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troublemag | April 21, 2019

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Nicholas J Johnson: Swindling the Swindlers by Stuart Beekmeyer

Nicholas Johnson is a comedian, a magician, and a con artist who loves to prank the pranksters. At the Melbourne Comedy Festival last April, his show, Today Tonight, Tomorrow the World, told “a personal story about my own experiences working with some truly dodgy people on a pretty ridiculous show.”

As the story goes, Channel Seven’s Today Tonight asked Johnson to appear as an expert on con artists and scams, and he jumped at the chance. A little while later they asked again, and he jumped again, and again, and again. Six months later, he had made five stories, taken thousands of dollars in payments from the show, and had the basis for his own hilarious new act.

It’s easy to hate Today Tonight. I suspect many a Trouble reader has inadvertently turned on the TV to see an advertisement or a story only to be filled with some sort of rage or disgust at the blatant hype and sensationalism displayed on the screen. These sorts of programs are synonymous with taking pretty much any story they like and twisting it to their own ends. Shakey cam and spooky music signifies the bad guy. Soft screen effects and nicer music indicates the good. The ever-present irony, of course, is that a production with such a poor moral compass can claim to be exposing the dirty secrets of street grifters and con men for the benefit of the unsuspecting public.

In person, Nicholas comes across as the terminal class clown and somwhat of a natural doofus, and I wonder if it is exactly these dual qualities he used to his advantage when negotiating his role with Today Tonight. It’s easy to imagine the Channel Seven producers sitting at some South Yarra whiskey bar talking about this Nicholas guy, and how he could be “used” to their advantage. One could also easily imagine Nicholas and his mates sitting at the Wesley Anne in Northcote laughing about how the Producers thought they were playing him, while all the time he was playing them like hillbilly banjos. It is this continual cycle of playing and being played that made Today Tonight, Tomorrow the World so fascinating and funny.

I asked Johnson what was in it for him on a personal level. I loved the honesty of his response. “I just wanted to see if I could be in control and have a couple of digs,” he said. But there is more to this prank than left-leaning politics. Nicholas’ show offered real insight to the characters and situations involved in making a show like Today Tonight. His production contact, who worked with a Troy McClure-type zeal, would spirit Nicholas on short notice to different parts of the country to demonstrate his skills in ridiculous and often less than ethical ways. His interactions with the hosts of the current affairs show and the culture of celebrity surrounding them, the weird distortions of truth and reality, and how those distortions impacted on him, soon made Johnson realise how easily his prank could fall apart. “There I was working for the clown,” he told me, “then I realized, I was the clown.”

What I took away from that Comedy Festival show is a sense of satisfaction at my own disgust for Today Tonight. It’s great to be told that your instinct was right, and that these people are bunch of brainwashing, sensationalist pricks who are happy to dumb down their viewers through tricks and misdirection. It’s great to hear it through a tale of someone who played their game and took it to their level. But then it started to occur … was Johnson just playing me as well? After all, fans of TT were hardly likely to buy tix to see such a gig and have their worst fears realised, so naturally those who were drawn through the door were those who were already converted. And wasn’t that recent TT story about medical marijuana and muscular dystrophy really quite fair, positive and informative? … No, it doesn’t pay to overthink these things.

This month Johnson has a new show called Beat The Cheat, which “combines card cheating, swindling, psychological manipulation and good old fashioned board games into a comedy magic show that pits the audience against each other and Nicholas”. Beat The Cheat runs from 9 – 13 July at Northcote Town Hall as a part of the Melbourne Magic Festival. For more information on Nicholas visit www.conman.com.au

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