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Q&A: Mac King, The King of Comedy Magic in Vegas

Category Show and Tell

|by Heather Turk |

Meet the hilarious Mac King, who is celebrating his 18th anniversary on the Strip

On January 11, 2018, comedy-magician Mac King celebrated 18 years at Harrah’s Las Vegas. A staple of the Las Vegas Strip, King’s quirky afternoon magic show – appropriately titled The Mac King Comedy Magic Show – is one of the Entertainment Capital of the World’s best productions, featuring stunning sleight-of-hand magic and hilarious family-friendly comedy routines. In fact, even though King’s show is perfect for families, often the audience is mainly adults – a testament to just how enjoyable King’s act is.

While today it’s hard to imagine the Las Vegas Strip without King’s presence, there was a time when the Kentucky-born magician questioned if his act would even work in Sin City. caught up with King backstage after one of his recent performances to talk about his journey to the Las Vegas stage – and all the magical moments along the way that led to him having, as he put it, “unofficially the longest-running magic show in the history of Las Vegas in one spot.”

Mac King goes fishing for live goldfish over the audience’s heads (Photo: ‘The Mac King Comedy Magic Show’)

Mac King goes fishing for live goldfish over the audience’s heads (Photo: ‘The Mac King Comedy Magic Show’)

Let’s start at the beginning. What first got you interested in magic and do you remember how old you were?
Mac King:
When I first got interested in magic, I think I was around 8 or 9 years old. Both my grandfathers knew a couple of magic tricks and my mom’s dad in particular had some magic books in his house. He would do a trick for me and then I would beg him for the secret and he would say, “Well, it’s in one of those books.” I would spend the rest of my visit poring through those books trying to figure out the secret to the trick he fooled me with. So that’s kind of how I got started. I was a little older before I figured out that was just kind of a scam to get me to read. It wasn’t to get me interested in magic, but it worked great.

Do you remember the first trick you ever did? How old were you?
Mac King:
Yeah, I was maybe even younger than that, actually. I have a pretty vivid memory of my dad’s father, my grandfather, showing me a trick on his kitchen counter. I was like 5, maybe. I remember him lifting me up – I can picture that counter in my brain – and sitting me on the kitchen counter. He had a pocket handkerchief and he took a kitchen match – this is how long ago it was, he had to light his stove with a match – and wrapped it up in his handkerchief. He put it in my hands and told me to break it. I snapped that match in half inside that handkerchief – I heard it, I could feel it – and then he opened up the handkerchief and the match was whole. He taught me how to do that trick, so I did it for my grandmother later. So that’s kind of the first trick I remember doing. It just blew my mind. Magic!

Las Vegas is home to so many great magicians. You’re good friends with Penn & Teller, plus there’s David Copperfield and Criss Angel. Coming up, who inspired you?
Mac King:
As a kid, Doug Henning. He was kind of the first one when I was a kid to have a show on TV. I just remember when I heard that there was going to be a TV special on magic I was just so excited. I remember sitting in front of the TV and watching Doug Henning, so that was a big early inspiration. Then after I started doing it more, my inspirations became different. People that you wouldn’t have heard of, like a fella named Billy McComb from Ireland and a guy named Jay Marshall from Chicago. Jay was on The Ed Sullivan Show 40 times. He was a ventriloquist, which I never got interested in, but he was also a magician, so he was on TV doing both of those things. In my 20s I got to meet both of those guys and became really good friends with them. They were kind of early mentors.

Las Vegas is known as Sin City and yet here you are with this long-running, afternoon family-friendly magic show. Where did the inspiration come from when you first got here to do a family-friendly show?
Mac King:
Well, before I had a show in Las Vegas, I would come to town and work at the Improv, the Comedy Stop at the Trop and the Riviera Comedy Club. So, I was headlining comedy clubs around the country. At one point, one of the clubs I was working at on the road suggested that we try one afternoon show during the week. I would plug it Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday night and then Sunday afternoon people could bring their families. So, it was a slightly different show than what I was doing at the club at night, and people would show up for them. One of the clubs here in town started doing an afternoon show and I was lucky enough to be a part of that.

You’re from Kentucky, so what brought you out to Las Vegas?
Mac King:
I lived in L.A. 10 years before Las Vegas. My wife and I got married in ’85 and then in ’87 we moved to California. I was doing clubs and working, so I didn’t move here until I actually had a show. The first show I had was at a little place called the Maxim – now the Westin – so I was there before I was at Harrah’s. When they announced they were closing, Bill Voelkner (King’s producer) was the entertainment director at the Maxim, so he was going to be out of work, too. He helped me sell the show to Harrah’s.

