Television
5:03 pm
Sun August 17, 2014

On 'Wizard Wars,' Contestants Must Make Magic From The Mundane

Originally published on Mon August 18, 2014 9:42 am

Reality TV seems to have a competition for everything these days: singing, dancing, cupcake-baking — and now magic.

This week, SyFy launches Wizard Wars, where magicians do their best to wow a panel of judges. Angela Funovits, a mentalist, is one of the expert magicians — or "wizards" — that contestants must take on during the second round of the game.

She tells NPR's Arun Rath that the show is set up kind of like Iron Chef, and contestants are given a collection of objects they have to use to create a mind-boggling presentation. Forget top hats and scarves, though: these items are far from traditional magic props.

"[They're] things like Spam, things like earthworms," Funovits says. "That's definitely not something that, prior to coming into Wizard Wars, I would've ever conjured up in my own mind as something that I wanted to use in my own acts."

Funovits tells Rath about when she fell in love with magic, and how her talents help her in her day job as a physician.


Interview Highlights

On how a mentalist differs from a magician

A mentalist is someone who creates this illusion of a sixth sense, so to speak — almost looking as if they're psychic. Of course, they're not claiming anything, but they can very much seem to be able to read your mind. ... And I loved that. I loved that there was almost a scientific element to it. I loved that it was very real, very visceral. People, when I first began performing some of the mentalism-type effects that I did, were responding in much different ways than they were to just tricks.

You always make a disclaimer and you say, "I certainly don't have this actual type of ability and it's something that we do for fun, for entertainment." But, you know, there's always an element of wanting to believe, as well.

On breaking into magic as a woman

I loved magic from the time I was 10 years old; that was when I really got hooked. My inspiration on those shows was always the female assistants. And so I thought what I would have to do one day was to meet some male magician and marry him and become his assistant or something if I wanted to do magic all the time. So it was challenging.

On how she uses magic in her day job

I'm actually a first-year dermatology resident physician. I work at Metro Health Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio. ... I love it. If you have a child that needs some sort of treatment that's going to be painful or something that they're afraid of, you know, what a beautiful thing it is to be able to bring an actual little piece of magic right there ... something that distracts them entirely. That's very much a very passionate area of mine.

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Transcript

TESS VIGELAND, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Tess Vigeland. Reality TV has a competition for everything these days - cooking, singing, dancing, cupcake baking - and now, like magic, you can add magic to the list. Syfy introduces us this week to "Wizard Wars" where magicians are presented with a challenge - take a collection of everyday objects and use them to create a mind-boggling presentation for a panel of judges. Well, one of those wizards is mentalist Angela Funovitz. Arun Rath spoke with her earlier this week.

ARUN RATH, BYLINE: So first off, can you explain - you're - you're described as a mentalist. For people who don't know, can you explain the distinction, as much as there is one, between mentalist and a magician?

ANGELA FUNOVITZ: A mentalist is somebody who creates this illusion of sixth-sense, so to speak - almost looking as if they are psychic - of course, they're not claiming anything. But they can very much seem to be able to read your mind or something of that sort. And I loved that. I loved that there was almost a scientific element to it. I loved that it was very real, very visceral. And, you know, you always make a disclaimer and you say, yeah, I certainly don't have this actual type of ability. And it's something that we do for fun, for entertainment. But you know, there's always an element of wanting to believe as well.

RATH: So do you know what my question is?

FUNOVITZ: I know all your next questions.

RATH: Take us through the set of "Wizard Wars."

FUNOVITZ: Yeah.

RATH: Can you explain how the competition works?

FUNOVITZ: I think the best way that I've been able to describe it to people has been comparing it to "Iron Chef" because a lot of people have seen the "Iron Chef America" show. And this is kind of set up in a similar fashion. So we have the four wizards, which I'm one of the wizards, along with Justin Flom, Gregory Wilson and Shimshi - all fantastic magicians. And then they have challengers come in and basically the first round - two pairs of challengers compete with each other. And whoever wins that round gets to compete against two wizards in the final so-called wizard war. And that's judged by a great panel of judges. We have Penn and Teller, Jason Latimer and Christen Gearhart - all phenomenal, phenomenal people.

RATH: And like in "Iron Chef," you're given a list of ingredients - things that you have to work with, which are not all necessarily traditional magic props.

FUNOVITZ: I mean, things like spam, things like earth worms, you know what I mean? That's definitely not something that prior to coming into "Wizard Wars" that I would've ever conjured up in my own mind as something that I wanted to use in my own act so...

RATH: You know, I'm sure you've been asked this question before, because the stereotype is that magic, it's a boy's club right?

FUNOVITZ: Oh, yeah.

RATH: Most magicians are supposed to be nerdy guys. I was at a mentalist convention a few years back.

FUNOVITZ: No kidding.

RATH: Yeah. You know, you end up at these places from time to time.

FUNOVITZ: Yeah.

RATH: It was mostly men. So why do you think it persists? Is that what audiences expect?

FUNOVITZ: I think there are a number of reasons. Even when I was growing up, I remember thinking to myself - because I loved magic from the time I was 10 years old - that was when I really got hooked. My inspiration on those shows was always, like, the female assistants. And so I thought what I would have to do one day was to meet some male magician and marry him and become his assistant or something if I wanted to do magical all the time - so it was challenging.

RATH: And now you're cutting men in half with chainsaws, so...

FUNOVITZ: Absolutely.

RATH: ...Well done.

FUNOVITZ: And it's so fun.

>>RATH It's hard to make a living as a professional performer - a magician - and a lot of people have day jobs, but you have a very serious day ob. You're actually a medical doctor.

FUNOVITZ: I'm actually a first-year dermatology resident physician. I work at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

RATH: Do you work magic into your medical practice at all?

FUNOVITZ: Absolutely.

RATH: How?

FUNOVITZ: I love it. I mean, if you have a child that needs some sort of treatment that's going to be painful or something that they are afraid of, you know - I mean, geez, what a beautiful thing it is to be able to bring an actual little piece of magic right there and something that distracts them entirely. You know, that's very much a very passionate area of mine.

VIGELAND: That's Arun Rath talking to Angela Funovitz - physician and current star of "Wizard Wars," which premieres Tuesday on the Syfy network. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.