Among them were David and Leeman--David Blatter and Leeman Parker--a distinctive duo act from Los Angeles. With quirky humor--as well as a dapper fashion style--the team performed a series of mentalism-based effects that were strongly received by the show's judges and viewers. They caused Howie Mandel to lose the ability to read, Tweeted a picture that included a prediction of a word yet to be selected, safely avoided slamming their hands down on a hidden spike, and produced a lottery ticket that revealed numbers randomly chosen by the celebrity judges.
Prior to their appearance on America's Got Talent, David and Leeman performed frequently in comedy and magic venues in Southern California and presented three well-received shows in the Hollywood Fringe Festival. They have filmed segments for the Masters of Illusion series currently running on the CW network and also recently announced that they will be lead writers for a new TV sports bloopers series, What Went Down.
We had the opportunity to interview David and Leeman about their partnership and their appearances on America's Got Talent. Actually the interview took place in two parts. We first interviewed the team together, and later Leeman Parker answered additional questions about the specific process of putting together their magic segments.
Herb: I understand you’ve been working together around 5 years now. Can you tell me how you started performing together?
David: We met at Santa Monica, performing at the Pier. We were street performers, separately. We ran into each other a couple times.
Leeman: We wanted to perform at The Magic Castle but it was kind of nerve-wracking to do it by yourself. And so we would kind of do it tandem. So, David would do a trick, then I would do a trick, then David would do a trick.
David: This is before we were booked at The Magic Castle.
Leeman: This was in The Museum, a place to do free open mic shows basically [The Museum is a room for informal performances at The Magic Castle].
David: Right, right. And then the Entertainment Director saw us working down there and booked us to do a show.
David: But he said we had to do it together. So we went ‘ok, sure, it’s better than nothing.’ So we created a show, a twenty minute show, “Bad Magic.”’
Leeman: It was funny.
David: The show was funny, but we did one trick the entire show. It was stretched from beginning to end.
What was the one trick you did?
Leeman: The Card in the Pea Can trick.
David: Yeah, The Card in the Pea Can.
Leeman: It’s a torn corner, and then the card ends up in a sealed can of peas.
David: Yeah, that we passed out at the beginning of the show.
Leeman: David saw this trick at the magic shop and he said ‘we should do this.’ And, I said ‘no, that’s a terrible trick. I don’t want to do that trick.’ And it turned out being good.
David: It’s a staple.
Leeman: Yeah, we still do it from time to time.
David: We did it on TV, on Masters of Illusion. It was good. It was a good foundation.
Leeman: Yeah, we made it into a good trick. The trick itself I still contend is a bad trick.
David: Right. Well, regular people think it’s a good trick. But yes. But it was a good platform for learning how to create…
Leeman: …like a show structure, cause we spread it out over twenty minutes to make a running theme.
David: Then after that we continued to sort of work together. Leeman does improv at Second City in Hollywood, so we would do open mic stuff there.
Leeman: Wherever we could get stage time we were always willing to do a show. Especially when we started out. We needed places to be bad.
David: Places to be bad. That’s what we were looking for. We seek that out still, actually. You need a place to be bad.
You said that the Entertainment Director from the Castle kind of insisted that you guys performed together, but did you feel a particular affinity in terms of your approach and style?
David: Something that I’d forgotten about that a magician pointed out to me. When we started working together, we had this curtain and I would come out of the curtain and do a trick, and then I would introduce him, and then I would go behind the curtain and he would come out, and over time we found that it was very boring. Our tricks would go wrong quite often and we came up with these jokes, that whenever one or the other of us was dying, we’d stick our hand out and read jokes. People liked that better. Even though they could tell it was crappy and cheesy, that was what they liked.
Leeman: They liked the interaction more than…
David: …us doing it by ourselves.
Leeman: There’s something enjoyable watching two people up on stage interact. I think it puts the audience at ease like ‘we’re not solely responsible for the performer’s enjoyment. We can kind of sit back and relax and we don’t have to be as loud and excited because there’s two people up there and they’re kind of having fun with each other. It’s like we’re all a group here having fun and you don’t have to carry half of this responsibility.’
David: And if things go wrong, you have somebody to share it with, and it’s great having someone to work off of. And there’s also creativity. By performing a lot together you can come up with bits that you wouldn’t have come up with by yourself.
Leeman: If this is a complicated setup or requires two different comedic voices, you can split that. Because sometimes it’s like ‘this is a really good joke, but it doesn’t fit my character, but it does fit your character.’
Let’s talk a little bit about your experience with America’s Got Talent. What were your considerations when you tried for the show? How did it happen? Were you approached, or did you reach out?
David: Initially we were doing a show at The Magic Castle and we got approached a week later from a producer of the show and they said they would like us to come on the program. That was about three months before they filmed it. And we were excited about it and then we thought ‘maybe not,’ and then eventually we were like ‘let’s just do it. You’ll regret it more if you don’t do it.’
Leeman: We figured whatever we decided to do for the show was going to be good, entertaining and funny. We weren’t worried about the material being bad, and so there was no fear of them making us look bad. It was either they were going to air it or not. So from our point view there was no loss. The only loss would be if it wouldn’t air, and that wouldn’t be a loss.
