Amazeballs: where experimental magic flourishes

May 14, 2018

While many of New York’s newest magic shows are shiny and polished, some underground shows trade in buzzwords like “experiential” and “immersive” for the experimental and the intentionally imperfect. As a professional mind-reader and a comedian based in New York, Eric Dittelman wanted a way to test out and refine new material in front of a live audience, without the pressure of having to his very best for paying clients. “My main goal was to have a place to be bad and try things out,” Dittelman tells GeniiOnline. “A lot of people only test out stuff during their paid show, but I always felt guilty doing that. I want to put my best stuff out there if I’m doing a paid show.” He needed a different way to work out the kinks of what’s new and unfinished on a friendly stage.

Dittelman came up with the idea for Amazeballs, a homegrown experimental magic and comedy show that runs once a month at The Creek & The Cave in Long Island City. Dittelman originally conceived of the show as a “playground” where he could test out new material he’d eventually put in his stage show, but he typically shares the stage with three other performers also working out their newest routines, jokes, and inventions. At last month’s Amazeballs, magician Mark Calabrese opened, Dittelman’s set was next, followed by comedian Meaghan Strickland (host of A Late Night Show that is Also Live at The Brooklyn Comedy Colective), and a closing set by magician David Schwartz.

Dittelman started doing improv in middle school, and his fascination for comedy led him to want to use it as the premise for his magic and mental effects. The element of surprise is what draws magic and comedy together for him: “They both set up an expectation and then go somewhere unexpected, whether it’s to a punchline or to an amazing impossibility, whether it’s a trick or a demonstration of mind reading,” he says. Dittelman has been on Ellen and America’s Got Talent, and regularly performs at Monday Night Magic when he’s not traveling the world with his comedy mind-reading act.

Accolades aside, Amazeballs is as laid back as a show gets. Dittelman’s no-stress approach stems from its function as more of a passion project than a job, but he’s also intentional about Amazeballs’ casual, unpredictable feel. “I want it to have an underground feel, like an if you know about it, you know about it kind of thing,” Dittelman says. “I don’t want it to be this big production show.” The location at The Creek & The Cave also contributes to the vibe, since Long Island City keeps it removed from the Manhattan mainstream (but still accessible by subway). And because The Creek is a known comedy spot, Amazeballs benefits from lingering comedy fans that stick around after the 7pm or 8pm show on a Thursday night, wondering what this magic stuff is all about.

Dittelman says he also wanted Amazeballs to be a little more R rated. “Magic has this wholesome feel to it now. Magic is an art form and there’s lots of ways to express yourself using that art form, so I wanted to be able to explore that kind of edgier, raunchier side as well.” Performers call out to Dittelman from the stage asking if they can curse at Amazeballs. Dittelman says at the first ever show, Calabrese was trying something new and the spectator he picked ended up stripping on stage. Todd Robbins fired a gun once (“but they were blanks”) when Dittelman was out of town. There’s also been fire juggling, which may or may not have been legal at the venue.

Dittelman considers the show a booked open mic, which gives him a little more control over performance quality than would a standard open mic where anyone can show up. When he first started Amazeballs, he was reaching out to friends in the New York area, but as the show has grown, performers reach out when they’re hungry for a longer slot to try out something new. “I try to find people that are going to be good for the venue and for that kind of crowd,” Dittelman says. “I only give three performers a shot on each month’s show because I want to give them ample time to try stuff out.” Typically, Dittelman and two other magicians will each get 20 minutes and one standup act will get a 10 minute set, “to break things up a bit and keep it in the comedy world,” Dittelman says.

The longer time slots are just one of the ways Dittelman gifts from the comedy world to the magic world. “In comedy, you can go to an open mic and try out stuff, in magic, there’s not as many places to do that,” he says. “I tried going to open mics when I was just starting out, but you only get a couple minutes and that’s not enough time to do pretty much anything in magic.” In aiming to recreate the alt scenes, friendly venues, and workout rooms where comedians went to break in new material, Dittelman says Amazeballs was largely inspired by Whiplash, a beloved NYC standup show. “There isn’t really isn’t a community like that in magic where all the fans can go, and people geeking out in magic who want to be part of the process.

It’s not by accident that Amazeballs is a friendly room, either. Dittelman makes it very clear to audiences that everyone on stage is talented and highly professional, and is also going to be risking their own egos to try out new things that may not work. “Don’t be an asshole” is the general guiding advice, but Dittelman says audiences are usually on board from the get go. That opportunity to be a part of the process is exciting for an open-minded audience; Amazeballs is free, and they get to see material in its infancy that will one day be a part of the high-paying shows that are par for the course in NYC. “Usually when you go see a magic show, you expect everything to work,” he says. “At my show, if half the things work that’s amazing.”

Some performers focus on a single new effect at Amazeballs, while others power through all their best new ideas. When something doesn’t go according to plan, Amazeballs magicians are experienced enough to seamlessly switch into A material if they need to. David Schwartz says that at last month’s show, he was working out the details of a routine he planned to perform at the FFFF Convention. “It was material that I had done for a while, but I was making changes to it so I wanted to work it out a little bit,” Schwartz says. “I’m always making changes, we’re all always making changes.” Mark Calabrese says he usually aims to present a full 20 minutes of new and in-the-works ideas when he’s at Amazeballs. “I’m working on new material all the time, every day, every breathing moment,” Calabrese says. “But I don’t really have the venue to perform in front of an actual live audience. I need something like Amazeballs that allows me to do real material in front of a real audience and work out the kinks of those pieces.”

At last month’s Amazeballs, the audience seemed to be happily along for the ride. The comedy environment keeps the show light-hearted even when a trick doesn’t work, and hecklers are rare. Dittelman packs his own sets with new material, putting his money where his mouth is and setting an example for the community. Beyond the comedy fans who stick around for the free late night show, Dittelman hopes Amazeballs will become more of hangout for that magic community, from fans to amateurs and enthusiasts to professionals. “I want more magic people to come because I think they can get a lot out of it, and learn that there’s more than one way to do magic.”

You can catch Amazeballs’ three-year anniversary show this month at The Creek & The Cave on May 17. It breaks all the rules as Dittelman invites every past Amazeballs performer to return to do one trick or two minutes of standup.