I know you’re close to [fellow Kentucky magician-turned-Las Vegas headliner] Lance Burton – did he influence you?
Mac King:
He actually would try to get me to move out here. My wife is a marriage and family therapist and she and Lance are friends, too. Lance would call her and say, “Lot of crazy people in Las Vegas, too, Jennifer.” But I never thought I had the kind of show that would be a good fit for Las Vegas, especially 20 years ago. I didn’t have a big production, no dancing girls – I didn’t think that my show was the right fit. I had Fig Newtons and goldfish, but I guess I filled that void. No one knew that was a void (laughs), but I did fill that.

Your show has become a staple of the Las Vegas Strip over the years, which is an honor not many shows achieve. What do you credit the production’s lasting success to?
Mac King:
I’m cheap! Seriously, I do think a big factor is the price point. Because what I’m selling is really me and my personality, I’ve been able to keep the price low compared to other shows. Over the years I’ve been able to add a bit more production value – music, live animals and a couple of bigger-scale tricks – but it’s still basically a one-man show, so I’ve been able to keep my costs low and still fill the stage with magic. Also, because there is so much genuine interaction between me and the audience, no two shows are alike. That means we get a lot of repeat customers and people who bring their friends. I’m also proud of the fact that the show appeals to 8 year olds, 88 year olds and – the hardest group – 18 year olds.

Your show relies heavily on audience participation. Over the years, what were some of the wildest moments?
Mac King:
There are so many things. I’ve bled all over the stage, I’ve vomited on the stage, but my favorite thing wasn’t here at Harrah’s, but it was a crazy audience interaction.

I do a bit in the show where I have a woman onstage with me from the audience and she doesn’t know what’s coming. I give her a rope and say, “We’re going to do the Houdini Challenge Naked Rope Escape. I want you to take off your clothes and tie me up.” I then take the rope and say, “I’m kidding – you don’t have to tie me up.” So, it’s just a gag. Well, this club owner had called me up – it was Sunday afternoon – and said, “Hey, I’m going to bring a date to the show. I want you to get her up onstage.” His name was Barry, and I said, “Barry, I don’t really like getting people up that are friends of friends or whatever.” So much of the show is genuine interaction. People who are friends of friends sometimes react weird. If people suspect or even think that a person [onstage] is part of the show, it’s not as good. But he was writing the check, so I did what he asked (laughs).

So, I get this woman up onstage and I’m looking for a specific kind of person. I’m looking for someone who’s really outgoing and has an expressive face, because sometimes when the show is full, a big part of [a trick] is someone’s body language reading to the very back of the room. I’m looking for people who have a really nice physical presence who seem genuinely excited about being up there. Even if they’re nervous, their face still reacts well. So, I get this woman up onstage and she’s the exact wrong person: just the meekest little mouse of a woman. I’m scared a little bit that if I say to this poor girl, “Take off your clothes and tie me up,” that she’ll cry. But… one of the things that’s going on in my little brain is I hope she does cry and it will serve him right for making me get her up here. So, I say to this woman, “Take off your clothes and tie me up” – and she whips off her dress and is naked onstage. The club owner is standing in the front row taking photos of me and this stripper that he has hired to play a practical joke on me. That’s my favorite thing that’s ever happened.

Do you have a favorite magic trick?
Mac King:
For me, it’s kind of whatever is the latest one is my favorite. The one trick that I keep gravitating back toward, though, is not the newest: It’s the card trick with the pants and the cereal box and all that. To me, that’s kind of the most perfect of all the tricks in the show. There’s just so much going on in 5 minutes. It’s got a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s not just one little trick. There’s magic all the way through and it just gets better and better as it goes and funnier and funnier. So, I’m partial to that one, too.

Which bit, out of what’s currently in the show, took the longest to perfect and get to the stage?
Mac King:
The guinea pig trick. I worked on that for –  this is sort of sad how long it took – but probably 8 years before it saw the stage. I would think about it, I would work on it, then friends of my daughter’s who would come to the house would have to sit through it in the living room.

It’s been said that you should never work with animals or kids and you obviously do both, although you tend to work with smaller animals. How much trouble can a guinea pig and some goldfish really be?
Mac King:
Goldfish are pretty self-sufficient, but the guinea pigs, they take some time to just get them used to you. At some point [in the show], they have to be real still, too – some secret point, I’m not saying – so just fiddling with them and getting them used to being handled by people takes some time. But that wasn’t the hard part; the hard part was figuring out the magic trick part. The pet part? It turns out cucumbers and carrots make a big difference.

You’ve become known for your use of Fig Newtons in the show. I have to ask – why Fig Newtons?
Mac King:
That was an accident, actually. Years ago, the first time I worked at The Magic Castle in Hollywood, I had a cold. I was staying with a friend of mine and the second night maybe – we’d do a week at a time – but early on in the week backstage comes one of the guys I was talking about, Billy McComb, the guy from Ireland. One of my idols. I had never met him before.

