An interview with gay illusionist and actor Michael Carbonaro
By Gregg Shapiro
Forget Harry Potter! If you aren’t under the spell of gay illusionist Michael Carbonaro then you don’t know what you’re missing. Carbonaro, the star of the mind-bending magic, hidden camera TruTV series The Carbonaro Effect, which is currently in its fourth season, with a fifth in the works, is a witty trickster. He’s the kind of presto change-o illusionist who gains your confidence before completely rocking your world, all done with nothing up his sleeve (or so we’ve been led to believe). First crossing many gay folks’ radar in 2006 as adorable Andy in Todd Stephens’ Another Gay Movie, Carbonaro has parlayed his first love – magic – into a successful industry and one bearing his name. I spoke with Carbonaro in March 2019 while he was in the midst of his tour.
Michael Carbonaro performs on April 10, 2019 in Fort Lauderdale at Parker Playhouse.
Gregg Shapiro: You are the star of the TruTV series The Carbonaro Effect, which began its fourth season in May 2018. What has the positive response to the show meant to you as a performer?
Michael Carbonaro: I’m really delighted that people have found both the television show and the live show a source of entertainment to which they can bring their entire family. In a way that it’s not like a kiddie show, by any means, like going to the circus or, “Oh, let’s bring the kids.” It really is for everyone on the complete age spectrum. I love that. I love that there’s an entertainment like that. I’ve always admired humorous performers like that, back to the days of Johnny Carson. Someone to whom everybody can relate and you’re able to hit on different levels and different people can find humor and laughs in different places. I’m so excited to have that and I really believe that it came from the fact that I spent most of my life performing at events such as parties where there were kids and adults, as a professional magician on Long Island. I performed my magic show at birthday parties, communions, christenings, Bar Mitzvahs. I trained myself to have a personality to cater to that audience of completely different age groups.
GS: Humor, which you mentioned, is such a big part of the TV and live shows. How important is it for humor to be a part of The Carbonaro Effect.
MC: I think it weaves in really well in the same way that some of the greatest horror movies go back and forth with humor and moments of being scared. With magic, it weaves a spell, seduces you into a state of surrender. You’re laughing and then, “Wait a minute! How did that happen?” And then you’re laughing again. That’s a really cool formula to make magic transcend to an audience. On another level, magic for me was kind of the tool that I used through which to filter my personality. I love humor and it’s a way that my personality can come through. I think that magic helped me get that out there.
GS: Is there a fifth season of The Carbonaro Effect in the works?
MC: Yes. We’re jumping into writing sessions right after this tour wraps up. We’re going to be shooting the fifth season in Chicago again. We also have plans for a 100th episode in front of a live audience. That’s going to be a total blast. That’ll be new. Usually, I end up hosting the show – just me to the camera. A regular episode of The Carbonaro Effect is out in the real world with a hidden camera set up. This is going to be fun. We’re inviting a live crowd to come in and watch. We’re going to show clips on a screen and celebrate the hundredth episode. That blows my mind. Honestly, [laughs] when I was signing a deal to do a hidden camera magic TV show, in my mind, I was thinking to myself, “If I really put my head to it, I bet I can come up with 10 really great episodes. We are at 100 and I’m so proud of all of them. It’s accomplished with an amazing team of people. The same with my live show. We’ve got a great crew behind the scenes that makes me look flawless out there. I’m really excited about it all.
GS: As a former Chicago resident, I recognized several Chicago locations from the seasons of The Carbonaro Effect. Can you please say something about why that city was chosen?
MC: We love a place that has a great variety of different locations that can include suburban to metropolis. Chicago is awesome. It’s a fast-paced place. The people are attentive. Bluntly, another reason we chose it is because there are only a few states that actually allow the kind of work we do to happen. The kind of hidden camera shows to take place. Some states, you must ask somebody to sign a release first before you film them.
GS: That would wreck the element of surprise.
MC: Exactly! Versus other states such as Georgia, New York, Illinois, Louisiana. You can film, but you can’t do anything with the footage unless they sign off on it. Which is funny because I don’t think there’s an inch on the globe you can go anymore where you’re not under some kind of surveillance.
