Do you like magic? Do you like comedy?
I’m guessing you answered yes to both of those questions, cause let’s be honest: who doesn’t like being amazed and laughing? NOBODY, that’s who. So, assuming you like those things and aren’t some miserable curmudgeon, I’d like to introduce you to your new addiction: Tru Tv’s The Carbonaro Effect, starring magician/comedian Michael Carbonaro.
Haven’t seen the show yet? Haven’t heard of it? Well, worry not, because the show actually premieres May 15th at 10PM Eastern. However, a first glimpse of this surefire hit aired about a month ago, and I’ve been captivated ever since. The show follows Carbonaro, an unassuming, baby-faced (you’d never guess he’s on the plus-side of thirty) magician, as he plays impossible, magical pranks on scores of unprepared Americans. With an affable charm and a straight face, Carbonaro makes people quite literally believe the impossible. Bowling balls coming out of flat packages. Puppies arriving in the mail. A twelve-ounce beer that pours out six glasses worth of booze…the list goes on. With flawless showmanship, Carbonaro transforms people’s doubt into confused, awestruck belief in the unbelievable.
Yesterday, I was able to chat with Michael Carbonaro for a bit about magic, invisible fish, creative ways to get out of speeding tickets, and much more.
Make sure to catch the series premiere of The Carbonaro Effect on Tru TV this evening, but first, read what Michael Carbonaro had to say about his incredible show…
Ascher: So to get things started, tell me a little bit about how you got started with magic and your background.
Michael Carbonaro: Well, I grew up wanting to become a special effects artist. I love monsters and movie special effects. I used to buy monster makeup and supplies at this local magic shop in Long Island and I guess I slowly started going to the other side of the store where they also sold magic supplies. I really enjoyed watching magic, I really enjoyed playing with magic, and I found that magic is kind of like special effects live – like performing special effects in a live situation.
I’ve always loved performing, and I was really into the format of David Copperfield when I was young; I loved his style, I loved seeing him standing in front of a crowd and engaging people, being witty, funny, and able to improvise. He could really do everything – from serious and dramatic illusions to silly and funny. He just used magic as a giant playground, and I really developed my own style and format to emulate that at a young age.
Ascher: What I’ve kinda gauged from what I’ve seen of the show thus far – I’m a big fan of Impractical Jokers and saw your show advertised during that – is that what you do seems a lot more geared towards a comedic aspect than a lot of magicians out there. So, how much of an influence is comedy on what you do, and which comedians do you draw upon for inspiration?
Michael Carbonaro: Well I love Demetri Martin, Sarah Silverman, George Carlin. You know, Sarah Silverman kinda does something similar, where she’s on a track where she’s acting and doing comedy at the same time. She really tricks you in her act, it’s that same sort of style, where there’s a half-wink about it. She takes the crowd down a path and then turns the path around. That’s similar to the formula in magic, when you lead the crowd one way and then take a turn – it’s the same element of surprise, whether it’s magical or just funny.
Ascher: Obviously you have a bit of a background on the national stage – you’ve appeared on late night TV and in movies – so how did the Carbonaro Effect really come to be? Did you do this kind of stuff for fun on the side?
Michael Carbonaro: I’ve always been a huge fan of hidden-camera magic. I’m probably the #1 fan of Candid Camera – Allen Funt is really the first hidden camera magician. They would do stuff on Candid Camera where magic was incorporated. Like, they would have a car that would drive without a motor, and you would watch mechanics react to a car that just drove into their shop without a motor – obviously, an impossible situation. It was really about watching people try to process an impossible and magical situation. So, this ties into my whole world of special effects and magic, where there’s just this whole vibe of magic and impossibility; putting people in impossible situations and watching the way they react.But the best part about Candid Camera is that they kept the biggest secret of all – that you’re being watched while all this is going on.
I initially got to work doing hidden camera magic while on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and I can’t thank him enough for that arena and playground. He had total trust in me and gave me free rein to develop all my ideas and experiment and play, and we had a total blast over there. It was the first time for me to really get to do all the things I’d always wanted to do since I was a kid. Special effects and magic and hidden cameras, mixing all that love together – I had notebooks full of all of my ideas. I love large stunts – as I said, I love David Copperfield – and that’s a lot of what I’m doing in The Carbonaro Effect, doing large stunts, stage-illusion stunts, with hidden cameras, which has really never been done before.
For me, at heart, I’m always a magician. With all the things I’ve been interested in – whether acting, or special effects, or comedy, or magic – it always has a pulse of magic and that which is hidden. I’ve done a lot of television stuff and the one question I could never answer is when people would ask “Oh you’ve been an actor, you’ve been in TV shows, and you’ve done comedy and magic…which one do you want to do the most?” Well, duh, I never had any idea. But to put magic and comedy and hidden cameras together, it allows me to put all those skills to work. I don’t have to answer that question now – I get to do all of it!
