Michael Carbonaro says it takes acting, illusion, and more to achieve his eponymous effect.
By Gregg Shapiro
With his mesmerizing and hilarious hidden-camera and practical-joke series The Carbonaro Effect, now in its third season on truTV, out actor and illusionist Michael Carbonaro keeps viewers (and his unwitting subjects) guessing.
A whiz of a wizard if ever there was one, Carbonaro first crossed our gaydar as sex-obsessed Andy in the 2006 rom-com Another Gay Movie. But his greatest success and exposure has occurred through his longtime love of the magical arts on The Carbonaro Effect.
I spoke with Carbonaro recently as he was kicking off a cross-country tour of live performances.
Gregg Shapiro: How did you first become interested in—and I want to pronounce it correctly—prestidigitation?
Michael Carbonaro: Oh, that’s really well done.
When I first moved to Los Angeles eight years ago and got to perform at The Magic Castle for the first time, I was working in the Parlour of Prestidigitation. So that was one I had to learn myself. [Laughs] I do love that you gave it another name other than magic or illusion, because it is a big umbrella for me. I began with, and still have, a love of special effects and a huge love of Halloween, costumes, and makeup. I talk about this in my live show. I had no doubt [as a kid that I would grow up to be] a makeup artist. I would buy makeup supplies at a local magic shop in Hicksville, near where I grew up on Long Island. There were guys behind the counter who were showing real magic tricks. I went there for the makeup, and it was full of masks and puppets and gags and pranks and bloody things and zombies. It was theatrical, too; there was stage makeup.
It opened up this world [of illusion, and when I bought some of] those tricks and tried them out on my friends, I noticed that I had a love for performing. If special effects brought me to magic, then magic brought me to performing. All three of those things are still just as strong, and they all tie together in the work I’m doing. Since I didn’t know whether I wanted to be an actor or special-effects artist or magician, how about if I do all three in the show?
Who are, or were, your illusionist heroes?
Excellent—look at how this all comes together! My favorite illusion book of all time is by Tom Savini. It’s called Bizarro, later titled Grand Illusions. I love that it was called Bizarro! [And I also admire] David Copperfield,because he, more than anyone, embodies all these things that were magical. He will talk to the audience and be funny, and go off into some weird fantasy illusion and come back and do a silly little gag. I love that atmosphere that he creates.
How would you say that your sleight-of-hand skills worked in your favor as a gay man?
Whoa! I don’t know if I’ve ever considered that question. There is something sexy about secrets, isn’t there? I wasn’t out in elementary school or junior high. But I started to find the right kinds of friends in high school. The music department in my high school was really tight-knit, and we did plays together and were in the chorus.
High-school music classes often served as the Gay Straight Alliance, before there were GSAs.
Exactly, right? [Laughs] The wonderful theater where I’m from on Long Island was called the Creative Ministries Performing Arts Center. It’s now the Noel S. Ruiz Theater (named for the man who ran it), but we used to call it the Creative Ministries Coming Out Center. [Laughs] I think John Waters talks about this, too, from his generation. It was better when you had to sneak around and come up with little plots or plans, or however he put it. There was something about having a secret that was cool. I guess I was better at setting up secret situations, and knew how to hide my tracks the way a magician would—before I came out!
In addition to being the title of your show, you use the catchphrase “the Carbonaro effect.” How did that catchphrase come into being?
I’ll be honest with you, this was a pitch from the network. All projects are always changing and developing, and you find what it is as you’re making it. I was certain that I wanted to call the show Michael Carbonaro: Trickster. I love the trickster character. I think he embodies what I do on the show—like Bugs Bunny, poking you in the right direction, playing along with you, making you wonder. That made sense to me. When they first pitched The Carbonaro Effect to me, I was like, “Oh no, I don’t know!” I always had this weird thing with my last name. I always thought people wouldn’t remember it. It’s confusing. When I was 17, I used to perform as Michael Christopher.
Is Christopher your middle name or something?
Nope, made it up. If David Kotkin can be David Copperfield, I’ll be Michael Christopher! In retrospect, it did sound a little like a hair salon. [So “the Carbonaro effect” describes] that moment when an intelligent adult mind can be brought to a state where they wonder for a second if there’s a secret trap in the universe that they didn’t know existed, and they believe that for a moment. Isn’t that beautiful? That’s the Carbonaro effect.
The Carbonaro Effect, the show, has as much to do with hidden cameras as it does with magic. Did you ever get to meet Allen Funt, the man behind the popular Candid Camera, one of the original shows of this kind?
I never did, but I watched his show a lot as a kid. I’ve watched all the reruns of that show. You’re right, there’s a magic [and an illusion] to that. It’s like I’m hiding a camera secretly behind a mirror that doesn’t look like it could be there. That’s a magic trick.
You appear to make good use of your “everyman” appeal and improvisational skills on The Carbonaro Effect. Which one of those assets do you rely on most during your show?
That’s a great question. It really is a weave back and forth between those two. I would say that it depends on the moment. If someone is looking for clues as to what just happened, sometimes my best bet is just to look down and be in a state of amazement myself. That would be acting—processing the thought of something I just saw. That way I can [encourage their amazement] and react as they would. If I think the person is going to get me first, I’ll be like, “Wait a minute! Is this like a freakin’ prank show? How did we get out here?” I will throw it out there first. Because if I’m the only one who could have caused what just happened, then they start to doubt. So, there’s the acting again. [So there’s always this] back-and-forth between those two worlds.
How does your husband, actor Peter Stickles, feel about magic and pranks?
He loves them! He loves the life. Our house has a Gremlins puppet in it, and the face-hugger [creature from Alien], and Jaws posters. Peter was in love with horror as much as I was as a kid. We meet on that level. Peter travels with me to do the tour. There are magic acts he performs with me.
You have also appeared in films, including Another Gay Movie, for which you received an acting award from L.A. Outfest. Do you have plans to do more acting?
Absolutely! This show is serving [as a springboard for so many other] things that I like to do. I look forward to having a one-man Broadway show and comedic sitcom work and films. I want to direct a horror film myself.
You are currently doing a series of live shows around the country. What can people expect when attending your shows?
The best part about my live show [is that] energy of playfulness—that same Candid Camera world of non-mean-spirited fun. I regularly get letters from fans thanking me and saying that my show is the only one on television that they watch with their entire family. That’s the same energy that comes through in these big theaters across the country where I perform. The live show is a playful all-ages show, with the same wry wit from the TV show. I’m loving it as much as the audiences. Also, just come and check out that [the magic you see on TV is not done with] camera tricks. Every die-hard fan wonders if my TV show uses camera tricks. I say, “Get yourself a ticket, come on down, and watch the magic!”
This article appears in the December 2017 edition of OutSmart Magazine.