Billy comes backstage and I’m star-struck chatting with him. He had a TV series in England and Ireland before that, but was kind of semi-retired and moved to L.A.  He lived right down the street from The Magic Castle, so he was there all the time. So, Billy comes back and we’re talking and the conversation came around to where I’m staying. I said I’m staying with my friend, Max. He said, “Well, he’s sick, too, so you’re never going to get well. Come stay with me.” I’m like seriously? Great! So, I move into Billy’s place and I’m sleeping on Billy’s couch. The next morning he says, “I’m going to the grocery, anything you want?” I was kind of spending the whole day on his couch coughed out, so I said a big jug of orange juice and a pack of Fig Newtons. It was just like a comfort kind of food. I think I had Fig Newtons when I was sick as a kid or something. He just thought that was hilarious. That night he was telling people, “Can you believe the lad wanted Fig Newtons?” People were laughin’ at that and Billy was telling everyone who would listen that I asked him to bring me Fig Newtons.

So, the next night, my suit was hanging in the dressing room and I put it on and was doing my little show at The Magic Castle. I’m doing a card trick and the woman’s card is supposed to jump into my jacket pocket and she’s supposed to reach in and come out with the card. Somebody – a fellow named James Dimmare – had snuck into my dressing room and filled the pockets of my suit with Fig Newtons as a practical joke, and so she came out with a handful of Fig Newtons that I didn’t know were there. I had just put on the suit – it was hanging in the dressing room, so I didn’t check the pockets! So, she comes out with a handful of Fig Newtons and the audience was really laughing and my friend James was sitting in the back row and I could hear him cackling, so I knew it was him. But it got such a big laugh I thought, “Well, that’s staying in the show” and that was 30 years ago or more. So that stayed in, that particular trick, but over the course of the last number of years it evolved and changed and became more of an integral part of most of the tricks.

I know you’re busy being a dad and husband offstage, so how often do you get the chance to work on new material and update the production?
Mac King:
You’re right – it turns out being a dad and a husband takes time! I love doing projects with my daughter, and I love being home with my wife, cooking and laughing. But I also am lucky to have a lot of smart, funny friends to hang out with. And even if it seems like we’re just goofing off, mostly playing croquet, we’re also talking about stuff for my act and working on jokes and tricks. In my office at the moment I have props for four things I’m thinking about. One will go in the show in the next week or so, two might be a couple of months away and the fourth is probably more than a year away. 

Aside from your Las Vegas show, you’re often busy doing other appearances too, be it on TV like Penn & Teller: Fool Us or touring. You also have written several magic books. Anything new coming up that fans can look forward to?
Mac King:
I just designed a new magic set that I’m really proud of. There are props for more than 60 tricks and the props are really different from the standard magic set. There are shrunken heads, bananas and monkeys –both invisible and visible. I think it’s a great way to learn magic. 

Since your show is in the afternoon, you’re that rare Las Vegas headliner who has evenings free. What other shows in town would you recommend?
Mac King:
I I’m a big fan of Penn & Teller [at Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino], Blue Man Group [at Luxor] and Absinthe [at Caesars Palace].

Top picks for Vegas restaurants?
Mac King:
I I really like spending time in restaurants. If I wasn’t a magician, I’d like to be a chef. I’m on the Strip every day, so when I go out I tend to avoid the Strip. Luckily in the last few years there have been a boatload of great restaurants opening away from the Strip: EATT – with two Ts, the French place – Sparrow + Wolf, Todd’s Unique Dining, Table 34, Vintner Grill, Raku, Chada Street and Chada Thai & Wine. We live in old Vegas and so we spend a lot of time downtown, too. There are a bunch of places we love there: Eat – with one T, the breakfast place –  Carson Kitchen, 7th & Carson, Therapy, Le Thai and VegeNation.

What about things to do with kids – other than seeing your show, of course?
Mac King:
When my daughter was younger we loved the Children’s Discovery Trail at Red Rock Canyon: petroglyphs, a little creek and ends with a cool hidden waterfall. Now we like the more difficult hikes there and the Historic Railroad Trail overlooking Lake Mead that runs through five tunnels. I’m also a fan of Siegfried & Roy’s Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat [at The Mirage].

Final question: There’s so much to do in Vegas. For those who only have the time or money to see one show, why should they pick yours?
That’s a big, big question. If they only have time to see one show, why should it be me? Well, look at me! Why not? No, see two shows. See Mac King and the Penn & Teller show. That’s what you should do. Skip a meal and come see us both.

The Mac King Comedy Magic Show runs Tuesday through Saturday at 1pm and 3pm at Harrah’s Las Vegas. Get your tickets on and save more than $11 on general admission and VIP seating.

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