Ascher: One thing that I find myself thinking when I watch your show, and I’m sure I’m not the only one, is “Oh that is impossible, I would never believe that!” But, you never really know what you would and wouldn’t believe when put in the situation…For example, watching a bowling ball pop out of a flat box. When you’re going about things in your day-to-day life, you don’t expect the person working at the Post Office to be a magician. Isn’t that element of surprise what makes this concept so great?
Michael Carbonaro: Yeah, I think people always have that “Monday Morning Quarterbacking” going on. The people who watch the show, lots of them will say “Oh, no way I’d fall for that.” But it’s funny, sometimes even the people we pull the gags on, – who obviously fell for it and were totally shocked – when I reveal to them that they’re on a hidden camera show they’re like “Oh no, I didn’t fall for that.” But then I’ll say “Ohhh really…you wanna watch?”
Ascher: The tape never lies!
Michael Carbonaro: Right, exactly. The interesting thing with that is when people say “I’d never believe that,” is that they’re missing the point. A lot of hidden camera shows over the years, even hidden camera shows with magic, have focused on pointing the finger at people and saying Haha I got you, and being a little mean spirited. But my show is the opposite – I just want to have fun with people! It’s never about making people feel stupid or gullible, it’s about embracing the wonder and joy of watching how people are willing to believe in impossible things. And it’s not about being gullible, cause there are magical things all around us, that we see every day. Our smartphones are incredible. Bluetooth technology. 3D Printers. There are all these things that we see and use every day, but we don’t know how they work. That’s why, for example, the trick I did with the shoelaces – where I walk into a tech store and make my shoelaces tie themselves – works. When people asked “How did you do that? How does that work?” and I say “Bluetooth,” they think in their head well I don’t really know how Bluetooth works. Somebody must have figured out how to make it work with shoelaces.
The Shoelace Trick:
Ascher: So in the process of filming the show did you ever get people that truly didn’t fall for it, didn’t buy any of it?
Michael Carbonaro: It’s interesting. The saddest thing that happened was not that they didn’t fall for it, but that some people really didn’t see it. You know, it kind of shows how distracted we are these days. Magic is about attention direction, and I don’t want to ever oversell anything, my style is to be like oh, that’s just what’s happening. I never want to say “Hey, look at this!” because that starts to make people think wait a minute, this is a trick. But there were people where I’d make a bowling ball appear out of a flat box, and they’d just look at it and say “Well, I need to get some stamps.” They just wouldn’t even notice that that should not be possible.
The goal that I’m always focusing on is to get people to stop their day and say “Hold the phone! I did not think the world worked this way and I need an answer RIGHT NOW.” If I can get them to argue with me about how the world doesn’t work this way, then I almost get to make them the magician, and I get to be the bystander – and that is so much fun. It’s a whole new twist on magic.
Ascher: What’s your favorite trick you did this season; which trick should we be watching for?
Michael Carbonaro: My favorite was a trick we did at a thrift shop where I convinced people that a duck was not a duck (laughs). I put together what I said w3D0&tw%5B0%5D%5BrpstPostIncl%5D=nxsi0tw&tw%5B0%5D%5BSNAPformat%5D=%25TITLE%25+-+%25SURL%25+-&tw%5B0%5D%5BattchImg%5D=0&tw%5B0%5D%5BattchImg%5D=1&tw%5B0%5D%5BisAutoImg%5D=A&tw%5B0%5D%5BimgToUse%5D=&nxs_mm=5&nxs_jj=15&nxs_aa=2014&nxs_hh=20&nxs_mn=49&nxs_ss=58as a duck decoy from the 70s. Piece by piece, I assembled plastic parts of a fake duck. And when I finished putting the thing together, it just started waddling around on the counter. Without moving it, without covering it, without hiding it behind anything; when I put the last piece of the duck together, it was transformed – well, I used my magic to transform it – into a real duck. People couldn’t believe it. They were like “Wait, that’s not real?” And I just said “No, it’s electronic. It has batteries inside of it.” And they can’t help knowing that they just watched me put the thing together piece by piece, so they know it can’t be a real duck. But at the same time their brain is going I know that’s a real duck. So, they were all having a short circuit in their minds. Six people gathered around and I’m sitting there, trying to convince everyone (and trying not to laugh) that this duck is NOT a duck.
Ascher: Yeah, I think that might be the hardest part of your job – keeping a straight face and not laughing.
Michael Carbonaro Yeah, as we’ve gone on, over the course of 13 episodes, I really worked on even removing that smallest smirk. I used to smirk a little when trying not to laugh, and now I’ll watch what we filmed and be thinking Good job, man! You are really not giving anything away at all!
