Creating Carbonaro Effects: How Michael Carbonaro and His Writers Room Make Magic Happen Every Week

It’s been three years since I first talked with truTV’s Michael Carbonaro, who stars in a big truTV series that involves pranking. No, he’s not the fifth Impractical Joker, he’s the star of The Carbonaro Effect which has a huge following all its own. In each episode, Michael performs brilliant magic tricks on members of the public who have no idea that he’s performing tricks. It’s all caught on hidden camera, as Carbonaro tries to convince people (usually successfully) that the impossible things they are witnessing are really happening.

Last time we spoke, Michael told me that they never use trick camerawork to pull off his illusions. In the three years since I last wrote about my conversation with Carbonaro, we’ve received countless messages from people who just couldn’t believe that was possible. So when I got the chance to speak with him again, I asked him about that, as well as what we can expect in the upcoming Season Four, which kicks off this Thursday on truTV. He told me fans can expect Michael and his team to up their game once again, with Spielbergian levels of practical effects, illusions and magic, hauntings, aliens, and even turning a ghost into a scarecrow, and he shared how he and his team come up with their ideas, where they find their “marks” and

The Interrobang: The show just keeps getting bigger. Do you feel like you have to top yourself every season?

Michael Carbonaro: Absolutely. Absolutely. That becomes part of the fun now, is just seeing how much I can push the envelope and how much I can really get people to continue to believe in this. Yeah, like I’ll just challenge myself with something … we do really well when we make people believe in haunted things. We’ve had a lot of ghostly encounters on the show. But they’re always when it’s dim, and I thought, could I make somebody believe in an apparition, that they’ve seen a ghost in broad daylight? And we nailed. We had somebody believe that they saw a ghost wandering around a farm and then it turned into a scarecrow.

The Interrobang: So you actually … one of your starting points is something that you don’t even think can be done?

Michael Carbonaro: Oh, that’s the magician’s trade right there. Most of the time you sit in a writers’ room and you get together and try and come up with things that you can do. But we’re just the opposite. We sit around and try and figure out things that we can’t do, and then figure out how to do them.

The Interrobang: Do you start from “Here’s the trick we can do. Let’s come up with a story” or does it work backwards where you start with the story and then figure out how to do the trick?

Michael Carbonaro: Yeah. It could flip either way. There’s really tons of ways in. But that one, for example, I thought to myself, “What would creep me out?” And I thought if something that I had turned to hay, I think that would be really scary. Just old objects, things I’m gonna keep, but they keep falling apart and turning to hay. I thought that was scary. And just that idea of an object turning to hay. And then it ended up, we thought, “How far can we go with it?” And it was like, “Well, why not a person? Why not a full person turn into a scarecrow?” So we thought, “Okay, what if there’s a scarecrow out in this farm and the guy swears he’s talking to it, but it’s really been a scarecrow the whole time?” And that’s where that story came from. It was beautiful.

It’s almost like unknowingly casting someone in an episode of the Twilight Zone. You know, suddenly this guy finds himself helping out on a farm and the next thing he knows, he’s seeing his new friend, Michael, that he just met … he’s in the middle of witnessing Michael’s grandfather walking among the farm and turning into a scarecrow.

The Interrobang: That’s amazing. So when that first comes into your head — “What about turning a person into a scarecrow?” — you might not know if you can even do it yet?

Michael Carbonaro: That’s right. Methods sometimes come second. You start planning what would be the ultimate, what would it look like. You know, you’d wanna have the guy sitting right there in a rocking chair right next to me. I have to think of what would fool me. If I was talking to somebody and they’re right there rocking in a chair next to me and then somebody that turned that chair around and that was a scarecrow now that I was just speaking with, and he hadn’t left and I was staring right there, that would freak me out. And lo and behold, it worked.

The Interrobang: It’s also the idea that it’s turning them into a scarecrow and not, I don’t know, a cotton-ball man. And that adds to it as well. So you’re also not just writing the illusions and the tricks, but you’re also writing the story.

Michael Carbonaro: Absolutely. And those little elements of the story, like you said. Yeah, it’s not Cotton Ball Man, ’cause I don’t … I mean, that might make someone freak out, but there’s something like … the mark — and that’s what we call them, the mark. Or we could call them the spectators — they’re putting the pieces together in the head, just the pieces that I give them. And they put that together to form an illusion.

