Veteran comedy magician Mac King may have invented the best magic trick of all — holding onto a residency at Harrah's Las Vegas for more than 20 years.
He has defied entertainment fads of the day, the Eltons and Celines, the production shows and the Cirque shows. His afternoon shows have held their own with the Blue Man Group, Jersey Boys, Mystere and Phantom. He has no dancing girls or sexy assistants who jump out of a box, no hats with bunnies in them, but he still is one of the most popular acts on the Vegas Strip.
He does have the skill to hold an audience in the palm of his hand, while demonstrating his sleight of hand and razor-sharp, yet clean, sense of humor to the skeptics and naysayers, watching as their negativities disappear.
King has been working on his craft ever since he became interested in magic as a child. Since then, he has become the premiere comedy magician in the world today. The Kentucky native has been named "Magician of the Year" by the Magic Castle in Hollywood, "Best Magician" in Vegas, broken a Guinness World Record, worked with other Vegas entertainers like Rita Rudner, created illusions for David Copperfield and Penn and Teller, appeared on his seventh TV special "World's Greatest Magic" for NBC-TV, rocked on the "Late Show with David Letterman," and has been regarded as one of the Top 5 shows in all of Las Vegas for the past 10 years.
Before moving to Las Vegas, King spent 220 days a year on the road as a corporate entertainer for companies like Microsoft, Nationwide Insurance, Nissan and others.
During his summer vacations from college in the late 1970s, King performed in a two-person magic act with fellow Kentucky magician Lance Burton at a theme park in Cumberland Falls, Kentucky, doing three magic shows a day, seven days a week. This proved to be a great training ground for these two colleagues to develop their unique individual approaches to magic in addition to a friendship that continues to this day.
After college, King took his show on the road, eventually headlining all the major comedy clubs in America. In 1987, he moved to L.A., where his visual style of magic and offbeat comedy approach caught the eye of the standup comedy TV shows like "An Evening at the Improv" and "Comic Strip Live," popular in the late '80s.
Now the Mac King Comedy Magic Show makes the rare trip to Laughlin, appearing at the Avi Resort & Casino on Friday, May 31. We talked with King about his career, his comedy magic and the show he's bringing to town. Here's his take…
For those who don't know, which came first, the comedy or the magic?
The magic, I guess. I was interested in that when I was a little kid. Both my grandfathers knew a few tricks growing up, so I got interested in that at a young age, and when you're a kid the only thing you know about being a magician is the stereotypical guy in the top hat and the tuxedo, the suave, the debonair. Every kid wants to be that if they're interested in magic, but everybody in my family is really funny and that's a big part of my family life growing up, trying to outdo my brothers and sister, my mom, my dad, my grandparents, and my cousins — everybody's really hilarious in my family. So the more I found over the years, when I was a teenager, the more comedy I added, the better the show was received and the more fun I had doing it, too. I didn't go the stereotypical route. Being different is good; that's what I always tell my daughter.
Back in the '80s, how difficult was it to fit into the comedy club scene with magic shtick? Weren't you considered more of a novelty act because of it?
Kind of, but those clubs were really great for me to work on my comedy. When you're headlining in places like The Improv, or the national chains around the country, after the first night, the managers aren't hardly ever watching the show. They're in their office counting money or ordering booze. And so they aren't watching you, they're listening to the background noise and they're listening for laughs per minute. In order to survive in that market, it's a different thing to have magic in the show, but those clubs and the management of those clubs they really only care about laughs per minute. It's not the "Improv Magic Club," it's the Improv Comedy Club so regardless of how strong the magic is, if you're not popping out a laugh ever few seconds, then you're not invited back.
Describe your magic for people who aren't aware.
It's funny, it’s more of a sleight-of-hand magic show — I'm doing something sneaky, but by that, what I mean is, I'm not relying on an off-stage assistant, or I'm not relying on a tricked box, or some sort of mechanism. It's my, for lack of a better word, skill or whatever, the stuff I've developed over the years. It's making these sleight of hand tricks play for large audiences. A large part of it is genuine audience interaction — it's what I feel my real strong suit is. When you say "comedy magician," sometimes people think of bad magic, or the magic fails and it's funny. I'm really trying to have as powerful a magic trick as I can have plus as many belly laughs as I can generate, as well. So that's an interesting combo for me and also every show — I want people to leave knowing they saw something no one else ever saw. There's so much interaction that no two shows are the same. Stuff happens every show. I've got kind of a destination, where I want everything to go, but the route changes all the time because of what happens with the person on stage with me, or with someone in the audience. There's lots of opportunity for ad-libbing.
Talk about Lance Burton before he was Lance Burton.
We worked in an amusement park for three seasons. We were like 18 or 20, somewhere in there, and we lived at this place. It was great. At night we could go in the theater where our show was and work on new stuff, and sit and watch each other, and our personas are so different from each other, too. It was a nice combination for the show but also just having somebody who's eye and vision that you trust watching you and making suggestions or corrections, was great. It was like, "hey, that didn't look good, try it like this, or whatever," and that was invaluable. We're still good friends. He was the best man at my wedding. We're still good, good buddies.
