By Erin Peterson
When Derek Hughes (B.A. ’95) returned to Minnesota last Thanksgiving to perform at the Acme Comedy Club in Minneapolis, he couldn’t resist the opportunity to get in a few lighthearted jabs at his parents. Hughes, who last year was a semifinalist on America’s Got Talent, stays in his old room when he’s in town, and he calls it “a fitness graveyard”—filled with dusty, unused exercise equipment. “But my mom really is trying!” he says, pausing for a beat. “No, she’s not.”
The joke is, of course, a joke. Audiences love Hughes’s one-liners, but they always leave a show wowed by the other skill he brings to the stage: magic, a craft he’s been honing since age 10. Hughes appears to read minds, make glass bottles disappear into thin air, and cause playing cards to jump from a deck in his hand to his coat pocket. His work is well beyond pull-a-quarter-from-your-ear illusion: Hughes is a regular performer at the prestigious Magic Castle in Hollywood.
His beginnings weren’t so auspicious. Though talented enough as a teenager to land paying gigs as a magician, Hughes’s lax attitude toward high school in Roseville, Minnesota, caught up to him and he almost didn’t graduate. It was only when he proposed a last-ditch effort to earn credits through the Chavez College of Manual Dexterity and Prestidigitation—no joke, it really exists—that he sidestepped failure. At 17, he stayed for weeks in a hotel room in Battle Creek, Michigan, learning magic during the day and practicing at night. “I felt so cool at the time,” he says, “but blowing off school is not something I’d necessarily recommend to my sons.” With diploma in hand from Chavez, he decided to pursue a degree in theater arts at the University of Minnesota.
While many magicians use a little bit of comedy to lighten their act, Hughes has made it a particular focus of his work. He’s trademarked the phrase “Standup Magician” to describe his act; there are plenty of similarities between the two skills, which each start with a setup and end with a punchline of sorts. “A good joke and a good magic trick both require a completely inevitable yet totally surprising climax,” he says. “The real trick is not letting your audience get there before you do. But when you do arrive, you want them to think, ‘of course.’ ”
The difference in reactions, though, can be striking. While a great joke will always get a laugh, a perfect illusion might spark a laugh, a gasp, or even astonished silence. “At first, [if the audience went silent], I worried that people weren’t reacting,” he says. “But then I realized, sometimes they’re just thinking ‘What the…?’ And that’s great.”
Hughes got his start grinding away in clubs, but regular stints on television have boosted both his name recognition and his opportunities. In addition to playing Logan on the sitcom Grown Ups and Jamie in the comedy series As If, he has guest starred on several shows, including CSI: NY, appeared in Adam Sandler’s film Mr. Deeds, done some work for Jay Leno, and served as a “celebrity magic coach” on VH1’s Celebracadabra.
After his Thanksgiving visit to Minnesota, he headed to Atlanta, where he’s developing many of the illusions and stories for the The Carbonaro Effect, a part prank, part illusion show on truTV.
Eventually, he hopes to develop a Broadway show—a venue where he’ll be able to take his magic and comedy to a new level while seeing the audience’s reaction in the moment. “In some ways, magic on television just seems like a special effects trick, because everything is possible with the right edit,” he says. “But when people see something live, when they know there’s not an edit or a trick camera, they feel that they’ve really witnessed something. Getting there—that’s my dream.”