David: Yeah, you’d be in the same spot as where you already were. There are a lot of people who perform on the show and do very well and then they don’t ever get aired. There are a lot of great magicians on there who don't get aired. So for people who are reading this, go and do it, I would say, if you’re competent.
Leeman: Yeah, if you feel comfortable with your material and you know it’s good.
David: Right, if you’re making the stuff up each week, I wouldn’t necessarily do that, but if you have a show and you know ‘these five routines are really great,’ then go for it. There’s no reason not to. [Interview continues]
Leeman: You have to look at it as this. AGT as a show doesn’t need anybody who’s on the show. If everybody on that show quit, they would find 48 new people to do it in a second. That’s not a concern of theirs. So basically it’s like ‘these are our terms.’ You can agree to them or not, but ‘we don’t need you,’ basically. So, you can’t go into it, going ‘they need me on the show.’ No, they don’t.
David: You know what, though, it’s worth it. The contract is kind of scary…
Leeman: …but it’s not anything like they own your material, they don't own the presentation. They have ownership of that footage on that show.
David: The biggest risk, I would say, of the contract is if you perform poorly and they decide to air it, and it makes you not look great. They can do that. Otherwise, everything is great. If you gain success and they make some money off of you, then you’re both making money. You weren’t going to make that money before anyway.
Leeman: You’re getting a free national commercial. You’re getting in front of 15 million people that never heard of you.
About performing on television, can you tell me how you grappled with the decisions of what material to perform and how to present yourselves and how to make sure you looked as good as you could?
David: We did Masters of Illusion which is airing right now on the CW network, although we don’t know if we’ll actually be on it. Who knows, they might cut us out. We did that last year.
Leeman: That was a good step to learn, as far as content, what can go in. Because they were more strict…
David:…about things we could say…
Leeman: …inappropriate things—than AGT was. It was just ‘do your act.’ There was no time constraint like there is on America’s Got Talent, which is the biggest thing.
David: America’s Got Talent will force you to get to the point. One concept. Here's the trick. Don’t make it complicated. And if it is complicated, they’ll tell you and they’ll change it—for the better. They’re not trying to mess with you.
HS - How do you deal with them in that? Do you perform the stuff for them in rehearsals?
David: You perform for a lot of different groups of people. When we did the audition…
Leeman: The audition is a different thing because they can edit that down for time. They want it to be 90 seconds, but if it’s longer they’ll either just not air it or they’ll cut it down so it fits the context of the show. So that was just do your thing. But for the live rounds there’s a lot more rehearsal that goes into it.
How did you decide on the first trick that you did?
David: It was the most compelling thing we could have done. We were going to do something else that was more of a gag, but we decided to do Making Howie Not Read.
Leeman: It’s a good pitch. It was 'we’re going to make Howie Mandel lose the ability to read.'
David: It’s a great YouTube video title as well.
Leeman: Yeah, like the title sells the trick. They were like ‘this is great, I don’t care how you’re going to do it.’ They didn’t ask for the specifics even of what the process was. They said, ‘oh, you’re going to make him lose the ability to read. I like that. We trust you.’
Obviously you didn’t have any chance to rehearse that ahead of time with him, though, right?
Leeman: No, but we’ve done that trick - that trick we put in our show. So we ran that like 30 times with an audience before that show.
David: We did a lot of live shows with it. We’re constantly performing. We’re not picking a trick out and being like ‘here’s what we’re going to do tonight.’ It’s pretty tested material.
The second trick we did was not as tested. In fact we had never performed that in front of a live audience.
Leeman: We’ve done parts of that trick, but never the thing as a whole.
Was that an original trick that you devised?
David: That was completely created from the ground up. The principle was not ours--how to make it work--which didn’t really work perfectly…We had a group of consultants who we talked to and we put it together.
Can you say who they were?
Leeman: Jon Armstrong
David: …and Chris Philpott
I noticed that you did have to think on your feet during your performance of that. How did that feel?
David: We just rolled with it. We just hammered through it anyway, I guess is the best way to put it.
Leeman: Yeah, we knew the end game that we had to get at. We had to get him to choose the word "camera-ready." I’m sure that in a live show [a live theatrical show] there were other ways we could have done it. But in that we didn’t have a choice.
David: Yeah, and once again, it’s live television. You can’t be like ‘hey, can we cut this, can we stop?’
Leeman: In that case in a live show you’d go 'oh, really' and ask 'how about you look at it, what did you see,' and give it to someone else to find the biggest word, but there was no time for that.
What kind of feedback did you get afterward?
Leeman: If it was like a live show and there were things we could change to affect the trick, we would care about the opinions and views, but since it’s over, it’s done and we’re never going to do it again, it doesn’t really matter. There’s things we can learn moving forward as far as… We got some advice that we thought was good but it turned out it wasn’t. Stuff like that we can use moving forward. Like the larger ideas—as opposed to specific things about that trick.