So in other words, it has to make some kind of sense. It has to be like, “Wait.” In the end when I tell the guy that the scarecrow was actually made from my grandfather’s jacket, he ties that together. “That’s why I was able to talk to him. Oh my gosh. I think I just witnessed your grandfather.” But you know, that’s scary. “I’m on a farm, there was a scarecrow, it was made from the guy’s jacket. I swore I was talking to him and he’s not there.” All those little pieces … And the human mind. You know, it amazes still … it still amazes and terrifies me how wonderfully gullible we can be.

The Interrobang: What do you think that’s about? Why do you think people believe? Is it that they don’t want to look stupid so they just agree with you?

Michael Carbonaro: That is absolutely true. And I feel like … I wasn’t the best student in high school or college and I did a lot of just nodding yes and just getting by with something that sounded like I knew what I was talking about, so that’s where this profession came from, I think, is just having to come up with lies to sound like I know what I’m talking about.

But you’re right, people do that. They’ll agree. And that’s really the rule of improv and we also find the rule of this show. If someone offers a little piece of information to me, like they’ll be in the middle of witnessing … Let’s say this season I was at an ice cream parlor, and I’m just sitting there talking to somebody while my cone is endlessly melting, it’s just pouring all over the place, and there’s almost five gallons of milk pouring out of one ice cream cone, and I’m sitting there trying to figure out why. And if the person next to me goes, “Is it because it’s too hot in here?” the rule of improv, I say, “Yes, it is, and this ice cream melts at a really low temp, so …” You always agree with them, say yes, and then go along with it.

The Interrobang: That’s fantastic. I hadn’t even picked up on that. So you’re constantly improv-ing. You don’t where an episode is going to go.

Michael Carbonaro: We don’t. I don’t. It’s quite the roller coaster because, you know, I would like to think that I have an idea of what works and what doesn’t work. But it is amazing how some people — and we show this often, too — it’s amazing. Some people will just have zero reaction to something. Here I was in a reptile store cloning rats, literally with a laser beam I’m cloning rats one after another and dividing one into four and then that four into eight and eight into 16. And I’m explaining that this is a new humane way to make feeders for the snakes in the Reptile House, is to just clone them.

And some people will just sit there and go, “Oh.” And other people will go, “Wait a second. Hold the phone. Stop my day. Drop my jaw. Have we figured out this technology? Is this really happening right now?” And then you get people’s insane huge reactions. And I can’t figure out the formula. Some people will just tune in and some people won’t.

The Interrobang: Is there a little bit of selection? How do you find your marks, your observers, your spectators?

Michael Carbonaro: Well, the golden ticket is if somebody just walks… If I was at the Reptile House or if I’m at the ice cream parlor, we try to get somebody to just be on their ordinary day coming on in. I mean, this guy that I was cloning rats for, it was like the last day of the season that we were shooting. And I think it might be the best reaction of the season, ’cause the guy that I got, who was the one that we’re gonna show on television, he was off the chain. He was so unbelievably dumbfounded, and this is just like a regular dude coming in to buy crickets for his lizard. Like, he’s just there on his regular day and he happened to encounter me. That’s the golden one. That’s the best … and if they don’t recognize me. ‘Cause now we have that that comes into play, too. But that’s the golden one, is if someone just wanders in on their regular day and has something happen to them.

If it’s gonna be some of those things that we do — our Act Fours or the conclusion of each episode, there’s usually a larger one-on-one style prank with just me and another person. That becomes a different secret method of getting someone in. The best thing to do is if a friend knows someone, if someone says, “Hey, I know someone that would react really big and they don’t know the show.” And the we kind of arrange them into a situation.

The Interrobang: When I did the interview with you 3 years back … I mean, the reaction to it has been amazing and continues with just people stunned and refuse to believe that there’s not camera trickery going on. That is, I guess, a compliment that you’re so good that they can’t accept that it’s actually an illusion. Do you encounter that a lot? Is that something you have to deal with when you meet people?

Michael Carbonaro: Not really when I meet people. I mean, when I get to meet people, the fans of the show, is usually when I’m performing live. And getting to go out on tour over the past 2 years — and I’m launching another tour in December — getting to perform live is awesome because the fans come and there is no camera tricks live. They can see it’s happening right there. And I do similar things that they’ll see on the show — things appearing out of nowhere or vanishing or moving across stage or transposing. And they get to witness it happen right in front of them. That puts a stop to that.

