If there was a magician’s equivalent of the kids’ game “Would you rather?” — with its double-dares and reveling in the grotesque — it would be the New Bad Boys of Magic. Between chugging a bottle of cheap Bacardi, a trick involving the calling cards of Vegas “escorts,” and the (possible) swallowing of a detergent pod, this is a long way from disappearing doves.
“Nobody uses props like us,” says Daniel Donohue, 27, who resembles an altar boy despite onstage attempts at outrageousness. “Condoms, rum….”
Are they kidding with the bad boys stuff? “The name started out as fully ironic,” says Eric Siegel, 33, the rougher, tougher Bad Boy, with a touch of petulant Lou Reed. “And now it’s half-ironic.” They’ve gradually, he says, lived up to their proclaimed badness. “We are cooler than most magicians in L.A.”
Earlier this summer, you could go up a flight of stairs, down another and past several fancy bars into a small, dark room in the hallowed Magic Castle to see the Bad Boys deceive and enchant. Now, they’re doing a monthly stint — the next show is Sunday — at the Three Clubs, a Hollywood lounge that fans of the movie “Swingers” will recognize for its red-banquet retro cool.
Beyond the swagger, the Bad Boys offer something more sophisticated: They have serious chops in “parlor magic” — a term as corny as the player piano at a Farrell’s but one that describes a style more expansive than the cards-and-coins of close-up magic yet more intimate than the dry-ice and disappearing damsels of stage magic.
All magicians — even grumpy ones — aim to entertain. But the Boys combine dexterity with an engaging chemistry and personal tension. The Castle’s general manager, Joe Furlow, calls them “cutting edge and certainly popular.”
“When I booked them, I knew I was taking a risk,” says Benjamin Barnes of Chicago’s Magic Lounge. “They really push the boundaries — way further than 99% of the acts you see here.”
The key to the genius of the New Bad Boys may not be their extensive magical background but their stepping away from the whole thing for roughly a decade each. They missed a lot of the minutiae and in-group lore every art form indulges. But they came up with something individual.
Siegel and Donohue grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, performing magic before even starting kindergarten. They didn’t know each other at the time but followed a similar trajectory. “I didn’t like it,” says Siegel, who bowed to parental pressure. “I gave it up after high school — as soon as I got out of the house.” Donohue performed at block parties and birthday parties but bailed around age 16.
Their awkward early years doing rope tricks and David Copperfield knockoffs are chronicled in what look like staged home movies they screen at gigs. “A friend asked us how we found child actors who looked like us,” Donohue says. “It really was us.”
After college, and years of working in sketch comedy and improv in Chicago — they crossed paths there only once or twice — they each found their way to L.A., gradually drifting back to magic as a hobby while performing at Second City Hollywood and the Upright Citizens Brigade. They had different influences and obsessions — Donohue loves Monty Python, which Siegel, an “SNL” and Andy Kaufman fan, can’t stand. But when mutual friends from Chicago reintroduced them as fellow magic lovers, a lunch with a pack of cards convinced them they could try some kind of odd hybrid.
The New Bad Boys — “New” because Penn & Teller once called themselves the Bad Boys of Magic — launched three years ago, with a skit involving a 40-ouncer of malt liquor and a hard, simple shtick that has softened since. “The idea was that Dan was a clean-cut magician,” Siegel says of his partner who’d actually worked as a children’s magician, “and I was a straight-up drunk.”
A magical town
Los Angeles has been an important center for magic because of film and television, which sometimes need on-screen talent, and because of the Magic Castle, the private club on Franklin Avenue that opened in 1963. Vegas may be the capital of stage magic, but the magic community in L.A. is probably the nation’s strongest (until his death last fall, magician, actor and magic historian Ricky Jay made his home here).
Historically, magic in L.A. generally lived inside two poles — the Castle, and kids’ birthday parties. Today, though, the Bad Boys’ club gig is not the only place for close-up or parlor magic in nightclub settings.
Two years ago, longtime nightlife impresarios the Houston brothers opened Black Rabbit Rose, a 40-seat den on Hollywood Boulevard. (Rob Zabrecky — for years described as the Possum Dixon singer who did magic on the side, today better known as a magician who used to be in a band — helps book the acts.) The Magic Bar, a Monday night “sleight-of-hand saloon” in Encino, opened the same year. Young Castle-approved close-up magician Siegfried Tieber begins a six-week run at Pskaufman Gallery, a subterranean art space in downtown L.A., this October.
“There’s no question” that there’s a rise in magic saloons and theaters, says Barnes of Chicago’s Magic Lounge — especially for close-up. “There are now enough places to perform in this country that magicians have made a circuit out of it. It didn’t exist five years ago.”
Donohue sees a generational move toward close-up and parlor magic, styles that more resemble chamber music than lavish stage productions. “You don’t see people our age in top hat and tails, or producing live animals with women in flowing dresses.”
Besides the raunch — which is less extreme than much of what flourishes in Hollywood — the New Bad Boys stand apart through their emphasis on character and theater. Magicians can be like over-trained jazz players, tossing out difficult tricks one after another to impress their peers. The Bad Boys, by contrast, spend entire afternoons working to get their banter right, or lose an hour arguing over the exact wording of a joke.
“Penn has said that the next great magicians will be character-based,” says Siegel. “I feel, at this point, everything has been done — why not add an extra layer?” With their Irish and Jewish personas, the Boys feel like a throwback to the vaudeville of a century ago. “We think about vaudeville a lot,” says Donohue, who follows theater and visits Broadway every year. Appropriately enough, the Three Clubs show includes not just tricks and blarney, but a range of performers who would not seem out of place in the Catskills in 1911 — ventriloquists, jugglers, comedians and other magicians.
The Boys’ respective day jobs — Siegel is a screenwriter and private literacy tutor; Donohue, a digital news producer — takes some of the pressure off the act. “The day jobs give us the freedom to do this,” says Donohue, who watches his peers hustle from birthday parties to corporate retreats and back. “We want to take big swings. Vegas show, television. We’re not going to Boise for the midwinter middle managers meeting.”
Some days, though, they realize they really are too much for their audience. “Once in a while,” says Donohue, “we get an entire audience who totally doesn’t get it.” Responds Siegel: “We paid to see doves!”