Because of all the entertainment options in Vegas over the years, has it been difficult to find a place for yourself?
Speaking of Lance Burton, he was the champion of me moving to Las Vegas. He would say, "Hey, you should move here." I was like, "I don't think I have the right kind of show." I don't have scantily-clad showgirls and big props and all of that. To me, it didn't seem like the right fit. He kept saying, "Ah, you're gonna be great." So I started working here. There's an Improv here, and two other comedy clubs so I would come in maybe six weeks a year, but I just never thought it was the right spot, but I looked into this thing and I've been at Harrah's now — I'm in the middle of my 20th year. Crazy.
What's your secret?
I think the tickets are cheap (he laughs). I think part of it is that every show's different, so it keeps me fresh, I don't feel like I've fallen into that trap that some people do when they do two shows a day, 10 shows a week, of just walking through the show, or go on auto-pilot. Because of the structure of the show, it's not really possible for me to do that and get through it. I have to pay attention. Also one of the things that's carried me through is 8-year-olds like it, 88-year-olds like it, and 38-year-olds like it, even 18-year-olds and 28-year-olds like it. So I've been really lucky it appeals to all those wide spectrums of folk.
Do you still develop tricks and illusions?
Oh, yeah. I'm working on new stuff all the time. The way my show is structured, it's almost like a play — there's a beginning, a middle and an end, and stuff at the end refers back to stuff at the beginning, and stuff in the middle refers back to stuff at the beginning. It's questions left unanswered until the very end and so it's got a structure to it. And so the hard part is figuring out how to take something out to make room to put the new, but that's a good problem to have. I just put a new thing in with a cactus and a balloon which is something you don't see much. You bring out a cactus, and a balloon, and magic ensues.
Do you have a signature illusion?
One I've kind of been known for over the years, is a trick with goldfish, where I catch live goldfish out of the air so that's pretty different. Then there's a pretty pedestrian magic rope trick, but the one I've come up with has some personal innovations no one else does. Vegas Magazine came for an interview and they were taking some pictures. They asked "Can you do a little trick we can put up on our website?" I happened to have a little piece of rope there. It was just me, the interviewer and the camera guy — I just did this with no applause, no laughter, no nothing and just thought 200 people will see it. It was something I sort of tossed off, a no-brainer. Someone pulled it off Vegas.com website and whoever that was got over 20 million hits before Vegas.com said, "Hey, that's ours." But on their website, it's gotten 6 or 8 million I think now.
What's your favorite thing about what you do?
What pops in my head right now, is two things. I'm in the lobby after every show thanking people for coming and signing stuff. Very often people will say, "Man, I was in such a bad mood when I came in and you really turned my day around." That's fantastic. The other thing is, my shows here at Harrah's in Las Vegas, are in the day at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., and people have asked, "You've been there so long, and established yourself pretty well, aren't you interested in doing a show at night?" The thing that has always been so fantastic for me — I have breakfast with my daughter, took her to school every morning, I was home for dinner with my wife and daughter every night, and I didn't leave for work until 11:30 or noon. If I hustled, I could be home by 5 p.m. or 5:15 p.m. It's just a completely different life than people who perform for a living.
What happens when a trick goes wrong?
What are you talking about? That's never happened to me (he laughs). Every so often there's just some sort of catastrophic failure there's just no recovering from. But generally I've got of a lot of things I can fall back on if there's trouble. But hopefully the journey toward that destination is still fun for the audience to watch.
Years ago, before I was at Harrah's, I'm doing a show in a lounge in North Carolina. I do this rope trick I was talking about. It's the first trick in the show. I use it at the beginning to watch people's reactions, to make preliminary choices for tricks that are coming up. I've done it for so long, I don't have to pay attention to the physical manipulations that I have to do to get the trick accomplished, and spend my time on the presentation part. Well, the scissors I use are really sharp, and I snipped off the end of my thumb. I get through the trick, there's a little blood on the rope and I'm having to keep my finger on the end of my thumb. I say, "Normally in this part of my show, I would just ask a random woman to come up onto the stage, but under the circumstances, tonight, I think it would be better if there were a nurse. Is there a nurse in the audience?" There was a nurse and she comes up and takes charge. So she bandaged up my thumb and I got through the show, and I finished up the second show with my bandaged up injury and I'm on my way out of the lounge to see a doctor. This guy is tugging at my jacket…"Mac King, Mac King, hey, man that was great." He says, "I just wanted to tell you how much I loved the show. In fact, I came to both shows, that's how much I loved them. But I was a little disappointed in your second show. My favorite thing from your first show was that bit where you cut off your thumb." So the goal is to make it seem like it's part of the show I guess.
What's in store for your Laughlin show?
I'm looking forward to it. I still do about a dozen shows a year in small performing arts centers or private corporate events, and so it's always fun for me — I get nervous a little bit. I'm so used to one place — I know where the stairs are, where people are seated. Shows in different places keep me on my toes a little bit. There's lots of audience participation, and lots of laughs, and hopefully great magic.