By Chris Stone
Michael Carbonaro freely admits that he will repeatedly lie to you. But the TV magician honestly hopes you’ll believe in a world where the impossible is possible.
On TruTV’s “The Carbonaro Effect,” the 41-year-old New Yorker with an L.A. home greets people in public places like stores and workplaces, making them think almond milk can be squeezed out of almonds, dogs can be shrunk and teddy bears come alive.
One trick in his third season, starting Nov. 9, involves a plant that “assimilates” — or grows — human heads.
“I think that it’s fun for the home viewer because they know” he’ll pull a fast one on a stranger, Carbonaro said. “They may not know how I am doing the trick, but they’re kind of in on it with me … and they’re saying, ‘Let’s see how this person reacts to Michael.’ ”
On Thursday ““Michael Carbonaro Live” comes to the Gaslamp Quarter’s Balboa Theatre, where he’ll perform in his San Diego debut at 7 p.m. He calls his live performances more exhilarating than the TV show.
Like the old “Candid Camera,” unaware subjects are eventually informed they’re on a “hidden-camera magic TV show” where Carbonaro routinely blows people’s minds with carefully crafted illusions.
“(TV audiences) are sort of on my side even though I am still fooling them — ‘How did he do that? And look at that guy react,’” he said Monday in a phone interview from Los Angeles.
While the viewer waits for the reaction of the tricked person, Carbonaro hopes the on-camera subject will suspend their sense of reality and be mentally pulled into his antics.
“At the heart of it, it’s more important that the person believe it because that’s where I have to focus,” he said. “And if you get the reaction, that’s the payoff — that’s the bonus.”
Carbonaro says his aim is getting people to believe in the impossible, even for a second.
“You want them to go, ‘Wait a minute here!’ The goal is always to get someone to believe that there’s a little hole in the universe that they didn’t know about.”
Like a sweater that knits itself or shoes that can tie their own laces.
When he explains to people that they are on a TV show, some are relieved that their own minds weren’t playing tricks, he says. Others are a little disappointed that what they saw really was only rooted in Carbonaro’s imagination — the Carbonaro Effect.
But TV has its limitations. He has to act “so straight-laced so much of the time, so I don’t come across as too off-the-wall,” Carbonaro said. “But on stage, I can just let loose and people really seem to love it.”
Carbonaro says his live show is more spontaneous — not that he lacks a script, props and tricks up his magical sleeve. It’s that unpredictability the audiences seem to enjoy, with a certain energy flowing from that.
“It’s not until they are there live (at a show) — whether it’s something that came from their pocket that transformed, when they are up on stage actually holding something — it (magic) happens,” he said.
Many people come to his live shows to see if the magic on TV is really camera tricks or just actors performing, he said. People are “hoping that it’s real magic — and indeed it is.”
As on the TV show, the stage illusions center on a willingness to believe: “How did that just happen in front of me right now? Then maybe there is a secret hole in the middle of the universe.”
He says: “It’s like they want to believe it, but they don’t want to believe it. It’s really fun.”
In the stage show — he’s done more than 80 since April 2016, including three in Los Angeles — one illusion is being done for the audience and a completely different one is being done for the person on stage, Carbonaro said.
“Once the audience and the person on stage start catching on that something is different from one side to the other,” the spark in the audience ignites, he said. “I think that that segment of the show is why my TV show works. It’s like an insider peek into how the TV show can function.”
In one section of the live show, the audience isn’t sure what is part of the show and what isn’t. That kind of cognitive imbalance adds to the intrigue, he believes.
“There is positive energy,” the magician said. “It’s such a thrill for me and for everyone. It’s a real back-and-forth between the audience’s enthusiasm and mine — a safe, fun place.”
And from what place does Carbonaro get his illusion ideas?
“You wait for them,” he says. “I don’t know where they come from, but they come. Sometimes you will just get a thought or an inspiration from something. It might come from a trick that I know that’s a classic magic trick.”
Some are in the works for years.
“I think a lot of my inspiration comes from … Steven Spielberg movies and special-effect films. I really love horror movies. I don’t know if they come from fears or half-dreams. They are from everywhere and anywhere.”
He begins with his own ability to believe something can be true.
“I start with what would make me go ‘Whoa.’ What would make me go ‘Hold on.’ And then further than that, what would make me go ‘OK, I guess … I would believe that.’ I think that’s what makes it successful.”
“Someone goes, ‘Hold on a second. How did that giant bowling ball fit into that flat box? And if I say ‘there’s a new shipping process that reverses the air.’ If I think to myself, ‘I might believe that,’ then maybe someone else will believe that…. I kind of want to be able to believe it myself to some degree, to have some little wedge of belief.”
He says he himself needs to get “stuck” on the plausibility of a trick.
“If I can find something that would make me get stuck on, I’d like to say that another human being will too,” he said.
Carbonaro likes to choose illusions that are “bizarre, fascinating, even if it’s creepy. It really is just about solving a weird, bizarre, fascinating puzzle like something you would see in a fantasy movie or a sci-fi movie.”
While most magicians hook people using sleight of hand, Carbonaro favors sleight of mind.
“Sleight of hand is a part of it, but it’s only one part of the many lies that build together a real illusion,” he explains. “It’s sort of scary, isn’t it, to think that people can be so easily trusting?”
His touring magic shows are as individual as the audiences, he says.
“I’m out there looking at the crowd like: ‘What are we going to do together tonight?’ … I want to be as present and in the room with the people … as I can possibly be,” he said.
“You never know if it’s going to work until you try it in front of someone. It’s as satisfying for me as it seems to be for the crowd.”
And encounters between a magician and unsuspecting person can “make a wild moment happen.”
— Samantha L Smith (@kitamishai33) October 6, 2017
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