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The Catalyst interview: Magician Michael Carbonaro

Bill DeYoung

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Michael Carbonaro performs Saturday in Clearwater. Photo: Elko Espino.

Alan Funt and his Candid Camera show set the bar high for hidden-camera shenanigans, but those black-and-white TV days were only the blueprint for The Carbonaro Effect, the TruTV series (later on MAX) that upped the ante by “pranking” unknowing people with magic tricks.

The charismatic Michael Carbonaro was the protagonist (and producer) of the episodic program, which lives on in perpetual reruns. His schtick was so simple, yet so effective: In costume as a store clerk, a bank teller or a stockroom guy, he would blow somebody’s mind with an illusion, all the while pretending it was the most normal thing in the world.

The prankee’s jaw would drop, hilarity would ensue, and after a moment or two Carbonaro – kind of like Alan Funt, actually – would explain the ruse and point out the cameras.

Carbonaro – who’s also a film and TV actor – brings his latest live show, Lies Onstage, to Ruth Eckerd Hall Saturday. It’s an audience-interactive blend of illusion and hijinks, not a kids’ magic show but definitely an all-ages thing, according to him.

He loves it, Carbonaro says. “It’s got that improvisational, electric energy because I never know how it’s going to go. Because I’m using people who have no idea why they’re coming up onstage.”

Find tickets here.

 

St. Pete Catalyst: You’re a magician, an actor and a performance artist. What’s closest to your heart? How would you describe yourself to somebody?

Michael Carbonaro: I always land on the word entertainer. Because I think maybe that’s the umbrella that holds it all together. I think an actor is a magician, and a director is a magician … anyone who does any kind of performance, where you’re creating something out of nothing, channeling and transcending emotions and feelings and images, it’s a kind of magic. I wrestle with this question almost daily.

You studied ‘Experimental Theater’ at NYU …

My work on The Carbanaro Effect certainly falls under ‘Experimental Theater.’ It’s a very bizarre cocktail of what’s going on; you’re watching me fool people in real life. You’re a home viewer watching this from a distance. You’re in on it with me. So I’m playing to the person in the room with the knowledge that I’m also doing this for an invisible viewer at home watching me prank … so you’re kind of in on it with me, yet you’re also being fooled because you don’t know how the trick is being done. So there’s a lot of levels there that are creating theater.

Some people say “Oh, it’s Alan Funt for the new generation.” I don’t think so. Obviously it’s much more clever, and it’s shot better. It’s a lot funnier. To me, what you do is totally unique.

There’s a uniqueness, for sure – it’s my signature on it. But I would buck back on you a little and say that it really kind of is an Alan Funt for the new generation! Because I think that he was the originator of all reality television and hidden-camera. I watched all the episodes of Candid Camera, and I also listened to the radio shows, The Candid Microphone, which was before Candid Camera.

What he did, which is different from my show, is he would show you how the tricks were done. But it was like watching people wrestle with a non-reality.

Did you start out as the nerdy kid doing slight of hand tricks in the neighborhood? Were you one of them?

I was the weirdo horror fan who liked monsters, and Halloween. I wanted to be a makeup artist before anything else. I started going to a local magic shop to buy makeup supplies. I went in there asking ‘How can I get paint that’s flexible, so when I paint onto Latex it doesn’t crack?” But there I was in this magic store, and I started looking at all the tricks. I started buying them and showing them to people.

I was watching David Copperfield on television. He was the one I would say was my main hero in magic growing up. What I loved about Copperfield was his ability to host an evening, in front of a whole theater of people, and take them on all these journeys from just silly idiocy and playfulness and jokes, and then he’d do these big, dramatic theatrical magic sequences. And then these big public stunts.

I went to NYU and studied theater with the idea of being the next David Copperfield. Like, how can I create the wonder show of the universe, the best magic performance … and what I found, through studying theater and acting and doing a little standup comedy in New York City, I really just kind of developed as an entertainer. You have to learn how to perform for people, because a magician is first off an entertainer.

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