Still the King: Mac King On Staying Motivated and Hilarious

November 10, 2017

There’s a good chance you’ve heard about Mac King. Whether you’ve seen him in television appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman and all five of NBC’s The World’s Greatest Magic TV specials, or you’ve heard of his great accomplishments including 2004 Magician of the Year, Mac King has consistently been one of the most acclaimed shows in the biz. For the past eighteen years, he has been entertaining audiences at Harrah’s Las Vegas. He does two shows a day, five days a week for over 2 million patrons from across the world.

Mac King has been doing his show for a long time. Of that there is little doubt. The bigger questions are how does a performer keep his show fresh for all these years? How could he still possibly love what he does? Graciously, Mac King took some time to speak with GeniiOnline about how he keeps his momentum going even after all these years.

GeniiOnline: You’ve been at Harrah’s for quite a while. Can you talk a bit about your experience working there and crowds that attend your show?

Mac King: Been here a long time. In January, it will be 18 years. When I first started there were two showrooms. I started in the smaller showroom, which had the improv/comedy club. They had a curtain that went halfway across the room in case there was a small crowd. The curtain made it so there were two-hundred seats in front of the curtain. My goal was to get them to open that curtain.

The first time that happened was a few months in. Harrah’s had no idea what it was going to be like. They were pleasantly surprised. I signed a one-year deal and then three months in I signed a three-year deal. The fire marshal said we could fit 300-something in that room and the most we ever had in that room was about 400-something. We brought in extra chairs and people were standing. The fire marshal was like, “You can’t do that.” Then I moved into the main showroom that seats about 560. That was three years into my contract with Harrah’s.

GO: Is that where you are still now?

MK: Yeah. That’s where I am now

GO: I’ve read you do two shows a day still?

MK: Two a day. Five days a week.

GO: I’ve also noticed you had quite a few books published. In fact, you have a new title [Mac King’s Magic in a Minute Great Big Ol’ Book-O-Magic: A Complete Magic Kit in a Book] launching next year.

MK: I do? I’m not sure I have a new title launching next year. That one is a reprint. That was a book I initially sold to Barnes & Noble’s publishing arm. It is a complicated book to make: a lot of die cutting, folding, and assembly. So, when they looked at reprinting it, it was too much money and it would’ve had to sell for too much. So, after a year of not being reprinted, the rights reverted to me. I then sold it to a new printing house, Triumph Books. It will be revised, some tricks will be added, and some will be taken away, but it is essentially the same book.

GO: Do your books range in difficulty or are they a collection of tricks most people can do?

MK: They don’t range in difficulty all that much. There’s some stuff that’s really sleight of hand that you would really have to practice. In [Mac King’s Campfire Magic], there’s a cigarette through handkerchief trick that accomplished with a little golf pencil and someone’s shirt. That takes a little bit of practice for the handling.

The first book I published for the public, Tricks with Your Head, wasn’t really aimed at kids. It was aimed at teens and adults. There is a little bit more colorful language like ‘shit’ and there’s an illustration of me doing a trick for a stripper and you can see her butt. When people come to my show I mention that one is for older kids and adults.

GO: But your shows are family friendly, right?

MK: Certainly, family friendly. I’ve kind of fought against that for 18 years. The initial preconception was that it was for kids. It’s not a kids show but kids are welcome. It’s dirtier than what you would think of a family show, but there’s no cursing, nudity or sex. I’d say it is PG.

GO: Do you tend to experiment with new tricks in your performance sometimes?

MK: Stuff goes in, but very little makes the cut. After a month of something, I’ll find out that it just isn’t going to get good enough to stay. I’ve tried a lot of different things, but after six weeks…that’s one of the advantages I have. I have a great laboratory. I’ve got ten shows a week to work on stuff. I can video a trick, watch it and make changes an hour later. If a trick stays in the show for six weeks, that’s 60 shows, I will then know if it will get good enough to match the quality of the rest of the show.

GO: There’s no better place to workshop than to have those audiences watch it.

MK: Right. Listening to their reactions. Also, I’ve been really lucky. I have a lot of smart friends who come in and watch and give me ideas. Or they’ll tell me “that sucks.”

GO: There’s no question you’ve been in this business for a long time. Do you find yourself suffering from fatigue and if not, how do you do it?

