When you think of magicians or magic, you probably imagine a big stage show with lights, fog, someone being sawed in half and rabbits popping out of hats. But what if a magician was incognito, hiding in plain sight and making the impossible seem possible in ordinary places? That’s Michael Carbonaro, the mastermind behind the truTV series The Carbonaro Effect, whose mid-season premiere airs tonight. Whether he’s posing as a grocery store clerk or a doctor, you won’t see him coming.
Unlike the vast majority of his wand-waving brethren, Carbonaro doesn’t tell you he’s a magician until after you’re convinced that a space alien crab did indeed just hatch out of a meteor before your eyes, or that he just discovered and extracted a tracking device from your gums during a routine teeth cleaning. And yes—people do believe these things. All this is all captured, thanks to hidden cameras a la Candid Camera meets Punk’d meets Penn and Teller, so you’ll witness the hilarous and often touching reactions of his baffled targets.
We caught up with Carbonaro and talked to him about the upcoming season, what happens when things don’t go as planned and why people are so willing to believe in magic.
Your show is often intensely funny because of how people react to your magic tricks. How do you maintain your poker face?
I’d love to say that it’s some sort of amazing focus or talent that keeps me from laughing, but really it’s very difficult to pull these pranks off. I’m trying so desperately to get it to work and have everything line up and be ready, because I’m producing so much so fast. I watch it later and I’m hysterically laughing and I wonder the same thing: How did I not laugh? There was one time where an orange that was supposed to just be juiced actually exploded in my hand, and I got soaked in orange juice. I couldn’t help it. I just started laughing so hard.
I assume that things don’t always go as planned. There could be technical or costume malfunctions. You also work with a lot of animals. Has an animal ever blown your cover?
We tried to do a prank one time with a micropig—and they scream. They’re so loud. There was no way to make it disappear the way I wanted to. So the micropig got to take the day off.
Has anyone ever erupted in anger, where you felt you were in possible danger? There’s the episode where you were busting windows at a car wash. It seems like any of those people could’ve gotten physical with you at any moment.
You nailed it. That bit, the one with the breaking windows, was maybe the closest we got to where we’re doing something that might have somebody, you know, turn on me. Everything sounded like a great idea. Then all of a sudden, I’m about to do it, and then I’m thinking the same thing you’re thinking. I’m like, “You know, someone might freak out that I’ve broken their car window.” It was worth going for anyway. I think it was just trying to disarm them with such a kind approach to the fact that I broke their window for them and that it wasn’t a malicious thing. They were so confused, they’re like, “Wait, why would you do that?” I guess I charmed myself into safety.
Do you have nearby security in case things do go south and someone does freak out on you?
No, but that’s a really good idea. Now you’ve got me scared. I think I’ve been really too busy to be worried [laughs]. I mean, I’ve set myself on fire; I’ve smashed people’s cars, so…so far so good. I guess I just keep smiling and get away with it.
When you do the big reveal and tell people that they’re on a hidden-camera prank show, do some of them ever refuse to give you permission to use the footage?
I never want to have someone on the show who doesn’t want to be on the show, so I always ask for permission—and we are required to have permission. I find that most people are down to be on the show. One time in particular, I was executing a stunt in a Mexican restaurant and this one couple was really funny. I pulled the prank off successfully in front of them, they were laughing and they loved it, but they just wouldn’t sign. They were being really weird and we didn’t know why and we kept asking and finally we figured it out. Those two were probably not supposed to be…together, perhaps, that day? So…we left them in their own secret, hiding-in-plain-sight world.
As the show goes on, is it becoming harder to outdo yourself and go bigger and more elaborate than before?
I think the tendency is to think that you have to go for bigger stunts, but some of my favorite pieces are the smaller ones. My favorite piece to date was a bit in a hardware store where I convinced somebody that there were these little beetles in a jar that can unscrew nuts from bolts and build structures out of toothpicks and it was just a beautiful, simple little story. It plays huge on TV. It’s like close-up magic that you get to witness right there. To me, that story, the myth of somebody believing that something like that exists is just as big as a car disappearing. We try to put in a little of each I guess.
You must come across people with all kinds of beliefs, whether it’s science, religion, metaphysics…Are you often blown away by the things you convince people to believe? Do you ever feel like you’re testing personal beliefs?
Absolutely. The human animal is a very willing creature. I’ve had people who have said to me after witnessing something that they had just asked God for a sign and this must be it—and then I had to break the news that it was just a magic trick. But maybe it’s still a sign?! What do I know?! Maybe the lord might work in mysterious ways [laughs]. There’s little sections of belief—little pockets that people will believe. If I hint to something being haunted or something having a voodoo aspect to it, they’ll go there. Because there is that curiosity. The other pool I draw from is new science. People will believe that someone might’ve discovered a way to do blank. If it’s playing within those two pools, people will be more open. I think that the show works because it’s kind of a little bit of both. It’s a little bit of something you saw, right before your own eyes that couldn’t possibly happen, but just happened right in front of you, and then, disarming them with the lie. If those two things work together to make them ultimately believe, then I think that’s what the meat of the show is.
The clip where you convinced a woman, who was working with you at a science lab, that a meteorite had an alien crab inside of it, is pretty great. Her reactions were classic.
She’s one of the all-time favorites; she’s just sensational. A magic trick can be one of the most amazing things in the world. The bit works when the unsuspecting person has great character or expression or they speak what the viewer’s thoughts are. I love when people question back, like “Wait, how did that happen?” And I have to give them something back. She had worked at another museum and they brought her over to come help us. As I was walking her over to my little—I guess you could say—trap, we were passing this exhibit with all of these geodes and she just stopped in front of it, and like a science teacher, she was just telling me all about the different formations, how they grow, why some are this color, why some are that, and all I’m thinking to myself is, “I am never going to get her to believe that an alien is hatching today,” and then boom, I surprised myself.
Shows like yours often inspire people to do their own pranks and post them on YouTube. What’s your opinion on people who resort to cheap or mean-spirited pranks?
I‘m not a fan. I was always a fan of Candid Camera. I think that somewhere along the line, idea of the hidden camera became this mean-spirited world, and I think it’s because it’s easy. It’s easy to get someone angry. It’s easy to get someone shocked by your behavior. I watch some of those and I’m like, “that’s just mean.”
I know you do Q&As with your fans quite often. How are you with social media and the negative aspects to it? Whether you’re an actor, singer or magician, there’s always a naysayer out there being overly critical of your work. Do you turn a blind eye or engage? We work really hard on making the show real, with real people who are really seeing something happen, and then translating that to the medium so the home viewer sees it as well. It’s painful sometimes when people write that we’re using camera tricks, or we are using actors, because we are not. It gets me a little upset, but I don’t really engage too much. But luckily, I do have to say, we have a pretty great fan response, and it’s not too often that it goes the other direction. My favorite one I ever saw, and they finally took it off of YouTube: Someone did a 45-minute detailed expose on why Michael Carbonaro is the devil and how my work was directly influenced by satanic symbolism. It was so well put together that I was watching it and halfway through this guy’s ranting I thought, “Maybe he’s right!” [laughs] He said this one trick that I did in front of a guy and a girl…a snake was produced out of an avocado pit while they were at a restaurant as I was making them guacamole. He thought that was the symbolism of Adam and Eve and me introducing the snake, an evil, to their meal. I was like, “Oh my gosh, was I?“