"With a hocus-pocus, you're in focus . . . " So went the theme song to "Candid Camera," TV's quintessential prank show, and it's a lyric Michael Carbonaro took to heart -- because the Oakdale born-and-bred magician puts hocus-pocus, presto and a little abracadabra into his own prank show, "The Carbonaro Effect," premiering Thursday at 10 p.m. on truTV.
"Alan Funt was the first hidden-camera magician," an admiring Carbonaro says of the late "Candid Camera" creator. "It was the playful nature of the way he worked that really inspired me. A lot of prank shows and hidden-camera shows can be a little mean-spirited. Funt was never like that. I think the worst review [for my show] would be for someone to say, 'Oh, those people are so gullible.' Because it's not about being gullible. There's magic all around us: Our smartphones are magical, 3-D printers are magical. So I feel that as a magician, if I can pull off something that seems real and convincing enough that I can explain why it's happening and have people believe it, it really is fascinating. And funny."
His series, an offshoot of his frequent "Magic Clerk" segments on Jay Leno's "Tonight Show," finds Carbonaro, 38, mostly behind the counter at hotels and stores, confounding customers with sleight of hand for which he gives reasonable-sounding explanations: It's this new "vortex" technology. There must be a computer chip in this carton of milk. Self-tying shoelaces? Bluetooth-enabled memory thread.
Carbonaro, the younger son of an electrician and a retired nurse, grew up doing magic professionally in what he lovingly calls a "performance-spirited" family: "My mom became my manager and booker, and my dad would help build props and fix the illusions."
While still a student at Connetquot High School in Bohemia, Carbonaro began earning enough money to pay his tuition at New York University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in drama. An actor as well as a magician, he's appeared on "30 Rock," "CSI: Miami" and other shows and won the 2006 OutFest best actor award for his performance in "Another Gay Movie."
"My goal was becoming the next David Copperfield," Carbonaro says. "I learned how to be a performer by emulating him as a kid -- his formula of just talking to people onstage, being free to improvise, being charming and witty with a crowd, together with great, beautiful magic."
And -- presto! -- it's all working out. "We just got picked up for 13 more episodes before the show has even premiered," he says. "So, it's back to the workshop."