GS: Right! There are CCTV cameras everywhere. In regards to the genesis of your illusions, is it a one-man operation in terms of the creation of the tricks and deceptions or is there a team involved?
MC: It’s definitely not a one-man operation. It’s an amazing team of five of my most treasured friends and magicians. So many of the people who work on the show I met when I was a kid. We went to the same magic camp, which is really crazy. It’s an incredible camp. We still go there and teach and we’re counselors when we can. It’s called Tannen’s Magic Camp, which is in Pennsylvania. It used to be on Long Island, where I grew up. It’s now at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. It’s an incredible week-long intensive program of magic. From ages eight to 18. They have classes for beginners to majorly advanced, in close-up and stage performance. I learned so much there. I met some like-minded nuts, if I can put it that way [laughs]. When it was time to put The Carbonaro Effect together, these are the guys I immediately thought of. I said, “I’ve got to get in touch with everybody!” Because that’s what we would do at the camp – pull pranks and come up with nutty ideas and we’d sit up late at night and try to outdo each other with the next wildest idea. That’s (also) what we do in putting together The Carbonaro Effect.
GS: Watching you on TV is one thing, but seeing you live is something else. When my husband and I attended your show in South Florida a couple of years ago, he was called onstage as a volunteer for one of your illusions. Have you ever had an overzealous volunteer onstage with you and how did you handle it?
MC: Yes, I’ve had an overzealous volunteer. It can be difficult because you might get someone up there who’s trying to over-perform and they want to be the show, which can take away from the show a little bit. It’s a balance. I take my chances. There’s nothing like not knowing how someone is going to behave. The same thing with the TV show. That’s part of the fun of it. You have to surf along with whatever moment is going to happen. I love that energy.
GS: How is it that goldfish and other types of fish have become part of the act?
MC: We’ve done thousands of trick on the TV show at this point and fish just keep popping up. I scratch my head about it, too. They’re fun to work with and they always get a great reaction from the crowds. They’re fun to use in the live show. I can make a fish appear and then we can send somebody home with it. We sell off a fish bowl that I sign at each show and that goes to a cool cause that we support known as Hocus Focus. It’s a group that uses magic and magicians to help kids with learning differences. We raise money for them across the whole tour. At each tour date, I sign a fish bowl and we raise money for that group.
GS: Have you ever been upstaged by one of the goldfish in your act?
MC: [Laughs] no, I don’t think I’ve ever been upstaged by one.
GS: Do you think there’s any way to transfer The Carbonaro Effect to the big screen for a movie version?
MC: Yes. I’ve been in the works with putting together a couple of project ideas that would translate into a full (movie) theatrical format.
GS: Speaking of movies, there are bound to be readers who will know you from your portrayal of Andy in Another Gay Movie. Do you have plans to return to that kind of acting?
MC: Absolutely! Oh, my gosh, yes! I long for doing comedy and television and stuff in an acting format. The show keeps me occupied, so my time is split up. I’ve only been able to do a few guest starring spots here and there over the past few years. But I definitely have that longing. It’s been a long time. I get a lot of fans from Another Gay Movie who come to the live show. I’ve signed a number of Another Gay Movie DVDs during the meet and greet, that’s for sure.
GS: In what ways would you say that being gay influences your life as an illusionist, if at all?
MC: I’m not sure that being gay influences my magic. I think as an artist – and artists are always thinking outside of the box – I was lucky because growing up in a heterocentric world and being told that, “You’re going to meet a girl and get married and have kids,” knowing at an early age that I didn’t think that that was going to be the path I’m taking, was an early indication that the world doesn’t work the way people say it does all the time. I think that echoes through in magic. You’re showing people a moment where they go, “Wait a minute! I thought the laws of physics worked differently!” And you’re like, “The world isn’t exactly what you thought, is it?” There’s an openness there and an ability to think outside of what we think we know that is the same in sexuality and magic.
GS: Very well said! Does your husband Peter Stickles still go out on tour with you and will he be with you when you are at Parker Playhouse here in Fort Lauderdale?
MC: Peter comes out on stage to help out. He’s driving the van right now as we tour from city to city. But he won’t be with me in Fort Lauderdale.