Justin Flom’s metamorphosis from magician to social media influencer is no sleight of hand.
When the pandemic took hold last March, the Eden Prairie native was home like everyone else. If the Las Vegas-based magician couldn’t perform in person, Flom, 34, would broaden his act online.
The first magician to perform card tricks for a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden, Flom has built a formidable social media presence over the years. Like his live shows and TV appearances, it focused on magic—until now.
“I was able to you to use the opportunity of, ‘We’re not going anywhere, let me try something new,’” Flom said.
For the past year, his focus has been producing videos he calls “Facebook silliness.” Trickery is involved but not required. He now considers himself more storyteller and entertainer than a magician.
Scroll through Facebook and Tiktok, and you’ve probably come across the videos. Maybe you’ve seen the one in which his sister Janelle demonstrates how to make a pie out of Spaghetti-Os? How about the one where Flom tries to dye his wife Jocelynn’s hair blue using toothpaste? Or, what about the one where Janelle’s best friend, Kate Heintzelman, proposes in an airport to a man she recently met online?
“Show business is about interesting ideas, whether it’s making Rice Krispies Treats with Peeps or a guy charging his Tesla with a gasoline-powered generator,” Flom said. “To me, these are interesting thoughts, and the fact that we’re getting to capture and put them online is fun.”
The short videos, about three minutes each, have gone viral in a big way. On Facebook alone, Flom has had about 4 billion views this year. His most popular video garnered 300 million views.
Flom creates the videos with friends, such as fellow magician Rick Lax and country singer Adley Stump. They combined for 50 billion views last year.
Shot using camera phones, Flom’s silly content teeter-totters from real and fake pranks, sketches, dramas, pratfalls, food hacks, and magic. Now and again, he gets serious, too. One video showed him in the hospital after a health scare.
“I tell my wife, this is not the thing that we’re going to leverage later for television, or this is not the thing that we’re going to jump to the sitcom from,” he said. “This is the thing. We’re doing it right now. The eyeballs that we’re getting are bigger than Netflix. It’s bigger than television. And the potential is so great. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to top what the last 365 days have been.”
During the pandemic, Flom’s silly videos have become a family business. Helping him produce content are his wife Jocelynn and his three siblings: Josh, Jordan, and Janelle. Also featured are Josh’s wife, Lisa, Jordan’s wife Rachel, and Janelle’s friend Kate. His parents, Scott and Lisa, make frequent guest appearances.
Much of his family—everyone except himself and Jordan—still lives in Eden Prairie. (Flom is in the process of buying a house in Eden Prairie. It will probably end up being his summer home, he said, allowing his daughters Haven, 4, and Holiday, 1, more time with their grandparents.)
The city has provided the backdrop for several of the Flom family videos. Locations used for past videos include Staring Lake Park and Prairie Village Mall.
“We love talking about video ideas now, and wouldn’t it be funny if we did this?” he said. “Or ‘Do you think we could trick Mom into thinking this is fun?’”
Asked if the viral videos are a lucrative venture for him and his family, he admits that is subjective.
He said Facebook doesn’t pay as much as YouTube. But the Facebook platform is built on sharing with friends, ensuring substantial view shares.
In addition to Flom’s views, Janelle and Kate’s Facebook page accounted for 2.7 billion views in the past year. Josh and Lisa’s page had 400 million views.
“I’ve excited with what I’ve been able to help my sister and my brothers and some of my friends accomplish,” he said. “It’s been cool, especially during a pandemic year when so many people (are struggling).”
Kate quit her job as a teacher and took a year to have “silly fun” on the videos, he said. She has become a fan favorite. “I don’t know how she gets away with it, but everybody loves her,” he said.
Flom is philosophical when trying to pinpoint the reasons for his videos’ success.
He shares what entertainer Steve Martin thought was the reason for his breakout success in the 1970s: His wacky schtick was a welcome pause from years of political turmoil.
The same thing is happening now, he said.
“I think the public was ready for total silliness, like ‘Let’s hide a kiddie pool under a pile of leaves and wait for the husband to fall in,’” he said. “I think the public resonated with it.”
As for a more linear explanation, Flom’s not sure. “(Comedian Jerry) Seinfeld once said he’s not funnier than other guys. He’s just writing more,” he said. “I don’t know if we’re doing better work than anyone else. We’re just uploading more. And I think that’s the secret.”
Flom is motivated each day by doing “new and novel” things, writing daily. When brainstorming ideas, Flom and his family think more like sketch actors. Inspiration comes from watching episodes of I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show.
“We take those old gags and try to make them new for today’s audience,” he said. “There’s an old Dick Van Dyke gag where Mary Tyler Moore slides out a closet full of walnuts. I wanted to do that, but I didn’t have a closet full of walnuts. I did have these giant spring snakes. So, we hid those in a mailbox.”
Success, he admits, is dependent on Facebook algorithms.
“That’s certainly at play, and we are aware of it,” he said. “But more important to me is ‘Do people like the video or not?’”
High viewership doesn’t always correlate with positive online comments. “Read them, and you think people hate this stuff,” he said. “But actually, I think it’s much more like reality TV where people pretend they hate it.”
Real or fake?
One recent video has Kate cringing after Janelle (holding the camera) covertly dropped a pregnancy test into a couple’s shopping cart, presumably at a Target. The couple discovers the kit, then begins to bicker. Eventually, Kate admits to them that she accidentally dropped it there.
So, was the situation natural or manufactured? Flom likes to leave that to the audience to guess.
“But, I’ll be real with you,” he said. “When people watch these things, and they say, ‘Fake,’ I think what they imagine is if they asked me directly, I would continue lying,” he said. “That’s not the case.”
To prove his point, he said the video is fake. He is friends with the couple.
Many of the videos are written sketches shot sort of as found footage, he said. Some, though, are genuine.
“It’s a challenge to say our content is one or the other,” he said. “We’re doing real cooking videos and fake cookie videos and real pranks and fake pranks and real dramas and fake dramas. It’s hard to throw a blanket over it and say, ‘Those are the people who do fake videos’ because so much of what we do is real.”
He points to a video in which Janelle gave away money to a pizza delivery driver. “That wasn’t an actor,” he said. “His emotion was real.”
When she called in the order, Flom did ask for an older driver. “That was the only thing that wasn’t 100 percent real,” he said. “She knew that we’re in a pandemic. Surely there is a guy who is doing delivery who shouldn’t be doing delivery, and we wanted to help him out.”
Many in the magic community are not pleased with Flom’s content shift.
Magic has always been a part of Flom’s life. A photo on his website shows him as a doe-eyed boy proudly holding a dove in each hand. He learned his first tricks from his father, Scott, magic obsessed himself since his teens. The elder Flom used magic to excel as a salesman and teach life lessons to his children.
“They hate it,” he said. “The reasons they give are because I’m not doing magic the way they think I should be doing it.”
Flom’s had friends in the magic business receive pushback for changing careers. One went to nursing school; another became an emergency medical technician.
“I think our dreams are pretty flexible,” he said. “If you can find something that works that you can be passionate about, that’s it. For me, I like chasing success rather than chasing a dream. If I find success in something, I will be passionate about it.”
As for his future, Flom isn’t exactly sure what’s in the cards.
“I don’t know if I’m ready to go back to just doing live magic shows,” he said. “I think I’m going to try this video thing for a while, even after the pandemic.”
Flom again quotes Steve Martin. After his first movie was released, Martin said he liked staying home while the film went on the road.
“I have had a lot more time with my family this year,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed that.”