Ascher: So how do you plan to deal with your increased celebrity in future seasons? Do you think it’ll get to the point where people are like “Hey, you’re that guy from TV! We’re not gonna fall for this!”?
Michael Carbonaro: I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve to deal with that. Again, though, Allen Funt was on TV doing Candid Camera for years and years, and Howie Mandel has been doing similar hidden camera work throughout his career. But I really look forward to expanding The Carbonaro Effect past just me, and actually getting to orchestrate some really large stunts that I might not be involved in, and even getting some other players and kind of taking the Ashton Kutcher role, orchestrating some big things I’m not able to do on my own. So, there are a lot of ways to really grow and expand with the show.
Ascher: Sounds exciting for the future. So, I have to know, do you have any good stories of how you’ve used magic to your benefit in your personal life?
Michael Carbonaro: (laughs). Well, magic is like a secret key into everything. It always has been. I think I only got into NYU because at my interview I busted out some magic. But probably the coolest thing I’ve been able to do with magic is getting myself out of a ticket by performing the “Indian Sword Basket” trick, on the side of the Long Island Expressway with my assistant. We were driving home from a show in Long Island, at the Nassau Coliseum, for the halftime show at the New York Saints game. On the drive back we were going a little too fast and got pulled over. This big, scary police officer with a hardened look and furrowed brow pulled us over, and when we told him we were coming back from a magic show, he just lit up and was like “Wait, you guys are magicians?! Do a trick!” So we pulled out this big stage illusion on the side of the road, and like, two more cop cars pulled up and put their cameras and lights on us and watched the trick. They were all like “Wow that was great!” and high-fived and walked off like “See you later, guys!”
Ascher: That’s awesome. How long does it take you to really nail a trick down before it’s ready for television?
Michael Carbonaro Well, that’s a great question. Doing magic for television is very different from doing magic when I perform my live shows. Live shows I get the luxury of trying out a trick and really giving it a flight time in front of audiences; I get to really practice and hone and rehearse the trick and let it develop. When we’re doing the kind of magic I’m doing on The Carbonaro Effect, we’re doing ten tricks per episode, and you don’t really get that flight time. I might get only 5 people to try a given trick on, and each time I do it, I never know how they’re gonna react, and I have to really truncate that flight time into just 5 go-rounds. With the nature of improv magic and hidden camera magic, it’s like a ring of fire. No matter how much I rehearse a trick, I never really know how it’s going to be until I do it in front of live people. I’m the kind of guy who really likes to rehearse and perfect a trick – but there’s no way to do that with this show. You can’t. I would have to say “I’m gonna rehearse and perfect everything, then I’ll be ready to shoot in five years. I’ll see you guys then.” You just don’t have that luxury.
I’ve had to really embrace this as a ring of fire. I’m just gonna come with some great magic, jump out there with it, and see how people react. I’m just gonna have fun playing with it and really take it whatever direction the wind blows. And because of that, we get a lot of really cool stuff. I definitely have some things that I plan which I think are going to be a huge hit and people are like “Ok, fine.” But then I’ll have a trick that I think is just a little throwaway trick that works great. For example, I had this idea to try and convince people that there’s a fish called a “chameleon fish,” a fish that you can’t see when it’s in the water. The only way you can see them is when they’re in a completely empty tank. But when you put anything inside the tank, they’ll immediately blend in with it and hide. What happened was really a beautiful symphony, all the phases of the trick just came together perfectly on that day, and it’s one of my favorite pieces we shot – we had a guy leave the pet store with an empty bag of water thinking he had a “chameleon fish.”
Ascher: Looking forward to watching that. So, in general, what do you want to happen with The Carbonaro Effect, and what do you want people to take away from it?
Michael Carbonaro: Well, in the same way that I never really know what to expect from people until I perform a trick, the same goes for when we air an episode. We can make an episode and I can be super excited about it, but I never really know how it’s going to play out until it runs.
So far it’s been wonderful; the social media response, the support from the magic community, it’s been really wonderful. Right now I just hope it’s a real love and not just a crush, but I look forward to continuing on this path. I must be doing something right; I’m having fun and people are responding to it positively, so I hope that continues. What I’m really looking forward to people getting out of the show is that I’m adhering to the #1 rule of magic – I’m never giving out any secrets. But for the home viewer, what’s really fun is that they get to experience not only the magic from the perspective of the people experiencing it firsthand, but that they get to see it from my side too. Because the home viewers are in on a big secret – that we have hidden cameras, and that I’m a magician. So they really get to experience a kind of dual reality; they get to be amazed by the magic, and they get to be in on the fact that it’s a hidden camera show, and they can watch how the people that don’t know that react to the magic. It’s really getting to watch two things at once, which is really fun.
…And I’m really having fun, too. I’m happy to keep doing this for as long as people want to see it.