I try not to chase that too much. I mean, I don’t really go on social media looking for that kind of a thing. I know it’s out there, but … there’s been a number of things where have people have put up videos to try and show us how we did something and then we’ve put responded videos back on Reddit. We had this really cool thing that trended for a while on Reddit that was explaining. Someone was saying that I was using an actress, and there was no way that I could’ve done the shot that I did unless that was an actress. And I pulled the four cameras out and showed them, and they wrote back like, “Oh my gosh, you’re right. It was real. I’m sorry.” But if I sat around and had to do that for every single person who wanted to do it and find footage and prove myself, then I’d be … I wouldn’t have time to do the regular show.

The Interrobang: Right. But special effects are obviously fair game. Is there like a boundary for you? I know that camera trickery is a boundary that would be, I guess, cheating. Is there anything else out of bounds?

Michael Carbonaro: There’s a moral compass with myself and my whole magic team when it comes to that. I mean, the truth is, we have six cameras rolling at any given time, and most of the time, only one of those cameras and the person on the floor with me is being fooled. So in other words, five of those cameras can see what’s going on. So sure, if I cut to that angle, you’d see what’s going on. But what we do is we don’t cut to that angle or … we honor what the person is being fooled by right there. So there’s editing on the show, for sure. But I have a really close eye on how that gets done. And we make sure that we’re honoring the trick that the person’s seeing. And if you don’t believe it, come on down to a live show!

The Interrobang: You had described that you when you were younger, you had a complicated relationship with magic. Has having this show and doing everything you’ve been doing in the last few years changed that?

Michael Carbonaro: No, I think … it’s gotten deeper and more complex, I think. Yeah, because … it’s funny, at first I was like, “Am I an actor? Am I a magician? Am I an actor? Am I a magician?” That was the big question. And then it was like, “Wait. I’m doing both. I’m doing magic and acting together to fool people with hidden cameras.” And it was like a perfect … But then, it’s true, this season, we’re really starting to make these little stories that are much deeper than just doing a trick. We’re using all of the devices of deception that we have at our disposal — from misdirection to trick props to pre-arranging anything we can to make something … we’re using … we have some real Spielberg special effects moments coming out this season, like beams of light shooting lasers from alien ships and catching things on fire and burning crop circles right before somebody’s eyes. It’s big stuff, and it’s very special effects. So I’m back in that conundrum of, “Wait. Am I a magician or am I a special-effects artist?” Now I’m like, “Wait. Am I an actor a magician or a special-effects artist?” And maybe it’s just all of those. So yeah, it’s complicated.

And when I say “special effects,” I don’t mean to say like, “Oh, it’s just a special effect.” In fact … my love of special effects and horror really is rooted in movies like “Gremlins” and “Jaws” and “ET”, “Jurassic Park”, that have a real combination of puppetry and real practical special effects. And you don’t see a lot of practical special effects in movies as much these days because it’s cheaper, faster and oftentimes arguably better or not better to use the computer to generate that.

So when I do an effect like a Steven Spielberg-y effect like alien laser beams shooting and burning a crop circle into a wall in front of someone, we have to really do it. We have to really have that practical effect pulled off, right in front of somebody and hide all of our strings and all of our puppeteers or all of our magic tricks — whatever they are to pull that off — all have to be perfectly hidden from somebody from beginning to end of their entire encounter in whatever that landscape is. So it’s a real challenge, and I am very grateful to have found a groove where I’ve got a whole crew of people … we’ve got 30 people doing practical effects again. It’s really awesome.

Season 4 of The Carbonaro Effect premieres Thursday May 17 at 10:00pm E/P. truTV’s Critics’ Choice Award-nominated comedic series The Carbonaro Effect stars Michael Carbonaro, magician by trade and prankster at heart. In each new episode, Michael performs ingenious tricks on unsuspecting members of the public, all caught on hidden camera. Watch jaws drop when he causes a man to time travel into the past, or turns a tuft of hair into a puppy. Whether posing as a librarian, museum curator or seemingly unremarkable store clerk, Michael Carbonaro’s effect on people will leave you laughing out loud with his bewildering and thrilling illusions.

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