Out magician Michael Carbonaro pranks new victims on the latest season of ‘The Carbonaro Effect’


Michael Carbonaro is driving through Oklahoma, talking with me on his cell phone, when he hits a dead patch and the call drops. When we get reconnected, he has a perfect excuse.

“I was practicing a vanishing act,” he says impishly.

You might be tempted to believe him. He’s made a career in recent years as a TV prankster — first in segments on The Tonight Show, later on his own series
The Carbonaro Effect, which just started its third season on TruTV. A kind of magic version of Candid Camera, Carbonaro is adept at fooling his victims … er, subjects… by making himself disappear and reappear moments later, convincing them that moon rocks contain alien life forms and that doughnuts can be so fluffy, they actually are lighter than air. So making a call end suspiciously is no problem — I was just happy he didn’t show up under my desk.

The series is the culmination of a career spent doing in-person magic, which he started working on as a goofy gay kid. Now he’s a cute-as-a-button TV star… but his live performances continue to energize him.

“Nothing will be more magical than live theater — that’s what I did my whole life,” Carbonaro says. “There is nothing like that energy. Onstage, when there’s a connection with the audience, is a kind of magic… whether that’s with one person or an audience of thousands. I have a special place in my heart, as a lot of actors do, for live theater.”

So, wait … does Carbonaro consider himself an actor? (He has reason to — he’s appeared in several movies and TV shows, and attended the Tisch School for the Arts at NYU.)

“I think about that every day — how to define what I do,” he says. “I’ve kind of landed on being an ‘entertainer.’ [A magician] falls under the umbrella of acting, it’s just that it’s more openly discussed — a magician is openly saying, ‘You are being fooled,’” while an actor tries to hide that fact.

Indeed, it’s the social contract between magician and audience that is difficult to put his finger on … he just knows it when he experiences it.

“One time we really made someone experience moments of déjà vu,” he recalls as a standout prank. “And I’ve done a lot on the show [involving] teleportation, and people say to me, ‘You must have a twin,’ but I don’t. This season, I did [a prank] in a Chicago train station where I convince the other person that they teleported. It turned out amazing, and boy is [the woman] relieved when I let her off the hook.”

Letting the subjects in on the gag after the fact is an essential element in the series; he’s sometimes so convincing the unsuspecting person worries they have lost their own sanity, or suffered a brain injury.

“I have to be riding with them [on the arc of the prank],” he says. “It’s a real fine line — sometimes I think, I have to monitor this one closely.’ I had one guy who was close to going to the emergency room.”

Not every prank works, of course, in part because Carbonaro is becoming famous enough that he occasionally gets spotted by one of his victims.

“People have recognized me before, but I even when they do, I still give it a shot — I try to convince them I’m not me, or go ahead with the [gag]. If there’s a fun play to be had with it, I try it. And of course we ask their permission afterward to be on the show. I had this one guy say he would rather not [sign the release] so he left and we said, ‘Well, we’ll just try it again with someone else.’ But then five minutes later he came walking back in to have a selfie with you and get an autograph. I said I’d do it if he gave us permission.” The man agreed.

For anyone who suspects Carbonaro is only able to pull off his TV stunts with the magic of film editing, all you have to do is attend one of his live shows — he was in Dallas early last month — to know he’s got mad skills.

“There’s a section of the live show where I do a mind reading act, and people say to me after, ‘Now I know the rest was magic, but you were actually reading minds there, right?’ No! It’s all magic. But people really want to believe.”

Planning a season of the TV show, though, doesn’t follow a formula. There’s something about it that — say it with — seems magical.

“It’s a bizarre recipe,” Carbonaro says. “I work with an amazing team of five magicians who I’ve known since I was a kid — some I met at a magic camp. One might say, ‘Ya know that trick where this happens? How about we do that in the context of a science store?’ How that turns into 66 episodes and three seasons, I have no idea.”

Which is not to say he’s exhausted his well of pranks — far from it.

“There’s a lot I still wanna pull off,” he says. “We’re just scratching the surface.” 

— Arnold Wayne Jones

The Carbonaro Effect airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on TruTV. 

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 03, 2017.