Directed by Ben Berman, The Amazing Johnathan Documentary follows the trail of an eccentric trickster who fakes gruesome injuries
There’s a history of comedians literally dying on stage. When Tommy Cooper collapsed with a heart attack on live TV, the audience assumed the comic was committing to the bit – and thus laughed even harder. On YouTube, Cooper’s most watched videos are just differently titled uploads of the same footage: an old man slumping on the floor to rapturous applause. For millions of morbid viewers, it’s lucky a camera was there to capture it.
Presumably this ran through the mind of the director Ben Berman when he started shooting The Amazing Johnathan Documentary in 2017. In 2014, the Amazing Johnathan, an American stand-up whose real name is John Szeles, announced he had a year left to live, due to a heart condition. That Johnathan was still alive three years later was joyous news for his fans and loved ones. It also meant the dying man was overdue. “I was less interested in telling Johnathan’s story because he was a comedian,” Berman admits to me, “but more, unfortunately, that he was ill.” Berman wasn’t allowed access to Johnathan’s doctor during the making of the film.
Now, it’s worth noting that the Amazing Johnathan was also a magician whose act revolved around faking injuries. In a 1997 Letterman performance, the self-titled “Freddie Krueger of comedy” sticks a drill into his eye socket, rips out his tongue, and spurts blood from a severed arm. Suffice to say, The Amazing Johnathan Documentary unfolds like a magic trick: is Berman being pranked? Or is the joke on the gullible viewer? With several twists packed into its 91 minutes, the film sparked a bidding war at Sundance and was purchased by Hulu for $2 million. Berman, when I speak to him, is over in London ahead of a Q&A hosted by Louis Theroux – an admirer of how the director breaks the rules of documentaries.
For instance, Berman keeps his mistakes in the film – or, as Theroux puts it, “showing things you’re not supposed to see”. One highlight is when Berman mortally offends Johnathan with a question that crosses the line. “Most people would cut that out,” Berman laughs. “But if a documentary is a medium that’s supposed to seek the truth, and if I’m expecting Johnathan to be honest, then I need to hold myself to that responsibility. If I don’t, that’s bullshit, right?”
The closest I come to provoking a similar reaction is when I ask Berman if he regrets displaying bitterness on camera. At the 18-minute mark, Berman discovers that Johnathan hired a second documentary crew – the Oscar-winning team behind The Walk and Searching for Sugar Man. Berman is, in effect, in competition with a bigger, more experienced company. “We should let them release theirs, and then you should come in on the swoop,” Johnathan suggests. Berman responds to the magician with a tone that sounds, well, bitter.
“Bitter?” Berman says, perplexed. “I think I was justified! I was absolutely justified. ‘Bitter’ is an interesting word. I would define it as ‘confused’. And sure, a little put off. Why value them over me? I absolutely stand by everything in the movie.” So, not bitter? “Look, a lot of people have written about the movie like this: ‘Ben Berman’s just complaining for 91 minutes. It’s this Jewish white guy who has a good life, complaining about his problems.’ I never saw it as me complaining about my problems! Yeah, I wear my problems on my sleeve, as a badge. But not as a ‘woe is me’ thing. It’s more: ‘Hey, how human is this?’”
Before the reveal of the second crew, The Amazing Johnathan Documentary is a mildly entertaining mix of vérité sequences and archive material – not exactly the catalyst for a Sundance bidding war. Once Berman has rivals, though, the film shifts gears as the director has to justify his movie’s existence. He steps in front of the camera, like Theroux does, and questions the purpose of documentaries in general. To quote Marc Maron: “There are too many documentaries. Slow down with the documentaries.”
In that sense, The Amazing Johnathan Documentary is Kaufman-esque. Not just in reference to Andy Kaufman’s theory that faking a death would be the prank to end all pranks, but that it’s the kind of Ouroboros achievement Charlie Kaufman would admire: a documentary about documentaries.
“Johnathan basically deconstructs magic for comedic value,” Berman says. “He’ll mess up a magic trick, and show the seams of how it’s done, and make a joke about it.” So the film maintains the meta spirit of Johnathan’s act? “Absolutely. I didn’t plan on that. But as things started to go wrong for me, we allowed that to be part of the movie. Our documentary deconstructs itself for comedic value, and for a deeper truth.
“Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another documentary that uses its structure to illustrate the subject of the movie. Our structure is meaningful to the subject. Johnathan is such a unique, unorthodox person – why give him a normal movie?”
With screenwriting, the number one rule is that drama requires conflict. So during the shoot, was Berman secretly ecstatic whenever new obstacles arose? “I never went about creating problems for myself,” he insists. “These were all real problems that I encountered due to Johnathan being who he was, and life being what it is.” However, Berman may or may not smoke meth with Johnathan to gain the illusionist’s trust – the footage is obscured. Surely the impulse to behave outrageously is influenced by knowing it’ll produce a more dynamic, bizarre film?
“I love these philosophical documentary questions,” Berman says. “Can a documentary ever be real? When you have a camera there, it’s more than likely affecting what is unfolding in front of you. But there’s a camera there, and it’s being documented. Would I have gone and smoked meth with Johnathan if there wasn’t a camera there? Probably not. It’s because it was servicing the movie.”
