Las Vegas is hooked on the comedy magician
By Renée LiButti
It isn’t a grand-style illusionist with high-tech props, a designer tuxedo and a ferocious animal who astounds audiences each afternoon at Harrah’s.
It’s Mac King…with a suitcase of everyday stuff, an old-fashioned plaid suit and a goldfish.
And he sure is funny.
The Kentucky-born comedy magician, who opens each performance with a heartfelt “Howdy” in his endearing Southern drawl, has been a staple of the Las Vegas entertainment scene since moving here in 1997. King currently headlines a self-titled show at the resort. Harrah’s has been his home for the past 11 years, and a contract extension guarantees he’ll stay through 2015.
This 15-year spell is a remarkable achievement in a city where the odds are never in your favor. So what makes King so winning? Surely it’s not his bowl-like haircut or his abiding love of Fig Newtons. Could it be his self-deprecating humor, accompanied by the endless parade of onstage mishaps? No wonder he’s been described as a “halfwit human.”
“That’s an exaggeration,” refutes King. “I’m only a quarter of a wit.”
At times he seems more like a fish out of water than a suave spellbinder. Yet, when each trick reaches its zenith, King delivers first-rate sleight-of-hand. The magic never takes a backseat to the laughs.
When asked if he considers himself a children’s magician, King says “no” without hesitation. And this is clear when you see him pull cards from the zipper of his pants or encourage an attractive female volunteer to tie him up – albeit with a twisty-tie. Oddly, much of King’s act, which was developed in nightclubs and is now showcased in “Sin City,” does appeal to little ones.
“Anything that’s a bit risqué goes over kids’ heads, and adults get a laugh out of that,” explains King. “‘Family-friendly’ is how I’d best describe my show, but you don’t have to have a family to come.”
Children not only fancy his peculiar props, but they also like being able to participate. Most of the time there’s a volunteer onstage, providing a firsthand googly-eyed reaction to the tricks. This is how the fire for magic was first fueled in King. Not so long ago, he was the awestruck assistant in his grandparents’ kitchen.
As he recalls, his grandfather took a wooden matchstick and wrapped it in a handkerchief. King was given the small bundle to hold. The clever old man then broke the matchstick, which King could both hear and feel. Astonishingly, when the handkerchief was shaken out, a not-damaged-in-any-way matchstick hit the counter.
“I was just going ‘agh!’” says King, with an expression of bewilderment. “I remember that feeling vividly. My grandfather let me stew over it for a while before he showed me how to do the trick, and when he did, it was like I’d entered a secret world.”
And he’s never left. King gave his first performance at a neighborhood birthday party for one of the six Herbert kids when he was 11 years old. He wore overalls. Whereas many of his fellow magicians look back on their early shows as debacles, King says his was “halting” but he walked away with $5 – and he’s pretty sure he scored a piece of cake.
Several thousand shows later, King retains a childlike joy for magic. But instead of a trick pan and a guinea pig, he’s become known for his antics with goldfish. In 2010, he even performed his signature trick for a national audience on the “Late Show with David Letterman.”
“It’s really magical, it’s really funny, and it’s really disgusting,” describes King, outlining the holy trifecta of a great hoax.
Boiled down, a volunteer holds a glass filled with water, while King baits a line – with a Fig Newton, of course – to go fishing. Somehow he catches a live goldfish from thin air. The truly inspired part, however, comes when he teaches the audience how to freak out their friends. After slicing a carrot and chewing up a piece in the shape of a goldfish, King pops it in his mouth – but that’s not what he spits out.
“When I got the idea, I thought, ‘Well, it’s a fish and I eat fish,’” says King, about conquering his initial squeamishness. “Really it’s just sushi – Kentucky-style sushi.”
Lance Burton, a boyhood chum as well as a legendary Las Vegas magician in his own right, ranks the goldfish trick as his personal all-time favorite. Burton was responsible for getting King to come to the Entertainment Capital of the World all those years ago. Although the move certainly paid off and King now has what he considers “the greatest schedule in show business,” for it allows him to be home with his family for both breakfast and dinner, it took a lot of convincing.
“I told him I didn’t have the right kind of show for Vegas. I didn’t have tigers and dancing girls and, well, anything sexy,” reminisces King, with a laugh that turns his face a bit red. “But Lance was like, ‘No, you’ll be good. You’ll be different.’”
That he is.
“The Mac King Comedy Magic Show” is presented at Harrah’s every Tue.-Sat. at 1 and 3 p.m. Mac King also publishes a series of magic books and sets for children. His latest offerings are “Mac King’s Campfire Magic” and the Lunchbox-O-Magic. They can be purchased online or at his shows.