In TruTV’s The Carbonaro Effect, sprightly magician Michael Carbonaro performs  tricks on unsuspecting members of the general public, usually to hilarious effect. The show has been on the air for nearly four years now, and with each season the tricks grow bolder and more elaborate. Carbonaro insists that the tricks are always performed on live members of the public and never rely on post-production effects or editing, so how does the team raise the bar each season?

The secret, if this interview with The Interrobang is to be believed, is in how Carbonaro and his team approach “writing” a magic show.

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. 

And, of course, it helps that people are hardwired to seek a connection between events. Carbonaro frequently uses social pressure and priming to make his chosen mark more susceptible to being duped.

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 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.  

“They’re putting the pieces together in the head, just the pieces that I give them,” he continued. “And they put that together to form an illusion.”

Picking the right mark is an important part of the show, and over the last four years, Carbonaro and his team have developed a keen eye for members of the public most likely to give huge reactions that will make the final cut.

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.  

Even if you’re not a fan of The Carbonaro Effect’s prank-show approach, this is still an interview with a genuinely skilled magician with an impressive degree of insight into the psychology that makes the art possible. I strongly recommend you read it.