David: Yeah, the real lesson we learned was dealing with outside sources. Who’s contributing to it? Who’s saying what’s funny and what’s not going to be funny? What to take out what to put in. So now when we move forward or whenever we do television or create new acts….
Leeman:…it’s more important to trust what we feel
David: right, what we feel...
Leeman: ...versus what outside forces are telling us.
David: Not to say they’re always wrong because lots of times they do contribute good stuff.
Leeman: We definitely listen to any sort of advice, but you don’t have to take every piece of advice. Take it into account but you don’t have to incorporate it.
Is there anything you could extract from your experience for other magicians? Is there something that you could say that stands out as good advice for performing magic on television?
Leeman: For me personally one of the things is during the process you’ve got to have strong magic, but that shouldn’t be your hook. If your hook is ‘I’m really good at magic,’ they’re just going to find someone that’s charismatic and teach them that magic trick. You have to be an interesting person or have a good personality or be relatable to the audience otherwise they’ll just hire an actor and teach them the trick.
David: Yeah personality is ninety-nine per cent of the game. Anybody who does this show is going to do fine magic.
Leeman: The level of skill is a given. It should be a given if you're performing in front of people.
David: That's the one thing I would say....don't go on the show if you don't have that down.
Leeman: Cause they're going to tear you apart, or they're just not going to air you. And then, what's the point.
How has this affected you guys and your career and your lives?
David: It’s good. Exposure, national exposure allows for people to recognize you. You’re on their radar. It’s good for work. It’s good for finding work. It’s good for finding good people who want to work with you, who want to contribute. It’s also good for feeling ‘we’re getting some momentum, we’re getting some traction now and what can we do with this?’
Follow-up interview with Leeman Parker.
After our first interview, Leeman Parker answered additional questions about the duo's experience on the show.
Could you talk a little bit about the process of getting your segments produced from week to week?
For each round we would pitch a few ideas. Then the producers would choose the one they liked the most. Their decision was based on 'have they seen the trick or a similar trick on the show' and also if any of the other magic acts were planning a thing similar.
As far as method or presentation or concepts, we came up with all that stuff. I can't speak for any other act, but I'm sure all the magic acts were the same. Music acts probably have more hurdles to overcome in regards to copyright and usage stuff.
How much opportunity was there to rehearse and what was that process like? How much time did you get to rehearse on the stage at Radio City?
We only got to rehearse on the actual stage during the camera blocking and then the dress rehearsal. They provided room for us to rehearse the lotto trick. All our other pieces we either rehearsed in our hotel room or in the lobby/holding area of Radio City.
Did the show create your set pieces and wardrobe—how did that work exactly?
They had a whole prop and art department that would basically build anything that you needed. They built the plexiglass stand we used for our spike trick and the giant scratcher ticket we used for our final piece. They provided wardrobe based on pictures of suits we sent them and based on producer's thoughts.
Over what kind of time frame were these segments developed?
All the segments were developed within the week we were in New York for each show. We would come in with the idea or with the whole worked out bit, but then we would go through the process of camera blocking and making small changes based on producer feedback and time constraints.
Do you feel the show was trying to showcase you in the best way possible? Were they helpful in enabling you to achieve what you wanted?
Everyone was incredibly helpful and supportive. They want to put on the best show they can, and it is a better show if every act does a great job.
Were there times where you had to stand your ground over something the show wanted to change--and how did you negotiate those kinds of situations.
The producers would give their input and opinions but they would always say "it's ultimately your choice as to what you do. Unless it was a standards and practices thing or a copyright thing they always left the final say to us."
How much did you interact with the other contestants on the show and what were those relationships like?
Because everyone is filming their own lead-in video segments and rehearsing and working with their producers we never had too much interaction with the contestants. Show days and results days we were around everyone the whole day. Everyone was great and I never felt any competitiveness. That's partially due to everyone being so involved in their own stuff and also because it's not really a competition, meaning there is almost nothing we can do to affect the other acts, and we all become friends, especially over the course of the show. You become closer the more rounds you make it through.
Do you get the sense that you’ll have any kind of ongoing relationship with AGT or are you guys pretty much back to your regular lives now?
If they ask us to do something we probably would, depending on the situation and the project, but at the moment we don't have anything planned with them. We are back to doing our own stuff, booking our own shows and working on new projects.
How did you feel about your placement in the results?
We were fine with it. We would have liked to move on but we felt the scratcher trick was our best one of the run, and were happy to go out on a high note.
What’s next for you guys?
We just finished up a week in the Palace of Mystery at The Magic Castle. Next week we are in Colorado. Our calendars are filling up. We are working on some Internet and TV stuff. The goal is to get our own show on TV or create a large online following so that we can tour and do our own shows at theaters around the world. Right now we are doing a lot of corporate stuff but would rather do our own show, not have to worry about including a message from the company or editing material to make it HR friendly.
Is there any way you can summarize how you felt about the experience overall of being on America's Got Talent and what it has meant to you?
It was an amazing experience. Going into the show we just wanted some good footage and some publicity. We got both of those things along with meeting some great people and made some great connections.
For more about David and Leeman: http://www.davidandleeman.com