He’s a magician but sometimes hides it. It’s the story of Michael Carbonaro’s TV show. And his life.
The playing field is level if you show up at The Mirage on Friday for Carbonaro’s Las Vegas debut: You know you’re there for a magic show, unlike the folks who meet him as the pet store guy who squishes a dog into a flat disc, or the fast-food clerk who keeps stuffing more and more burgers into one little bag, on truTV’s hidden-camera show “The Carbonaro Effect.”
Carbonaro says he tells tour audiences, “Here, you guys know I am a magician. So you can trust me 100 percent tonight that I won’t lie at all.”
And that gets a laugh, as he hears people telling each other, “He’s going to lie to us anyway, isn’t he?”
“And I do. And I fool them,” he says.
But the 34-year-old explains that throughout his career, “I kind of had a love-hate relationship with magic.”
To sucker the unwary victims of the show’s “Candid Camera”-style antics, Carbonaro draws on acting skills that also got him on TV shows such as “The Newsroom” and “Happily Divorced.”
But “when I was 17, I just wanted to be (David) Copperfield,” he says, and carted around all the gear to perform levitations and other stock illusions.
“I went to NYU with aspirations of, ‘I’m going to move to California and become the next David Copperfield.’ My high school yearbook says ‘My dream is no illusion,’ or some really cheesy thing,” Carbonaro says.
But once he got there, he says, “I really connected to just theater.” Exposure to musical and experimental theater made him realize, “What I loved about magic was that I was performing for people.”
There were other ways to do that, and“magic could sometimes get in the way of that when you’re trying to market yourself as an actor,” Carbonaro says.
It was a delicate balance. He performed a card trick at his audition for New York University. And he got his first agent for acting work by performing a magic trick in the agent’s office.
On the other hand, magic can also “tangle things up or get in the way, because ‘magician’ has a connotation of my dorky uncle who does coin tricks,” Carbonaro says.
It’s like telling people, “I want to be the next Johnny Depp, and I also do coin tricks at parties,” he says.
All those teen years performing at birthday parties on Long Island come in handy now. Carbonaro says he travels light on a tour that’s as much about who he is as what’s in his “bag of toys.”
“It’s more akin to a stand-up comedy show,” he says. “My goal is to let them meet Michael Carbonaro the showman, the emcee, the entertainer, the goofball, the magician, their best friend. The kid next door with the goofy toys. That’s who I am, and that’s who I try to show on stage.”
He says people ask him all the time, “When is the big Vegas show?”
It makes sense, because part of what put him on his path was a childhood viewing of Siegfried & Roy at The Mirage, the same hotel now hosting his Las Vegas debut.
Every big-name magic show since then “still has echoes of that. Magicians seem to carry the idea of this huge spectacle show,” he notes.
But, he adds, “The Carbonaro Effect” owes just as much to the one big-name magician who has never even tried to sell a ticket on the Strip: David Blaine.
“The way I do my (TV) show is an inspiration from Blaine, because he was the first person to grab onto (the idea of) it’s about that person’s experience of what you’re doing,” Carbonaro says.
Taking magic “away from the showman” and making it about the reaction draws a straight line from Blaine’s real-world “street magic” to hidden-camera pranks.
Audience reaction can save some of the silliest bits, Carbonaro says. With the show now in its third 13-episode season, the churn of material requires some bits that are more like, “I can’t believe we’re even doing this, just because we’re trying to do so much content,” he says.
So, “You try something goofy and then you get this amazing person who reacts and it’s one of the best ever, because they’re the star,” he adds.
On the other hand, “The Carbonaro Effect” — which returns with a new batch of episodes Feb. 1 — also proves, much better than a stage show, that magic still has a place in this world.
If someone is willing to follow Carbonaro into an abandoned warehouse, stumble upon weird voodoo symbols and then believe someone in the group has been turned into a chicken?
Then, Carbonaro says, “this might be the time to just step back and wonder how superstition and magic (play a role), and what people even in our modern age really can believe in.”