John Szeles is one of nature’s true agents of chaos—but “with a heart”.
As the Amazing Johnathan, Szeles spent almost four decades freaking audiences out with a stage show that combined jet-black humour with gross-out magic gags, carried on gale-force winds of natural energy and his prodigiously fast imagination.
As Las Vegas audiences discovered in 2001, when the Amazing Johnathan began his 13-year run as a headliner on the Strip, there’s no one out there like him. In fact, Penn Jillette and David Copperfield gush about Szeles’s singular talents in the new documentary Always Amazing. And then they hand-wring over his history of enthusiastic drug use.
“They’re real staunch advocates against it,” offers Szeles, who traces the origins of the Amazing Johnathan to a teenage acid trip. “So to say that I would have been funnier without? That’s coming from a couple of nonusers. They have no right to talk because they haven’t tried it.”
The performer adds that he’s nevertheless grateful for their participation in the film (“I’m lucky and they can say whatever they want,” he says with a chortle), which is directed by another admirer, standup comic Steve Byrne. But Szeles still relishes the topic, regaling the Straight during a call from his home in Sin City with unpublishable tales involving Robin Williams and members of Monty Python.
“You end up in situations that are priceless,” he says, wistfully. “I would stay up for days and days and days, and I’d find myself in a burnt-out car in San Francisco smoking crack with some bum I didn’t know. These are the stories that make you”—Szeles pauses to chuckle—“endearing.”
He could be right (I think so), but the more obvious source of charm captured in Always Amazing is the comedian’s relationship with Joel Ozborn, an Australian fan who made such a nuisance of himself that Szeles hired him as his road manager. It’s clear that the school-aged Ozborn was looking for a father figure. What was Szeles looking for?
“A little 14-year-old boy,” he answers, mockingly lascivious. “No, when somebody looks up to you like that, you’re flattered by it. And he just happened to really have his shit together more than I did, so he took care of my business. He didn’t care about money. He wanted to learn. And he learned quick.”
Now a successful comic, Ozborn reunites with his mentor in Always Amazing as Szeles prepares for a final tour after a shocking heart-ailment diagnosis leaves him with little more than a year to live. That was almost four years ago, and—hey, presto!—the Amazing Johnathan is still here. It’s nice that he stuck around to see the film, especially since his publisher bailed on the autobiography.
“They wanted me to lose everything and then stop doing drugs and get everything back—but that’s not the way it happened,” he protests. “The formula I had was: I had nothing, I started doing drugs, I got everything, and I kept everything even though I still did drugs. You know?”
Always Amazing closes the Vancouver Just For Laughs Film Festival at the Rio Theatre on Saturday (March 10), with Steve Byrne and Joel Ozborn in attendance.