The Wizard Behind the Wizards

A Q&A with <em>Wizard Wars</em> co-creator—and onetime Vegas stunt journalist—Rick Lax

I met Rick Lax shortly after the publication of his first book, a law-school memoir; he’d come to Las Vegas to research his second, a treatise on deception, through the lens of Sin City. While he said he eventually planned to return to the Midwest to practice law, he was clearly taking to this city. I edited a local alt-weekly in those days, and I began assigning him stories. Odd, offbeat stories. Gregarious, curious, game for anything, Lax turned out to be a gifted stunt journalist—the kind of writer who observes the human condition by ginning up cray-cray scenarios and seeing what happens: walking around in an old-man mask, attempting to reside in the men’s room of a local mall that was marketed as a “community.” As you can imagine, Vegas offers no shortage of opportunities for that kind of work, as Rick chronicled in his third book.

As it happened, the theme of deception was related to another passion of Rick’s: magic. He’s been performing magic, sometimes professionally, since childhood, and has gone on to craft tricks for companies that retail them to aspiring magicians.

All of that has led him to his current role: co-creator of the TV show Wizard Wars, a Syfy Channel show in which two teams of magicians compete to create magic routines out of randomly selected, and often ludicrous, items. The winners then compete against a team of the show’s more advanced performers, or “wizards.” Each round is judged by magic experts, including Vegas headlienrs Penn & Teller. After its initial six-show run, Syfy has ordered another round of shows. Though it’s shot in LA, Wizard Wars has a heavy Vegas vibe.

How did being a stunt journalist prepare you to create a TV show?
Being a stunt journalist prepares you to do pretty much anything. Seriously, if you work in HR and you spot somebody with “Stunt Journalist” on her resume, hire her. Stunt Journalists have to do everything themselves: Think up crazy ideas, formulate execution plans, reach out to experts, dress up in funny outfits, synthesize data, summarize findings. Thinking up a TV show was so easy by comparison. Because after I shared the idea, a bunch of talented people rushed in to help make it happen.

What was the first germ of the idea for Wizard Wars—was there an incident or other show or something that made you think, “Dueling magician teams could make a great TV show”? And how much tweaking did you have to do to the concept to get to the final version?
Every week I get together with my buddies Justin Flom and Bizzaro to create new magic. (Yes, “Bizzaro” is his stage name, but we call him this in real life. Or just “Biz.”). Usually this happens at Marilyn’s Café at the back of The Tuscany. Some nights, we don’t think up anything good. But even when we’re failing, we’re having a fun time. So eventually it hit me: The creation process can be just as interesting as the end result. Hence Wizard Wars: a show that highlights not only the performance, but the creation process, too.

Yes, the show’s gone through some tweaks and improvements, but the core idea is the same: Teams of two magicians create new magic routines from everyday objects, perform the routines before a live audience, and are judged by a panel of experts on creativity, showmanship and deception.

Each week, two-person teams of magicians are given random, often-unpromising items with which to devise magic tricks. How are those items chosen?
I work with SyFy and A. Smith & Co. (The kick-ass production company behind Wizard Wars and American Ninja Warrior) to pick the items. The process is completely hidden from the Challengers and the Wizards. We look for items that are ordinary but have the potential to be extraordinary. And sometimes we go for irreverent (garden gnome, inflatable toy shark). In the first six episodes, we featured Spam, golf umbrellas, remote-controlled helicopters and earthworms—to name a few. In the next six, we’ll feature lawn flamingos, tiki torches and mice. And that’s just a taste.

Why do you think this show has caught on, and what does its success say about the state of magic entertainment these days?
The show has done really well with men. SyFy ran a couple episodes after WWE Smackdown and our numbers were great. So many boys go through a “magic phase” at some point. Usually doesn’t last long. They get a magic set for Hanukkah or whatever, and they play around with it for a bit, and then get caught up in sports. But for most boys, the magic seed is planted early. And Wizard Wars, I think, shows guys all the amazing things they could be doing if they’d stuck with it. Plus, sure, people like to watch to try and figure out how the tricks are done.

What hopes do you have for the show?
There are so few women in magic. It sucks but it’s true. And I think this is because for so long, young girls had so few magical role models. I hope Wizard Wars can help to change that. We feature so many amazing female magicians on the show, and the hope is, right now, there are young girls watching Wizard Wars and saying, “I want to be a magician when I grow up.” That’ll make Wizard Wars Season 14 casting a lot easier for us.

What do you do when you’re not producing Wizard Wars?
More magic. I create tricks for, the biggest magic store in the world. Also, I work with other great creators to refine and promote their work. On the one hand, this job feels inevitable—been doing magic since I was 4 or 5—on the other hand, it’s quite a life shift. Seven years ago I was in Chicago, finishing up law school and taking the bar exam (passed it) and I only had two magician friends. Now I feel like I only have two Muggle friends.

What’s next for you?
I should probably move to L.A. and take over Hollywood, right? I can’t imagine it being that difficult. Then again, I have a warped perspective. So far, in terms of selling TV shows, I’m batting 1,000. Came up with one idea and everyone just kept saying “yes.” I’m told that this isn’t how things usually go down.

What does Vegas bring to the show?
We film in L.A., at the Herald Examiner, but so much of Wizard Wars tracks back to Vegas. We filmed the pilot in my apartment, a block off the Strip. Justin Flom, another Vegas guy, hosted and produced the apartment pilot and put it up on his YouTube channel. And our star judges, Penn & Teller, of course, come from Vegas. Along with Shimshi, one of our Wizards. And then a bunch of the “Challengers” come from Vegas, too. SO much magic in Vegas.