern States 2012 convention, he disabused me of that notion.
How did he become a professional contortionist? Well, he was that weird kid in school who could twist his body in disturbing ways, and liked to freak out the girls with it. To his credit, he never grew out of that. And he managed to turn it into a highly entertaining act.
Seriously. At the convention, he had pretty much the entire room doubled over in laughter as he did stuff like working his entire body through a toilet seat.
Words wouldn’t do it justice, so I won’t even attempt to describe his act, other than to say it was eye-popping, endearingly child-like, and very funny. Here’s the interview and a link to his site, which includes some videos so you can see for yourself.
How long have you been performing?
I was always a bit of a ham. I was the kid who would put his leg over his head to gross out girls in gym class or perform arm pit farts at the family reunion. My parents decided to channel that energy and took me to a local magic shop when I was about 12. I picked up a bunch of tricks and would perform them for anyone who’d watch. Eventually, someone noticed and asked me to perform at their daughter’s birthday party. I gathered up all my tricks, put on a sparkly vest, and made about $20. From there I was hooked!
How did you get into this in the first place?
A magic shop opened near my house when I was in Middle School. My parents and a family friend took me there to check it out. It was in the side closet of a pizza shop, but I thought it was the greatest place ever. I went there often and kept picking up more tricks.
I performed a birthday party magic show for years, but once I got to college I started performing more around campus and decided to make more out of my show by adding in some juggling, sideshow stunts, stand-up comedy, and weird bendy tricks I could do with my body.
Is this a full-time gig? If not, what’s your day job?
Performing is my full-time job. I graduated from college in 2004 and have been lucky enough to do it full-time since then, and have never had to get a “real job.”
How many times a year do you perform, and where are some of the venues you’ve been?
I perform about 150 shows per year. I perform mainly at college campuses around the U.S. during the school year, and I perform at a lot of festivals around the globe in the summer. My show has taken me to 36 States & 6 countries.
It seems like you have a pretty distinctive act. Are there a bunch of magician/contortionists out there, or are you pretty much the only one?
I think I’m the only one. Ha! There is a handful of people performing comedy contortion routines, but I’ve worked hard and continue to work hard to make my act unique to me.
How did you develop your act? Was it a gradual thing, or did it all just kind of fall together?
It’s developed over the years. When I started out at 12 years old, I just copied other guy’s acts that I’d see on TV. Over time I realized that I liked being different, so I got rid of the stolen material and began developing my own routines. It’s like a painter starting out by copying Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. The copying teaches you the skills you’ll need to be able to produce your own artwork.
I’m constantly updating and making minor tweaks to my act. Every show I do gives me insight into what is working and what isn’t.
How do you get gigs? Do you promote yourself, or are you with an agency of some kind?
A little of both. I’m always working on letting more people know about me, and I have a few agents who are doing the same.
I imagine you have to be in pretty good physical shape to do some of that stuff, such as balancing on your hands while extending your legs out. Do you follow a certain exercise regimen?
I try to do yoga often, but unfortunately its been a while since I’ve been to a class. A lot of my bendiness is natural, and I’ve had it forever. Over the years I’ve practiced to push it further.
You got a great response from the crowd at the MAES convention. Since your act is so distinctive, do you ever get audiences who aren’t sure what to make of it?
Thanks! The MAES show was fun! I haven’t performed for a lot of Magic Conventions, so I was interested to see how an audience of magicians might react.
Most audiences aren’t sure what they are getting into at first, but I try to gain a rapport with them at the start. If I can get them on my side right away I know we’ll all have a good time together.
Who are some of your influences as a performer?
Steve Martin, Weird Al, & Pee Wee Herman. 3 guys who made me laugh as a kid, and still make me laugh today.
Can you talk a little about the “Stunt Lab?”
Stunt Lab is a show that developed with my friend Mark Hayward earlier this year. We were asked by the Canal Park Playhouse to develop a show that would play at their Off-Broadway theater, and we came up with Science themed show that uses Unusual Stunts, Comedy, and World Records.
We had an amazing response during our initial run in March. We sold out 4 weeks of the show and were reviewed as “Extremely Funny” by the New York Times. The show did better than we had ever had imagined.
At the end of September Mark and I appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman performing one of our stunts from the show, and now we are heading back to NYC in December to perform the Stunt Lab Holiday Spectacular.
More details about the show and videos can be found at www.markandjonathan.com
Where can people go to see you in the near future?
I would LOVE to see people come out in December to New York City to see the Stunt Lab return. Also, you can sign up for my monthly newsletter at www.flexiblecomedy.com. I try to keep people updated on where I’ll be on a monthly basis.