“I just got tired of laying in bed waiting for something to happen to me.” For the Amazing Johnathan, that was reason enough to get back onstage.
Johnathan has been battling the degenerative heart disease cardiomyopathy for more than eight years, but three years ago doctors gave him 18 months to live, sending the longtime headlining comic-magician into retirement. After months of lying in bed, drawing, painting and watching TV, he started to feel better—while he was getting bored. “I also got a lot of emails from fans saying, ‘We want you to do some shows, if you can do it, because we never got the chance to see you,’” he says. “So I thought I’d do it for the people.”
He started with one weekend a month and got busier from there, and he’s playing his first Vegas shows in years this weekend at Red Rock Resort, but he’s not planning to continue this pace. “I don’t know how much longer I can do it. It’s too tiring. I have to sit down during the show, which is weird, even if the audience understands.” So, once again, catch him while you can.
So are you performing against doctors’ orders or is that a non-issue? The doctor doesn’t tell me not to. What I have is a degenerative heart disease and it’s getting worse and worse. For a while, I kind of spiked and I was able to do shows and I got real confident, but it’s gone back the other way, and fast. It’s hard to stand up right now without passing out. So I’m playing it by ear. Yesterday I passed out at the dentist, and I’m real dizzy. I’m in the process of finding out if it’s my medication or if my heart is not pumping blood fast enough to my head, but I’m definitely falling apart, slowly by surely. I deal with it and try to fit shows in between.
Your energy onstage has been a calling card. How strange is it to perform sitting down? I start standing up, and I’m good for about 15 or 20 minutes before I have to lean against a stool, so I don’t actually sit. But halfway through, I’m sitting. My wife comes out and does 10 minutes to give me a break, and I lay down flat on my back—then I come back up and finish the show. It seems high-energy all the way through. It’s the same delivery and a lot of the same material. It seems to the audience that it’s kind of effortless, but man, it’s not. I’m counting the seconds when I’m up there.
Has there been any negative response to your performing again? It’s all positive. The fact that I was told I had a year and a half and here I am three years later is weird to me, but not so much to others. I can think, Jesus Christ, everyone expects me to die, but that’s just me thinking that. I’ve had not one negative response. You don’t announce that you’re planning on dying unless you are, and I was. And it happens a lot, people get misdiagnosed. But it is happening. I try to fool myself into thinking it’s not, but it is. It gets harder all the time, it’s just not as fast as they said.
There are two different documentaries about your life being made. Yes. The first one has been following me around for over a year, and then these other guys who have won Academy Awards [including producer Simon Chinn of Searching for Sugar Man and Man on Wire] came around, and I couldn’t say no.
What’s it like to have film crews following you around? If they’re doing more of my personal life, which the first one is, it’s kind of hard to act normal when the camera is around. They want footage of you doing normal everyday things, which nowadays is lying in bed, so it’s not exciting. When I have something going on I call them and they film it. But it’s been interesting for me to actually see [footage], because this usually happens when you’re dead. So it’s like being at your own funeral, more or less. They filmed my first performance back, my first moments back onstage with a big audience, which was pretty emotional.
Is there any way you can see continuing to plan shows into the new year, past what you’ve scheduled already? I can’t do a full-time gig. I’ve had offers to do it again here [in Las Vegas], but I just can’t do it—let them put money into advertising and marketing and then I get sick and they’re screwed. If it was me coming to host a show, being the emcee, I would do that, if it’s not my show. Amazing Johnathan presents or something like that. That would be awesome. I would love to be able to drive to work every day here like I used to.
The Amazing Johnathan October 6-7, 8 p.m., $49. Rocks Lounge at Red Rock Resort, 702-797-7777.