“Would I have gone and smoked meth with Johnathan if there wasn’t a camera there? Probably not. It’s because it was servicing the movie” – Ben Berman
Which leads me into a question that I precede as being “not an accusation”, although I don’t supply an alternate description. In the middle of the film, Berman learns from Johnathan that a third documentary crew exists. It’s a revelation that occurs on camera, with Berman dropping a “huh?” with expert comic timing. Did he really never ask at any point before that? The timing, for me, feels too perfect.
Berman laughs incredulously and makes me repeat the question. “How could I have foreseen other [crews]? It’s already such a weird experience to have that one competitor. I thought, ‘What an anomaly to have another crew.’ I did not have that foresight to ask about others.”
Always Amazing, a separate documentary on Johnathan directed by Steve Byrne, premiered in 2018 and launched on YouTube in June. In The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, Byrne asks Berman not to use him on camera – a request that appears in full, with Byrne’s face blurred out and his voice distorted. Later on, Berman sneaks into the festival screening of Always Amazing and pays a stranger to ask Byrne a pointed question at the Q&A.
In recent interviews, Byrne has called Berman “extremely deceitful”, “narcissistic and self-servicing”, and a “filmmaker who went through a very disrespectful route, especially once you shake hands and make an agreement”. When I searched on Google for more quotes I could repeat to Berman, I stumbled upon a court case tracking site that suggests Byrne attempted to sue Berman earlier this year. Berman seems surprised this information is online.
“He didn’t sue us,” Berman says. “He tried to, but there was no legal…” Pause. “I don’t know what I’m allowed to talk about. Which is fun. So we should talk about it. You should print it. Maybe I’ll get in trouble, and that’s fun. Who knows?” He continues, “I don’t know what to make of this man, Steve Byrne. We went out of our way to give him what he wanted without jeopardising what we wanted for our film. And still the guy is upset and going public and saying things – some are true, some are not true. But that’s what the fucking documentary is about! What is the truth? It’s how different people can have different recollections of the truth.
“But I want nothing but the best for Steve and his movie. It might or might not be intentional, but his movie is getting more press the more he complains about us. And the more press we have, positive or negative, it’s referencing his movie.” Maybe Always Amazing will receive more views off this article? “He’s still at it! I’m very impressed with this guy. It’s almost a year since we premiered. He tweeted at Louis Theroux the other day, and was like, ‘I respect your work, Louis, but you should really look at my movie!’”
“I want nothing but the best for Steve and his movie. It might or might not be intentional, but his movie is getting more press the more he complains about us” – Ben Berman
After the release of Tickled, David D’Amato ambushed David Farrier at a screening; Farrier released a 20-minute sequel, The Tickle King, the following year. Perhaps Byrne will hijack the Theroux event? “I expected something to happen at our premiere in Sundance, but it didn’t, unfortunately. I was thinking of the Tickled short. I made sure there were cameras there, just in case.” Well, the audience wouldn’t recognise him, as he’s blurred and distorted on screen? “That’s the thing! He exposed himself knowingly. The movie doesn’t expose him. The movie never says [Byrne and his crew] lied. He really did a lot to himself.”
It was at film school in Philadelphia that Berman fell in love with documentaries, particularly those by DA Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers. In 2002, aged 19, Berman interned for Pennebaker (Berman weirdly has an IMDb credit for 1973’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars for “probably dropping off a tape somewhere”) and considers The Amazing Johnathan Documentary to be his Don’t Look Back. “I asked DA for advice. He was like: ‘You’ve just got to pick up a camera. You live in Allentown. There’s probably a karate school there. Go film that karate school!’”
However, Berman’s career mostly consists of directing TV comedies like On Cinema, Tim and Eric Nite Live and Comedy Bang Bang. Cult performers like Nathan Fielder watched an early cut of The Amazing Johnathan Documentary and offered notes. Was Berman’s background in improv-heavy comedy useful for the unpredictability of documentaries? “Tim & Eric was like a version of a documentary,” the director says. “Sometimes they would write one page, or there’d be nothing written. They would get on greenscreen, and I would film them making sounds. In the edit, I’d make something out of nothing.”
Berman’s upcoming projects, though, from what I gather, will continue his departure from semi-scripted comedies. He’s pitching a documentary series and alludes to “experimenting with stuff the way I started with Johnathan” – whether that means he’s found another dying magician, I don’t know. But as our 40-minute conversation draws to a close, I ask Berman: what makes a good documentary other than access?
“Access is overrated,” Berman says. “Fuck that!” He laughs. “I would like to see more – because I want to rip them off – auteur films. I want to understand and see the director’s voice in the film. I am tired, personally, of people ripping off Errol Morris – interviews directly to camera, with a grey backdrop. We don’t have to take an interesting story or person and plug them into a model we’ve seen already. We can push it forward and do something different.”
The Amazing Johnathan Documentary is out in cinemas on 19 November. On 19 November, Louis Theroux will host a special Q&A screening to be simulcast nationwide across the UK