MK: That’s the biggest question I get. “How do you make it seem fresh after 18 years of doing 500 shows a year?” The real answer is I really try hard to make it fresh. Part of that effort is really trying to be present every time. There’s so much audience participation in the show that it is a little different every time. I mean I have a destination that I want to get to and if I don’t pay attention, we can go off track

Part of it is paying attention to what [the audience] does and going with that and having general interaction with the guests on stage and not treating them like props, but treating them as humans. Also listening to what they say and how they react. I’m really trying every show to have audiences feeling like they saw a show that no one else will ever see. That it was a one-of-a-kind experience.

GO: That’s wonderful. When you have different audiences all the time, you get different experiences from everyone.

MK: I want people to go “I was there the day something unique happened.” I have to pay attention. There’s one time in the show where I hypnotize myself and I wiggle my fingers in front of my face. I lean back and close my eyes and I go into what I call a spirit trance. I’m hypnotized. That’s the time in the show where I might lose focus for about ten seconds. I know it hasn’t happened but when I come out of that trance I feel like, since I’ve been on this wild train of thought in my head, I’ll come out of that trance and think like “shit, was that five minutes instead of 40 seconds?” But I’ve never come out of that trance and people were wondering “What the hell happened there?”

GO: I’ve seen quite a few of your videos. How was the experience performing on the David Letterman show?

MK: It was one of the highlights of my life. I was a fan of Letterman since he was first on national TV. Loved his show and loved him. He has an idol of mine and being on with him was an honor. I hardly ever get nervous, but I was crazy nervous before that. I wanted it to be really good. I was pacing in the dressing room, it was nuts. The spot was a little more than four minutes. I remember being out on that stage, in that theater, for that audience. And probably like two minutes in I remember thinking to myself, “Man this is going really well, this is really fun, just remember to relax the rest of the way and enjoy this.” That exact thought went through my head and I felt elated to be able to do that, distance myself for a moment, and the rest of the way was fantastic. I just loved it so much. When he came over afterward and was shaking my hand and telling me how much he liked it, that was the greatest.

GO: I can’t imagine. The trick you did on the show was with a goldfish and Fig Newtons. Is that something that you still do to this day?

MK: Oh yeah. That’s a staple in the show.

GO: What is your favorite routine to do? Is there one trick that really wins over the audience?

MK: I like them all. The hard part for me is that when something new goes in, what comes out? There’s a real solid structure to the show. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. Many things are left open-ended until the last ten minutes of the show when everything comes together. It’s all very tightly interwoven. Taking one trick out upsets the whole thing. The last few times I’ve added a four- or five-minute bit I haven’t taken any tricks out. When I first started the show it was 55 minutes, but it got to be about 75 minutes which was a little long. I eventually got that 75 minutes down to about 65 without taking out any tricks, which were a really great exercise that made the show stronger.

GO: I understand about the cohesiveness of your show. Earlier profiles of you detailed how it is impossible to steal a trick from the show.

MK: That’s the plan. My business partner on the show Bill Voelkner and I were talking about taking stuff out and adding other things. But he said “No you can’t, your show is like Wicked [the musical]. Everyone comes back expecting [certain] tricks to be on the show.” I remember one day I broke a prop or something and I didn’t do the goldfish trick. I had six people come after the show to tell me how disappointed they were. I’ve latched on to the analogy that it is more like a musical than a magic show.

GO: Do you still love what you do after all this time?

MK: Oh man. Yeah, I do. My wife and I talk about that all the time. I have another year and something at Harrah’s. Yeah, I want to continue. Things could change in the next year, but I still really like doing it. I still do some shows on the road, mostly 12 to 15 a year, mostly corporate shows. I like those too, but there’s such a comfort knowing audiences know what they are going to see. On the road when I’m doing corporate shows, sometimes those audiences are like “What, there is a show too? Oh, shit. I just wanted to go back to my hotel room.” It can be great or can be crappy. If I quit doing Harrah’s, I certainly wouldn’t be doing 500 shows a year on the road. I would do maybe 50. I can see doing that at some point, but right now, I feel like the show is as good or better as it’s ever been. And I’m as good or better than I’ve ever been. We’ll see if [Harrah’s] will have me, but I’m going to try to extend my contract, plus I’m going to have to get my daughter through college as well.